Make-Ahead Meal Plan for Busy Families
Serving dinner to your family doesn't have to be a struggle. We've got tricks, tips, and a work-week's worth of recipes to get a delicious healthy food ready in half an hour or less.
For part two of our "What's for Dinner" series, Parents posted a request on Facebook for families who find getting dinner on the table challenging. The hundreds of moms who responded know that family meals are more than simply sustenance. But with kids, jobs, and cooking skills that are perhaps not Top Chef level, doing it night after night can seem beyond daunting. Not if you have a system. We paired one working mom with our cooking coach to make an easy plan.
Meet the Braley Family: Sally is a writer and her husband, Peter, is a salesman who travels often. Their kids are Meg, 8, and Phillip, 5, and they live in Montclair, New Jersey.
Their Dinner Challenge
By the time Sally picks up her children from day care and school, it's nearly 6 p.m. Since the kids' bedtime routine starts at 7 p.m., that gives her less than an hour to put food on the table. Peter loves to cook but he travels frequently for work and usually isn't around to help with weeknight meals. Dinner stresses Sally out.
Like most of us, Sally avoids thinking about what to make until it's time to eat. "I plan dinner about five minutes in advance," she says. By then, of course, it's too late to start a complicated—heck, even an uncomplicated—dish. And forget shopping for any missing ingredients. "I can't get organized on Sunday to plan for the week," she says. So Sally ends up serving whatever is in the freezer—usually frozen chicken nuggets and fish sticks.
Parents enlisted Jenna Helwig, a mom and dinner coach, to draw up a weekly menu to help Sally prepare tasty, healthy meals for her family in less than half an hour.
The Results: "We haven't bought another box of fish sticks since Jenna was here!" Sally says. Using Helwig's menu as a jumping-off point, she's planning the week's meals on Sunday and preparing food in advance. "I no longer feel as panicked about getting dinner on the table," Sally says.
Preparation isn't as much of a chore as Sally thought it would be. And, even better, her family is not relying on over-processed, out-of-the-box food. "We're eating much more of a variety at every meal," says Sally. Recent dinners have included turkey meatballs, stir-fry with vegetables, fried rice, and quesadillas
And what about the kids? They've adjusted—and are even warming up to the new dinner routine. "The truth is, if my kids don't see chicken nuggets in front of them, they're going to say they don't want to eat whatever I'm serving," explains Sally. "Once we sit down and start eating, though, they're fine. I made a stir-fry the other night, and they both asked for seconds."
The 5 Commandments of Planning Ahead
1. Take 15 minutes on weekends to map out the week's meals.
2. Create two or three weekly dinner menus and then rotate so you don't get bored.
3. Organize grocery shopping so there is always something in
4. Prepare as many meal elements as possible in advance
over the weekend (chop and bag veggies, make rice, stir together spice mixtures or sauces). Buy pre-prepped or frozen fruits and vegetables.
5. Start preheating the oven as soon as you walk in the door on those nights when you'll be needing it to prepare your meal.
Rescue Recipe: Pizza Casserole
This pizza casserole comes together in 35 minutes, including bake time. It draws on pantry and fridge staples like garlic, canned tomatoes, and shredded mozzarella cheese, and calls for sausage. We like keeping an option such as Smithfield Frozen Sausage in the freezer for last-minute meals.
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 2 sweet yellow, red or green peppers, cut in large dice
- 2 medium zucchini, cut into rounds
- 2 cloves garlic, chopped
- 3 cans (14.5 ounces each) no-salt-added recipe-ready diced tomatoes, drained
- 12 ounces fully cooked sausage, like Smithfield Frozen Sausage
- 1 teaspoon dried Italian seasoning
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
- 1 tube (11 ounces) refrigerated breadsticks
1. Heat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease 13 x 9 x 2-inch baking dish. Heat oil in large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion and peppers; cook 5 minutes. Add zucchini and garlic; cook 5 minutes, until barely tender.
2. Add tomatoes, sausage, Italian seasoning, salt and pepper; cook until somewhat dry, 5 to 7 minutes. Add 2 tablespoons Parmesan. Spoon half into prepared dish. Top with 1 cup mozzarella. Add remaining tomato mixture. Arrange bread sticks on top in lattice pattern, trimming to fit. Sprinkle with remaining Parmesan and mozzarella.
3. Bake in 350 degree F oven 25 minutes, until bread sticks are browned and filling is bubbly. Makes 8 servings.