Family meals are an opportunity to connect with family, build relationships, and learn essential skills together. But, with a busy family schedule, it can be tricky to find the time to come together to share a meal and prepare it. In this blog post, we’ll provide advice for meal planning and share some delicious recipes for easy family dinners.
Benefits of family meals
Bringing the whole family together can make all the difference in your family’s well-being and communication. In fact, there is a nonprofit called the Family Dinner Project that researches the benefits of family meals and acts as an online resource for meals, games, and conversation starters at the dinner table.
Regular family dinners are associated with lower rates of depression, and anxiety, and substance abuse, and eating disorders, and tobacco use, and early teenage pregnancy, and higher rates of resilience and higher self esteem.Anne Fischel, Harvard EdCast: The Benefit of Family Mealtime
In her interview with Harvard Edcast, Anne also mentions that these benefits are experienced when families share about five meals a week together. She also talks about creative ways to foster connection over meals, saying that it isn’t necessarily the act of eating together that brings these benefits but the quality time and connection.
Also: The Family Dinner Project creates weekly meal lists with budget-friendly shopping lists included. I highly recommend checking it out!
Encouraging mealtime conversations
Family meals can be incredibly beneficial in many ways. Eating together as a family can help improve communication within the family by providing an opportunity to talk openly in a relaxed setting. It also gives parents time to talk with their children about their day, ask questions and be attentive to family members’ needs.
Penn State University compiled a list of ways to encourage mealtime conversations during family dinners. Here is what they suggest doing, according to the research:
- Make it routine: Even on busy weeknights, it’s important to try to find time to come together whenever possible.
- Turn off the distractions: Without devices playing, it’s easier to focus on connecting with one another
- Communicate: Give everyone a chance to share about their day and keep the table a positive space for conversation.
Meal Prep: Tips for saving time (and money!)
Meal prepping is an easy way to reduce cooking time while still making a delicious dish that the entire family can enjoy. By planning your meals in advance, you can compile a bunch of easy dinner ideas that can be prepared quickly so that your family can still get the nutrition they need while spending quality time together.
Nazima Qureshi, a registered dietician, shared her top tips for meal prepping for a family here, along with a bunch of easy recipes. Here is how she prepares meals for busy weeknights:
- Shop one day, prep the next
- Use recipes that share ingredients
- Use ingredients that all (or most) family members like
- Store food in airtight containers to maintain freshness
- Reheat food on the stove when you can for improved flavor
- Cook two meals (or multiple sides) in one pan to save time
- Line trays to reduce clean-up time
Be sure to check out her post, because she shares her favorite meals for an entire week of meals (including breakfast, lunch, and dinner).
Here are some personal tips I use to save time and money and reduce food waste.
- Cook extra and freeze for later. Especially with soups and stews, I like to make enough for a second set of meals and toss it into the freezer.
- Plan ahead! Have a list of your favorite meals on hand for when you’re feeling uninspired or have a go-to cookbook.
- At the end of the week, use any veggies you have left to make bowls or veggie bakes. I often use leftover veggies by serving a stir fry or cooking with a protein and serving them over rice. Making a baked pasta dish is another good way to use up “random” ingredients.
- Save veggie cuttings in a plastic bag and freeze them for broth. Lots of recipe call for veggie or chicken broth. Make your own by saving the trimming and skins of vegetables like garlic, onion, celery, etc., and making your own veggie scrap broth.
Breakfast and lunch
In most of this post, we talk about dinner. What I like to do to save time and stress for lunches is to cook extra when I make dinners so that I have enough for lunch the next day. It’s also good to have ingredients on hand for your go-to lunches that the entire family enjoys.
For breakfast, I like to have quick breakfast options for the mornings like muffins or granola as well as an option for when I have more time to sit down and enjoy breakfast, like baked avocados with an egg, chipotle and cheddar. During the weekends I will make something a bit more “fancy” like an omelet. This helps me to have options for each day no matter how hectic the schedule gets!
One sheet pan meals
Another way to save time while cooking is to find recipes that can be cooked in one sheet pan. This way, you can make mains and sides for the entire family without a ton of cleanup!
Here are 10 of my favorite easy dinner ideas that only use one pan:
- Lemon rosemary chicken (recipe here): This east sheet pan meal includes kale too, which not all little ones love. Consider switching it out for another green veggie, like green beans, or serve it with a simple salad.
- Crispy teriyaki tofu and broccoli (recipe here). Crispy tofu is delicious! Serve on your choice of grain. I like wild rice with a bit of soy sauce!
- Steak and veggies (recipe here). All you need for this recipe is steak, potatoes, broccoli, garlic, and thyme! The recipe calls for dried, but I prefer fresh thyme.
- Chili lime salmon (recipe here). This is one of my favorite healthy dinner ideas. The recipe uses lime juice, but I’ve substituted lemon juice and enjoyed it just as much. Modify the amount of red pepper flakes to your spice preference.
- Asian chicken (recipe here). Serve this delicious dish over your favorite rice.
- Chicken Shawarma with roasted veggies (recipe here). This shawarma is delicious served in a pita with tahini. I also add hot sauce for an extra kick!
- Crispy gnocchi and veggies (recipe here). Skip boiling the gnocchi in this quick and easy meal!
- Sheet pan quesadillas (recipe here). Turn this childhood favorite into a quick family dinner by making multiple quesadillas at once on a sheet pan. Serve with salsa and sour cream.
- Loaded nachos (recipe here). Tortilla chips for dinner may not be the healthiest, but it’s quick and family-friendly! BTW, the recipe linked is vegetarian, but you could always add ground beef or chicken for added protein.
- Garlic butter baked salmon (recipe here). I usually cook this from fresh-caught salmon, so I don’t bother to remove the skin, and it’s just as delicious!
Slow-cooker and instant pot meals
A slow cooker or instant pot are staple pieces of kitchen equipment for busy families. By simply filling the pot with ingredients and turning it on, you can make a complete meal in one pot with barely any cooking. They’re especially great for comfort food like stews, soups, or pot roasts.
Also, you can use your instant pot like a slow cooker! All Recipes has a great guide here where they show you how to convert recipes and cooking times.
Here are some easy (and incredibly filling) recipes:
- Coconut lentil curry (recipe here). Best served over basmati rice (or just eaten as is!)
- Honey lime chicken for tacos (recipe here). Boneless chicken breasts are best for this recipe. Be sure to serve with tortillas, cilantro, and lime!
- Thai chicken soup (recipe here). This recipe turns a curry into a soup for a delicious flavour packed meal.
- Ratatouille (recipe here). Garlic flavor and tons of veggies come together for a filling vegetarian meal. Serve with fresh basil and parmesan cheese.
- Asian chicken lettuce wraps (recipe here). Lettuce wraps are so simple and are quite light too! The recipe calls for ground chicken. but I use chicken breasts since they’re easier to find and more versatile for other meals.
- “Skinny” kung pao chicken (recipe here). Brown the chicken breast before putting everything into the instant pot or slow cooker for extra flavor.
- “Skinny” veggie lasagna (recipe here). Veggie lasagnas are great for busy weeknights!
- Chicken cacciatore (recipe here). Serve this over noodles or mashed potatoes for a hearty meal.
- Chicken tikka masala (recipe here). Serve over basmati rice or with naan bread for a filling meal.
- Macaroni cheese chili (recipe here). Another take on the family favourite mac ”n’ cheese!
Saving money when cooking for a family
Food prices are rapidly increasing, so it’s getting tougher and tougher to make delicious meals while sticking to your food budget. Meal prepping and meal planning are great ways to cut your budget, but there are also some simple tricks you can do to save money on your grocery bill.
Watch this video by But First, Coffee for tons of great money-saving tips!
Staple family meals
Growing up, we had many staple family meals that everyone enjoyed. If you’re looking for family dinner ideas to add to your go-to recipes, I would suggest trying some of these.
Here are some of the classics:
- Baked macaroni with veggies (recipe here): This is an easy recipe to sneak veggies into the kid-approved macaroni-cheese classic! It’s always a hit with all ages. I usually add in a bit of cream cheese, then top it with a mix of cheddar cheese and bread crumbs for extra depth and flavor.
- Sloppy joes (recipe here): I don’t know what I loved more when I was a kid, the flavor of sloppy joes or the mess they made! Serve with salad or fries… And extra napkins.
- Taco Tuesday: Whether you are making classic recipes like this or the Americanized hard-shell version with ground beef, taco Tuesday is a hit for the whole family. Get more Mexican-American fusion recipes here.
- Baked spaghetti (recipe here): Baked pastas are so hearty and delicious. Try this recipe, for example! Serve with garlic bread if desired.
- Chicken or brisket with potato salad and veggies (brisket recipe here): If you’ve never tried German potato salad, it also makes an excellent side!
- Pork chops with mushroom soup (recipe here): This is one of my favorite comfort foods and is a true family favorite.
- Rotisserie chicken meals: Rotisserie chicken is a super easy main course for when you need dinner ready quickly. But it’s not often you use it all! Try some of these 25 leftover rotisserie chicken recipes, like chicken pot pie soup or baked pasta dish with alfredo sauce.
- Shepherd’s pie (or “cottage pie”) (recipe here): I have always loved shepherd’s pie. My favorite time to make it is when we need to use up holiday leftovers – I include gravy, some cranberry sauce, and leftover veggies. It’s also a great way to use up leftover mashed potatoes.
We can’t forget about dessert! If you’re craving something sweet, try one of these decadent dessert recipes.
Not every family meal needs to be an elegant dinner to become. a family favorite! For families on the go, it’s important to have easy recipes for busy weeknights. By effective meal planning, good food-storage practices, and using an instant pot to have dinner ready before you’re even done work, your family can have more time to enjoy each other’s company and less time spent on dishes and cooking.
What to make when you’re too lazy to cook?
If you’re not feeling up to gourmet cooking, making a sheet pan dinner or using the Instant pot is a great way to cook a simple dinner with fewer dishes to clean.
What should I make for dinner for my family?
Choose one of your favorite go-to recipes if you are unsure what to make for dinner. Most families have staple meals they know everyone will enjoy, so cooking one of these will always leave everyone happy and fed.
Harvard EdCast: The Benefit of Family Mealtime with Anne Fishel
Mealtime Conversations for Family Meals, Penn State University
Family meals & food
Check out our meals category for posts with recipes and tips for food storage and organization.