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May was a whirlwind of activity for our family. In addition to Mother’s Day and Memorial Day, both my son and I have our birthdays in May. Pretty much every weekend was booked with fun outings and family gatherings. Don’t get me wrong – I LOVE that, but I was so busy having fun that my chores fell down the priority list. Most weekends, I didn’t make it to the grocery store, which left me scrambling to get dinner on the table during the week. Making it even harder was that my husband was working crazy hours, and then often running over to our condo at night to get it ready for our next tenant.
More than once over the last few weeks we found ourselves reaching for the phone to order pizza. That’s fine every now and then but it adds up fast! I realized that I need to develop a list of fast dinner ideas, and be better at stocking staples. Not only will it help me save money, it will save me an incredible amount of stress!
Below, I’ve put together a list of my favorite fast dinner ideas to help you save time, reduce stress, and save money on takeout. I’ve organized the list with entree ideas first, followed by sides. You can mix and match based on your family’s preferences. Below the menu ideas are a list of kitchen staples that I am going to be stocking to help all of this magic happen. These fast dinner ideas are meant especially for those days when you might only have fifteen minutes to throw something together before everyone has a meltdown.
Need more inspiration for fast dinner ideas? Check out my Quick and Easy Recipes board on Pinterest.
Now a quick word: some of these options aren’t always the healthiest or most nutritional meals (though some are!). The goal here is fast, easy options to get dinner on the table and keep you from having to order a pizza or hit the drive thru. I try to feed my kids good, balanced meals, but I’ve realized I need to cut myself some slack sometimes. On those crazy days when everyone is hungry and tired, getting dinner on the table, regardless of what it is, is a victory. Rather than beat yourself up over a meal that has more processed ingredients than you would typically like, congratulate yourself on all the good, healthy meals you put in front of your kids most days. Be kind to yourself and have a great dinner with your kids rather than agonize over what you’re serving.
Fast Dinner Ideas: The Mains
- Breakfast for dinner (this is seriously one of my favs! pancakes, french toast, breakfast burritos, scrambled eggs…so many options!)
- Sloppy Joes
- Hot dogs
- Pasta with marinara, lemon and butter, or pesto
- Chicken nuggets
- Frozen pizza (hey, it’s cheaper than ordering out!)
- Fish sticks (my family likes Dr. Praeger’s)
- Southwest pasta (I don’t know where I came across the recipe, but basically, dump a jar or two of salsa in a pot, add a can of black beans, and some frozen corn, and warm up. Serve over pasta and sprinkle with taco cheese. We like medium shells, but anything will do).
- Canned soup and grilled cheese sandwiches
- Smorgasbord: This is one of my kids’ favorites. I just put together a plate of cheese, crackers, fresh or dried fruits, nuts, and fresh raw veggies. It’s actually reasonably healthy and they love all the options!
- Taco soup (there are tons of variations on this but I like this one by A Taste of Home)
- Rotisserie chicken. I know so many people that swear by rotisserie chickens. You can get them reasonably priced at grocery stores and wholesale clubs and eat whole, or shred the chicken for chicken tacos, salads, etc.
Prep Ahead Meals
If you have time the night before to chop, or the morning of to marinade, you have even more options. Even better, these are usually healthier and more balanced than some of the options above.
- Kielbasa, Pepper, Onion and Potato Hash by the Two Bite Club. I’m a slow prepper so I cut everything the night before so I can dump and cook!
- Shish Tawook Chicken by The Lemon Bowl. This is a bright, lemony chicken. I don’t usually have time to make rice when I get home so I serve with a green vegetable and some flatbread.
- Brazilian steak marinade by The Defined Dish. This scrumptious marinade is perfect for grilling (I usually buy whatever thinish beef cut is on sale).
- One Pot Wonder Stuffed Pepper Skillet by The Wholesome Dish. If I use white rice and cut the peppers and onion in advance, I can get this on the table in under thirty minutes. To speed things up further, you can brown the meat the night before.
- Chili Lime Steak Fajitas by Cafe Delites. I chop the peppers the night before and marinade the steak that morning so it’s easy to heat up everything and serve in a hurry.
Finish it off: Side dishes
- Macaroni & Cheese
- Fruit (fresh, canned, or fruit cups)
- Naan, pita, flatbreads
- Raw veggies (baby carrots, green beans, snap peas, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes)
- Fast cook rice
- Salad (I usually get enough to prep for a couple of days)
- Dinner rolls
- Canned/frozen vegetables (you can also get steam-in-a-bag vegetables but they’re usually a lot more expensive. Get a good steamer basket and you can steam them yourself for not much longer but a fraction of the price)
- Baked beans
- Refrigerated crescent rolls or biscuits
- Frozen tater tots
- Ground beef for tacos and sloppy joes (Savings tip: buy a higher fat content and rinse and pat dry after browning. You eliminate a good chunk of the fat without the premium price of leaner grades!)
- Taco shells
- Chicken nuggets, fish sticks, hotdogs
- Cheese (sliced for sandwiches, grated for garnishes, and block for snacks and the smorgasbord)
- Pancake mix (yes, I know it can be cheaper to make your own, but we’re in a hurry here!)
- Frozen breakfast sausage
- Lemons: they’re in a few of the recipes I linked to above, plus a squeeze of lemon and some butter or olive oil is a nice alternative to pasta sauce
- Dry pasta, variety of shapes
- Fresh vegetables: we realized that my older son is much more apt to eat veggies if they’re raw, so we stock green beans, baby carrots, cucumbers, snap peas, etc. If your kids don’t like vegetables, see if serving them raw helps!
- Fruit: canned, fresh, or fruit cups
- Canned beans: black and pinto, or others to your preferences
- Canned soup
- Tomato sauce
- Macaroni & Cheese
- Canned/frozen vegetables
- Salad fixings: Caesar has been a favorite in my house recently and it’s super easy. All you need is romaine lettuce, croutons, dressing, and some shredded Parmesan cheese
- Taco seasoning (or search Pinterest for a make-it-yourself recipe and make a big batch and store it)
- Fresh bread for sandwiches and french toast
- Fast cook grains: rice, quinoa, couscous
- Bell peppers, for a side or in fajitas, or the stuffed pepper or hash recipes above
- Hamburger/hot dog rolls
Tools of the Trade
Along with fast dinner ideas, you need the right tools to prep quickly and efficiently. I was amazed at what a difference a good set of knives makes in prepping meals quickly. I can slice, dice, and chop meats and veggies faster with my Henkels kitchen knives. They’re pricey, but as I’ve tried to make the point throughout this blog, I would rather buy an expensive, high-quality item once. I’ve found that I end up saving in the long run from having to replace cheap items multiple times.
Believe me, a set of good kitchen knives is worth the investment! And you don’t need to buy an entire set at once. Choose a few knives that you want and buy them as your funds allow, or ask for them for gifts! The six inch slicing knife, serrated utility knife, paring knife, and santoku knife are the workhorses of my set. The others are nice to have but if you’re looking for the essentials, those would be my recommendations.
As another money saving tip, save your 20 percent off coupons from Bed, Bath, and Beyond and use them to purchase knives. When I last checked, they weren’t an excluded item. You can save a good chunk of change doing this!
I have multiple cutting boards, because the last thing I want to do when I’m in a hurry is to stop and wash a cutting board so I can use it for something else. For my fruits and veggies I have a bamboo cutting board. For my meats, I prefer an acrylic or plastic board like this one from Vettore. I like that it has the juice groove to keep liquids from running onto my counters.
Food storage containers
If you’re going to be prepping food in advance, you need a place to store it. I love Rubbermaid’s food storage containers. They stack nicely and don’t take up too much room in the fridge. They’re also BPA-free and can be used in the fridge, freezer, or microwave.
Cast iron skillet
My cast iron skillet is my go-to pan for pretty much everything, including most of the recipes I linked to above! It’s easy to clean, cooks evenly and quickly, and takes a beating!
Save Time AND Save Money!
If you’ve read my other posts, you know my goal is to save both time and money whenever possible. We’ve talked about how to save time with these fast dinner ideas, but fortunately, it’s really easy to save money too!
Use grocery rebate aps
This is a must, and I’m kicking myself for not starting this sooner! If you’re not familiar, grocery rebate aps let you get cashback on items you already buy at the grocery store. Once you set up your account, scroll through the items and select the ones you plan on buying. Then head out to the grocery store to make your purchases. Once you get home, take a picture of your receipt and that’s it! Cash back!
I don’t usually get a ton of money back, but I am a firm believer that every bit counts when it comes to savings. All of those little savings add up after awhile! You can save even more if you’re not brand specific. And many of the items I suggest above in my fast dinner ideas (fruit cups, applesauce, canned soups, frozen meats, etc.) are all frequently featured on these aps.
Here are the grocery rebate ads I’ve had the most success with so far:
Savings Star: This one is my hands-down my favorite. What I like about it is that you can tie your grocery store loyalty card to your account and then whenever an item scans from your list, your account gets credited. No scanning receipts! I also like their “Always On” and “One or Many” programs that allow you to rack up savings on items you buy frequently. Cash out is $20 and can be deposited into a bank account, PayPal account, redeemed for gift cards, or donated to charity!
Ibotta: This is one of the most popular grocery rebate aps, and with good reason. It’s easy to use and has a huge selection of products available for cash back. Plus, they really sweeten the deal with a $10 welcome bonus! Cash out is also $20 via PayPal, Venmo, or gift cards.
Checkout 51: I haven’t had quite as much success with this one as with the others, but it’s still worthwhile. Cash out is also $20 via check.
I’m a casual couponer, meaning that I’ll take advantage of coupons that cross my path rather than actively search for them. I’ll browse the newspaper inserts or store flyers I receive and redeem instant savings coupons on the items I am buying. More and more I am checking www.coupons.com for printable coupons. They have hundreds of coupons on items I regularly buy, so it’s worth taking a look before heading out to the grocery store.
What I do actively seek out though are digital coupons offered by my grocery stores. These coupons are tied to your loyalty card. I go through and select the ones I want, scan my card at the grocery store, and the coupons are automatically applied at checkout. No clipping or forgetting to bring your coupons! It doesn’t get much easier than that!
Stock up on savings
I really have to thank Cameron of Savvy Savers Academy and her “Load Your Cart for Less” course for this one. Thanks to shows like “Extreme Couponers” I had seen the massive stockpiles some people build, but I never thought about building a reasonable, manageable stockpile for myself. Cameron’s course taught me about taking advantage of sales to stock up on family favorites, but not going so crazy that I needed to convert my garage for my stockpile! Thanks to the tips she teaches in her (VERY REASONABLY PRICED) course I’ve been able to save tons of money on things I was going to buy anyway. In just one shopping trip, I had saved more than the price of the course, and continue to do so. Now that’s a return on my investment!
Fruit cups, cereals, applesauce, dried pastas, and canned items are all great items to stock up on when they’re on sale. I know this post started with providing fast dinner ideas, but if you’re looking to save money on groceries too, check out my interview with Cameron and consider taking her “Load Your Cart for Less” course. It is worth it!
Getting dinner on the table can be stressful, particularly with hectic schedules. And it’s tempting to order in or hit the drive thru on the way home. That’s fine every now and then, but it’s a good way to blow your budget if you’re doing it several times a week. With these fast dinner ideas and a bit of pre-planning, you can eliminate the need to call for pizza, or at least greatly reduce it. Get in the habit of stocking your family’s favorites, so you always have something available to whip up quickly. Also, think creatively about mixing and matching mains and sides so you don’t get bored of always having the same thing.
What are your favorite fast dinner ideas? Leave a note in the comment section so we can all add to our lists!