Quick meals when you don't have time to cook

Convenient Dinners

by Dollar Stretcher Contributors

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Convenient Meals

Like so many families, things get really busy during the holidays. It's busy not only for dear hubby and me but also for our teenagers. It seems like we're always looking for a quick meal for one of us or for the entire family. Last year, we wore out our credit card buying fast food. Does anyone have any ideas for meals that I can make in advance and have ready for those rushed evenings?

Make Your Own Sub Sandwiches

I like to buy good deli meat, cheese, and sub buns and have subs. Each person can make their own however and whenever they want. You could also either use pre-made meatballs or make up a bunch and add some spaghetti sauce and mozzarella cheese for meatball subs. Add some celery and peanut butter or carrots and dip, grapes, etc. to get your fruits and veggies in!
Laura (via Facebook)

Stuff Freezer with Slow Cooker Meals

One thing that has helped my family with our many varied schedules is freezer slow cooker meals. Toss the ingredients for as many meals as you can into gallon freezer bags and freeze. Then thaw one a night in the fridge and dump it in the slow cooker in the morning. It will cook while everyone is out and dinner is ready when you get home. Add a salad and a bag of steamed veggies and your meal is complete. A site I have used for recipes with great success is WhoNeedsACape.com. I put together 40 meals in just over four hours and stuffed my freezer.

Enjoy These "Fast Food" Favorites

Here are some "fast food" favorites for my family:

  1. Burritos - Pretty much any burrito recipe can be made up in advance, frozen, and then heated up in the microwave in about two minutes. I make and freeze breakfast burritos and bean and cheese burritos all the time to have on hand for quick meals.
  2. Pancakes, Waffles and French Toast - I make a large batch when I have time and freeze what doesn't get eaten at breakfast. I freeze them in layers (waxed paper in between) on a baking sheet and then transfer to a freezer bag when frozen. Just reheat in the toaster or the microwave and you have a homemade breakfast in minutes!
  3. Sloppy Joe and Taco Meat - Make extra when you have time and freeze in single servings and you can reheat them fast for a quick meal. I like to use an ice cream scoop and scoop servings onto a lined baking sheet and freeze. When frozen, place in a large freezer bag and store in the freezer.
  4. Soups and Stews - I love freezing smaller servings of homemade soup, chili, or other stews. You can reheat them as is or serve them over rice or pasta to stretch it a little further. And if you have a variety of soups frozen, everyone can pick their favorite!
  5. Cooked Chicken - I always keep cooked chicken (usually cubed) in the freezer. It's good for salads or casseroles. My favorite fast-food meal is to heat up a handful of the frozen chicken and then serve it over a salad. It's very fast and filling!


Convenient Dinners for Busy Winter Nights

For those busy winter nights, I would suggest putting on a pot of stew or soup in your slow cooker. You can assemble it in advance, put it on in the morning, and enjoy when you get home, even if people arrive at different times. You can also have bakery rolls or breadsticks to go along with it.

Meal Time's a Snap!

Whenever I make a stew, chili, soup, or a casserole (especially something in the slow cooker), I remove approximately half the recipe to store in the freezer (usually in pint containers which are fast to thaw and reheat). I keep prepared salad mixes on hand (more expensive, but they save time). Add some high-fiber, high-protein sliced bread and the family will feel satisfied. With some fresh fruit, instant pudding, or a few home-baked cookies for dessert, meal time's a snap!

Use Your Imagination and Have Fun!

There are many times when ready-made meals in the freezer save the day. You can save a substantial amount of money by planning ahead and keeping that freezer full of tasty food for those crazy schedules coming up in the coming weeks ahead.

First of all, when preparing your favorites, make extra for another day and store in the freezer. This works well for meals like chili, meatloaf, stew, and homemade soups. I've roasted two pork loins and frozen the second one for a stir-fry or sandwiches. When buying a family pack of ground meat, browning it all up at once means you can portion it out and freeze to use for another meal like tacos.

When the grill is in use, grill extra chicken breasts, salmon, or other grilled meats to place in the freezer. Often you only need salads and veggies to round out a meal.

For dessert or a snack, use your freezer to store extra breads and muffins that you've baked. It's nice to smell banana bread or pumpkin muffins as they warm up in the microwave. To insure that your food does not get stored too long, compose a checklist of what you have and the date when placed in the freezer, so you can track what you are consuming. Use appropriate containers or freezer bags also so that your food will not get freezer burn and become inedible.

By following these ideas, you will be well on your way to having nutritious, well-rounded meals for the family even when your free time is limited. Use your imagination and have fun with it!

Ready for a Jar of Soup?

My suggestion for this reader is to make a big pot of soup once a week. When it's still simmering, pour it into mason jars, clean up the tops of the jars, and close the lids tightly. Leave the filled jars upside down to cool. Store the jars in the fridge for up to 10 days. Open a jar of soup anytime you are in a pinch. We make grilled cheese sandwiches or toast to go with our soup.

Pulled Pork Is Delicious and Super Easy!

A great, super easy meal is pulled pork. Put a four to five pound pork shoulder in a slow cooker, cover with a bottle of barbeque sauce, and let it cook all day. Then shred the meat with two forks. It takes about two minutes to dump the ingredients in the cooker, and it is ready for you nine to twelve hours later, and the leftovers are great, too. Serve it on a bun with coleslaw and pickles.

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Convenient Dinners with Easy Clean Up! Does It Get Better?

Since you like fast food, here is a cheaper way to make at home in about the same time as waiting in the drive-thru.

On your regular grocery trip, add a box/bag of breaded chicken patties, a bag of frozen Tater Tots®, your favorite bagged salad or slaw mix, and a package of hamburger buns to your list. In less than 20 minutes, you can have supper on the table.

While the chicken and tots are baking, mix up your salad. Have one of your teens set the table and put on a little holiday music. Have another teen take drink orders from everyone and get those on the table. Another can get out the BBQ sauce, ketchup, mustard, mayo, salad dressings, etc.

Serve chicken patties on buns. For an extra kick on your tots, try seasoning salt.

Here's an easy clean up tip. Bake chicken patties and tots in a couple of round cake pans instead of using large cookie sheets. The smaller pans fit and clean great on the bottom rack of a dishwasher. And, your cookie sheets will still be clean if you need to bake up some holiday treats that night!
Teri from Nebraska

Save Big with Convenient Dinners Instead of Fast Food

We have a planned freezer meal at least once a week, more often if life is crazy. I always cook soups, stews, bierocks, pizza crust, and spaghetti sauce in multiple batch quantities. I keep cheese in the refrigerator, along with corn and flour tortillas in the freezer. There's nothing like a warm cheese quesadilla cooked in the oven served up with salsa.

Keep track of the savings. You will be amazed how much you can put into the piggy bank every time you skip the drive-thru and just grab something you made ahead!
Sarah in Olathe, KS

Pull Dinner Together Quickly with Basic Staples

If you keep some basic staples on hand, you can always pull dinner together quickly! Here are some quick ideas for dinners you can throw together in 20 minutes or less:

  • Enjoy pasta with jarred sauce and frozen meatballs. Make it fancy by keeping some take-n-bake bread sticks on hand.
  • Tuna melts on toast are always good with canned soup or a salad.
  • Make tacos or burritos with whatever leftover meat you have on hand and add some canned beans and cheese. Taco night is great with picky eaters, because everyone can assemble his/her own taco.
  • Make quesadillas with tortillas and cheese. Sever any fruit you have on the side. You can add meat, veggies, and salsa or sour cream for dipping if you like.

When you are cooking meat, always cook enough for a night of leftovers. For example, roast chicken one night can be tacos or even a nice chicken salad another night. Ground beef one night in spaghetti sauce can be tacos the next night. Even a meatless night of macaroni and cheese with salad, veggie tacos, or a big salad and bread or crackers will satisfy.

One thing I have found to be very helpful is to keep a running white board on my fridge to show leftovers that need to be used up. It helps to inspire me when deciding what to make for dinner. Also, AllRecipes.com is useful. You can search by "ingredients" and enter foods that you have on hand and get recipes for casseroles and meals you can make with what you have on hand.

My family also occasionally has an evening of "Tour de la Frigo," which is our way of having a leftovers night. I go through the fridge and pull out everything from carrots and ranch dressing to frozen leftovers from the freezer. I heat things up, try to make it look pretty, and call my clan in. Everyone gets to choose and no one leaves hungry. It is actually a night my kids enjoy. It's the thrill of the hunt!

Sometimes a pizza or other takeout is just what the doctor ordered at our house, but most of the time, especially during the cold winter months when it is just nice to be home, I challenge myself to come up with something to feed and satisfy my family of five. I figure that anytime we eat at home we are saving money, and that is always a good thing!
Jen in Rio del Mar, California

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