Chowhound approved convenience food
My husband has started working longer hours and I have two children two and under and for the past month we have been eating a lot of fast food. WELL I'M SICK OF IT!!! I'm sick of feeling guilty everytime I give my daughter an overly processed chunk of something that was once chicken, I'm sick of thinking about how many thousand calories are in the one burger I'm eating, I'm sick of thinking about how the food I am eating was processed.
So....since I don't want to eat fast food and I don't have the time to make a whole meal from scratch like I used to (or do all the dishes...I don't have a dishwasher)...are there any good convenience foods out there that are fast and easy to prepare with little prep work, little mess, and good for flavor? I have tried a few asian tv dinner type things that were good, but I otherwise, I'm at a loss. Any ideas?
If you boil up your chicken and then freeze the meat in 2-cup increments along with 2 cups of broth, you have the beginnings of a really good and easy casserole:
Mix 2 cups of chicken, 2 cups of broth, 2 cans of cream-of-whatever soup (I usually use 1 can of mushroom and 1 can of chicken, but use whatever suits your family's tastes--some kids won't even put up with those little bits of mushroom), 2 cups of shredded cheese, 2 cups of uncooked macaroni, and half a cup of chopped onion. Put that all together in a casserole pan, season with a little salt & pepper, cover it, and bake it for an hour to an hour and a half, till the macaroni's done.
The mixing takes about five minutes, then you don't have to do anything else till the casserole's done, at which point you open a bag of salad to put next to it. This is also a casserole that isn't particularly harmed if it has to wait a bit between when it's done and when it's served, and it reheats pretty nicely.
Sunshinedrop, I SO know where you're coming from! I start my day at 5 AM and am out the door before the rest of the house is up, straggle in with the baby after 6 Pm, feed, bathe, and put her to bed- THEN I need to figure out what's for dinner (and cook it! AARGH!-At this point a bowl of cereal & bed is looking pretty good....)
Until I can get back into cooking mode, these are my go-to meals- with minimal "cooking" & clean-up:
- breakfast for dinner- pancakes or eggs are so quick to whip up!
- black beans & rice- saute a little onion with a clove or two of garlic, add about a cup of chopped ham or canadian bacon and a can of black beans (undrained), a few drops of tabasco, simmer for 10 minutes or so and serve over some rice (those microwave pouches are perfect for a time-crunch)
-DEFINITELY boil up some chicken to have on hand- I use it so often!
-I like to slice up a breast or two and reheat with a jarred Indian simmer sauce, served again, over rice
-or take the chicken, chop it up and make a hash- my grocery store has bags of sothern-style (diced) hash brown potatoes that I cook up with the chicken and some green onions and sage, with a few of the frozen "southern style" Pillsbury biscuits baked up- these are pretty good when I don't have time for biscuits from scratch
-tortellini soup- saute some onion and garlic, add a couple cans of broth with a can of stewed tomatoes and some dried basil, bring to a boil then toss in some chopped chicken, a package of cheese tortellini, and a half bag of prewashed spinach- soup's done when the pasta is cooked
A couple of suggestions:
Get the Schwan's truck to come to your house. They have all sorts of frozen foods, from ice cream to pizza to ethnic entrees and side dishes. One of my favorites from them is a bag of red potatoes, broccoli and carrots with cheese sauce "chips." I add about half an onion, sliced, and maybe a pound of ham, cut into chunks. You put that on the stove over medium-low heat and leave it (come back and give it a stir from time to time) for about 15-20 minutes, till the sauce "chips" melt and everything is hot. Voila, dinner!
Schwan's stuff is not always the cheapest, but it has the advantage of coming to you. You can just order it from the driver when he (or she, but mine is a he) appears at your door, or you can place an order online or over the phone when you have a few minutes, and it'll be on the truck ready to go when the truck arrives.
I have a number of make-ahead things I like to do. One is chili, using a recipe my great-grandpa used to make at his butcher shop many years ago. Take about 10 lbs. of ground beef (do this when it goes on sale) and brown and drain it. Add 1 1/2 medium onions, three or four cloves of garlic (or according to your taste), 3/4 c. chili powder, about 2 Tbsp. salt, 6 c. water, and 3 (28-oz.) cans crushed tomatoes. You can use dried onions and garlic powder if you don't have the time to chop up the fresh stuff; it comes out tasting just fine. Cook this up for awhile (once it's mixed it needs very little attention, just a half hour or so to simmer and blend the flavors), then freeze in 1-lb increments (you'll end up with somewhere between 10 and 15). I used to use aluminum mini loaf pans for this, but discovered that those GladWare containers are a lot easier to use and easier to clean up.
When you want to have it, you just take one of these frozen chili blocks out and put it in a pan with a can of chili beans, and reheat it over low to medium-low heat--you have the advantage here of being flexible; if Hubby runs late you just turn the heat down and keep it warm. While it's heating, chop up some fresh onions and grate some cheese, and if you want, make cornbread (my scratch recipe is really easy, but those Jiffy mixes you get at the store for 50 cents are fine) or a pan of cinnamon rolls (Grands from Pillsbury are good).
Another make-ahead idea is one I got out of a women's magazine a few years back. Start with 5 lbs. of hamburger (again, do this when it's on sale), and mix in 2 1/2 c. chopped onion, 5 cloves of minced garlic, 2 1/2 tsp. salt and 3/4 tsp. pepper. After you've done this, divide it up as follows:
Measure 5 packed cups into a Dutch oven and brown it. After it's drained and cooled a little, divide it evenly into two gallon-size freezer bags and put in the freezer. Now you have two meals worth of loose, cooked meat, ready to become tacos, Sloppy Joes, spaghetti sauce, or whatever else you may fancy.
Measure out another 5 packed cups of the raw meat mixture, and mix in 1 1/2 c. seasoned, dried bread crumbs, 3/4 c. milk, and one egg. Shape half of this mixture into 12 meatballs, and the rest into a meatloaf. Bake these in a 375-degree oven, 25 minutes for the meatballs and 35 for the meatloaf. After they cool, put the meatballs into a freezer bag and wrap the meat loaf in foil and put it in another freezer bag. Put both these in the freezer and you have the beginnings of two more meals.
Take the last little dab of uncooked hamburger and shape it into 4 patties. Put 2 pieces of waxed paper between each of them and put them in a freezer bag in the freezer. (If you want to, and it would make life easier later, go ahead and broil them and pack them cooked.)
Either of these two make-ahead options is going to take a couple hours to get ready, so look for a time when you can send the kids to grandma, or your husband can keep them out of your hair, or get a babysitter. But once you've got that done, your evenings will go much more smoothly.
P.S. I think the best-ever Crock-Pot cookbook is called "Fix it and Forget It." There are several of these, actually, even one with lower-fat recipes (that's one drawback of most Crock-Pot recipes, actually; they're not exactly healthy.)
freeze pesto cubes in ice trays- make quick pastas and toss with frozen pesto cubes- instant delicious dinner. best if you make the pesto fresh yourself.
amy's organics are great too- frozen pizzas are better than most pizza joints out there (i live in brooklyn and grew up in new haven...), the frozen mac and cheeses are fine, generally all good and organic!
everyone has offered some great suggestions... i agree with the idea of taking a few hours on a sunday or so to do a bulk cooking thing that can be frozen and then taken out the night before for dinner the next day...
ground taco meat for burritos, tacos, salad, quesadilla
soups and stew - make a double batch of soup and your set for quite a few meals
If at all possible, hire a babysitter for a few hours, the money that you spend on that would definetely pay off with the better, healthier meals you cook (not to mention cheaper than fast food) not to mention a little sanity
I have subscribed to allrecipes daily send of recipes. i then print out the ones that seem good, easy and would make two meals for us duing the week. last one I made was a dump recipe of white beans, tomatoes and artichoke hearts with a pork tenderloin on top... 35 mins later, done
Here's a quick soup I make frequently, and you can vary it depending on the veggies, etc. that you have on hand. :
It is low in fat and calories, and it is filling and nutritious. The following proportions would serve two (or make one large, filling bowl of soup), but you can easily multiply the amounts.
Vegetables, described below
1 can low-sodium chicken broth
1/2 cup water
6 or more pieces of frozen prepared tortellini or similar stuffed pasta
Pinches of dried oregano, thyme and basil (or use an herb mix such as Italian seasoning or herbs of Provence)
2 teaspoons Tabasco (optional, or add more if you like)
Freshly ground black pepper
Bring the chicken broth, water, herbs and other seasonings to boil in a deep saucepan. Meanwhile, cut up any combination of vegetables, which could include the following:
Cauliflower, cut into small flowerets
Carrots, sliced into rounds or julienned
Broccoli, cut into small flowerets
Red or green cabbage, sliced into strips
Kale or mustard greens, or other sturdy dark leafy greens, sliced into strips
Add the vegetables and the frozen pasta to the boiling liquid. If cooked for exactly 6 minutes; this produces fairly crisp vegetables and al dente pasta. If you want your vegetables and pasta a bit softer, cook for 8 minutes. Do not overcook or the pasta will fall apart.
If you want to use delicate vegetables such as spinach and zucchini or yellow summer squash, add them when only 1 to 2 minutes remain on the cooking time. I will even add a handful of lettuce or salad mix from a bag during the last 30 seconds or so, a trick I learned from Evan Kleiman.
I also like frozen potato-cheese pierogi in this soup, although such use may be totally untraditional and might possibly constitute heresy.
(this is my favorite) Instead of herbs and Tabasco, add 1 teaspoon each of Oriental sesame paste and chili garlic sauce. Instead of stuffed pasta, use frozen potstickers or flat dried Chinese noodles. The pierogi also go well with this flavor combination.
I have two small children and am crazy busy (a telecommuting full time job and full time with kids). Because of food allergies and such we can't do a lot of convenience food, and I totally agree that a lot of pre-prepared food is not very healthy.
Here are a few tips I use, since my kids do the exact same thing when I try to cook.
1. Pre-prep veggies and such. Just as you get up in the morning to do crock-pot, use that time to slice veggies, meat, etc. Make any sauce or marinade. Then cooking is really easy.
2. Pick out some staples that you can turn to when you don't want to cook. A basic asian sauce, for instance can be made ahead of time. Throw pre-prepped veggies in the skillet when you get home and then the sauce, and voila your done. For me it is tacos with whatever veggies I have on hand, and chorizo. This way you avoid the time spent - what am I going to make for dinner!
3. Focus your convenience foods on high flavor things. We use chorizo - you don't have to use much for a lot of flavor, roasted tomatoes (Muir Glen or we have homemade ones in the freezer), or even spice mixes and rubs, like Jerk seasoning, etc.
4. When it comes time to cook, don't feel the need to stand over the pan if your kids need attention. Throw on the preprepped food and then read a book to your kids, then stir or check what is in the oven, then check again. I find if I give 2 minutes here and there and don't have to use the knife, my kids wanting to help is much less annoying to me. I also do let them do things like turn on the food processor if I am cooking more.
I think it's been mentioned, but frozen ravioli--if you can find a brand you like-- is easy and quick and something you can always just have in your freezer. I sometimes steam some frozen veggies while the ravioli is boiling and toss it all together with a jar of marinara sauce or some nice olive oil and grated parm cheese.
A crockpot is a godsend. I like to throw chicken or steak into the crockpot with a jar of salsa. You can shred the meat and make easy tacos with soft tortillas. I also throw onions and chilies in the crockpot if I can.
I also like pork chops with sauerkraut, apples (get one of those apple wedger tools and it just takes seconds), and sweet potatoes in the crockpot (I add a little honey and/or orange juice to sweeten it).
Another one I like is flank steak, black beans, corn, and salsa in the crockpot.
I love my rice cooker--you can steam veggies and your fish with no fuss, no muss. While the rice is cooking, you can cook up whatever starch you want to cook it over: quickest I've found are polenta, angel hair pasta, and soba noodles.
I also cook my oatmeal in the rice cooker in the morning. (It's perfect for most grains). Frozen blueberries are easy to keep in the freezer and you can just throw a handful in to cook with the oatmeal.
Polenta is really quick to make on the stovetop--7 or 8 minute--but if that's too much hassle you can buy it in those pre-packaged tubes and just slice it and heat it up.
Stir-fry is easy with frozen bags of veggies--lots of them have sauce packets, too, although, I usually prefer to make my own to avoid overloading on sodium and sugar. My neighbhorhood grocery store sells beef that's sliced up and ready to go for stir fry that I sometimes pick up on the way home from work if I'm running low on time. Again, serve your stir-fry with soba noodles for an ultra fast meal.
Lots of good suggestions above. If you are trying to eat healthy, however, you need to read labels carefully with any processed food products. Many of them are loaded with preservatives, trans fats, sodium, and surprisingly high amounts of sugar and/or carbs. And fairness compels me to add that taste is often an issue with some of the organic frozen entrees, so that can also be hit or miss.
An alternative to might be a subscription to Cooking Light or Real Simple. Both magazines routinely feature recipes that take less than 30 minutes to prepare--in fact, the Jan. 2007 issue of RS has a section of 15 minute recipes. I have personally prepared dozens of recipes from both, and while they weren't all winners, most of them were pretty good. As far as healthy goes, however, choose your recipes carefully, same as anywhere else.
You don't have to worry about how long that chicken will last if you freeze it in sandwich bags. Then, train yourself every night as you are getting one meal ready to get out the main thing for the next night from the freezer and put it in the refrigerator - it will be ready for you the next evening.
Another really easy thing to make in advance to have on hand for fast meals is to slow-roast a pork shoulder all day, then shred it and portion into small packets and freeze. For this you literally put the meat in a big pan, salt and pepper it, cover with foil, then roast at about 275 until it is 190 degrees. Cool and pull it off the bones, then shred or cut into pieces.
A 'gift' to my sister and brother-in-law who are not inclined to cook (except bbq) has become a regular activity for me every time I visit them: I spend one day (about 4-5 hours) preparing heat and eat meals that are stored in the freezer. The portions are sufficient for two meals for two people, and the quantities I make prepares a number of meals. Very easy, quick and clean-up is for the one big cook-off day. The following is an example of maximum utilisation of ingredients, time and materials:
1. Chicken enchiladas
2. Chicken vegetable soup (I don't follow a recipe - I just add diced carrots, onions, celery, and chicken to my stock, seasoning with S&P, sweet basil, a little flat leaf parsley, and thyme.
3. Lentil soup using chicken stock (Barefoot Contessa has an easy recipe that makes a big batch to enjoy now and freeze for later)
4. Beef stroganoff
5. 5-7 bean soup (using ham hock stock)
6. Homemade pasta sauce - freeze in usable portions.
- 2 each, rotisserie chicken (Costco $4.99 each is a real deal)
- yellow onions
- 5-7 bean package for soup (most grocery stores have this)
- ham hock (Honey-Baked Ham sells these in their deli stores, about $5.00 each, a great deal as there is nearly a pound of delicious ham on the hock. Make a stock, remove the meat and add it to the bean soup. Yum!)
Shred chicken for enchiladas and soup. 1 1/2 chickens makes a LOT of enchiladas. Make stock with the chicken carcass (since the bones are cooked, you will get a nice 'brown poultry stock' as if you had roasted the bones and added the mire poix.
If making the chicken soup, add the remaining chicken to the soup. If making lentil soup then make enchiladas with the remaining chicken or make a chicken salad/sandwhich.
It may sound like a lot of work, but your mise en place can make quick work of it all, with minimal effort and a positive impact to your wallet, time, and health of your family. It's slow foods in the freezer.
Best of luck!
I used to roast chicken breasts for quesadillas when we had a cafe. I just seasoned them and baked a bunch on a cookie sheet then froze them. That way I was sure they were safe. Take one out to thaw and use any of the chicken suggestions.
There is an instant noodle and peanut sauce mix I used to buy when I was in the US. I can't remember the name. Asian Family? I added frozen peas and chopped up leftover chicken when I added the boiling water and made it into a more rounded meal.
Another thing I used to do when my kids were small was to cook a couple of packages of ground beef with onions and garlic then cool and spread on a cookie sheet to freeze. When frozen the mixture can be poured into bags. The small chunks can be used in any recipe calling for browned ground beef. They thaw into a sauce faster than a big lump would.
I don't have kids, but I still need lots of almost-instant meals in my arsenal. Here's my favorite "fancy and quick" meal:
Supermarket rotisserie chicken (I know, it's a bit high in sodium, but what the hey; and I remove the skin before eating it). I squeeze the juice of 1 lemon over it and reheat in the oven. You can also "roast" a small chicken in a crockpot - see this thread:
Boxed couscous with a handful of raisins or currents or dried cranberries. It cooks in 5 minutes and tastes great. I like the roasted garlic version, but maybe the kids would prefer a plainer version.
Salad from a bag.
If we need dessert: Supermarket angel food cake. Or a blender fruit smoothie (bananas and frozen fruit and OJ). Or just an orange.
For a few more fast crockpot recipes, see this thread:
Good luck feeding the family!
P.S. If your budget allows it, and if you're in an area with grocery stores that deliver - go for it! It's worth the $10 or so to save an hour and your sanity once a week.
And remember, this too shall pass. Soon enough, those tots will be making dinner on their own while you sit with your feet up... (ah, such a dream!)
Here's a convenience food that I absolutely love! The roasted red peppers in a jar in olive oil. There are many different brands. They are so delicious and easy! I use them sliced up in pasta, for paninis, salads and for anything that peppers are good in. I have even chopped them up and put them in my meatloaf. I just don't bother roasting my own peppers any more.
For crock pot stuff, you can premake the mix (meat, onions, chopped carrots, salt, pepper, broth, etc, etc) and put them in large freezer bags. You can make several of these on the weekend and put them in the freezer. Then, you can just plop the entire contents in the crockpot and turn it on. You have to add a couple of hours to the prescribed cooking time to thaw the food but at least there's no prepwork during the week.
Lately for me, it's been glutinous rice from UTC/Speedi meal to supplement a leftover meat dish. You can microwave, steam or boil the rice baggie. I've steamed it in a rice cooker for 15 min and I can't get over how sticky and delicious it is out of a bag. It's only $1.20-$1.30/single serving box, available at Asian supermarket or Amazon. Weirdly enough I could not find it in Flushing, NY for my sister 2 months ago, but my other sister who lives in Palo Alto, CA has seen it.
Ooh, and each box comes with a packet of baby seaweed soup, just add hot water and enjoy.
Both flavors are very tasty, the cantonese even has sausage and black mushrooms.
I don't know if you have access to Tasty Bite where you live...they are fully shelf stable packaged indian meals, and they are actually good. Things like seasoned lentils, eggplant, spinach...at the very least I find that they are a life saver when I am busy or really just can't deal with cooking. Perhaps best as a side dish. Maybe not appealing to kids though. Too bad you have no Trader Joe's!
You can stick anything you want in them--have fillings ahead of time like precooked meats and vegetables and shredded cheeses. They are good a few nights in a row if you change things up.
I like them with spinach and mushrooms. Sometimes with baked or refried black beans out of the can.
Not a lot of prep or materials required.
Hi, I am no expert in cooking and my suggestions are not exactly the healthiest choice, but if you are short in time, these are things that may do the trick (note: most of the ingredients can be kept in the freezer or in canned form)
1. Pasta dishes:
- Bertolli Frozen Pasta (e.g. Shrimp Scampi and Linguine, Chicken Florentine with Farfalle). It has EVERYTHING in it so you only need to put it to the skillet and heat it up
2. Marie Challender's or Amy's Organic Chicken / Turkey Pot Pies - Ready in the Oven or Microwave - No Frills!
3. Bird Eye's Creamed/Buttered Corn or Spinach, Glazed Carrots, etc. Also ready in the microwave, and fill your vegetable side of the food pyramid
4. Bush's Chilli / Baked Beans + Shore bought (frozen or Fresh) tortillas + Any Salad Greens + Shredded Cheese - Have a fun "DO IT YOURSELF" Burrito dinner with your kids at the table! (Can add a side of store bought guacamole + tortilla)
5. Alexia All-Natural Yukon Gold Mashed Potatoes or Roasted Potatos or other potato dishes - All ready in the oven or microwave. You can add flavor (but also calories) with more butter and bacon. Gravy is also a plus =)
6. Any good quality frozen pizza should get the kids happy
(see the thread of Best Frozen Pizza)
Plus note that these not not exactly gourmet, but they could pass for a causal dinner especially when you are in a hurry (and can be readily available in your freezer or pantry). In terms of flavor you can always tweak it with your own seasoning or add some cheese or sauces from your pantry. If you don't mind spending a little more money, you can add some fresh meat (like chicken or sauage or beef) into the frozen dinner as the meat that comes with these dinners may be tough or dry sometimes.
One last thing I have to say: Do the cooking yourself when you have time! It's definitely healthier and better that way. =)
Chicken seems to be the "go to" meat so far, but I often will cook up some steaks in the oven on Sunday night for dinner, make a couple extra and that can be chopped up for food later in the week. Ie omelets, fried rice, steak nachos, whatever.
Any meat will work for the Sunday cook day. Clean it, put on a cookie sheet lined with Heavy Duty foil, add a little olive oil, salt and pepper, and cook. Protein for the week in 5 mins prep time, and maybe 20-30 min cook time, and no clean up with the foil.
Bagged salad is always available in the fridge, as well as frozen veggies, and Pillbury makes bread rolls for the freezer where you can just cook a couple at a time.
Rice cooker provides the carb, if you want some. I cook rice probably every couple of nights because one pot of rice can last a couple of days. Just store it in the fridge.
Also, if I have maybe 20 extra mins on Sunday while I'm cooking all this, I will pack my easy meals for breakfast and lunch. Instead of putting all the rice, protein, etc away in their own containers, I pack containers that hold a whole meal for myself. This lets me save money during the week on breakfast and lunch, when I'm tempted to go out. Also, saves me a lot of time when I'm really busy at work and can't get away.
i hope that some of this helps you out.
i'm a vegetarian, so i will try to add in 'meat thoughts' as i'm writing.
1. easy burritos
-bean (with the sauce works best for convenience)
ex: chili beans, black beans
-could add in shredded chicken, taco meat whatever
-top with lettuce or tomatoes, sour cream, olives, onions, scallions, salsa - basically whatever you've got around.
2. easy pizzas
-french loaf (not baguette) slice open, smear pizza sauce on, top with cheese and spices, whatever toppings you want - that way everyone can have their own pizza and help make it too, if that doesn't drive you too crazy.
3. i have a very very easy mostly pre-packaged mediterranean soup recipe if you're interested. I tend to cook from scratch, but this is an exception - takes about 20 mins. i side it iwth a take and bake french baguette and a bagged salad on busy night.
If you could get a sitter to watch the kids for a couple of hours on the weekend, you could do your own kinds of convenience foods. There's a really good show on the Food Network on Saturday mornings - the host cooks a meal with planned leftovers and shows how to use them throughout the week. You could boil (or poach) and shred that chicken, cook a pork roast that's bigger than you need, prep the leftovers so you can make easy meals during the week. Frozen vegetables go in the microwave - easy as anything, and you can top them with shredded cheese as they come out for extra protein. you can get your stuff all prepped for a crockpot meal or two. Healthy pizza, with canned tomato sauce and leftover pork or chicken and lots of vegetables. Use the increasingly good frozen dinners and prepped foods from the deli. And encourage that little one who wants to cook like mommy - a little kid can sprinkle cheese or put vegetables and pepperoni on the pizza crust... in a couple of years you'll have a trained sous chef and be the envy of us all!
It's been awhile, but I remember these days well! (Now I'm laughing because my two sons are teenagers, and the idea that a rotiserie chicken would last more than one meal is hilarious.)
Definitely rotiserie chicken. The first night eat it warm, with a microwaved veg and/or salad. The second night, throw a bottle of some kind of sauce over it and eat it over rice or noodles. I've experimented a bunch with bottled sauces, mostly I like the ethnic ones whose names I don't remember, and mostly I add some lime, cilantro, cumin, or whatever seems appropriate after I taste them. Haven't found any sauces that are perfect right out of the jar, but I have found a bunch that become pretty good with a very small bit of adjustment.
Or chicken quesadillas the second night. Quesadillas are great and quick, though here we are cooking again.
Buy spaghetti sauce in a jar. Just experiment and you will find one that is acceptable to you. Later when your kids are a bit older, you will dress the sauce up more or go back to homemade, but I most certainly used jars when the kids were little.
Can you give the two year old a pot of dry noodles and a spoon, and get him/her to sit on the floor and stir it, or feed it to a doll or stuffed animal? ie, any chance for parallel play, rather than actually "helping" mommy? (It's coming back to me that my kids loved to "wash the dishes", ie, play in the sink with soap and water when they were little.)
Boboli pizza crusts and sauce can be assembled in 5 minutes, if you have six minutes, you can put on crumbled feta and a bit of spinach. Some frozen pizzas, also not bad.
Frozen ravioli, as someone said, quite popular in my family. Just about any brand.
Progresso soup, with bread and cheese.
Definitely buy the cut up fruit at the grocery. My kids ate a lot of this in the car on the way home from day care, when they were famished. They were just as happy as they would have been with chips (okay, well, almost). Cottage cheese and fruit, sprinkle on granola, voila, dinner.
Also, I've discovered the bags of fresh green beans that you just throw into the microwave, they're great. Other precut veggies also.
Not too many delicious frozen meals out there for dinner. At one point (everyone had the flu?) I bought four nights of frozen dinners for each of us (sixteen dinners) when I was really desperate and the kids were old enough to microwave. There's plenty of stuff you can eat once or twice, but to eat it on a regular basis, I haven't found anything.
Will your budget let you buy slightly better carryout? We can get kabobs, chicken parmesan, etc., as carry out so that it doesn't have to be burgers. One favorite is pita bread with hummous and filafel, of course this depends on your area. (No, my kids weren't eating that at two, but by four, fil-waffles were one of their favorites.)
A couple of my favorite, fast/easy dinners;
1. Simply cook some pasta and toss it with olive oil and shredded parm, or
2. Take a pre-bagged salad (love those) and throw on some chopped chicken tenders that you find in the freezer section. I know their processed, but their easy and provide protein.
Some items others haven't mentioned:
Bobboli pizza shells - bag of grated mozzarella and/or a bag of 4-cheese pizza mix, package of presliced pepperoni, can of mushrooms (drain well). You can use the packaged sauce from Bobboli, but we find it too sweet, so we make our own with a can of tomato sauce, garlic & spices. Even then, from breaking open the packages from the grocery store to eating, it's about 30-40 minutes. (First thing to do: turn on the oven to pre-heat.) And I'm sure your kids would be happy to help you spread the mozzarella and pepperoni...
Same theme as others with pasta and bottled sauce, but buy some Italian sausages, cut them into meatball sized pieces and fry them in a pan (while cooking the pasta), then throw it all together with the bottled sauce. Diced green pepper, onion and garlic in the pan with the sausages adds some complexity and time, but it's a lot better, and it's still a quick meal.
Buy cold cuts and rolls at the deli and make your own subs.
If you're not a member of Costco, consider becoming one. I get so many items there that help with quick meals on days when we cannot take the time to cook:
Carnitas - we braise for 30 minutes, then eat with soft, pan-heated corn tortillas and bottled pico de gallo, hot sauce...
Their pin-wheel flank steaks cook up in minutes - either on the grille or in a pan. They have other fresh pre-made items, like stuffed salmon, that will cook up quickly in the oven.
Their pre-made salads (spinach, chicken ceasar) are always fresh.
Their rotisserie chicken is probably the best bang for buck - I cannot agree with the person who insists that you boil chicken, which is something you do to make soup (I throw away the mushy chicken meat with the bones after it's given up all it's flavor).
They have a great selection of ravioli's and other filled pastas.
I find many of the frozen foods at natural food groceries like Whole Foods, Wild Oats, and Trader Joes are much more palatable than what's sold in conventional groceries. Some of these brands are even available at SuperTargets and Walmarts, but the natural grocers generally have a wider selection. You probably will have to just try them and see what you like. Bear in mind that a product with a shorter ingredient list is often better, but that's just my opinion, really.
Another idea is to buy a fuzzy logic rice cooker, and use it as both a slow cooker and rice cooker. (Sanyo makes 5 cup + models that have specific cycles, very handy.) I find this very helpful when I have a deadline at work, but still want to eat healthy at home. Brown rice only requires one rinse, and then your carbohydrate is ready when you get home with takeout or frozen food or whatever. It's hard to find complex carbs in convenience foods, so the rice cooker has been a godsend for me. HTH
Do you have a Costco nearby? You might want to invest in a freezer if your food shopping is so far away. I like many of their frozen and fresh prepared foods. They have prepared carnitas, tri-tip roast, fresh prepared soups, fresh washed vegetable that can be microwaved in the bag, etc. If you don't mind eating leftovers, the price can be very good.
If you like rice, you might want to buy a rice cooker. Its easier and healthier than pasta, IMO. It takes just 15 minutes and keeps the rice warm until you are ready to use it.
I love my bread maker. I can start a loaf of bread in the morning in 2-3 minutes. I set the timer so its ready when I walk in the door after work. It smells heavenly to walk in a house with the aroma freshly baking bread. Its a great mood elevator. And there is NO CLEANUP. I find I don't even need to wipe out the pan afterwards. Its also great to start a loaf at night so you have fresh bread for toast or sandwiches when you wake up. I find it easier to get up on a cold winter morning with the enticing aroma wafting toward the bedroom.
Not a convenience food, but dang close: omelets. Our family's go-to for a quick, easy satisfying meal. There's always something floating around the fridge to use for fillings (and there's all that pre-made deli stuff to turn to as well, like the rotissie chicken).
An omelet takes under a minute to cook, and in a well-seasoned pan, necessitates no more clean-up than a wipe with a paper towel. And, even little ones seem to like a scrambled-eggy thing.
Would your husband be interested in cooking for a few hours on weekends? Would he do the dishes if you cook on weekends? Here are some five-minute from the can dishes:
1. Can of beans + can of corn
2. Cans of cream of mushroom & tuna added to cooked spinach
3. Can of sardines in tomato sauce plus your sauce additions (chopped onion, cilantro, chili...)
4. Can of re-fried beans served with tortillas and...
5. Can of ravioli with sauce spruced up
6. Tuna fish sandwiches
7. Canned chili--you cook the rice
These are not great but are better than fast food.
I appreciate all of the posts, but I'm not really looking for quick and easy meals....I'm looking for convenience type foods or something like the crock pot. The crock pot is appealing because I can wake up a few minutes before the kids do, throw it in the pot and leave it until it is time to eat. I can't cook unless my husband is home to watch the kids because my overzealous 2 year old wants to "cook like mommy" and drives me crazy trying to "help". There are times when she can help, but definately not every night....sometimes its a matter of mommy's patience sometime a safety issue. Since my husband is getting home at 8 or 9 oclock, meals that take an hour to cook are out, no matter how easy. The suggestions about doctoring up premade meals from the grocery is a good idea...I live about 25 minutes from the nearest grocery store that does things like that, but that would work at least once a week when I go grocery shopping. I also like the idea of making my own "convenience foods"...like the shredded chicken...I didn't know how long chicken would last like that in the fridge.
i think the boiled shredded chicken will last about two weeks in the fridge. i usually only make enough for what i'll need for one week, as i like to make a fresh batch each week. but as you probably have less time than i do, a two week batch will probably serve you well :-)
also, in response to rockycat's response above, i don't use the storebought rotisseries for two reasons:
1. it's not as healthy. a full, skin-on fatty chicken is bound to have more fat and calories than boneless skinless breasts, and even thighs (once you've picked out any big gobs of fat during the shredding).
2. picking over the carcass to get the meat out is, i think, a PAIN. i actually find my boiling chicken method easier than using a rotisserie chkn (i used to use them). you don't even need a knife to shred the chicken (i use my fingers, generally while seated in front of the tv), so sunshinedrop can actually have her overzealous 2 year old help her out with this bit!
You can even prep stuff for the crock pot the night before and store the ceramic insert in the fridge. I find bedtime more predictable than wake-up time for my little guys ;-)
I also tend to like big pieces of meat in the crock pot (beef or pork roasts, whole chicken) rather than chopped stuff, then I just add rice or pasta or hamburger buns, and nuke some (frozen, pre-chopped) veggies at serving time.
I've only tried one of the frozen crock pot meals, and wasn't very excited about it. I don't even remember what brand it was.
I'm not sure if you're home during the day or not, but when my two were infant and 2 (they're now 2 and 4), I would do dinner prep all day -- chop veggies while they were in their seats at breakfast or lunch, measure ingredients during a nap or video, etc.
(Exersaucer + DVD was my other key to dinner prep ;-)
And we have at least one "must-gos" night a week -- I'll cook a full dinner for 6 or so even though there are only two adults eating, and we get lunches out of it as well as leftover nights. Prevents the science experiments in the back of the fridge as well as giving the cook a night off.
It doesn't last forever! Before you know it the older kid really can be helpful, and both kids will be able to entertain themselves out of the kitchen.
If you don't want to make the shredded chicken yourself, a good alternative is canned chicken (in the same aisle as tuna). We stock up on the cans and use them in quesadillas, mac 'n cheese, casseroles, etc.
We also have a 2 yr old and rely on quick pizzas (using premade dough from the store or the quick mix stuff) with whatever's on hand, tacos and quesadillas, pancakes, eggs, sandwiches, etc. for dinner most nights.
I second LenaNE's suggestion above of taking advantage of the prepared meals at the grocery. Most delis now have a LOT of prepared meals that are maybe not as good as you'd make at home, but are certainly better than fast food. Ours has everything from rotis chicken (good for a couple of dinners) to mac and cheese, pot roast and mashed potatoes with veggies, pastas, pork tenderloin with rice, etc. Yes, they are a little more expensive, but worth having a meal that is a little more wholesome than Burger King.
One of the things I'm most curious about is what other people prepare for their families, so I ask that question a lot, especially of my friends who work full time and have small children. The most frequent answers I get are: boiled pasta with cheese and shredded rotis or other cooked chicken, steamed mixed veggies with some kind of pre-prepared meat from the deli, frozen deli pizzas (not Tombstone - the fresh ones from the deli) with veggies on top - basically they try to incorporate vegetables for their kids as much as possible and keep it as simple and quick as they can with prepared, pre-cut, frozen whatever. Since they don't get home until 5:30 or so, and their kids are starving and need to eat by 6:00, they utilize that grocery stuff a lot and seem to do pretty well with it.
One of my favorite quick meals is fish..any kind...follow the "10 minutes an inch" rule at 350° , season a fillet mildly for the kids..lemon, salt & pepper and get some Cajun seasoning or seafood seasoning for you, a bag of frozen rice & veggies and dinner is on the table in 15 minutes...faster than going to the drive through. I started feeding my son fish as a toddler and he ate it up. Stock your pantry and freezer with ingedients that can make a quick meal, tomato sauce, herbs & spices, frozen veggies, rice & pasta. Take advantage of the pre cut fruit & produce in the grocery store or the ready made meatballs & seasoned meats in the meat dept..a little more $ than making it home made, but so much better tasting and healthy for your family.
I echo the crockpot sentiment, but frankly, sometimes assembling a crockpot dish is time-consuming and w/two kids the ages of yours, you have a need for speed!
Egg dishes are a great way to whip up something quick and easy. When my daughter was really little, I made "cheesy broccoli eggs" all the time - scrambled eggs w/finely chopped broccoli (I steamed it in the micro and then chopped it in the mini cuisinart) and your favorite cheese - all mixed up in the pan and melty and gooey.
Another easy dinner - a supermarket rotisserie chicken w/potato pancakes (can usually find these frozen if your supermarket doesn't carry them in the prepared foods section). Add a cooked frozed veg. and you're done.
We make good use of Bell & Evans frozen chicken products for quick meals at our house, too - their tenders and whole breaded breasts and nuggets are all outstanding (for what they are) and have no crap in them. We pair 'em up with whole wheat pasta, bottled sauce and a veg. (I also buy a lot of pre-cut broccoli florets when things are busy at home).
Soup and sandwiches - soup's not so great for your kids 'cause they're so little (but you never know, I've seen some 2-year-olds eat soup), but you can eat soup and they can have grilled cheese - you can cut the sandwiches into funny shapes for the kids if they need enticement (or tiny little cubes for the little one). Thin little carrot sticks (or pureed carrots) go well w/this one - also fruits.
Breakfast for dinner might be fun, esp. for the older kid who "gets" the routine more . . . pancakes/french toast might be too much to cook, but there are toaster waffles and you can do bacon in the micro. Serve fruit and you're set. Toaster waffle sandwiches can be fun, too - pb&J (or soy or another nut butter depending on allergies) between two waffles. Or even cereal.
Hope this helps a bit. The stress of meal prep w/kids can outweigh any joy you might get from dining as a family! We eat zero fast food in our family and I have the luxury of being able to cook a "real" meal most nights, but you MUST have some quickies in your repertoire!
There have been so many requests for quick, easy, and good after-work meals that we should probably make some sort of recipe compilation. Everybody could contribute a recipe or two, complete with credit to the original author if you're paraphrasing, and with a limit of one hour from door to table. Maybe it could go on a separate page, or even get published as a book! Wouldn't that be cool? I'd buy it.
But to answer the OP's question, there ARE dishes you can make from scratch quite easily when you get home from work. You can put chicken pieces (use legs with thighs) into a roasting pan, add a cubed potato (about one-inch cubes), a sliced onion, and even some unpeeled garlic cloves scattered all around the chicken. Drizzle with olive oil, season with salt and pepper. Put in a 375 - 400 degree oven for about an hour, and poof. You have chicken and potatoes. A little salad on the side is optional. The prep takes about as long as it took me to type this, and it's in the oven while you settle in and relax with a glass of wine. Make extra and it's great cold the next day.
Even easier is a from-scratch tomato sauce: Peel and bruise a couple of garlic cloves, finely chop a red onion. Heat up some olive oil in a pan, add garlic till it begins to color. Add onion, saute for 3 or 4 minutes. Add a can of good tomatoes, season with salt and pepper. Heat through, and if necessary, reduce the liquid till it's the right consistency. Add to pasta of your choice, toss with some fresh basil and/or parmesan. Takes maybe half an hour total. Again, extra can be eaten the next day, and sauce freezes nicely for future use!
As to your requirement about not having to do dishes, not sure how you get around that. I don't have a dishwasher either. But even if I get takeout or pre-prepared food, dishes get dirty. I don't like it, but I'm used to it.
HillJs suggestion to cook up a storm once a week is very wise, and Aloo gave you your first recipe for doing so...
A quick n easy meal you can whip up in 5 minutes: frank-n-beans. I cut the dog the long way for faster cooking. I like Heinz beans in the blue can because they are very bland, allowing the cook to doctor them up the way (s)he likes.
I've already posted this in the "Little tricks that help make cooking faster, easier?" thread, but I think it's even more fitting for this one. I'm a grad student who a.) is trying to eat healthy, b.) doesn't like to eat out more than once or twice a week and c.) doesn't have a lot of time during the week for cooking. My solution?...
Boiled chicken! As unappetizing as it sounds, boiled chicken is extremely tasty and versatile, and much healthier and easier (no picking over carcasses) than buying a rotisserie chicken from the grocery. At the beginning of the week, I boil a potful of boneless skinless chicken breasts and thighs (you can use one or the other, but I like the combination.) Be careful not to overboil, as the chicken will most likely be re-cooked for its true purpose, and you don’t want to end up with dry meat. After boiling, I cool the meat quickly by refilling the pot with cold water. Then I shred the meat w/ my fingers and keep it in a tupperware box in the fridge.
My favorite uses:
1. Sandwiches! Heat up a little olive oil in a pan and toss in a handful or two of shredded chicken. Cook til brown and slightly crisped on the outside, and proceed to make a tasty, toasty chicken sandwich! WAY better than cold cuts, that’s for sure. You can dress it up, too...for instance, add some marinara and mozzarella, voila! Chicken parm sammich!
2. Tacos! Saute minced garlic and diced onion in olive oil, add enough chicken for two people’s worth of tacos, cook until it begins to brown, add juice of 1 lime, a capful or two of white vinegar, a dash of Splenda (sugar, if you’d rather), stir until everything is combined, cook for a minute or two until the ‘sauce’ has reduced away. Serve in soft corn tortilas with your favorite garnishes (sour cream, guacamole, salsa, black beans, diced fresh onions, cilantro....)
3. Enchiladas! Simmer the chicken in your favorite enchilada sauce for about 5 minutes or so – longer if you’d like – before filling your enchiladas with it.
4. Pizza Topping! No beef or pork in this house, but the man of the house needs his protein, and chicken is his topping of choice. Saute it with a little olive oil and italian herbs of choice (oregano, basil, thyme is my favorite combo) and some minced garlic if you really want to give it a kick. Adding this and some fresh veggies to a frozen pizza (i'm guessing you don't have time to make your own, understandably) can significantly improve the meal.
5. Quesadilla Filling! I think this one’s pretty self-explanatory...we especially like it when I’ve first cooked the chicken a la my previously mentioned taco recipe. Add some diced onion, chopped cilantro, salsa, black beans...yum.
6. Pasta Add-In! Saute in some olive oil and herbs (oregano, basil, thyme etc. if a red or pink sauce, salt, pepper, and maybe some rosemary if a cream sauce) and toss with favorite pastas and sauce.
Hope this helps!
Also consider supermarket rotisserie chicken. Our market runs a special on it every Sunday and they drop the price a few dollars more when it gets close to the end of its selling window. It costs a little more than boiling the chicken yourself but you might consider the convenience worth it.
Three of us can generally get 3-4 meals out of one of those birds if we're creative enough.
Agree with the supermarket chicken. You can use them for so many fast little meals and then if you save and freeze up the bones, you will be able to make a nice pot of soup as well. If you have a Sam's club in your area, they have very large, good priced rotisserie chickens. It's fun coming up with new uses and really cuts down on cleanup and time when you start with the chicken already roasted.
Over the years I have often made a meal that my Husband's Mother used to make. On a day when you have more time, boil a whole chicken ( skin and all) along with salt, pepper, a small chopped onion, some chopped celery, carrot pieces, chopped parsley.
Stew until the chicken is fork tender. Meal number#. Remove chicken and cut into pieces. Serve with a parsley cream sauce and mashed potatoes. The remaining liquid in the pot can be made into a lovely chicken soup. The meat from what ever chicken is not used for meal #1 can be used for sandwiches during the week or any other quick recipe that needs cooked chicken as Aloo has mentioned above. There you go. Several ideas from one lowly chicken.
If you can spend 3 hours in one day..maybe Sunday to help prep for the week you might feel less inclined to hit the fast food for convenience and less deprived of time to spend cooking fresh.
Make a head recipes are all over this site. As suggested, crock pot dishes, stews, casseroles can be a big help and easily broken into freezable meals.
I make a lot of smoothies for breakfast. French toast and pancakes can be whipped up in advance and frozen. Take out what you need each day and heat.
Take one approach at a time and you'll feel alot less stressed over providing a healthy meal for your family.
There are some Asian foods that aren't packaged as "convenience foods" per se, but are still very quickly prepared.
If you like Asian noodle soups, you can just buy a bunch of prepared ingredients and basically heat and assemble. Rice noodles only need to be soaked for a minute or two in hot water, and then you add canned chicken broth, some frozen cooked vegetables and cooked chicken or maybe prawns. There's only boiling, no oil, so cleanup is a total no-brainer.
Sometimes when I get Chinese takeout I buy some extra containers of rice. These are great for making into fried rice with some scrambled eggs, sesame oil, scallions, diced ham/chicken, frozen peas or edamame... whatever you like, really. And it can all be done in one wok in under 10 minutes.
When our daughter was little, we ate a lot of pasta, especially ravioli and tortellini. You buy it frozen and boil it, add some bottled sauce, salad or raw veggies and garlic bread if you're up to it. We also ate a lot of Annie's macaroni and cheese which we all still like. Making these simple things doesn't really take much longer than nuking something, and you don't have to feel so guilty!
Crock pots are a godsend for quick and easy. You can pretty easily prepare food in a half hour or so have it cook all day and come home to amazing food. Based on how picky your kids are you can go the gamut of ingredients.
There are tons and tons of recipes for crock pots just search google for a couple minutes.
You could also consider watching Rachel Ray's 30 minute meals to get tips on how to prepare food quicker and easier.
I didn't even think of my crockpot...I got one as a wedding gift and my husband uses it to make soup beans, but I never remember to use it. As far as Rachel Ray's meals...I've watched her show and not a lot of her food appeals to me, plus she makes so many dishes, that would be way too much clean up for me.