Like every other American family with three children in the home, our family is busy. It seems like there's something going on practically every night, which means that having a family dinner can sometimes be a struggle. We can usually find a window of opportunity where we're all at home at the same time most nights, but finding an opportunity for someone to prepare that meal... that ends up being even more challenging.
At the same time, our family is pretty careful about our spending (for the most part). We try to avoid eating out very often, both due to the expense and due to the relative unhealthiness of the food at most restaurants.
Our solution to those problems is that we try to make quick meals at home with a plant-based focus. I am a practicing vegetarian on the advice of a dietitian who recommended it to me for health reasons, "cheating" only to eat fish about once a month. The rest of my family is omnivorous, but our meals tend to swing heavily toward fruits and vegetables with some dairy products and grains.
To aid in this, we have a roster of a few dozen meals that we eat pretty regularly. These are recipes that Sarah and I can both easily prepare almost without thinking. They also each afford a lot of room for substitution in a pinch, meaning you don't have to have exact ingredients to pull off a pretty good meal. That gives us some flexibility in shopping for groceries.
Here are 12 of our favorites among those meals. In a given month, it's very likely that we'll have all of these meals at least once for our family dinner. Each of them is presented in both a vegetarian version and a version incorporating meat, save the one meal that includes fish.
Rather than just duplicating recipes, I'm going to link to recipes at other sites that are similar to what we prepare and provide some of muy specific notes on those recipes.
Hopefully, these ideas inspire you to prepare more meals at home with your family!
Pasta with Simple Marinara Sauce
This one's so easy that I don't really need to link to a recipe. We simply cook up a box of pasta according to the package directions, drain it, cover it with a simple marinara sauce, and serve it with some cooked vegetables on the side. We usually eat flash-frozen vegetables in the late fall, winter, and early spring and fresh vegetables from the garden during other times of the year.
Rather than using premade sauce, however, I usually just make my own while the pasta is cooking. I'll grab a saucepan, add a bit of oil and then some diced onions and peppers and let them cook over high heat until they're brown. If we have fresh onions and peppers, I'll use those; otherwise, I'll just take a handful out of a bag of flash-frozen onions and peppers from the freezer. I'll usually add a garlic clove or three here, too.
Then, when they're brown, I'll drop the heat down to medium or so and add some diced tomatoes - fresh if they're in season, a single can of diced tomatoes if they're not - along with whatever spices I have on hand that are appropriate, such as oregano and basil, along with a few dashes of salt. I let this cook for a few minutes, stirring regularly, until it's nice and warm, and then serve it directly over the cooked pasta.
Of course, you can always get pasta sauce from a jar, but this is less expensive (especially when the vegetables are in season) and tastes better, and I'm usually just standing around while the pasta is cooking anyway.
If you want meat in your sauce, that's easy - just cook half a pound of ground beef or Italian sausage along with the onions and peppers and garlic. Cook until it's brown, then add the other ingredients.
Slow Cooker Vegetarian "Chili"
I put "chili" in quotes here because different regions of the country have vastly different definitions of what constitutes "chili." For us, chili simply means a thick soup that contains beans and chili peppers or chili powder, along with other ingredients at the person's discretion. Others have more specific definitions.
We often make our version of chili in the slow cooker by tossing in those ingredients at the start. I'll usually start the night before, cooking dry beans in the slow cooker overnight. In the morning, I'll drain the beans, then add diced tomatoes (fresh in season, canned out of season), diced onions and peppers (fresh in season, flash frozen out of season), diced dried chili peppers or chili powder (depending on what's on hand), garlic, a bit of cumin, a few dashes of salt, and whatever else I feel like at the moment.
We never make the same exact chili twice. I might add some ale one time. The next time, a handful of chocolate chips go in. The time after that, I'll use plenty of black pepper. It's good every time.
As always, you can make this a "meaty" chili by cooking up a pound of ground beef and adding this to the slow cooker along with the other ingredients in the morning.
Grilled "Packet Meals"
This is one of our favorite summer meals. It's a tool we use to deal with the flood of vegetables coming from our garden.
All we do is chop up whatever vegetables are coming in right then - tomatoes, potatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, etc. - along with some spices, some butter, and an ice cube. If you want to add meat, you can - add it uncooked.
Set out the various vegetables and meats in bowls by themselves along with some spices (we usually just have a container of spice mix), then give each person a rectangular piece of aluminum foil. They just simply add whatever ingredients they want to the center of the foil, then fold it up into a packet. You need to include some butter or an ice cube, too. I usually double up the foil, wrapping my packet in a second layer.
Then, just toss it on the grill or the fire. Let it cook for ten or fifteen minutes or so. You don't need to be perfectly accurate here, though if there's meat in there you want to be sure the meat is cooked.
When it's done, open up the packet and enjoy. Some of the vegetables on the outer layer may be cooked onto the foil if you didn't include enough butter or ice, but it's usually a small portion and you can eat around it.
Slow Cooker Lasagna
I've actually discussed this recipe before, in my earlier article entitled Our Family's Eight Favorite Slow Cooker Recipes. It's also very straightforward - notice a theme here?
You'll need some marinara sauce - I often make my own, as described at the start of this post, but you can use a big jar of your choice - along with some vegetables and/or cooked meat (I usually use spinach for this layer), some cheese (shredded mozzarella, ricotta, parmesan, whatever you like), and some uncooked lasagna noodles.
Just rub some olive oil all over the inside of your slow cooker in the morning, then add a quarter of your marinara sauce, then a layer of uncooked noodles, then a quarter of your vegetables and/or meat, then a quarter of your cheese. Repeat this four times, right on top of your previous layers, and you're done. Easy enough. Turn the slow cooker on low and do your business for the day.
When you get home, turn off the slow cooker. You're going to want this to rest without active heat for about an hour - or as close as you can to that. If you serve it immediately, it's going to be runny; if you give it time, it cools a bit and "sets up" so that it's easier to serve.
The house smells tremendous when you do this. There are few things better than strolling back in the house in the late afternoon when this has been slowly cooking all day.
Grilled Fish and Vegetables
My one "cheat" on my vegetarian diet is that I occasionally eat fish. This has a lot to do with the culture in which I was raised. My father was a commercial fisherman and occasionally still does it on a very small scale. He often gives us fish from his catches.
Our favorite (and very easy) way to prepare the fish is to cook fillets on the grill. I'll just take one of the grill racks, cover it in aluminum foil, spray it with a little bit of vegetable oil, and then turn on the heat. I cook the fish right on that aluminum foil, sprinkling it with garlic, butter, salt, black pepper, and lemon juice as it cooks and flipping it to the other side. It's done when the fish flakes effortlessly with a fork.
We'll usually accompany that with some vegetables that we cook right on the aluminum foil alongside the fish. Usually, we'll just cook whatever's on sale at the grocery store or else whatever's fresh from our garden - right now, for example, we have tons of asparagus.
A "monk bowl" is something I described in
a classic Simple Dollar post. It's a delicious, simple, and supremely flexible meal.
In the broadest sense, a "monk bowl" is simply a protein, a vegetable, a grain, and a sauce layered in a bowl, with each of those categories pretty loosely defined. For example, you might have rice, broccoli, beans, and soy sauce. Or you might have tofu, quinoa, red bell peppers, and teriyaki sauce. Or you might have chicken, broccoli, rice, and barbecue sauce. Anything goes.
A "monk bowl" is something we make whenever we have extras of a particular protein or a particular vegetable due to a store sale. We'll cook them appropriately, set out the ingredients for everyone, and let everyone assemble their own bowl.
Believe it or not, this actually works pretty well for a picnic. Just bring the ingredients in sealed containers along with bowls and forks/spoons/chopsticks for everyone and a few extra utensils for serving and let everyone assemble their own bowls on site.
Grilled Black Bean Burgers and Vegetables
We love to have burgers on the grill when the weather is nice - both black bean burgers and beef burgers. Beef burgers are easy - just grab a pound of ground beef, shape it into patties, and grill it up!
For black bean burgers, prepackaged ones are okay, but it's pretty easy to make your own. Just cook up some black beans in advance or else pop open two cans of black beans and strain them. Take the cooked beans and mash them with a fork until they're mostly mush but with some partial beans. Add a cup of breadcrumbs, a raw egg, whatever spices you want, and some minced onion and mix it together. It should be really thick - if it's not, add more breadcrumbs. You want these patties to hold together! Then just grill 'em for a while. I usually grill them just as long as ordinary beef burgers.
Along with the burgers, we also cook a foil packet of whatever vegetables happen to be on sale that week or are fresh from the garden. We usually spray a bit of olive oil on a sheet of aluminum foil, put the vegetables on there, add a few spices, add an ice cube or a pat of butter, and wrap the whole thing up and toss it on the grill for a bit longer than the burgers.
It's such a simple and flavorful meal that we practically overdo it during the summer months as we have this meal a couple times a week!
Slow Cooker Vegetable Soup
On the other end of the seasonal scale, this is a meal that we have a couple times a week during the winter months.
Vegetable soup is incredibly simple. You can literally make it out of any vegetables and beans and grains that you happen to have around. You can make it with rice or with quinoa or black beans. You can make it with carrots or tomatoes or squash or kale. Whatever's available to you is perfect.
One thing we often do for our vegetable soup is to save our extra cooked vegetables from meals. We often serve very lightly seasoned vegetables as a side dish with our meals, and the remnants of that are saved in a freezer bag, along with all of the other vegetable remnants. When it's full, we just dump the whole thing in the slow cooker, add some water and a few seasonings, and let it cook for an hour or two. (You can also make vegetable stock this way; when I do that, I let it cook for a lot of hours, then run it through a strainer to get rid of big pieces and save that liquid for future soups and stews).
Of course, you can make vegetable soup out of whatever vegetables and grains and beans happen to be on sale that week. Just chop them up, spice them a little, and toss them in the slow cooker (if you're using dry beans, it may require a little more cooking).
What if you want meat? Add a pound of ground beef to the mix. It'll turn out quite delicious.
An enchilada is simply a corn tortilla wrapped around some ingredients and covered with a chili sauce. Although I prefer corn tortillas, we sometimes use flour tortillas as our children are not fans of corn tortillas.
Again, enchiladas are really easy. All you need is a container of enchilada sauce (I don't try to make this on my own after several bad attempts), some tortillas, something to put in the middle (see below), a bit of cheese for a topping, and a 9" by 13" pan.
For the ingredients in the middle, just use what you have. Almost any beans and vegetables and rice will do. We usually just use whatever's on sale - potatoes, tomatoes, onions, black beans, rice, and so on. Almost any kind of cooked meat will work here, too. We usually season this stuff with some hot peppers and a bit of enchilada sauce mixed right into the contents.
Just take a scoop of this mixture, put it right in the middle of a tortilla, and wrap it into an open-ended cylinder. Make a bunch of these, then pour a little bit of enchilada sauce in the pan and put the enchiladas right on top. Put a bit more enchilada sauce right on top, sprinkle a bit of cheese on that, and then bake it at 350 F for about 30 minutes. Let it sit for about 5 minutes after removing it from the oven and enjoy.
We usually have these whenever we accumulate enough ingredients from sales - tortillas and enchilada sauce, namely.
Our "stir fry" is really simple, too. We just take whatever vegetables are on sale - bell peppers, onions, potatoes, tomatoes, whatever - and chop them up a bit. Then, we cook them quickly over very high heat to sear them and then serve it over cooked rice. I usually just do this in a big skillet, where I get it really hot before tossing in the vegetables.
As with the other recipes, feel free to cook your meat of choice along with this - bits of steak, chicken, shrimp, and so on on work really well here.
You can use a sauce if you'd like. It's not necessary but it can add a distinct flavor. I generally pick up a bottle or two of sauce when they're on sale - notice, again, that the key part to many of our meals is buying ingredients when they're on sale.
"Breakfast for Supper"
This is a meal our children request constantly, so we have it fairly regularly. It's another simple one, as they all are. We simply make breakfast and serve it as our evening meal.
This usually involves scrambled eggs (cooked in one big batch for the whole family, some fresh fruit (whatever fruit is on sale combined into a medley), some cooked potatoes with onions and peppers, and some toast. Sometimes we'll have pancakes instead of the potatoes - again, this is all guided by sale prices.
Scrambling eggs is easy - just crack several eggs in a bowl, mix them thoroughly, add half a teaspoon of salt, mix that in thoroughly, and let it sit for ten minutes or so. Then add the mix to a pan that's already been heated over medium heat with a bit of butter in it and keep turning the eggs over and over so that they don't stick and cook. I pull them off of the heat just before they seem "done" and let them finish cooking at the table.
The potatoes are really easy - we just cook diced potatoes and diced onions and peppers all in one skillet until they taste right, tossing them regularly.
If you'd like some meat along with this, sausage and bacon are both completely appropriate here and easy to cook.
Breakfast for supper usually happens when there's a sale on eggs coupled with fruit sales.
The twelfth and final meal I want to mention is the "taco bar," which happens when we set out a bunch of taco ingredients on the table for dinner. Usually, we prep a lot of them into little bowls in the morning, cover them, and pop them in the fridge - things like onions and lettuce and diced tomatoes and salsa and guacamole.
I usually eat black bean tacos, but you can make whatever protein you like the centerpiece of your taco. Cook up some ground beef and season it as you like, perhaps with a taco seasoning.
At the end of this meal, we usually just combine all of the remaining ingredients into one bowl for use as a "taco salad" for the next day or two, which brings me to my final point...
Bonus: Leftover Smorgasbord
Approximately twice a week, our dinner consists of a "leftover smorgasbord." For that meal, we simply pull all of the leftovers out of the fridge and let people assemble their own meals from those items. If things need to be heated, you just make a plate with things that need heated and microwave that plate, then add cold things after that.
You can certainly end up with some strange combinations on leftover night. This is particularly true for me, since I'll often choose last and just eat whatever's there, resulting in scrambled eggs next to some vegetable soup next to some taco salad. It's odd, for sure, but it's usually fine and you sometimes end up with some interesting flavor combinations.
Not only that, this ensures that no food goes to waste, plus it makes for a really convenient and quick dinner as everyone can be eating within eight to ten minutes of walking in the door.
These meals aren't the only things that we eat, but they do provide the backbone for a lot of meals in our home. Sarah and I can both prepare these meals almost without thinking. Most of them are pretty flexible. They also all tend to rely on ingredients that are on sale at the store, making them pretty cheap, and they're all plant-based, making them at least somewhat healthy.
These meals are as close as we can get to the trifecta of cheap, healthy, and fast. It's not perfect, but it's pretty close, and that's good for our family.
If you want to take home two ideas from this post, take home these.
First, flexible recipes that can be modified with whatever is on sale at the store are great. Most of our recipes fall into that category. We can modify them on the fly to work with whatever we happen to have, and that saves us a lot of cash.
Second, having a couple dozen meals you can cook almost without thinking in a short period of time makes family meal preparation a lot easier. It's well worth the time to master a few simple recipes so that you can do them on autopilot.
Hopefully, these ideas inspire cheap, healthy, and quick meals for you and your family. Good luck!