Cutting back on restaurant meals is a terrific way to save money, but there are days when eating out is a bigger temptation than others. Even the best cooks can’t or don’t want to cook every day.
Everyone needs Meal Plan B: an easy dinner idea we can pull out when our time or energy doesn’t leave room for the kitchen.
Last week, Latoya over at Life and a Budget posted a terrific piece called “Reader Question: How Do I Break Out of an Eating Out Habit?” Amongst the numerous good suggestions, one of her suggestions was
Always have an “I ain’t cooking meal,” on hand!
I think we all have “I ain’t cooking” days. I have one at least once a week. And Latoya has some good suggestions for what to keep on hand for those days, but I thought I’d break it down a little more for my own convenience. i need a number of easy dinner ideas to fit different time frames and levels of energy. My strategy for quickly soothing a hangry first grader is not the same as my strategy for “I have prepared nothing but we need to be fed and out the door again in an hour” or “It’s only 5 but I am too bushed to cook.”
Because I know all of those days will come soon, I want to be prepared for all contingencies. Here are several easy dinner ideas I can pull out for Meal Plan B.
Need…Food…Now (5-10 Minute Ideas)
As Snickers commercials have told us many times, we make bad decisions when we’re hungry. That includes the decision to go through a drive through when we’re super hungry instead of fixing something simple and quick at home. So whether you’re famished or your cranky kid is yelling “Mommmm, I’m hungry NOW!” as soon as you walk in the door, you need a few super fast ideas to pull out to avoid takeout temptation.
Absolute Minimal Cooking
- Cheese and Crackers with Fruit: (bonus points for cheese sticks and apple sauce, which only require opening)
- No-Cook Sandwiches:PB&J, PB&Nutella, Cold Cuts, Pimiento Cheese
- Microwaved leftovers: Last night’s dinner revisited!
- Easy Mac or Ramen Noodles:In a pinch, it will work
- Frozen Burritos: Microwave halfway, add cheese, finish microwaving, serve with tortilla chips and salsa
- Breakfast oriented convenience foods: cereal with milk, instant oatmeal, bagels and cream cheese, yogurt with granola and fruit
- Scrambled Eggs, Toast and Fruit
- Cheese Grits and Fruit
- Canned Soup
I’m Frazzled and Need Dinner Soon (20-30 Minute Ideas)
There are days where I am too busy to cook, or too frazzled to cook, and need something quickish. There are no hunger monsters breaking down the door, but you see them on the horizon or just need to shoehorn dinner into a busy evening.
For me, this is a real danger zone. We don’t live too close to restaurants, so when we’re ravenous, we can eat faster at home than we can pick something up. But approaching dinnertime on a busy day? That’s prime “Let’s go get takeout/eat out” temptation territory. This is when I really need some easy dinner ideas that sound appealing and taste pretty good, but need minimal effort.
- Frozen Pizza: We always add extra Cheese, and maybe some leftover veggies or olives. Not quite as good as delivery, but closer than you might think.
- Pasta: If I want absolute minimal cooking, I’ll serve it with butter and cheese or jarred pesto. Maybe I’ll warm a jar of sauce on the stove, to which I add a little wine or leftover vegetables. I’ll toss with leftover chicken and Parmesan, or bacon, eggs and Parmesan if I’m feeling fancy.
- Full Breakfast: Eggs, Bacon, Toast, and Grits, Pancakes, Steel Cut Oats with fruit and nuts
- Grilled Cheese, BLT or Fried Egg Sandwiches
- Boxed Mac and Cheese: Add cheese, bacon or microwave some frozen broccoli and stir in.
- Salad: Add leftover chicken or a can of beans for protein
- Quesadillas: Great way to use up leftover veggies. Or tasty with bacon and cheese.
- Microwaved “baked” potatoes: Add cheese and bacon, salsa, or nuke some packaged broccoli with cheese as toppings.
- Nachos: Throw cheese, olives, and canned beans on chips and microwave.
I Got Time, But I’m Not Feeling It Tonight (45 Minutes or More)
Maybe your day was absolutely terrible. Maybe you’re sick and need to put something on the table anyway. Or you’re just exhausted. Whatever. These are the days I can use some easy dinner ideas that don’t take a lot of effort but do take some time. For the most part these involve canned or frozen ingredients that take minimal preparation and we just throw them on the stove or into the oven and let them do their thing.
- Oven Roasted Potatoes: These taste better than the microwaved version, but take over an hour. Your choice of toppings
- Easy Vegetable Soup: If you have some broth, some canned or frozen vegetables, some leftover meat or canned chicken and maybe some leftover rice, pasta or quick cook barley, you can cook up a healthy soup with little effort.
- Vegetarian Chili: Flavored canned tomatoes, beans, a little bit of spices.
- Frozen Leftovers: We often have chili, soups, beans and pasta sauce in the freezer. They take a while to get ready, but preparation consists largely of “Dump into Pan. Turn on burner.” Sometimes we’ll cook rice in the rice cooker or pasta on the stove to serve with, but we’re still using minimal effort.
- Frozen Casseroles: Same thing except the instructions are “Preheat oven. Insert Pan.”
I Have All Day, But I Know I Won’t Cook Tonight
Hello Slow Cooker. You are our friend.
We cook a lot in our slow cooker, in part because it conserves energy. (Both electrical energy and OUR energy) When we know we have a strenuous or stressful day ahead, we try really hard to get things started the evening before by cooking in the slow cooker.
Yes, the slow cooker dinner plan involves cooking and preparation, but it doesn’t involve much effort. It’s still an easy dinner idea, it’s just not a timely one.
I know a lot of recipes say you need to sear meat first. Searing adds texture, but it’s not necessary. Usually, once the meat has been thawed, Jon throws it in with some broth and some spices and turns on the slow cooker. No stirring. No adding. We just come home to a main dish that we can easily supplement with frozen vegetables or a bagged salad.
If we have even longer, Jon will soak some dry beans overnight and then put them in the slow cooker with broth (often from some meat he braised earlier.) Again, supplemented by rice cooked in the rice cooker, it’s a very easy dinner to execute if you have the luxury to plan ahead.
Supplementing Meal Plan B on the Days You Do Cook
My easy meals use a lot of prepared, canned, and frozen food. When easy is your primary meal preparation goal, you may not get the same results as you do when you have enough energy to cook from scratch. You can improve your results by judiciously adding recent leftovers from the fridge. For instance, leftover chicken can get tossed with pasta, put on pizza or salad, added to quesadillas or nachos, or thrown in soup. Leftover veggies can go in almost anything (although I don’t recommend leftover Brussels Sprouts.)
You can also cook or fix extra of certain things and then freeze them to improve your quick meal quality.
- Grated Cheese melts way better than slices of block cheese, but the blocks are a much better value. Grating and freezing some extra cheddar or mozzerrella when you are cooking leaves you with a good resource.
- Cook up extra carmelized onions or onions/celery/carrots so that you can add them to soups, beans, or sauces.
- Cooked ground beef can be thrown into macaroni or jarred spaghetti sauce. We also throw it in with mushroom soup and serve over rice or toast.
- Ham freezes really well, and can be added to a lot of other meals: soup, pasta sauce, beans, pizza, and macaroni, among others.
You don’t need a lot of time or effort to put together dinner at home. You just need a few easy dinner ideas that you can pull out when cooking just seems overwhelming and no one else can step into the void. Follow Meal Plan B and you’ll find it a lot easier to avoid takeout temptation and restaurant runs.
What are your best easy dinner ideas?