As I’ve mentioned before, one of our big aims as a family is to have a home-cooked family dinner together every evening in which it is possible. This can be particularly tricky, especially as our children reach the busy teen years in which it seems like every night has a litany of activities and homework for them to be involved with.
Quite often, a home-cooked meal that we can all enjoy together requires hitting a very specific target and often leaves a window of opportunity for meal preparation that’s really small. Thus, for us, and for all other busy families who want to have a family dinner together, having a meal that most of the family likes which can be prepared in a very tight timeframe is of key importance.
We also want that meal to be reasonably healthy and fairly inexpensive, to boot. That’s not too much to ask, is it?
Over the last several years, our family has built up a number of meals that we enjoy together that can mostly be prepped in ten minutes or so (with perhaps a little additional prep time the evening before or a minor step to be done that morning). Usually, these meals are modular, with various side dishes that also take ten minutes or less of prep time easily filling in gaps.
Here are ten such entrees, along with ten common “evening before” steps that we use to make sure we can pull these meals off in ten minutes or so, and ten sides that we add modularly to meals as it fits. Some meals are light, some are heavy, some sides go well with some entrees and not others – just mix and match as works well for your family. We can usually pull off any combination of entree and side dish for our family under $10, and often two sides at once. The key, of course, is to prep one thing while another thing is heating – those ten minutes are often very busy ten minutes! Usually, one child is a sous chef while the other two children are setting the table and the other parent is doing something to prepare for other evening activities.
Let’s get started by looking at ten very common “evening before” tasks that I do to make all of this work.
Ten Valuable “Day Before” Prep Steps
As noted above, a lot of these super-fast meals require a little bit of preparation the day before or the morning before. Some of these things can even be done two or three days in advance, and even further if you’re willing to freeze and then thaw some of these items.
At home, these tasks are often ones that are done in the late evening. You’ll often find me chopping vegetables for tomorrow night’s dinner in the later evening, for example.
None of these tasks are overly complex, but they do take a little time. They’re nice tasks to do in the kitchen in the late evening with a little music or a podcast playing while you work.
Fully cook ground beef, chicken, or other preferred protein Once cooked, this can easily be stored in the fridge. It’s usually just a matter of frying it in a skillet until it’s cooked and crumbling or shredding or chopping it as needed for what you want to make.
Cook dry beans and/or rice This often involves soaking the beans overnight and then cooking them, but the process depends heavily on the type of bean, so you’ll want to look up an easy way to cook a particular type of dry bean. For beans, I usually soak them overnight in a slow cooker by just putting water in with them, then switch the water in the morning so that it’s fresh and cooking it on low all day, often with some seasonings in there to add flavor. With rice, I usually cook it in our rice cooker and store it in the fridge until needed, as it usually reheats well.
Sauté some aromatic vegetables If a recipe calls for sautéed onions or shallots or green peppers or garlic or anything like that, I do that the night before and save the vegetables in a small container. When it’s done and the skillet is still really hot, I put a bit of water in the skillet so that it sizzles and deglazes the pan, then I pour that liquid right in the container with the aromatic vegetables. My secret? I keep a bag of chopped onion and chopped green pepper in the freezer solely for quick sautéing.
Chop some vegetables This is easy enough. If something needs chopped vegetables the next night, I chop them late the evening before and store them in a small container in the fridge. There’s really no need to be rushing to get some chopped spinach or a bit of chopped onion or something like that when you’re trying to get a meal together. Just do it the night before!
Prep a “slow cooker load” One of our most useful tools for evening meals is to simply use the slow cooker, starting it in the morning before our workday begins so that there’s a meal ready to go when we get home. However, even then, it can take some time to get all of the ingredients ready for that, and on a busy morning, that can take some time. So, what I’ll often do is just get everything ready to the point that it’s about to be tossed in the slow cooker the night before and put it in a few containers in the fridge. Then, in the morning, I dump those containers into the slow cooker, turn it on low, and put the containers in the dishwasher. Then, that evening, there’s a meal ready for all of us to eat with almost no prep time!
Make a sauce Let’s say I want to have a homemade pasta sauce or a homemade sauce for our stir fry or something like that. I can just make this the night before and store it in a container in the fridge, reheating it just before we eat the next night if needed. I’ll make a pasta sauce on my own, for example, and fill up a quart jar with it and pop it in the fridge, then just heat it a bit before the meal.
Cook some pasta Another tactic I like to use is to cook pasta the night before. I cook it about three minutes shy of the package directions, then toss it with some oil and put it in a container in the fridge. The next day, it needs about one or two minutes of additional boiling, basically just long enough to get it hot. This little step can shave 5 or more minutes off of a tight meal prep.
Hard boil some eggs (and even peel them) I’ll often make a dozen or so hard boiled eggs in the evening. I am really picky about my hard boiled eggs, so I usually use a sous vide cooker to get them exactly as I like, with the yolk just on the hard side of creamy (about 165 F for 45 minutes). I’ll crack, peel, and slice them afterwards if needed.
Make a seasoning mix If I’m making something that requires several seasonings the next night, I’ll go ahead and mix the seasonings the night before in a small container and just leave it out on the counter. That way, I can just dump in that container of salt and pepper and basil and oregano and whatever.
Bake potatoes Sometimes, we’ll have baked potatoes or sweet potatoes, and those can be baked the night before, refrigerated, and then quickly heated the next day. They take on almost a “twice-baked” texture.
Ten Main Courses
Here are ten frequent main courses that we prepare for our family dinners on busy weeknights. Most of these can be on the table within ten minutes, though a few might stretch that to twelve or fifteen depending on how quickly one’s stovetop gets to boiling or one’s oven gets to preheating.
Pasta and sauce If we’re having pasta and time is tight, I’ll mostly boil it the night before as noted in the previous section. We sometimes make our own sauce, usually also the night before and stored in a jar in the fridge, and sometimes purchase it, which costs a little more. We pair a variety of pastas with a variety of sauces, as different family members definitely prefer different pairings around here. If the pasta is mostly cooked, this can be on the table in five to seven minutes without breaking a sweat!
Grilled cheese sandwiches Grilled cheese sandwiches are a huge hit with our family, with lots of different variations proving to be popular. Everyone has their own particular variety that they like – for example, I’m a fan of sourdough and Gruyere with sautéed onions and mushrooms on it, with the onions, green peppers, and mushrooms sautéed the night before, as described above. My youngest son prefers his super simple, while my daughter absolutely loves Monterey jack and plenty of it.
Stir fry with noodles We’ll often serve stir-fried vegetables with some sort of protein (usually chicken or tofu) right on top of rice noodles, which cook incredibly quickly. We’ll also sometimes put it directly on rice that we’ve cooked the night before and reheated.
Chili I’ll cook a whole bunch of beans using the technique described in the previous section and simply throw the chili together that evening. We usually have a vegetarian batch and a non-vegetarian batch, which are identical except for the bean concentration and the presence of meat, and it’s prepared with aromatic vegetables cooked the night before from the fridge. We’ll also often do this in the slow cooker, starting it in the morning, but you want your beans to not quite be fully done if you’re going this route or else it’ll be mushy.
White bean soup I follow this recipe, except I’ll partially cook the orzo and fully cook the beans the night before so that this can all come together in about eight or nine minutes. This lets me dump in the stuff from step 1, jump immediately to step 2, and cut the time for the orzo down to a couple of minutes.
Tacos If you have some cooked ground beef or chicken or other protein that you’ve reheated, as noted earlier in the article, this is as easy as setting out the ingredients that people might want, as everyone can assemble their own. We’ll just pull out lettuce, diced tomatoes, diced onions, a jar of salsa, a container of guacamole, maybe some black olives, and just make a “bar” where people can assemble their own.
Baked potato bar Take a potato you fully baked that morning and microwave it briefly, just enough to warm it thoroughly. While they’re heating, set out some toppings – butter, sour cream, chili, whatever you might like.
Mini-pizzas Either use dough you bought at the store or prep it the morning before. Preheat the oven according to package or recipe directions, then make small pizzas for everyone. These bake in about 8 minutes each.
“Breakfast for supper” Scrambled eggs or French toast is the meal centerpiece here, with bacon, sausage, or fruit on the side. All can be done quickly in a skillet, often together.
Egg drop soup Chop a couple of green onions in the morning and stick them in the fridge. Bring four cups of stock (chicken or vegetable, your choice) to a boil. While you’re waiting for it to boil, crack three eggs in a bowl and whisk thoroughly. When the stock is boiling, add in the onions and remove from heat. When it’s not boiling any more, add a tablespoon of corn starch slowly and stir thoroughly, then bring it back to a low boil. Drizzle in the egg mixture a tablespoon at a time, then give it maybe thirty seconds on the heat after the last tablespoon, and serve.
We’ll often accompany those dishes with various sides. Many of the common ones we use, like cornbread, are cooked the night before and set aside until tomorrow’s meal time, but many can come right together in that ten minute window while the entree is being cooked. Here are ten examples of these super-quick sides.
Flash frozen vegetables, seasoned well We’ll often just get a bunch of flash frozen vegetables that steam in the bag, buying them in bulk and steaming them in the microwave in about five minutes while other meal prep is happening. We put them in a bowl, thoroughly season them with salt and pepper and appropriate herbs and spices for the vegetable, and serve them.
Simple salad Our salads usually just consist of baby spinach or another green (usually spinach because it’s healthy and everyone seems to like it), a bit of salad dressing tossed with it, and a few other toppings like Parmesan cheese or croutons or bits of tortilla chip, depending on the flavor and texture.
Macaroni and cheese (outside the box) While we do occasionally rely on a kit for this, I vastly prefer to make my own, using variants of Serious Eat’s three ingredient mac and cheese with the mac cooked mostly beforehand, as noted above. For my family, to provide leftovers and the sheer joy that mac and cheese brings to my youngest son’s face, I double the recipe and vary the cheese (I love gruyere, as noted earlier).
Seasoned beans and/or rice Take pre-cooked beans and/or rice, heat them up, and add flavorings as you desire. I usually add a bunch of hot sauce and sometimes some aromatic vegetables like cooked onion, green pepper, and garlic, and I’ll often add just a bit of tomato juice to make it moist.
Esquites For those unfamiliar, esquites is a corn salad popular in Mexico in which you cook corn kernels with a little onion in a bit of butter and flavor it in a variety of ways, usually hot sauce, lime juice, mayo, and/or cheese. It’s a wonderful side for taco night and can be prepared surprisingly quickly, as you’re mostly just heating and browning the corn.
Roasted cauliflower I’ll just take cauliflower florets that I’ve already cut up, toss them with olive oil and seasoning, bake them at 400 F for a few minutes, then put them under the broiler for just a moment to slightly brown them, then serve them. You can do this with other vegetables, but cauliflower is just wonderful in this way.
Garlic chickpeas Just take a can of chickpeas or a pound of chickpeas that you’ve cooked from dry beans (as noted above) and add a few cloves of mashed fresh garlic and any other seasonings you like, then cook it in a skillet with just a bit of butter. You can top it with a bit of shredded cheese, too. Just do what you like!
Soba noodles If I find dry soba noodles on sale at the store, I’ll often turn them into a side dish, tossing them with a bit of oil and some sautéed vegetables and maybe a bit of soy sauce. I’ll often cook the soba noodles the night before and mix it with leftover stir fry vegetables, to tell the truth.
Corn on the cob There are tons of ways to prepare corn right on the cob, and it’s delicious. You can actually just microwave it for three or four minutes right in the husk and husk it at the table when you’re ready to eat it mid-meal, or you can husk it beforehand and boil it in very salty water for about five minutes. Serve it with butter… it’s so amazing.
Roasted asparagus While corn on the cob is a late summer staple for us, asparagus is a spring staple, and roasted asparagus is where it’s at. Just cut and snap the asparagus the night before, then when you’re ready to cook, preheat oven to 500 F, toss the asparagus with a bit of olive oil to coat it, sprinkle with salt and pepper, lay the asparagus in a baking dish, sprinkle it thoroughly with parmesan cheese, and bake for 8-9 minutes. It’ll come out amazing.
Many of these recipes consist of taking a fresh ingredient or two and simply adding flavors to it that we like. That’s really what simple home food preparation is all about. Complex recipes do not fly on a busy weeknight, but these meals sure do.
Good luck, and may your taste buds and wallet both be happy!