I enjoy preparing complex dishes, but many evenings, the focus around our house is getting a tasty and healthy (and inexpensive) meal on the table quickly. We have a three year old and a one year old at our house, so our goal is to established a fixed meal time, put something on the table that will meet all their nutritional needs and still be pleasing to their (and our) palate, do it quickly, and do it inexpensively. This fills all of our bellies with some good fuel, keeps money in our pocket, and also gives us plenty of family time in the evenings.
So, how do we pull this off night after night without regularly resorting to prepackaged food bought with coupons? Over the years, we’ve developed several tactics for making this work – and it works so well that we often prepare the same things for guests when they come to visit.
Here are nine tactics we turn to time and time again.
1. Make your main dish as simple as possible.
A chicken breast. A fish fillet. A basic hamburger. Eggs. A very simple stir fry. A pot roast. Pasta with tomato sauce. These are the things that make up our main course most nights. Nothing complicated at all – just a very basic food.
There are some big advantages here, though:
There are a wide variety of such basic items. Our meals are far more varied than you might think. We rarely repeat out foods for weeks at a time.
These items are stunningly simple in their basic preparation. Once you’ve grilled a chicken breast a few times, it becomes incredibly routine. You don’t have to focus on it any more. Instead, you can focus on the little details (below) that transform it from boring to amazing.
These items are inexpensive when bought in bulk and frozen. We look for versions of these items that meet our quality standards on sale, and when we find them, we stock up big time. Then we just unthaw them by setting the items in the refrigerator the night before – they’re ready to go at meal time the next day.
2. Use simple tactics to add variety and flavor to the main dish.
In other words, be creative and liberal in your seasoning of the food and do it well in advance so it can soak into the food. Most of the time, we’ll actually season the food in the morning (see the next tip) so that it’s ready to go when we walk in the door in the evening.
Even better, because the main entrees are often such a blank slate, we can create a huge variety of very different flavored dishes starting with the same simple main course.
Here are a few ideas for the most common items.
Chicken breasts We just put chicken breasts in a Rubbermaid container in the morning along with whatever seasonings sound interesting. Want lemon chicken? Dump in some lemon juice, some pepper, and a few lemon slices. Italian? Put in half a cup of red wine vinegar, a third of a cup of olive oil, and a lot of seasoning (a bit of lemon juice, garlic powder, oregano, red pepper, black pepper, parsley flakes, and anything else you like). There are infinite possibilities here – just play around.
Hamburger Just mash up hamburger meat with whatever flavorings you like: barbecue sauce, blue cheese salad dressing, ranch salad dressing, Italian salad dressing, black pepper, red pepper, paprika, salt, celery seed, brown sugar, ketchup, onion, dill, caraway, turmeric, scallions, ginger, dill, cumin, coriander, bay leaves – just try different things and find out what you like. I like to let the hamburger soak in this for several hours in the refrigerator before making the patties, though.
Fish fillets Much like the chicken breasts, just toss the fillets in a Rubbermaid container along with some seasonings. Italian dressing is one place to start, as are citrus fruits and pepper. I like using Parmesan cheese and olive oil, for one, with a healthy dose of pepper. The key is to just try different things and let these things sit together for a long time to meld their flavors.
3. Do as much as you can in the morning before you leave.
One big advantage of preparing the entrees in the above fashion is that much of the work can be done in the morning before you leave. For similar reasons, we also enjoy using our slow cooker – we can just toss things together in the morning and be ready to go when we get home.
I find that doing as much of the meal preparation as I can in the mornings while the kids are eating breakfast at the kitchen counter is a great way for me to get going with something productive in the morning while carrying on conversation with them and making sure they’re eating their breakfast.
Here are a few tactics for getting things done in advance in the morning (and the night before):
Main entrees Marinate and/or spice them and put them in a Rubbermaid container in the refrigerator for the day.
Homemade pizza This is one of our family’s favorite foods. One great way to make it easier at night is to make the dough the night before, let it rise in the refrigerator overnight, then spread it out on the pan the next morning. Preheat the oven to 425 in the morning, then bake the crust for seven minutes or so. After that, you can go ahead and put any toppings on you want (like the sauce) or you can just stick the crust in the oven. Doing this “pre-bake” makes for a superb crust … actually, a “homemade pizza” guide might make for a great post.
Crock pot meals If you can possibly make a meal in the crock pot, do so – it’s such a huge time saver on busy evenings and the meals turn out quite well if you use quality ingredients to begin with. For us, it’s very simple – we have a lot of great five ingredient crock pot meals that we love making.
4. Use flash frozen vegetables (but not fruit) as a side dish.
For a long time, I was very insistent on eating fresh vegetables as a side dish. This is a good tactic to use during the summer months when you can get ultra-fresh produce from the farmer’s market or from your own garden, but during the winter, “fresh” produce often isn’t very fresh.
The solution I’ve discovered – for vegetables at least – is frozen vegetables. While not quite as good as truly fresh vegetables, they’re quite often tastier than the vegetables you find in the fresh food aisle during the winter months.
Frozen vegetables are easy to prepare – they can very easily be steamed and this can be done in the microwave if you want (some even come with the capacity to steam in the bag). Flash frozen vegetables are also pretty inexpensive, especially if you wait for a sale and stock up – we often get bags for $0.75 or less, which provide a large portion of vegetables for all four of us. Even better, they’re easy to spice up a bit – just add a bit of pepper (or a bit of another appropriate spice or two) as soon as they’re done steaming (or even during steaming) and you’ll wind up with a tasty result.
A big tip: check the ingredients before you buy. If you see any ingredients besides just the vegetables in the bag (or perhaps a few basic spices), don’t buy it. Avoid any that have high fructose corn syrup – there’s no reason to have that in your vegetables. In fact, this is why I avoid most frozen fruits – they seem to often have sugar or corn syrup added for no real reason other than to add a cloying sweetness.
5. Utilize the simple main dish in a second dish later in the week.
Let’s say we’re making chicken breasts for the family. We unthaw twice as many as we would eat and season half of them as we desire. Then, we bake all of them in the oven (not adding any cooking time at all), then put aside the cooked breast for a couple of days to use in another dish, like chicken stir fry or a chicken pot pie.
Let’s say we’re having hamburgers. We cook up a batch that’s seasoned and an unseasoned batch, then we crumble up the unseasoned burgers and use the meat as pizza topping a few days later, allowing us to have homemade pizza with a hamburger topping without using a skillet to brown the meat.
Using these kinds of techniques adds virtually no time to the meal preparation at hand, but it certainly saves time with a meal later in the week.
6. Drink water, but make it lively!
Water is the default beverage at our dinner table. It’s essentially free and provides necessary hydration. Yet, for many, it’s boring – it doesn’t provide the flavor of other beverages you might consume with dinner.
There are several subtle things you can do to make water more interesting, though. The biggest one is citrus – a slice of a citrus fruit (lemon, lime, orange, etc.) and/or a dash of a citrus juice into your water can make a big difference. This pairs very well with white meats of all kinds.
A simple herbal tea is another great beverage to accompany a meal. Simply heat up the water, steep it with the tea, and you’ve transformed the water into something compelling.
Even the simple touch of adding ice to water can make it seem a lot more refreshing and enjoyable as a partner drink to your dinner.
7. Use a simple formula for casseroles of all kinds.
We picked up this useful tactic from Amy Dacyczyn’s excellent Complete Tightwad Gazette. She offers a framework recipe for a basic casserole:
1 cup main ingredient
1 cup second ingredient
1-2 cups starchy ingredient
1 1/2 cups binder
1/4 cup “goodie”
Main ingredient: tuna, cubed chicken, turkey, ham, seafood, etc.
Second ingredient: thinly sliced celery, mushrooms, peas, chopped hard-boiled eggs, etc.
Starchy ingredient: thinly sliced potatoes, cooked noodles, cooked rice, etc.
Binder: cream sauce, sour cream, can of soup, etc.
“Goodie”: pimiento, olives, almonds, water chestnuts, etc.
Topping: cheese, bread crumbs, etc.
This formula works really easy for turning almost anything you have on hand into a very tasty casserole. You simply just mix together these items in a casserole dish, toss it in the oven, and bake it until it’s done. One tip – one good binder is leftover chicken stock with a bit of corn starch in it.
8. Clean out your cupboards and/or pantry.
Another great way to line up some inexpensive and simple meal ideas is to simply clean out your cupboards and pantry. This is a great weekend project, actually – it helps you discover lots of items that you have on hand that you may have forgotten about and also helps you organize things in a way that makes it easier to find the things you need.
When you’re discovering these useful items that have disappeared in the back of the cupboard, plan around them, right then. Jot down ideas for meals that revolve around these items, then when you put things back, keep those items near the front so you can find them quickly.
The end result? You’ll be making interesting meals without the need for a grocery store run and the items will be easy to grab quickly as they’ll be at the front of the cupboard.
9. Do a dinner exchange with your neighbors.
Even after all this, there are some nights where you’d just like a home-cooked meal on your table with no fuss at all. One very creative way to do this is to do a dinner exchange with a neighbor.
It’s pretty easy. Find a neighbor that has a similar-sized family to you. Then arrange it so that once a week or once a month, you make a double portion of your evening meal, place half of it into containers, then take it to that neighbor’s house. All they have to do is meet you at the door, take the containers, and serve – it’s like free delivery.
Then, that family does the same for you, perhaps even with the same containers. They make a double batch of their dinner meal, then bring you containers with enough of that meal to feed your family. Easy as pie.
While this doesn’t particularly save you any money, it does save you quite a bit of time.
Good luck preparing a tasty, healthy, and inexpensive meal tonight for you and your family!