Time-Saving Meal Tips for Busy Families
Tips for planning family meals ahead of time
- Spend 15–30 minutes each evening planning the next three days of dinners, lunches, and snacks. Look through your pantry, refrigerator, and freezer, and write down all the possible meal and snack combinations you can make with what you have on hand. This is also the ideal time to update your shopping list. Post your meal and snack menu somewhere visible for the entire household to see. Older children can also help build the list and make their own snacks.
- Avoid the recipe time trap. Recipes are great for special meals and occasions. But they can also rob you of precious time down the recipe rabbit hole. Think of ways you can incorporate three basic components into one-pot meals, soups, or casseroles: a protein, vegetables or fruits, and a grain.
- Prepare before you cook. Look over your menu of meals and snacks. Do you have what you need on hand? If not, can you substitute an item for something you already have? Most simple recipes can easily accommodate swapping out like-for-like ingredients. If you don't have broth, you can substitute water with spices and a tablespoon or two of a fat like olive oil or butter. You could swap out corn for peas or green beans. During your nightly meal planning, look for any ingredient of the next days’ recipes that can be prepped ahead of time. Chop vegetables, soak beans overnight, and prepare cooked grains in bulk.
- Get the whole family involved! It’s hard to plan a menu that includes a whole family’s dietary preferences. And clean-up shouldn’t be a one-person job. Children as young as 3 years old can learn to help in preparing meals, dinner tables, and clean-up. Older children can learn knife and chopping skills (with adult supervision). There are many great cooking sites for tips on cooking with children.
The easiest meal prep formula: protein + vegetables/fruits + grain
- For soups: Choose a protein (beans, meat, seafood, chickpeas, lentils, tofu, or tempeh), add vegetables, herbs/spices, and stock or water. The grain can go into the dish (like noodles) or on the side (like whole-grain rice). Soup is a fast, healthy meal option and a great way to use up produce before it goes bad.
- Casseroles: The same goes for casseroles, except substitute a sauce for the stock and bake it!
- One-pot meals: Slow cooker or instant pot meals can save valuable time as well. Throw in a protein, a jar of sauce, and vegetables and hit go. For example: frozen chicken breast (or can of beans), salsa, corn, and rice.
The best snack prep formula: protein + a vegetable, fruit, or whole grain
- Nut butter/sun butter and apple slices
- Hard boiled eggs and carrot sticks
- Hummus and veggie sticks or whole-grain crackers
- Hummus, nut butter, or avocado with whole-grain toast, crackers, or veggie sticks
- Unsweetened yogurt and fruit
- Turkey slices and cucumber
- Beans and whole-grain tortillas (sprinkled with cheese & broiled for four minutes)