There are times I look at my kids with their sweet faces and hungry bellies and want to say, “Didn’t I just feed you?” By my calculations, parents the world over are set to prepare more than 18,000 meals throughout the course of their little ones’ childhoods. That’s a whole lot of meal planning, prepping, and cooking—which is to say nothing of the number of upturned noses our thankless efforts will surely inspire. Exhausted? Me too.
That’s why I set out to find shortcuts for shaving time off planning and prepping family meals. I’m tired of dinnertime in particular being the most stressful time of day. But between finding a recipe my kids will like and then actually cooking it, ‘stressful’ is the only word that fits.
Because my husband and I can’t rely on PB&J for every meal, (for shame), we came up with a handful of ways to make mealtimes go a bit smoother in our house. Here are five reliably simple ways we’ve made getting food on the table a whole lot easier.
I am a big proponent of stashing away emergency meals for those moments when our family doesn’t have time to cook. A spare box of macaroni and cheese with frozen peas has saved us on more than one occasion, though no one, save for my little ones, particularly enjoys it.
When it comes to these fast, no-brainer meals, Blue Apron offers a much more interesting, dare I say grown-up, approach. With the company’s meal kits—a box of portioned, fresh ingredients delivered right to your door—we found we could get dinner on the table in 30 minutes. The flavors were infinitely more complex than a box of mac n’ cheese, too, with barely any additional effort.
Here’s how Blue Apron works:
- Each week, the company offers up to 30 recipes from which to choose. And a handful of recipes each week can be customized or upgraded to your liking, (we toyed with adding shrimp to one dish, for example), and there are vegetarian and low-calorie options aplenty, meaning there’s something for almost everyone to enjoy.
- Your meal kit arrives complete with everything you need to whip up a delicious, affordable, and home-cooked meal. The best part? All the specialty sauces and dips you need for a seriously satisfying and restaurant-quality meal arrive ready to go. Just pour!
- Each delivery arrives with only the ingredients you need, which is a serious plus for anyone who angsts over what to do with a pack of celery after using just one stalk.
- As with any type of subscription service, flexibility is key for me. Blue Apron gets it right with tons of options for skipping deliveries and adjusting the details of your plan.
2. Bring Out the Small Plates
Ponies, toddlers, mini muffins: everything little is adorable. That’s why a feast of shared appetizers is such a winning idea. When my husband and I have all but given up for the day and the very thought of another spaghetti dinner elicits dread, we invite our girls to join us for a smattering of this and that. This can be an exercise in cleaning out your refrigerator or simply reaching for whatever protein, carb, and veggie mix you have on hand. Truly, if you overthink this, you’re doing it wrong. A few small plate ideas include:
- Diced fruits and veggies
- Crackers, hummus, and cheese
- Faro sprinkled with fresh basil and cherry tomatoes
- Pan-fried tofu and dipping sauces
- Turkey and cheese roll-ups
- Hardboiled eggs
- Quesadillas and guacamole
3. Swap Your Meals
There’s something about breakfast that just screams ‘simple.’ So when we need an easy lift in the dinner department, we bring out the breakfast foods. Pancakes are a cinch to pull together. Omelets are prime for stuffing with healthy veggies. And an easy fruit salad can be an elegant addition, especially when spooned into pretty glassware.
Don’t forget about oatmeal either. A big bowl of oats makes a good vessel for things like ground walnuts, wild blueberries, and chia seeds. It may sound counterintuitive, but oats can go savory as well. For the adults, try swirling in a dash of sharp cheddar, chopped green onion, and a jammy egg.
4. Cook All Day Long
Yes, you read that right. For a stress-free approach to dinner, my husband and I have started prepping food throughout the day for dinner later on. While others may meal prep in one go over the weekend, I can’t justify spending hours on a Saturday dicing and chopping food I won’t eat for days. Instead, mixing up a marinade while my little ones eat breakfast or carving up butternut squash in between meetings feels much more manageable to me. It’s all about the baby steps.
5. Rotate Dishes
Ever the data-lover, my husband came up with this plan to carry us through the early months of the pandemic. We chose 8-10 meals our entire family would at very least tolerate, and then we plotted them on the calendar for the month, agreeing to use just those recipes. Then the next month we would switch things up, noting which meals were a bust and why. Simplifying our dinner options was hardly exciting, but it got the job done. By the end of the month, we were churning out serviceable meals at record speed because we had so much experience with them.
This post was in partnership with Blue Apron but all of the opinions within are those of The Everymom editorial board. We only recommend products we genuinely love.