The Secret to Serving a Quick and Cheap Family Dinner Every Night

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A family sits a table, eating dinner
Monkey Business Images /

Editor's Note: This story originally appeared on Living on the Cheap.

In today’s crazy-busy world, family dinner is especially important. Even though Susie has karate, Joey has swim lessons and Mom and Dad commute to work, you need time to connect as a family and eat a nutritious meal.

Even better if that meal’s a home-cooked one.

The idea of cooking dinner every night and getting everyone to sit down together is a daunting one for many busy families. But there’s a solution, and it’s so easy, you’ll have no reason not to try it.

I raised two active boys and my husband worked a second job for years. But we had family dinner on the table every night at six (or very close to it).

What’s my secret? Meal planning. Here’s what I did to get everyone together for a quick, cheap family dinner every night.

How to cook dinner every night

Couple cooking at home /

On Friday night, I planned the menus for the following week. On a sheet of paper folded in half, I wrote the menus on one side and the grocery list on the other.

I always planned a “multiple meal” for Sunday dinner, such as roast beef or chicken, so we’d have leftovers for Monday (or another) night.

Then I’d plan the rest of the meals so I could start the next night’s meal while heating up the current night’s meal.

It might go something like this:

Sunday: Roast chicken

Raw chicken on countertop
jax10289 /

Sunday night dinner might be roast chicken with onions and carrots, mashed potatoes and gravy, dinner rolls and dessert.

Prepare for Monday night by removing remaining chicken from the carcass and storing it in a covered container.

Monday: Leftovers

Baked ziti
Fanfo /

Reserved chicken meat goes into a quick casserole, soup, enchiladas or burritos; in the summer, I might make a chicken salad in lettuce cups.

Heat leftover vegetables or make a fresh one (like green beans). Serve leftover dessert. Start Tuesday night’s dinner by thawing two meals’ worth of ground beef or turkey.

Tuesday: Tacos

Man making tacos
Joshua Resnick /

Brown ground beef or turkey with seasonings and shred lettuce; chop tomatoes and other toppings. Use salsa from a jar, grated cheese, whatever you like. Heat refried beans for a side dish.

Start Wednesday night’s dinner by making meatballs; cover them to refrigerate. (If you have time, you could even brown the meatballs and get a bigger start on Wednesday night.)

Wednesday: Spaghetti and meatballs

Spaghetti and meatballs
Anna Shepulova /

Brown the meatballs and pour a jar of your favorite marinara sauce over them. (Doctor it up to taste.) While heating, cook pasta and make a salad.

Start Thursday’s dinner by thawing chicken thighs.

Thursday: Teriyaki chicken

Woman cooking at home
miya227 /

Cut chicken thighs into strips and marinate in teriyaki sauce. Meanwhile, start brown or white rice and cook some snap peas. Grill chicken outdoors or indoors on skewers (cooks quickly that way).

Start Friday night’s dinner by thawing fish.

Friday: Fish and chips

Fish and chips on a plate
Anna Mente /

Keep it healthy by lightly breading the fish with panko crumbs and sauteing in a minimum of fat.

Oven-bake the fries; frozen are easy but fresh-cut are cheaper and better. Spray with some olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt before putting in oven. Make coleslaw (easy and way cheaper than buying it pre-made).

Saturday: Pizza

Man baking a pizza
LightField Studios /

Buy frozen or fresh pizza dough and put on your own toppings. Or give yourself a break and order a pizza. You’ve earned it. A nice salad rounds out the meal.

If there are good leftovers from the week, Saturday night also can be potluck night, and everyone can have something different.

Remember, these are just some ideas. Change menus to reflect your own family’s tastes.

Family dinner tips

Family chopping vegetables
fizkes /
  • Always thaw meats in the refrigerator. Taking them out of the freezer the night before expedites the process. Don’t put meat in the coldest part of the fridge; it’ll thaw better on a top shelf. Be sure protein is well wrapped so it doesn’t drip juices on other foods.
  • Try to get everything you need for the week in one grocery outing. Extra trips to the store take time, put you off schedule and make you more prone to impulse buys. If you look at your menus, you’ll know exactly what you need for the week.
  • Check the grocery store flyers to see what’s on sale. If chuck roast is on sale, make roast beef (and enough for a second meal of, say, barbecued beef sandwiches). If chicken parts are on sale, roast them instead of a whole chicken. If you’re going to the trouble of making lasagna, make two and freeze one for another day. These family-dinner tips will have you stick to your budget.

This meal-planning method keeps you organized and saves you both time and money. You aren’t tempted to buy expensive fast food or take-out.

And best of all, you are able to cook a nice dinner for your family, so you can sit down together every night — for a few minutes, anyway. What price can you put on that?

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