One of the hardest things about feeding your family well is the time it takes to prep and cook healthy family dinners. On busy evenings, when you’re pulled in a dozen different directions, it’s so tempting to rely on processed foods or fast food. Believe me, I know that temptation well and have succumbed to it many, many times! But if you’re like me and want to save money and control what your family eats, those “solutions” don’t work very well.
A better solution is to take an hour or two every weekend and prep several meals by cutting vegetables, washing fruit, grating cheese, cooking rice and doing similar tasks. Another way is to take 15 minutes several times a week and do one or two food prep tasks. Those strategies can help you get a healthy family dinner on the table in half the time.
But, let’s be honest, sometimes they just aren’t enough. Like on the days when it’s 6:00, and you just walked in the door with hungry, tired kids who need help with homework. And your husband calls to say that he’s running late. You’re already an hour behind schedule, and your dinner plan just isn’t going to cut it.
For those days, you need an emergency plan that will help you get a healthy family dinner on the table quickly and easily. I finally created one for myself, because those kinds of nights would often send me to the drive-thru or the takeout window – even though what I really wanted was to feed my family a healthy and delicious meal.
Now, however, when chaotic days pop up unexpectedly, I rely on my emergency plan – 3 simple things that help me pull together a healthy family dinner quickly and easily –
- A list of our favorite quick, easy and healthy family dinners
- Some real food staples in the pantry and refrigerator
- A few tips and tricks that make food prep quicker and easier
You know that those crazy weeknights are coming. So I encourage you give my emergency plan a try – or come up with one that works for you. To help you get started, here’s a list of 12 healthy family dinners that focus on speed and simplicity. Most don’t even use a recipe – they’re just simple, quick-to-fix meals. Some require just 5 minutes of work in the morning, and others can be started when you walk in the door after a busy day. Either way, they help you get a healthy dinner on the table with minimal time, effort and stress. (This post contains Amazon affiliate links.)
• Pan Grilled Chicken Breasts, Baked Sweet Potatoes and Quick Brown Rice – Heat olive oil or salad dressing/marinade in a large skillet. Add enough boneless, skinless chicken breasts to serve your family. Brown on both sides, then cover and cook until done. While the chicken is cooking, put a pot of water on to boil, following the instructions for the amount of quick/instant brown rice you’ll need. Pierce sweet potatoes several times and place in microwave. Cook on high for 10 minutes or until soft all the way through. When water is boiling, add rice and cook as directed (usually about 10 minutes). When sweet potatoes are done, cut them open or in half and add butter. (Cinnamon is a nice addition too.) Add butter, salt and pepper to taste to the rice.
• Soup and Grilled Cheese. If you have some homemade soup in the freezer, great. If not, keep several cans or boxes of good-quality soups on hand, the kinds that include primarily real food ingredients. Organic is great; even though it’s expensive, it’s not as expensive as going out to dinner on a busy evening! While the soup is heating, make sandwiches with whole wheat bread and real cheese and toast them in a pan with some olive oil or butter. Serve with carrot sticks, grapes, or apple slices.
• Chicken, beef or pork in the Crockpot – On a morning when you know the evening is going to be hectic, take 5 minutes to put enough boneless skinless chicken breasts, London broil roast, or pork tenderloin to feed your family two meals into your Crockpot. Add a little bit of water, broth or sauce of your choice. Cook all day and serve it sliced or shredded that evening with simple sides, like brown rice with butter and steamed green beans. A Crockpot you can program for cooking setting and time makes this even easier.
• Next-day Tacos – The next day, shred the rest of the chicken, beef or pork, mix with salsa and make tacos. Serve with as many or as few toppings as you like – just shredded cheese and more salsa is fine if you’re really short on time. Add some fruit or baby carrots on the side.
• Scrambled Eggs, Whole Wheat Toast and Fruit. Breakfast for dinner can be quick and healthy. Cut up whatever fruit you have on hand – even apples and bananas are fine – and make a simple fruit salad. Crack enough eggs to serve your family and mix with a bit of milk, salt and pepper. Whisk together (a stick blender does this really quickly). Melt butter in a large skilled and scramble eggs. While eggs are cooking, begin making toast. Butter it as it comes out of the toaster and put it in the oven to keep warm. Serve eggs, toast with jam or fruit spread and fruit salad. (My friend Christina at Juggling Real Food and Real Life has great tips for enjoying real food breakfasts for dinner.)
Whole Wheat Pasta with Cheese and Pick-up Vegetables. Put a pot of water on to boil. While it’s heating, grate your family’s favorite cheese. (We like extra sharp cheddar on pasta.) Then start pulling together a plate of pick-up vegetables – baby carrots or carrot sticks, cherry tomatoes, slices of cucumber, strips of red or orange pepper, whatever you have on hand. When the water boils, add enough whole wheat pasta to serve your family and cook according to the package directions. Drain the pasta and add butter to coat lightly and salt to taste. Divide among plates and top with grated cheese. Place the vegetable plate on the table and allow family members to choose from it.
• Chicken Fajitas with Fruit. Heat olive oil in a large skillet. Add enough boneless, skinless chicken breasts for your family and cook until done. Remove from pan to a cutting board to cool slightly. While chicken is cooking, slice onions and red/orange/yellow peppers. Add more olive oil to the pan and saute vegetables. (A ceramic non-stick pan makes the cooking and clean-up very easy.) Grate cheese (or, even better, take previously-grated cheese out of the refrigerator). Slice apples, oranges or other fruit. When chicken is cool enough to handle, cut into strips. Place sliced chicken and cooked peppers and onions on a large platter and cheese in a bowl. Warm whole wheat tortillas in the microwave. Open a jar of salsa. Place all the ingredients on the table and let each person make his or her own fajitas. Serve with fruit.
• Black Beans and Quick Brown Rice with Sliced Fruit. Heat olive oil in a large saucepan or Dutch oven. Coarsely chop an onion and saute it in the olive oil. While the onion cooks, open cans of black beans (enough for your family) plus one or two cans of diced tomatoes. Rinse and drain the beans. In the meantime, start water for brown rice heating in another pot, according to the package directions. Add beans and tomatoes to cooked onions, and season according to your family’s tastes (salt, pepper, Italian seasoning, cumin, chili powder, Tabasco, etc.). Cook for 10 minutes. Add rice to boiling water and cook as directed (usually about 10 minutes). While the beans and rice cook, slice oranges, apples or whatever fruit you have on hand. Serve beans on top of rice, with fruit on the side.
• Mediterranean Chicken Wraps – For this simple meal, pan sauté (or grill) boneless, skinless chicken breasts. (If you have some cooked chicken breasts in the freezer, even better. Put them in the refrigerator to thaw in the morning.) When done, let them cool a bit, then slice thinly. Warm pita breads or flatbreads in the oven, microwave or skillet. Set out hummus, feta or other cheese, salad dressing or vinaigrette, and as many vegetables as you have time to fix (lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, etc.). Let each person make his or her own wrap. Serve with orange slices or other fruit.
• Spaghetti. Keep several jars of high-quality spaghetti sauce on hand – look for brands that contain primarily tomatoes and just a few other ingredients – and little or no sugar. (Some spaghetti sauces list sugar as the second or third ingredient!) Or make a big batch of your own one weekend and freeze dinner-size portions that you can grab on hectic days. While whole grain spaghetti is cooking, make a simple salad or cut up vegetables for a simple veggie plate with some salad dressing on the side as a dip.
• Homemade Sloppy Joes – Almost everyone loves Sloppy Joes, but the versions you make with a packet or often include ingredients you don’t want to eat. So Christina at Juggling Real Food and Real Life has created perfect Homemade Sloppy Joes in the Crockpot. You can put together the meat mixture in the morning and let it cook all day, or make it on the weekend to reheat on busy weekdays. You can also make a big batch ahead of time and freeze it in meal-size containers. Just take one out in the morning and put it in the refrigerator to thaw.
• Mini Pizzas. Preheat the oven to 400. Line a large baking sheet with foil (for easier clean-up) and place whole wheat flatbreads on the foil. (Keep some of these in the freezer for busy days.) Top with spaghetti sauce (or tomato sauce and dried Italian seasoning), grated cheese, and veggies or other toppings your family likes. Bake for about 12 minutes. Serve with simple salads, cut up vegetables, or sliced fruit.
And when you’re really desperate…
• Real Food PB&J – Use whole wheat bread, natural peanut butter, and jam or fruit spread without corn syrup, and suddenly the good old PB&J becomes a super-quick and reasonably healthy dinner.. And most kids and adults love it! Add some milk and an apple or some carrot sticks to round it out.
For more healthy meal ideas, download our free ebook – 24 Quick and Healthy Family Meals and check out our time-saving Sunday weekly meal prep tips.