It’s autumn, and besides cooler days and crisp nights, it means school is back in session. A lot of families are busy with extracurricular activities. My children have always been active in sports, band, and various clubs, so I’ve become a pro at sticking to our grocery budget while providing healthy meals. Fast food is a treat for our family, especially as feeding hungry athletes gets expensive.
Another mom commented on how organized and prepared I am for dinner at one of our soccer games. She teased, saying I have a little kitchen going on the bleachers. I responded with, “I have to be since I’m feeding eight people tonight!” Naturally, the conversation devolved into tailgate parties and grilling. Still, it made me think about other parents who might need some solid ideas on keeping the family fed without breaking the bank.
Whether you’re eating at the game or need something quick for the short time at home before the concert, you’ll find inspiration here.
Do an internet search for “busy family meals” or similar phrasing, and I guarantee there will be slow cooker recipes on the first page. I typically avoid any slow cooker meals that require browning the meat before adding to the pot, but usually, that’s because I tend to run out of time in the morning, and I failed to prepare ahead. My go-to slow cooker meals are all “dump and go.”
You can take any of these slow cooker meals on the go (see my tip below).
White Chicken Chili — I use thawed chicken breasts and shred them right before serving. Any leftovers taste delicious when transformed into enchiladas. Roll the chicken chili in tortillas, smother them in green enchilada sauce and cheese, then baked at 350 degrees until warm.
Hawaiian Chicken — I sometimes like to add green and red bell peppers. Serve over rice. If you have one, use a rice cooker with a delay-start option to save time.
Hamburger Lentil Soup — This is great after a chilly evening spent at the field! You can make this vegetarian by omitting the hamburger and using 2 cups of vegetable broth instead of the bullion.
For busy nights, don’t forget that the instant pot needs time to come up to pressure before cooking. However, being able to dump everything in a gadget and have it do the work means you’re free to help with homework or decompressing after a tough day. You can transform the slow cooker recipes into instant pot meals if you know how to do that sort of thing. For the rest of us, here are a few easy recipes.
Spaghetti — Add a side salad, and dinner is done.
Pork Pot Roast — Roast is on our comfort food list, and this one is easy and flavorful.
Mac & Cheese — This is another crowd favorite! Add pre-cooked bacon bits just before serving for extra flair. Serve with steamed vegetables or a salad to round out your meal.
Pre-Made or Assemble on Site
Sandwiches — This is an oldie, but goodie. My family never seems to tire of a well-built sandwich. Be sure to include small containers or individual packets of condiments, and don’t forget the pickles! Add sliced fruit and veggie sticks, and you have a satisfying meal.
Wraps — A variation on the sandwich, but my daughter insists it’s totally different.
Burritos — Simply spread refried beans on tortillas, top with cheese and taco sauce, roll, and heat in the oven for 15-20 minutes until warm. Then wrap the burritos in tin foil for traveling.
Walking Tacos — Requiring a bit more time to prepare ahead, Walking Tacos are a favorite in my family. I make the meat mixture ahead of time and keep it warm. Then at half-time, I assemble everyone’s meal.
Tips and Tricks
Everyone knows how to keep food cold until you’re ready to eat: bust out that trusty cooler. But how do you keep food hot while on the go? Bust out that trusty cooler! We have two small coolers we use for game nights: one for cold food, one for hot food. You can wrap hot food in tin foil or place it in containers. I line the bottom of the cooler with a dishtowel, put the food in, then place another dishtowel on top. It usually stays warm for at least two hours this way.
Want to take the entire slow cooker or instant pot insert to the game? Simply wrap it in a towel and place it in a cardboard box. The extra insulation of the towel will keep the food hot.
Meal planning is key. Always look ahead to the next week, or even the next month, and make a note of which evenings are going to be hectic. Make a list of meals, add ingredients to your shopping list, and you’re ready!
Prepare ahead as much as possible, so you aren’t scrambling at the last minute while little Timmy needs help finding his cleats. Depending on the space and time you have available, prepping ahead might mean you chop vegetables and cook the meat. Or it might mean you grocery shop and organize the ingredients by meal. The point is to do whatever you can in advance to avoid adding more chaos.
Make a portable kitchen. Use a tote or a large bag, and fill it with disposable plates, bowls, cups, silverware, and napkins. Add in a couple of serving spoons and baby wipes, and you’re all set!
Almost anything that can be prepared ahead and easily assembled will work for these busy evenings. Think of the meals you take camping or on road trips. Make a list of recipes that your family loves so you can easily reference it when the season starts.
Busy-night dinners do not have to be hard. Neither do they always need to be fast food or from the concession stands. Your family will appreciate the care you’re taking of them, and the teachers/coaches will appreciate that your kids are getting healthy nutrition so they can be at their best.