It is an unavoidable fact: kids are hungry. Almost all of the time – especially those teenagers! Somewhere between school, work, football practice, LEGO league, homework, and laundry, parents all over are trying to find ways to prepare meals for their kids. It might be easier to throw a frozen pizza in the oven, hit the drive-thru, or serve cereal (again), but we know that these aren’t the best choices for their healthy growth – and often our budgets. With 5 kids in the house this year, and 3 of them teens, I’m getting back into my school year cooking routines: easy, healthy, budget-friendly, and taste-bud friendly for the whole family.
Make Ahead Meals for Busy Families
On Sunday afternoons while the football game and the football fans blare from the basement, I get the weekly meals started with these family-friendly recipes. (In our house protein is a priority for all of the guys who are consistently running – literally, training, and just busy growing, so I start with a protein source like chicken).
Chicken is King
Take approximately 1 pound of boneless, skinless chicken breasts per family member (for me that is 7 pounds – or 7 large breasts) and place them in a roasting pan or baking dish. Add 1-2 cans of chicken broth (depending upon how much chicken you need). Cover and bake at 350 degrees for approximately 2 hours, checking every 20 minutes after the first hour to make sure there is enough moisture – add water if needed.
Prepare the Extra Side Dishes
While the chicken is cooking, take your favorite lettuce and prepare (wash and chop) enough for 2 salads for each family member for the week. Also prepare other salad fixings that your family likes:
- Chopped tomatoes
- Diced peppers and onions
- Shredded carrots
- Chopped broccoli
- Black olives
Take 2-4 selections of fresh fruit the kids like and prepare them for the week. If these are things like apples and bananas, your prep work is done. However, you can also cut and chop other fruits like
- Strawberries or raspberries
Place the chopped fruit in reusable containers that you can serve from during the week. I also like to keep small containers of fruit dip in the fridge to entice the kids to eat more fruit, and it doubles as dessert and satisfies the sweet tooth. You can buy a small tub of caramel fruit dip, or make a cream cheese one by adding softened cream cheese with powdered sugar and a teaspoon or so of vanilla.
Select 2 varieties of whole grain pastas – I like to use spaghetti, rotini, or penne. Prepare each pasta type separately according the box directions (add a teaspoon of olive oil to the boiling water to help keep the pasta from sticking too much). Drain each pasta type and rinse with cold water. Set these pastas in plastic storage containers and place them in the fridge for later in the week.
Remove the chicken and it’s time to start making meals! Separate the chicken into 4 sections – ¼ for each chicken meal, shredding or cutting it into bite sized pieces. Store each section in separate containers, and keep the broth with one of the sections. You can prepare most of the meals ahead of time on Sunday, or get at least all of the prep work out of the way so you’re just adding the finishing touches during the week.
Meal #1 – Chicken Tacos
Take approximately ¼ of the chicken you prepared and add it to a stove-top pan, shredding it with forks. The chicken should be tender and easy to shred. Add either a packet of taco seasoning mix (appropriate to the amount of chicken you are using) or your own combination of spices, ½ cup of water, and sauté the chicken taco mixture. You can stretch the meat by adding a can of refried beans or cooked brown rice to your mixture. Serve with your salad fixings, tortillas, shredded cheese, and sour cream.
Meal #2 – Chicken Salad
This meal can be served for dinner during the week or sent as part of a school or work lunch. Take ¼ of the chicken and add it to 2-3 cups of the cooked pasta. Toss in leftover chopped veggies from the salad, drizzle it with olive oil, sprinkle in fresh or dried oregano, basil, and black pepper, and then top with feta cheese (or another favorite cheese). I like to put the salad in single serving reusable plastic containers to use whenever needed.
Recipe variation – Use the chicken and noodles, but add cheese chunks, ½ bag of frozen peas, and a dressing made from mayonnaise – enough to coat the salad mixture (I use Miracle Whip Free), 1 Tablespoon of mustard, and 1 Tablespoon of sugar. This is my daughter’s favorite version – and you can add shredded carrots or celery, too.
Meal #3 – Pasta Bar
When you’re ready for dinner, remove one of the pastas from the fridge and ¼ of the chicken. Rinse the pasta under hot water. Place the chicken in a sauté pan with 1-2 Tablespoons of butter, fresh or dried basil, and 1 teaspoon of chopped garlic. Saute the chicken and serve over the pasta. Set out your salad fixings as well, and your family can add their own extra toppings – olives, peppers, etc. – and top it off with shredded cheese. Serve fruit on the side.
Meal #4 – Breakfast Bake
Spray a cake pan with non-stick cooking spray and preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Take 2 slices of bread for each family member and cut into cubes, or have your younger kids just tear them into bite-sized pieces . We use our wheat sandwich bread, but you can get creative and use cinnamon raisin bread or another favorite. Spread the bread chunks in the cake pan.
For every 3-4 slices of bread, crack one egg into a medium bowl and whisk. Pour eggs over the bread chunks and sprinkle 1 teaspoon of cinnamon over the top. Bake until the bread mixture is golden brown.
Serve with the fresh fruit you cleaned and cut earlier in the week. You can even add apple chunks, raspberries, blueberries, or strawberries to the bread mixture before baking. Add a little maple syrup on top and dinner is served!
Meal #5 – Chicken Soup
Use the chicken broth and another ¼ of the chicken to make an easy and healthy soup. Try these variations.
- Add one can of cream of chicken soup to the broth and chicken. Stir in a package of whole wheat Gnocchi (potato dumplings you can find in your pasta aisle) for an Italian treat. Cook according to the instructions on the Gnocchi – usually just a few minutes until the Gnocchi are floating.
- Add one can of cream of chicken soup and 2 cups of cooked wild rice to the broth and heat over low before serving.
- Add some of the leftover salad fixings – carrots, broccoli, peppers, etc. – and a second can of chicken broth. Stir in some of your penne or rotini noodles for an easy chicken noodle soup.
Life with kids is busy. And kids are always hungry. Satisfy both their appetites and your need for some time-savers by planning a few easy meals ahead of time. Don’t forget to get the kids in the kitchen, too!