Meal planning saves a ridiculous amount of time, money, and STRESS! But what happens when that fails? How often do you find yourself going into the kitchen at dinnertime, open the fridge, and just stare. Then you move on to the cabinet or pantry, open that door, and stare some more. Back to the fridge…hmmm, maybe you missed something. There must be something you can throw together. Ordering pizza is suddenly sounding really good! Sound familiar? Well, I found a solution to this very problem! And it’s so simple and easy! And way cheaper and healthier than that pizza you were going to order.
Hey, I love to meal plan! It’s right up there with my love of list-making and organization. But even I find days where life takes over and I just am at a loss for dinner. And I struggled with this for years. But I discovered quite by accident such an easy solution. You see, when my daughter got married several years ago, we did everything ourselves. It was how we were able to have the wedding of her dreams without breaking the budget. Of course, that also included the food. Many of those items could be made ahead and frozen. It was great! But what really made me rethink how I make dinners at home came AFTER the wedding. We had food leftover, and into the freezer it went. Pulled BBQ pork was one of those things…and we sure had plenty left! So on any given night, I could simply pull out some pork, and we could have sliders, or pork nachos, or pork and rice bowls. I got pretty creative! And that got me thinking. Over the next several events…another daughter’s wedding (just 7 months later!!), a graduation party, even Christmas…I deliberately made extra meat.
What a time-saver! And so simple!
It actually changed how I not only plan parties, but how I plan dinners.
So, one of the best solutions to that, “Oh no! There’s nothing for dinner!” nights, is to have some precooked, frozen meal starters that I can pull from the freezer, thaw in the microwave, and put together with stuff I already have. Genius! Haha!
The best part of these meal starters? You can throw them together in minutes!
NO PLANNING NEEDED!!!
Well, OK, I guess you need a little planning since you actually have to make these starters ahead of time. But on that evening where you stand in the middle of your kitchen, baffled, and your kids are asking when’s dinner…these are PERFECT! And have saved me many, many times from ordering take-out or making boxed mac and cheese.
Please don’t be overwhelmed! You can do one a week, or spread them out over the course of a week or two…most go in the slow cooker, so they really only takes minutes to complete. Throw some meat in the slow cooker in the morning, and prepare and bag later in the day. You can even save out enough for dinner that night so you’re only cooking once.
So here are my tried-and-true meal-starters, and all the easy things you can do with them when you’re in a pinch for dinner.
How to Make Dinner Starters
Buy a club-sized package of ground beef (about 6 pounds). Cook this up in a large, deep skillet all at once. You really will need a deep pan. Drain fat, add either prepackaged taco seasoning and water, per package directions (4-6 packets, depending on preference), or add your own seasoning to taste. If you’ve never tried making your own, I simply add paprika, chili powder, cumin, and a little garlic powder. Then I add either taco sauce or salsa for the liquid. But hey, if this is all new to you, or are short on time, or simply want to make this as easy as possible, taco seasoning packets are the way to go! And they’re pretty cheap. So once this has cooled, divide into 6 quart-size freezer bags, and stick in your freezer.
Pulled BBQ Chicken
Again, buy a club-sized package (about 6 pounds). Put in a slow cooker on high for 4-6 hours. You don’t need to add anything else. I find that about 5 hours is good for my slow cooker…if you have a smaller one and have to pack the meat in, it takes a little longer. Also depends on just how hot yours gets. Just check it after about 4 hours; no pink, you’re good to go. Take the cooked chicken out, let it cool just a bit, and shred. You can do this with forks, but I find just pulling apart with my hands is fastest. Mix the chicken with BBQ sauce. I like Sweet Baby Rays, but use whatever you like. Divide into 6 quart-size freezer bags and freeze.
Pulled BBQ Pork
Get a bone-in pork shoulder; they’re pretty cheap. Slow cook on low for 10-12 hours (great to do overnight). Remove and let cool. Separate meat from fat and bone, shred, and mix with BBQ sauce. Divide into quart-size freezer bags.
6 pounds of chicken into the slow cooker. Add about half a bottle of Greek dressing (the oil and vinegar kind) and sprinkle with either Greek seasoning or Montreal Chicken Seasoning. Seasoned salt works well also. Cook on high 4-6 hours. Remove and let cool. Shred. Pack into 6 freezer bags.
6 pounds of chicken into the slow cooker. Add a jar of salsa and a packet of taco seasoning. Cook on high 4-6 hours. Remove. Cool. Shred. Into the freezer bags it goes.
Yep! Just good ol’ plain chicken! Same as above…cook/shred/freeze.
Now here’s the list of exactly what you can do with all that ready-to-go meat! And don’t feel like you have to have or use all these ingredients! Use what you’ve got!
How to Use Your Dinner Starters
Rice with taco meat- add corn, salsa, cheese, beans.
Rice with Greek chicken- add sauteed onions, chopped tomatoes, corn, and Italian dressing (um, yeah, Italian dressing. You’ll just have to trust me on this. You serve it warm and drizzle a little dressing over everything. It’s one of my kids all-time favorites!)
Rice with Mexican chicken- add cooked peppers, beans, salsa, corn, sour cream, tomatoes.
Tortillas filled with meat and cheese, folded in half, and grilled on both sides till lightly brown and cheese is melted.
With taco meat or Mexican chicken or plain chicken- add cheese and any (or none) of the following: olives, tomatoes, mushrooms, zucchini, peppers, corn, bacon pieces.
With BBQ chicken- add just cheese or throw in some onions or bacon.
Tortillas rolled around all sorts of good stuff!
With Greek chicken- olives, lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, and Greek dressing. With plain chicken- add cheese and lettuce and ranch (I tell ya, my kids live on these!!) or make chicken salad (just mix chicken with mayo and a little salt…and halved grapes if you’re any of my kids. Yes, it really does taste good!) and roll up with just lettuce.
With Mexican chicken- add some cheese and refried or black beans, and serve warm. With taco meat-add rice and beans and cheese and make burritos!
If you have lettuce and any other salad-ish stuff in the fridge, you can build any kind of amazing salad!
Taco salads-can throw in a few tortilla chips and salsa, and dressing (we like 1000 Island or Italian for this!)
Chicken salad- (any kind of chicken here) and again, with whatever dressing you like.
Well, whatever rolls you have will work!
Plain chicken- make chicken salad, and add pickles and lettuce.
Greek chicken- add some lettuce and dressing.
BBQ chicken or pork- just heat and serve on rolls as is or with pickles. And if you have a tube of biscuits or rolls, these will work too! (You can also make taco pockets with biscuits. Just divide each biscuit in half lengthwise, scoop on some meat and a little cheese, put the other half on top and seal the edges, and bake as directed. Yum!)
If you have chips, while this may not be the healthiest of dinners, it’s still quick and well, yummy!
Nachos- with taco meat, Mexican chicken, or even the BBQ chicken or pork (throw in some corn with these and they are delicious!)
Italian chicken- use plain chicken and add some spaghetti sauce and top with mozzarella, heat till cheese is melted and serve over pasta.
Primavera- Mix plain chicken and whatever veggies you have on hand with Alfredo sauce, and serve over any pasta.
So, there you have it! Tons of ideas, all leading to stress-free nights when dinnertime becomes an, “uh-oh-nothing-planned” kind of night. Which meat will you add to your grocery list to start making dinner easier? And what other meal ideas do you have that you can create with these starter meals? Let me know your suggestions!