August 19, 2017

5 Fast Ways to Get Easy Family Dinners on the Table



The new year has brought me into a little funk and I don’t mean the music kind.

Have you ever felt that way? Just “off” a bit?

I’m sharing about what was revealed to me over at (in)courage. I have thought about the the oh, so DAILY aspects of life and one of the aspects I need to get back on track is preparing homemade meals and sharing dinner time around the table.

For many of us, when our balancing act gets off kilter,  homemade meals are the first thing to go since it’s much easier to grab convenience food on the run. When that starts to happen in my home, I go back to five simple, yet life changing strategies I began implementing years ago and was my basis for  10 Minute Dinners,

These Marie Callender's chicken pot pies are my daughter's favorite

On those particularly chaotic weeks, my goal is to  be very intentional about our meal time: spend less time preparing the food, more time connecting over a shared meal and slash our food budget at the same time.

Doesn’t ten minutes of food prep sound like  a dream come true?

Implement these easy ideas and you will be thrilled to see how quickly a wholesome meal can come together on the spur of the moment.


1. Create your “Fast Family Favorites” dinner list.

When dinner time is rushed, most of us eat out, pop pizza in the oven, or get stuck in the rut of making the same meals over and over. Let’s break that habit and set ourselves up for success. 

One evening over dessert, gather your family to brainstorm some of your favorite, fast family meal ideas. Make a list of at least 15 – 20 tried and true recipes. If you need to do so, pull out some old cookbooks to trigger those creative juices. If you have kids, include them in this process. It gives them a voice and ownership of the family decision-making process. They’ll be much more willing to be a kitchen helper during meal prep if they know the meal they chose is on the agenda.

Once your list is complete, print the recipes out or make a physical copy of each one. We are going to create a simple meals solutions notebook. In essence, this becomes our “cooking brain” when we’re overwhelmed and need someone to think for us. (Am I the only one who needs that help?)

The next steps are where your life will be saved.

I wrote all about our Meal Solutions notebook over at 10 Minute Dinners.

2. Go for C.O.S.T. Cooking.

One of my greatest feats is trying to determine how nearly every meal can become a “Cook Once, Serve Twice or Three Times” adventure. I am not talking about left overs, although I definitely recommend them and doubling recipes is always a recommendation. My family would be lost without leftover, but I do know that many won’t eat them.

C.O.S.T Cooking sets apart the meal and completely recreates it. Every protein cooked becomes another recipe without any complaints. I’m not talking about leftovers, although I definitely recommend them, and doubling a recipe is always incredibly helpful.

C.O.S.T Cooking sets the meal apart and completely recreates it. Every protein cooked becomes another recipe without any complaints.

For instance, a simple Crock Pot BBQ Chicken over rice or noodles, becomes BBQ pizza the next evening. Depending on how much chicken I have prepared, Sour Cream Enchiladas, BBQ quesadillas, tortillas, or our favorite BBQ sandwiches made this a three-time winner.

A second example is our family’s favorite Asian Pork Tenderloin recipe. First showcased as a main dish served with rice and vegetables, we rounded out our “Take Two” meals by serving it sliced on a warm hoagie roll topped with provolone cheese for a quick and hot sandwich. Even the biggest leftover naysayers will be none the wiser.

Crockpot ground beef cooked up in bulk becomes our favorite Taco Casserole, my Mom’s homemade Sloppy Joes or Lasagna.

One  Power Cooking Hour

In my opinion, the best use of one hour a week is my “Power Cooking Hour.”  It’s simple, become the kitchen manager that you are and challenge yourself to work against the clock. I love a good competition, so I set the timer for one hour. I then cook, chop, dice, prep and freeze as many items as I can in that time period.

In one hour of concentrated time, I am able to break down certain kitchen tasks enough to prep for 8-10 meals in just that one hour.

When I first started my Power Cooking Hour, I prepped 15 meals, making it possible to execute that goal of a ten minute dinner for weeks. I couldn’t believe how much I got done and after that, I was committed to setting that time aside regularly.

Think through what quick items you find yourself being drawn to at the grocery store. Walk down the freezer aisle and figure out how to recreate them.

Here are just a few tasks that I take on during my Power Cooking Hour:

  • Mix my own convenient spices
  • Cook rice in bulk (love my rice cooker), then separate into quart size portions.
  • Cook Crock Pot full of beans for additions to meals, taco dip and homemade re-fried beans.
  • Bulk Baking – it’s just as easy to make up batter for four banana breads loaves, as it is just one loaf.
  • Seasoned Ground beef packages: Fry or use the crock pot to cook up large quantities of ground beef  at one time.  Since we love Mexican and Italian meals, I  then add garlic, onions and chopped peppers right to the beef. Once that is finished, I separate the mixture into freezer bags and add the appropriate seasonings.
  • Chop  individual bags of onions, peppers and other veggies we eat often. Some stay in fridge for snacks, while others head to the freezer.
  • Grill or bake chicken in bulk. When we grill out, I always grill up at least ten pounds at a time. Today I checked out the price of 1/2 pound of prepackaged grilled chicken – $5.45. That’s crazy! You can make two pounds of your own grilled chicken for the same price. If you bake chicken or throw it in the crock pot, always make more chicken that you will eat, so that you have extras. Once cooled, then slice, shred and chop into individual meal size freezer bags for quick additions to salads, soups, sandwiches and casseroles all week long. Making up these meal packets is such a great time saver.

Grill chicken in bulk

This Power Cooking Hour is multitasking at its finest. You will be amazed that the more often you give it a try, the more skilled you will become at having multiple items cooking and baking at once. It’s truly worth the extra effort.

Whew – that is about all you can read for one day. I’ll continue on (tomorrow or the next day ;)) with two more that has rocked my little world and made all these daily tasks turn from the mundane into something truly magnificent.

Stay tuned.


  1. Hi Jen, great article for busy families. I’m sure you know this but you can get fresh unpackaged chicken breast at the Harris Teeter meat counter for 1.99 /lb. always. We never buy packaged chicken breast because of the cost!


    Jen Reply:

    OH yes, I have it stocked in our freezer right now. I love that deal, along with the grass fed on Tuesdays at Fresh Market for $2.99. Love that too.


  2. Great tips! I am going to share these. I second DeLana on the Harris Teeter chicken, we specifically go to Harris Teeter just to buy chicken. In our house we have a menu board. Only our favorite meals are pinned on the menu board. I write the name of the entree on the front of an index card and the recipe on the back of the card. This system has been my lifesaver. I am now focusing, like you, on less prep time in the kitchen and more time connecting at the table.


    Jen Reply:

    Love that idea, Karen – a Menu board is great, but the index card makes that idea Such a life saver. Love that.


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