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Top 7 Meal Ideas for Busy Families

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As summer slips away, so does sleeping in, relaxed schedules, and nights of popcorn and watermelon for dinner at my house. Although I’m sorry to see it go, summer can’t last forever and wouldn’t be quite as fun if it did!

A huge part of getting back to normal is consistently making family dinners that are easy to prepare, relatively healthy and plentiful enough to leave leftovers for lunch throughout the week.

Meal planning and meal prepping have been popular phrases in the last few years, and social media is filled with pictures of tidy refrigerators containing colorful fruits and veggies, freezer bags labeled with dates, and menus that require lots of planning, shopping and pre-cooking. It’s all very appealing, but who (and where) are the people who live like this?

(I bet the inside of their cars are really clean too.)

All kidding aside, pre-planning your meals has so many benefits: budgeting, health goals and even time management. When I don’t think about dinner until the day of, I end up stressed shopping at the grocery store or end up in a drive-thru line overpaying for unhealthy food.

I won’t win an award for my meal planning, but my family seems to want dinner every night. After some deep soul searching about what I can realistically maintain long-term, I put together a broad framework for my dinners that lends itself to flexibility depending on what the week throws at me.

In a nutshell, I have seven dinner categories that I shop for each week, and they only take me about 5-10 minutes total to plan out before I go shopping. So, here are our weekly favorites!

 

7 Days. 7 No-Brainer Meals

Day 1: Pasta Night

I usually do pasta on Mondays because, depending on how my week started, I can make this as simple or complex as I’d like. My top tips for making pasta night successful are to aggressively salt the water, reserve a coffee cup of the cooking water before draining the pasta to add to your sauce, and if all else fails, shower it with parmesan cheese.

The versatility of pasta is what makes this meal choice so amazing. I can take a pound of Farmview Market ground beef, a jar of tomato sauce and make a hearty and healthy spaghetti. If I have more time on my hands, I will sauté veggies and shrimp or chicken in a pan with olive oil and spices and then combine with warm pasta. For the adults at the table, I love to sub in Farmview Market’s zucchini spirals for half of the pasta.

Another major benefit to starting the week with pasta? It’s easy to reheat for school lunch throughout the week.

Day 2: ‘Something on a Bun’ Night

This is always a crowd pleaser. Hamburgers on a cast iron skillet, pulled pork in the crock pot, meatballs roasted in the oven on buns toasted with cheese—the possibilities are endless. Usually, these meals call for a condiment or three, and I love to shop for these at Farmview Market. They have a great selection of local marinades, rubs and sauces, and I feel like these upgrades make an ordinary recipe much tastier!

I try to make this a meat-heavy meal at least one night a week because my personal favorite dinner is next.

Day 3: Vegetarian Night

I will say, none of my family members will admit to enjoying this night, but if they aren’t volunteering to help, I get to keep my veggie night. Vegetarian night is great on a budget! I love to make black beans and rice, vegetable bowls with a good sauce, or even a homemade pizza would work on this night.

Sheet pan pizzas are quick and easy if you have store-bought dough and straggler ingredients in your fridge—which I always do! If you don’t have tomato sauce just drizzle olive oil on the dough and pile on the toppings. Spinach, pineapple, hot honey, herbs from your garden, goat cheese, regular cheese, or sliced tomatoes all work well.

Sometimes I crumble up cooked bacon and call it ‘Almost Vegetarian Night’. Close enough!

Day 4: Easy Night

When I say easy, I don’t mean like Rachel Ray 30-Minute Meals easy—I mean embarrassingly easy. I will take bread or a leftover bun of some sort, toast it with cheese, cut up some fruit for a side, and divide whatever meat we have from a previous dinner—bam, you’re done! Breakfast works on this night or even something from the freezer, like potstickers.

I’d never purchased hot dogs in a regular grocery store before, but since finding out that the hotdogs in the Butcher Shop at Farmview are made in-house in the back, I’ve hooked. They are delicious and contain infinitely better ingredients than the grocery store variety, so I don’t feel guilty at all. Farmview also has a great selection of frozen meals near the milk and dairy or heat-and-serve meals near the front of the Butcher Shop that would be perfect for this night.

Day 5: Taco Dinner

I feel like it goes without surprise that one night is tacos. (Note: it doesn’t have to be Tuesday, in fact for me it rarely is.) Later in the week when I’m starting to tire faster, a taco night is the best go-to. I can prepare them on autopilot and no one complains about the meal.

I usually make an easy slaw on the side with shredded cabbage, plain yogurt, lime juice and salt. If we’ve had chicken on bun night, I do ground beef. If we’ve had beef, I do chicken. If we’ve had both, I do roasted shrimp. Taco Night is extremely versatile and loved by everyone!

Day 6: Go Out or Have Leftovers

This is usually Friday or Saturday night for me. Going out to eat is one of my favorite things to do with my family. Coming home to a clean kitchen with everyone fed is the best. Not cooking and cleaning, I’m able to relax and enjoy my time with them at the end of a long week.

If we’re not up for going out, I reheat all of the leftovers in the fridge, cut up fruits and vegetables, and let everyone pick what they want to eat from the buffet. In fact, now that I think about it, the one aspect of meal planning I do religiously is to make more than we will eat for each meal. Nothing makes me happier than a fridge stocked with food for all the munchies my family has during the week and in between meals. It’s a lifesaver!  

Day 7: Sunday Supper

Body copy: I keep seeing the concept of Sunday Supper in blogs, cookbooks, and dinner groups. I love it! Sundays usually find me home, organizing for the week, and it’s a great day to try a new recipe or make something that’s typically a little more time-consuming as I putter around the house.

I love to make soup, so I will often spend the afternoon making chicken stock and then start on the soup for dinner. In the late summer or fall grilling out becomes a normal event for us, smoking a pork butt, or braising a roast. My grandmother always made a big Sunday lunch after church when I was growing up, and one of my goals is to try and make that our largest meal of the day. That leaves Sunday evenings for family walks, relaxing on the porch and just enjoying the arrival of fall.

Don’t think too much. Just cook!

As I reflect on this method of meal planning, I think the biggest way it helps me is not having to start from scratch mentally each week. I enjoy cooking for my family, but it can quickly become a chore if I let it overwhelm me. Something I’ve learned to do? Think less. Act more. Pick the things you know your family loves and learn how to make those meals super simple.

These seven categories are easy to remember, and I can still accomplish a big grocery haul for the week even if I don’t take the time to write anything down before I go.

When my kids are all grown up, they probably won't remember many individual meals they had at home. But I hope they do remember dinner as a time of (relative) peace, connection and healthy-ish food. If I accomplish that most days, I’m good with having a messy refrigerator!