When my friends and family learn that I’m giving any sort of cooking advice, they’ll surely chuckle because it’s well known that I’m not much of a fan of cooking. But we do need to eat! As a working mother, with a 12-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter, in a dual income family where my husband travels quite often, I’ve managed to conjure up some shortcut dinners that are relatively quick and easy but also hold some nutritional value.
Here are some ideas that have worked out well for our family.
5 Go-to Shortcut Dinners for Busy Weeknights
- Make Your Own Sandwich Night: I’ll put out a nice spread of deli cold cuts and cheeses, with a few bread options, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, pickles, condiments, etc… Sometimes the side meal will be french fries or sometimes just potato chips, popcorn or Pirate’s Booty. Baby carrots, celery, and cucumbers further fulfill the vegetable requirement. The kids prepare their own sandwiches and this approach to the meal offers a little freedom for them to choose what they want to eat. All in all this makes for a pretty happy crowd in our house.
- Breakfast for Dinner: Breakfast food emits that homey feeling. It’s yummy comfort food at its most basic. Usually I’ll prepare eggs, turkey bacon and/or turkey sausage, toast, and hash browns (from a frozen 10 pack – my son adores these). Other times I’ve made pancakes from one of those ‘just add water’ mixes. On occasion my daughter adds a bit of creativity and uses pancake shape molds. There are so many options, like breakfast burritos or frittatas, but 9 times out of 10, we’ll keep it simple. And, if you’re really looking to simplify breakfast for dinner, there’s always cereal!
- Taco Bar: Think taco kits or packaged tortillas from the supermarket. Cheese, tomatoes, lettuce, spanish rice (packaged ready-made), refried beans (canned) each in their own small bowl. Usually the protein we use is grilled chicken – and usually this comes from the already cooked shortcuts that are sold in the meat department. I’ll admit that there a lot of dirty dishes that go along with this one, but the preparation is easy enough. Lay out all the goodies and go to town! Each of us fix our own taco, so my kids are put to work here as well.
- Pasta Dishes: Here’s one that you can basically “throw” anything into. Choose a type of pasta, pick a protein, some chopped up veggies, mix it with a sauce and it’s ready to go. One day you might serve penne with chicken with peas, string beans, peppers in Italian dressing. The next could be spaghetti with shrimp, baby corn, broccoli, carrots in a teriyaki sauce. Similarly, this works with salads too. Instead of pasta, plop the ingredients onto a pile of lettuce or spinach.
- Grilling: There are many of us who are unable to grill all year round due to climates. But for those you who can – do it! I’ll fess up that I was slightly fearful to grill on my own, as my husband was always the one who manned the grill, pun intended. Now that I’ve had practice – and how delicious the food comes out – I’m sold. The choices of “what to grill” are pretty endless. We’ve recently discovered the world of kabobs, which make it fun for the kids too. We primarily do chicken, but of course, any other meat can be used as well. Place it on a skewer with varied vegetables and fruit and cook the whole thing on the grill. Serve with a side of rice and/or salad.
As you can see, not much is of gourmet caliber here! But if you’re in a time crunch or not the biggest cook, these are just a few relatively painless ideas – each affording the opportunity to mix it up a bit. Some commonalities about my dinner shortcuts:
- Not much pre-prep (just one of the many great ways to save time). No need to freak out in the middle of the day (or in the middle of a meeting!) when you remember that you didn’t defrost the meat.
- Involve the kids, if you can. Mine are tweens, so it’s not a problem to find things they can do. There are opportunities to involve younger children in cooking as well.
- Keep it simple! Personally, when I see a recipe with 15 ingredients, 1 hour prep, 45 minutes cooking time, let’s say – I run the other way, especially during the week.
- Frozen foods, especially vegetables, are your friend. Besides overwhelming convenience (thank you “steam in bags!”), there really are further benefits.
- The recipes are simple to tweak, including alternatives for making them healthier (or less healthy!).
Now, I’m not going to lie – we definitely do take-out and delivery. Many supermarkets also offer ready-made meals. Chinese menus offer many combinations of proteins and vegetables; and there’s also the opportunity to have the meals steamed. Sushi is our guilty pleasure once in a blue moon. And the choices are endless for Italian – although there’s nothing better than a good ol’ slice of pizza. If you find yourself here, don’t second guess and don’t feel guilty. We all deserve a true dinner shortcut once in a while!