How to Make Dinner When You are Not Home to Cook
Want to make healthy dinners but you aren’t home in time to cook? Here are 3 steps you can take today to ensure next week’s dinnertime success.
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Right now, we are in a season where 5 out of 7 afternoons are highjacked by outside activities. They are all important, intentional activities. We are not the family that likes to be busy – family time is important, and we make up for the active evenings.
However, that means dinner is not the predictable ritual it once was.
Because we have specific savings and health goals, we still eat real food dinners. We refuse to rely on the drive-thru and convenience foods in this season.
Instead, this season encouraged us to think outside the box.
Some seasons, I don’t menu plan. If my schedule is flexible in the afternoons or evenings, menu planning isn’t necessary. Instead, I stock the kitchen with the same basic ingredients, and every day decide what we should eat based on our schedule, mood, and leftovers.
However, we are not in that season.
Menu plans are important right now.
While I never follow them 100%, they help us save money and eat healthier. When we make a plan, we know we have supplies in the house for simple, inexpensive, real food meals.
I don’t think this tool is absolutely necessary to save money and eat healthy. Every human is unique, and every season of life brings its own challenges.
But maybe you are in a season where you are not home to make dinner either.
A menu plan can be as simple as a piece of scrap paper and a pen. Or this handy free printable. Or a note on your smartphone. Your plan will look unique to you.
1. Choose 14 Meals
If you are in a season where you must make a menu in order to have a prayer of avoiding the drive-thru, here are 3 simple tips you can apply today to ensure next week’s dinnertime success:
Think specifically of meals where you can do most of the prep work ahead of time – either on one day (cook a bunch of protein, bake potatoes, chop veggies) or the morning before (soups and crockpot meals). These will be the main meals you will pull from during this season.
In order to avoid eating soup and tacos every night, make your list using the categories below. I shared examples of the meals that we use in each category
BONUS TIP: Typically, I plan one meal a week that I will actually cook and serve immediately. This usually either comes from the Meet & Three or the Theme category.
We choose meals from these categories:
3 Soups or Stews
Soups are a classic make-ahead meal. Not only do they taste better after the flavors meld in the fridge overnight, they are easy slow cooker and Instant Pot fodder.
3 Meal Salads
Meal salad is an awkward but self-explanatory name for salads that can stand on their own feet. It’s not a side dish – it’s the complete, hearty meal. If you need a carb, add some crusty bread or any of the side listed below.
- The Salad Guys Will Eat with The Only Chicken You Need to Make
- Autumn Spring Mix Salad with Chicken
- oaded Mediterranean Salad (lettuce, chickpeas, tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, maybe some feta, with Greek or Italian dressing)
- Deeply-Flavorful Baked Sweet Potatoes
- Crispy Baked Home Fries
- Yellow Mediterranean Rice
- Easiest Bread You Will Ever Bake
3 Meat & Three’s
Or two’s because three sides seems excessive to me. We are running a home, not the Mayberry diner.
- The Only Chicken You Need to Make, Deeply-Flavorful Baked Sweet Potatoes, Salad (
probablyleftovers from one of the above meals)Chicken, Yellow Mediterranean Rice, Steamed & Roasted Veggies
- The Only Beef You Need to Make on top of Yellow Mediterranean Rice, Steamed & Roasted Veggies
3 Themed Meals
These are the “themes” many people typically use while menu planning:
- Tacos (chicken, beef, or lentil)
- Italian (spaghetti, baked pasta, etc.)
- Snacky Dinner (this is the lazy/smart human’s themed dinner. See how we “make” it here)
- Chinese (Real Food Chinese Chicken)
- Burgers (with salad and Crispy Baked Home Fries)
- Kid favorites (Pizza, Cheapest Macaroni & cheese)
- Seasonal (chicken pot pie, shepherd’s pie)
- One Pot (Cajun Beans, Sausage & Rice, Macaroni & Cheese 4 Ways)
- Sheet Pan (baked chicken, green beans, chopped roasted potatoes)
Plan for leftovers. Depending on how much extra food you end up with after a meal, you may wish to plan to serve leftovers 3-4 days.
Since meat is more expensive, brainstorm ways you can make it more of a side item instead of the main feature. Most of the recipes I linked to do just that.
2. Write Them Down
Choose 7 meals to make this week and write them down.
This becomes your menu plan. It can be as simple as a piece of scrap paper and a pen. Or this handy free printable. Or a note on your smartphone.
There is no right or wrong answer. Just make sure that wherever you write it down, it is easy to see and access throughout the week.
Here is an example of my 7-Day menu plan.
- Theme: Tacos (lentil – I’ll use this recipe so I can make it ahead)
- Theme: One-Pot: Cajun Beans, Sausage & Rice
- Salad: Autumn Spring Mix salad with baked sweet potatoes
- Meat & Three: Chicken, sweet potatoes, and steamed veggies
- Soup: Lentil Soup
You can assign days to your menu plan or just keep it as a list until after you read this last step.
When you are not home in the evenings to cook dinner, a little prep work is a simple but powerful tool. It is the difference between having dinner ready in 10 minutes after you get home or going through the drive-thru on your way back.
You are basically trading the 30 minutes to 60 minutes you would spend making dinner each day and using it to prep dinner a couple days early.
I really hate being the one to tell you this because there is no easy way to say it. For most of us, saving money and eating healthy means cooking.
I know that’s not everyone’s favorite thing. I personally love cooking. But my family wants to eat at least 3 times a day every single day, and it is exhausting.
However, whining never put dinner on
Adjust them to your needs. Try a hybrid of both methods. Just find what works for you. There is no right or wrong here. There is only hungry people or not hungry people.
Food that is simple to make ahead:
- Baked potatoes or sweet potatoes
- Salad Dressing
- Hard boiled eggs
- Chopped veggies (for sauteeing, soup, or salad)
There are 2 ways you might want to approach this:
1. Kitchen Day
This is when you try to do your food prep on one day each week. It means cooking protein, baking potatoes, and chopping veggies for soups.
This method is ideal if you work full time outside the home or have very full days that need to be planned ahead of time. You can dedicate a few hours on a day off to food prep, and it will save you time and money on days when you are too tried to cook a meal from scratch.
I learned some great way to approach Kitchen Day in Home Management How-To (affiliate link)
2. 1-2 Days
Every 1-2 days, take 30 minutes or an hour to prep food for the next couple of days. Make a soup and toss it into the Instant Pot or slow cooker. Then cook the Make-Ahead Ground Beef and chop some veggies for a salad tomorrow. Put the rice on the stove. Now you have dinner ready for today and tomorrow, plus more beef for later in the week.
This method works really well if you work from home and have a flexible or chaotic schedule. Rather than planning a couple hours every week, maybe 30 minutes when you get a quiet moment works better for you.
For example, I homeschool my kids in the morning and work in the afternoons. So in the morning between math questions and read
If I follow the Kitchen Day method, here is what I need to prep for my sample menu from Step 2: Write it Down:
- The Only Chicken You Need to Make – 3 lbs
- Deeply-Flavorful Baked Sweet Potatoes – 3 lbs
- Balsamic vinaigrette
- Kidney beans – 2 cups
- Chop lettuce for tacos
- Shred cheese for tacos
- Bone broth for lentil soup
The lentil tacos and lentil soup I can make in the slow cooker the morning before we eat it.
The Cajun Sausage, Beans & Rice will be my one meal this week that I will make and serve immediately.
Everything else will take just a few minutes to prepare before we eat (heat chicken and potatoes, steam veggies, toss salad ingredients onto plates, etc.)
If I use the 1-2 Days prep method, I take that same prep list and just do it in the mornings a day or two before we need each item.
- Choose your go-to meals for this season
- Write down 7 to make this week
- Do a little bit of prep work
The hardest thing about getting a simple real food dinner on the table is that it requires cooking. However, if you are in a season where you just aren’t home in time to cook, you don’t have to sacrifice that dinner. Try these 3 steps. Tweak them to your needs. Find a way to make this season work for you. Enjoy your homecooked dinner.
What You Can Do Now:
- Get a piece of paper or open a Note on your smartphone and make that list of 14 meals!
- Need more help with menu planning? We’ll talk more about that in a few weeks (plus get a free class!). Join the Cheapskate Cooks List to learn more.