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What to Eat When You’re Too Busy to Think! (aka Meal Planning for Busy People)

What to eat when you re too busy to think

There’s a funny thing about Dinner Time – it happens every. single. day. And despite this known fact, even the best of us can have complete-panic moments.

If you’ve been around KS for any length of time, you’ve probably heard the phrase “meal plan” more than once.

For some, making a meal plan is really just combining two four-letter words together (you know what I mean). And for some, it’s been part of your routine for so long, it’s no biggie.

But it doesn’t matter how good you are at planning. At some point, you have to execute this beautiful plan you have sweated blood over (or dreamily composed on chartreuse stationery using your favorite calligraphy pen). 

No matter how well you plan (or don’t), emergencies and interruptions happen to the best of us.

  • Mama is sick and just can’t muster the energy to cook.
  • Kids get home from school and need help with a project that involves driving all over town.
  • Friend calls late in the day and needs you to watch her toddler so she can visit her mom in the hospital.
  • It’s a beautiful day outside and you end up spending all afternoon at the park.

There’s nothing quite as frustrating as finding yourself staring at the fridge fifteen minutes before dinner, as you realize it’s too late to bake that pot roast you had been planning.

And there are some phases of life that leave you without a second in the week to think ahead about meals. 

  • moving to a new house
  • pregnancy/new baby
  • under a big deadline
  • playoffs and tournaments for kids’ sports
  • preparing to travel somewhere
  • planning a party/birthday/event
  • the entire month of December
  • ETC!

All these tips for the busy times, the surprising times, the unplanned moments – they apply well to the day-to-day life of the average family as well, especially if both parents are working outside the home.

I first started compiling these tips during a particularly crazy phase of our life: I was pregnant in my third trimester with baby #3, we set and sold our home, then we moved all our stuff into a storage unit and ourselves into my in-laws’ house – and I was trying to run a business from home.

family in uhaul

But I know we all have seasons in our lives when we just can’t keep it together. Even in the time of that cute pic above, somehow I managed to rely very rarely on picking up a pizza, and we never went hungry. We may not have eaten gourmet, but sustenance is sustenance, you know?

Here are some of the quick meals, easy meals, oops-I-forgot-to-plan-a-meal backups, and real food convenience foods and strategies that can help a real food family get through a crazy busy phase.

Busy Moms Guide to Dinner

Quick, Real Food Meals – NO Prep Needed!

You can put together these meals starting at 5:00 p.m. without planning ahead and still feed your family something nutritious — invaluable.

Salmon

daily omega 3s from salmon

See how we usually cook fish here along with our favorite fish seasoning (you’ll love the story!).

Vital Choice sent me some salmon to try out back in that crazy moving-with-a-baby-on-the-way time, and besides the obvious fact that wild Alaskan salmon would be amazing for my baby’s brain health, I latched onto the fact that the instructions said: “40 minutes before dinner, take package of fish out of the freezer.” You just can’t thaw anything else as quickly!

Serving with fried sliced potatoes or rice and sauteed asparagus or steamed frozen veggies makes this a truly fast meal with no prep!

Scrambled Eggs

The Best Scrambled Eggs Ever

When we embarked on the moving journey, my husband said it would be okay if we had scrambled eggs or an omelet every night. This made me feel much better. Luckily, I didn’t have to rely on my best scrambled eggs recipe every night, but eggs are definitely my favorite “Oh shoot!” meal when I’m not prepared.

I can make them a little more fun to eat by including frozen peppers from last summer and other things I have in the freezer and the produce drawer. We often pair them with a big green smoothie and call it a meal when we have to, although sometimes we have leftover pancakes to help out.

Easy Meats

When you’re walking in the kitchen at 5 p.m. you just don’t have time to thaw and cook meat! I try to always have some sort of pre-packaged meat on hand with clean ingredients for just those evenings:

You can grill sausages and serve without buns or slice and fry up on a cast iron griddle. Serve with quick potatoes, Instant Pot mac and cheese, or Jackson’s Honest potato chips (cooked in coconut oil!) found at Thrive Market.

Putting shredded beef over rice made in the Instant Pot is another super quick and gluten-free way to serve. Just watch ingredients as many prepared beef has a ton of sugar and additives. US Wellness Meats’ was amazing, tasting just like my own homemade.

Picnic Style Meals

I don’t know what you call this, but in my mind, it’s the “I have nothing to feed anyone but I’m going to try to fill a plate” meal:

  • sliced cheese
  • homemade crackers or gluten-free crackers from Costco or Blue Diamond Nut Thins
  • dried fruit
  • nuts
  • maybe homemade guacamole and organic tortilla chips to round out the meal

It works. Good in a pinch!

Loaded Baked Potatoes

  • grilled baked potatoes (in the summer) or regular bakers in the winter
  • leftover chili or try this allergy friendly Instant Pot chili (if you don’t have leftover chili in the freezer, just use a can of beans and BBQ sauce, or hopefully you’re in the habit of keeping some cooked ground beef in the freezer too – that and some taco seasoning and salsa and the cheese sauce = amazing!)
  • cheese sauce (gluten-free!) which we teach kids to make in our online kids cooking lessons
  • frozen steamed broccoli
  • chopped red onion
  • Yum!

Bethany, one of my old contributing writers, used to recommend that people make an emergency meal list (my added tip is to tape it to the inside of a cupboard or pantry door so you never lose it). Here’s her advice:

I don’t know about you, but when I’m tight on time, it’s very very hard for me to compose my brain to think. My brain blanks, forgetting obvious options.

So the solution? Make an Emergency Meal List so that your thinking is already done for you.

4 Steps to Create Your Emergency Meal List
  1. Begin making a list of meals your family likes that you can make in under ten minutes. Breakfasts and lunches are great for this category.
  2. Avoid any ideas that involve defrosting ingredients. Remember, you’re going for speed.
  3. Put a star by meals that involve minimal dishes. When you’re on a time crunch, the last thing you want to do is have a messy clean up.
  4. Post this list on the side of your fridge. Out of sight = out of mind. You need a reliable go-to list so that when the heat of the rush hits, you aren’t scrambling.
Want to see my list?
  • Scrambled Eggs and Toast
  • Yogurt with Fruit and Nuts
  • Larabars and Applesauce (this one gets a special star on my list for also being PORTABLE. If you’re on top of the game, you can make your own Larabar-like snack.)
  • Smoothies
  • Grilled Cheese Sandwiches, Apples, and Frozen Peas
  • Nut Butter and Jelly Sandwiches, Apples, Carrot Sticks
  • Cheese Slices, Apples, and Matzo Crackers (I love that Matzo crackers only have two ingredients!)
  • Canned Tuna Fish, Matzo Crackers, and Apples
  • (Homemade) Canned Chicken, Toast, and (Homemade) Canned Green Beans

A New Twist on Batch Cooking

Have you tried batch cooking? It’s one of my favorite kitchen hacks to save time while cooking real food, but my take may be slightly different than the ones you’ve seen before.

Instead of making large batches of food and saving them for later, I batch together kitchen tasks and link one night’s dinner to the next. Think of it as getting a head start on your next meal. The net result is time savings AND fresh dinners every night

The current trend in meal prep seems to be focused on taking several hours on a weekend day to chop and prep veggies, cook meats, and then assemble the leftovers into a multitude of containers.

This is great if it works for you, but my family gets sick of eating leftovers all the time and I get tired of keeping track of all the containers in the fridge! Plus, spending 3-4 hours in the kitchen on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon is usually the last thing I want to do. 

My Real Food Head Start 7 Day Dinner Plan provides a framework for incorporating my technique each day to save time on future meals and even start stocking your freezer if you want, while still making and serving a fresh dinner. The best part is, you use the time you are already in the kitchen – no extra prep day needed!

Send Me the Dinner Plan!

Throw It Together in Less Than an Hour – Some Planning Needed

Cabbage Soup With Secret Super Food

The following meals from my repertoire might take some thawing from the freezer or prep like soaking beans, but at this stage of the real food game, that doesn’t take tooooooo very much mental or physical energy. Take another step on your menu planning journey with this helpful tutorial.

The actual meal comes together in 30-60 minutes:

  • Simple cabbage soup with secret super food
  • Black-eyed pea casserole (from The Everything Beans Book)
  • Spaghetti squash with asparagus – I prebake the squash while doing baked potatoes a day or two before, so browning meat and tossing in the squash and a jar of sauce is a 15-minute meal!
  • Soup from the freezer with a salad – I almost always freeze my soups and am so glad when I have them available!
  • Main dish salads – if you can plan to have leftover meat or hard-boiled eggs ready, just chop some veggies and eat!
  • Cream of potato soup – My dad sometimes refer to this as “end-of-garden” soup because it’s a great way to use up any vegetables. Cream of potato is one of my favorites and a meal that takes no day-before-prep.
  • Instant Pot Taco Quinoa Chili
Instant Pot Taco Quinoa Chili

Hamburgers

Wrapping the burgers in lettuce takes out the step of making your own buns, and you may not even have to thaw and form the patties anymore as I keep seeing frozen, individual patties that are actually grassfed and/or organic, without the dozen nasty ingredients the cheap ones have!

For a side, plan ahead and bake extra potatoes from another meal, boil a dozen eggs (for egg salad, too), and make homemade potato salad, one of my favorite dishes.

It’s a decent amount of work, but you can spread it out over 3 days and then just grab the side dish from the fridge and GO when it is actually dinnertime! It’s also an easy dish for a kid with a few kitchen skills to prepare – nothing is better than some help in the kitchen from a trained and competent child when you’re pressed for time or energy.

Easy Homemade Potato Salad

Chicken and Veggies

Grilled: Make a marinade of balsamic vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, Italian seasoning, garlic and onion powder, grill a TON of chicken and various veggies (in a grill basket), and hardly have any dishes. Winking smile

If you have some leftover homemade Italian dressing to use as a marinade it will take even less time. Alternatively, marinate the chicken in a half a bottle of beer and a few seasonings you probably already have on hand.

Dark Beer Marinade Recipe with Chicken

The leftovers are awesome reheated on the grill, cold on a salad, or in a wrap like the California chicken wraps on homemade tortillas or grain-free coconut flour crepes (found in The Healthy Lunch Box).

Baked: You can keep it super simple and just bake the chicken, perhaps with spaghetti sauce and mozzarella cheese or just herbed seasonings, served with a baked potato.

A quick pan-fry with fresh garlic, salt, pepper, and paprika and a side of simple potatoes and steamed veggies (or frozen peas) is fast and easy too!

Tips for the Busy Working Mom to Get Dinner on the Table

Busy Moms Guide for Real Food on the dinner table

I have four kids and work full-time (or more) and even though I work from home, I’m pretty sure that still counts as having “working mom” experience. I think meal planning is vital for those who work, even if it’s just part time.

You have no time to be running to the store for forgotten ingredients and if you’re a mom you want to maximize your time with your kiddos, not be spending extra time in the kitchen trying to figure out what to make for dinner at the last minute.

A bowl of gazpacho with rice garnished with lime and cilantro

If you know what’s for dinner before you leave the house in the morning, I guarantee dinner prep will go much easier.

Here’s a list of tips to help the dinner hour run more smoothly and to help you serve meals that have the maximum nutrition possible:

  1. Make a plan, make a plan, make a plan. Choose a meal planning method that works for you. You’ll love yourself later!
  2. Form a relationship with your slow cooker. You can even assemble many recipes at night, refrigerate the whole doggone slow cooker insert, and start the thing running in the morning.
  3. Use your Instant Pot. Any electric pressure cooker will give you a meal that normally takes hours to cook in much less time. Most slow cooker recipes can be converted to Instant Pot recipes, too.
  4. Wash a lot of fruits and veggies at once and have them out for easy snacking.
  5. Cut veggies in the evening for the next few days (for side dishes and to go into the meals you have planned). They may lose a few nutrients, but that’s much better than you losing your mind or not including fresh vegs because you don’t have time to chop them up between work and dinner. You can even freeze some easy prep foods so you’re always ready to cook with them.
  6. OR…spring for pre-cut veggies in the deli section. You kind of have to figure in some cost of convenience if you’re going to work full time, and if there’s a choice between not eating veggies or spending a little extra to have someone else cut them, I think it’s worth the cash.
  7. Learn to add extra veggies and beans to easy meals like spaghetti and tacos so your family gets the nutrient boost and you get the quick-and-easy meal.
  8. Hard-boil eggs for the week while you’re cooking dinner one night. They are great healthy additions to school lunches, salads, and quick egg salad sandwiches.
  9. Plan work-intensive meals for Saturday and Sunday and quicker meals for weeknights. Lots of people even prepare multiple meals on the weekend and serve them up on a weeknight.
  10. C.O.S.T. (Cook Once, Serve Twice):  figure out how to make twice the meat for certain meals that can be used the following day in an easy meal: roast chicken in wraps, ground beef in spaghetti, grilled meat on a salad, roast beef in a soup…you get the idea. There are all sorts of ways to employ the “Cook Once, Serve Twice” strategy. Get creative and intricate with your meal planning and you can use all sorts of items twice in one week with once the amount of effort!
  11. A lot of the recommendations here at Kitchen Stewardship® are not impossible for working moms. You can make chicken stock in the Instant Pot and leave it on the slow cook function all day, even when you’re gone (stay-at-home moms aren’t always home to tend the stock either!). You can soak dry beans during the day when you’re gone, too. The Instant Pot is a great way to make broth and beans in the evening if you’re not comfortable leaving things cooking while you’re gone.
Added Bonus:  It’s nice and easy to have the main part of your meal (the broth or beans) hot and ready when you walk in the door. You can whip up a quick soup in no time with the chicken and broth ready to go. Many people have success with both these items in the slow cooker, too, if leaving your range on while you’re gone makes you nervous.
  • You can also make homemade yogurt, starting it after you get home from work and putting it in the fridge before leaving for work the next morning.
  • Make double meals and freeze the extra.
  • Some of your savings here can cover the cost of convenience in other areas. Just make sure convenience isn’t a trade for nutrition!

    Convenience foods that are still nutritious:

    • pre-cut salads, romaine or spinach (stay away from iceberg) or organic leaf lettuce
    • baby carrots (even if they are a bit higher in sugar, better than no carrots at all!)
    • frozen vegetables (stay away from canned)
    • brown instant rice:  from what I understand, the nutrition is just slightly less in instant rice than long grain…but still better to use the real stuff if you can. Again, better to have brown, whole grain instant rice than plain white rice if you don’t have the 45 minutes to cook long grain brown rice.
    • some pre-cooked meats, like frozen grilled chicken. Learn to check the ingredients for fillers and junk. If it’s just “chicken” and/or matches the ingredients on the raw breasts you would buy anyway, I say go for it.
    • Hummus dip for veggies, but do check the ingredients
    • canned beans
    • Plain whole milk yogurt: I usually make our homemade yogurt every week, but Green Valley Organics brand yogurt and kefir are definitely up to my standards and really delicious.
    • Jerky and meat sticks: US Wellness Meats has some good Beef Snack Sticks, and my family loves Paleo Valley’s meat sticks.
    • JoshEWEa’s Garden granola and almond butter: JoshEWEa’s Garden is one of the few true traditional foods companies out there that won’t cause you an ounce of compromise. Soaked grains and nuts are not easy to find pre-prepared!
    • Canned tuna from Vital Choice
    If menu planning, especially keeping all the meals nourishing, seems daunting to you, you may want to check out a menu planning software that will do it for you, the way YOU want it, like Real Plans. You’ll get recipes, shopping lists, and the ability to swap, delete and change recipes as well as telling the system what foods your family doesn’t eat.

    What If You’re Just Too Tired?

    Maybe you have the time to prepare and cook healthy meals, but you just don’t have the energy.

    When I’m pregnant, particularly during the first trimester, I just don’t feel like standing on my feet, planning meals, chopping vegetables, baking anything, or cooking. I just want to eat food.

    Here’s how I feed my family nourishing food when I’m just too tired for anything that means standing in the kitchen for any length of time.

    What are your quick and easy meal solutions when you’re just too busy?
    What to eat when you re too busy to think
    Unless otherwise credited, photos are owned by the author or used with a license from Canva or Deposit Photos.

    20 thoughts on “What to Eat When You’re Too Busy to Think! (aka Meal Planning for Busy People)”

    1. Thanks so much for sharing this info. I am in my 3rd trimester, 2 boys, and a hubby who need to eat gluten free and healthy. Though we end up at Chipotle quite often:( we are in the middle of packing up the house for our move next week. So we probably have at least we weeks more of trying to figure out what to eat…thank you so much from your help. Going to try those coconut crepes for wraps and boiling some eggs, and being okay with making hamburgers etc. Thanks again

    2. We have cut out mayo – my husband can’t have eggs – so our wonderful substitute in tuna or salmon salad sandwiches/wraps is avocado. Talk about a brain healthy change! Making this meal very nutrient dense and simple to prepare.

    3. Salmon: Just put it in a shallow casserole dish in the oven (skin side down), pour a sauce over it.

      400 degrees, 25-30 minutes is what I recall as being about right for doneness. If your sauce has sugar, you may want 375 degrees for 35-45 min.

      I used to just slap the salmon in my 13X9, pour A-1 over top and smear it around, and 30 minutes later, amazingness. So natural foodies can try to find an A-1 alternative. My thinking was always that a sauce would prevent dry-out. So far I haven’t ever had dry fish.

      Another sauce I use is a can of coconut milk in a small saucepan, grate in ginger and/or garlic (or try powdered spices in a pinch), add chili powder. Pour that over your salmon and bake it. Then right when you take it out of the oven, sprinkle fresh chopped basil on top. To die for!

      1. Oooo – I have a few cans of coconut milk with no plan for them AND fresh basil! Might have to try that, although I’ve always been more nervous about baking fish than pan-frying, dryness/overdone-wise. I’ll trust you! 🙂 Katie

    4. It sounds like you guys are in for a crazy but memorable time! 2 out of our 4 children were born when we were selling/moving houses. Both of the two we had to move within two weeks of the babies being born, so hopefully you won’t be having to do that! I am loving all the recipes that you have here; my family is especially loving them! I hope you are able to stay cool during this last trimester.

    5. About your dream kitchen: I have a relatively small kitchen but a huge dining room, 15 feet square! So we put the dining table in the middle of the dining room, and each corner is a different mini-area: my computer desk, my son’s desk, game/sewing table, and bookshelf corner. My computer desk is the L-shaped type that’s supposed to face into a corner, but we placed it with one side against the wall and one side jutting into the room; then we placed a bookcase with its back against the desk and another bookcase against the wall, so we have an L of bookcases and an L of desk on that side of the room. It works really well because each of those corners of the room has a door in it that prevents the furniture from going into the corner of the walls.

      Anyway, my point is that my computer desk is *just outside* the kitchen, so I can hear the timer and jump up to stir occasionally and all that, but I don’t need a huge kitchen, and the computer is more protected from steam, grease, and crumbs!

    6. Yes on the eggs! Thank goodness there are a million things you can do to an egg. Weigh them, they’re cheaper/lb than beef or chicken for protein. One of the first kitchen tutorials my kids go through is “how to crack an egg.”

    7. I will be going back to teach part time in the fall and I could REALLY use this program. I’ve always been good at organizing my meals but now since I work at home everything has gone to hell in hand basket!

    8. I’m big on tuna salad. We like ours with sourdough wasa crackers or organic blue corn tortilla chips. My hubby likes it plain jane – so no veggie chopping!

      Any form of breakfast for dinner usually whips up pretty quickly. Eggs any way, bacon from my farmer’s market, new potatoes shredded and cooked in a cast iron skillet. Yum! If I’ve forgotten to soak my flour, I’ll use some of the sprouted wheat flour I keep on hand for emergencies and whip up pancakes with real maple syrup. mmmm… I’m getting hungry and I just finished breakfast!

    9. I’m with you on that, Rebekah! It seems like our meals for 2 would easily feed a normal family of 4 (assuming that 2 of those people are under the age of 8!).

      Makes me wonder how we’ll ever stretch that grocery budget when the little ones come along…

    10. p.s. I agree, eggs are great for an “I don’t know what to do” meal. Frittata and quiche show up often our dinner table, or omelets when I have less time!

    11. Oh my. I’m very impressed that 12 ounces of salmon was enough for the four of you. My husband and I ate 12 ounces between us last night! (He had 8 ounces, I had 4.) It’s tough to feed my hardworkin’ man. Sometimes I get discouraged when I read about what other people spend on groceries, and how little they seem to get away with eating, but then I remember that I have a husband who is young, has a very high metabolism, and does manual labor all day. He easily eats twice as much as I do. haha 🙂

    12. Jen @ Oh no! I really do need to eat my vegetables!

      I hear ya on the no-time-think! We’ve been doing house stuff too – every day working away and food has been a last minute thought. Here and there I’ve remembered to soak oatmeal or lentils or beans… and I’ve stayed up late different nights cleaning bones so there is still stock in the diet.. but I’ve been very grateful for meals I discovered in the freezer and huge salads that we eat all week. Not that I haven’t broken down and driven through somewhere. Usually if I can get in a cooking day once a week I feel more sane.

    13. Most of my meals are cooked when I’m “too busy to think” as I don’t get home from work until 5:30 and we try to eat by 6 or 6:30! (Not to mention, it’s my 3-yo’s cranky time…) I also do a lot of pasta dishes with easy marinara sauce or alfredo sauce and chicken/shrimp/hamburger.

    14. You mention Meijer Organics refried beans… yum! Have you also noticed that their Organics and Naturals canned tomatoes are not in BPA lined cans? Love it!

      1. Jeanne,
        Really???? Actually, I had not noticed that. Wow. Is it on the package? I’m totally impressed. Thanks! 🙂 Katie

        1. It doesn’t say so on the package, I was just pleasantly surprised when I opened a can… I hope that wasn’t a fluke or a temporary packaging choice!

    15. I had a similar experience of cooking salmon for the very first time two weeks ago. It too turned out just right and everyone was happy! It is an easy fish to prepare! 🙂

    16. Barefeet In The Kitchen

      Your “best scrambled eggs” are still my boys favorite eggs. We call them Power Eggs though. 😉

      Love all of these meal ideas. I just made a few notes for myself. Thanks!

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