Gone are the days when I’d wrap up a day of work and pop over to the local grocer in search of the plumpest produce before letting it guide me to an inspired meal on a Tuesday night. (Yes, I tend to romanticize the past. Why do you ask?) These days, it’s a whole lot of “re-order previous cart” clicks and mining the pantry for the last of the applesauce pouches. Guys. I joined Costco last month JUST SO I could stock those applesauce pouches IN BULK. My cookbooks gather dust and even last week’s favorite meals are locked tight in a safe called “mom brain,” which leads me to search for quick dinner ideas for families on the reg.
But here’s the thing: I don’t feel bad about it. I used to lament this former me who believed I’d never raise picky eaters as I bragged about how my baby once ate curry and isn’t that impressive? I know now that this is a season and personally, it is more important to me that my children grow up with a healthy relationship with food, even if it does mean we cycle through a lot of the same stuff.
There’s so much advice out there about how to feed your children nourishing meals and you’re empowered to make those decisions for your family. But what I will share are a few ideas and tools that help me and mine stay fed on those nights when everyone’s hangry, no one wants the same thing, and you just want to feel like a human eating a meal.
Featured image by Emma Bassill
What should I make my family for dinner tonight?
It’s the question we ask ourselves nearly every day. The goal is not to remove it but to make the decision easier. Perhaps that means a meal-planning system like themed nights (Pasta Monday, Taco Tuesday, etc.) or just a simple look ahead to the next day before you head to bed. But no matter the system, where do you pull from when you’ve got literal millions of weeknight dinner recipes within the click of a Google search?
Let me tell you about a little something best-selling author Kendra Adachi (aka The Lazy Genuis) has coined, “brainless crowdpleasers.” It’s exactly what it sounds like: meals that require little to no thought that everyone likes. I keep a running list on my phone of those rare meals that sit smack dab in the middle of my family’s Venn diagram of interests.
Some examples are the obvious: pizza, breakfast for dinner, some variation of a taco or quesadilla, spaghetti, etc. It’s simple stuff and that’s the point. When I’m making a meal plan, I slide some of those babies in first and smile, knowing I’ll be mentally stable for at least a few nights that week. Determine your own brainless crowdpleasers and don’t you feel bad for ONE SECOND if it’s a frozen meal from Trader Joe’s.
What is the easiest thing to cook for dinner?
To most people, “easy” means fast with little prep. For parents of young children, easy also means everyone is likely to eat it or some portion of it. And I’ll be honest, that’s where it becomes difficult to curate a list of family-friendly dinner ideas that everyone will like. Because maybe your child still enjoys the occasional curry whereas mine has moved on to dipping strawberries in ketchup (A REAL THING SHE DOES).
So, here’s something I do—maybe it will work for you, too. Personally, I enjoy cooking with seasonal ingredients and trying new recipes. The seasonal stuff works for my kids because the ripest fruit is also the sweetest. The new recipes? Not so much. But instead of writing it off completely, I give myself permission to offer them a version of whatever I’m cooking alongside a few sides I know they will eat. This generally includes fruit and certain veggies, with the occasional addition of hummus, cheese, yogurt, bread, and/or whatever adds up to a well-balanced meal.
Ahead, I’m laying out a few ideas and thought-starters for you to try should your well of quick family dinner ideas feel completely dry.
Soups For All
Make it Kid-Friendly: I LOVE a good soup but my kids are hit or miss. My workaround? Making a soup that requires toppings I know they’ll enjoy. Two words for this one: chips and cheese. Any soup that can be topped with chips and cheese makes it a little more likely they’ll give it a shot. Be sure to involve them in the actual action of crunching chips over the bowl!
Make it Kid-Friendly: This soup is one of my favorite Camille Styles originals and I’m determined to include it in our family meal plans. While my kids aren’t crazy about broth-based soups, they do enjoy a handful of ingredients within the recipe (namely, chicken, noodles, and carrots). I just reserve those things for their little plates and include a small bowl of soup on the side.
Make it Kid-Friendly: Obviously, this vegan soup requires a not-so-vegan grilled cheese for dipping. I like to add some apples and honey and perhaps your kids will go for turkey or ham, as well.
Taco (Ish) Tuesday
Make it Kid-Friendly: My children will not deny me the occasional fish taco if I can help it! This kid-friendly “hack” might be a little far-fetched, but this is a judgment-free zone. I prepare the tacos as is for my husband and I then serve the kids fish nuggs. Everyone gets some form of fish, I just opt for the best I can find in the frozen aisle for the kiddos.
Make it Kid-Friendly: No matter what variation of tacos your kids will or will not eat, there are always sides and toppings. Chips, avocados, cheese, tomatoes, Mexican rice, or ground beef if you’re willing to offer a separate meat option.
Make it Kid-Friendly: Here’s one that genuinely is quick and easy (and it’s only five ingredients). If your kiddos aren’t fans of chicken or bell peppers, this is a hard one to hack. However, Mexican food is a staple in my house and if I eat fajitas while the kids have a quesadilla with a side of fajitas they may or may not touch, that works for us. (P.S. I like to set out a plate of raw peppers while I’m making this for the kids to “snack” on and it works every time.)
Quick Dinners For the Pasta Fans
Make it Kid-Friendly: The truth is my kids like pasta with butter, salt, and a splash of pasta water. This recipe allows me to alter it a tiny bit by adding a bit of lemon and cream as I slowly hack their palettes toward something more “summer in Italy.”
Make it Kid-Friendly: This is one of those pasta recipes that can be deconstructed should your child happen to enjoy a few of the ingredients separately. If they’ll go for the sausage but not the arugula, try swapping in a fruit or veggie you know they will enjoy.
Make it Kid-Friendly: I’m going out on a limb here, but it’s possible that your child likes veggies better when they’re roasted in the oven. Whether they do or don’t, this is another pasta dish that comes together SO fast—and it’s easily up to you how many veggies you include in their portion.
Easy Dinners You Can Put in a Bowl
Make it Kid-Friendly: Chicken Shawarma is, surprisingly, a brainless crowd-pleaser in my home. My husband and I love this chicken recipe and the kids love most of the sides I prepare to go with it: warm pita bread, hummus, cucumbers, and carrots. I always add a bit of chicken to their plate because you never know…
Make it Kid-Friendly: Consider this your “clean out the fridge” meal — and one of my favorite easy dinner ideas. I’m always trying to expose the kids to different foods, even if they choose the same things. But even touching something they’d never normally eat is a step in the right direction. Set out toppings and let them have fun creating their own bowl (Camille has a great formula here).
Breakfast For Dinner Ideas For the Whole Family
Breakfast is the most delicious meal of the day (FACT) so why not have it twice? It’s generally quick and easy to make on busy weeknights, and it totally redeems the cereal your kids smashed before school. Here are a few places to start.
Make it Kid-Friendly: The nice thing about muffins is everything. They taste delicious, bake up fast, and you might even have leftovers for breakfast or lunch boxes the next day. I’m always going through different varieties of recipes, but everyone in my family loves these Cranberry Orange Muffins and these One-Bowl Morning Glory Muffins. And don’t miss the best blueberry muffins on the internet. Serve alongside anything you and your kids like: eggs, fruit, avocado toast, bacon, sausage, hash, etc.
Frittata or Baked Eggs
Make it Kid-Friendly: If your kid doesn’t like eggs then there isn’t too much we can do with this one. (Mine only like them at dinnertime and not breakfast, the hooligans.) But if they do, then there’s a lot you can do with a baked egg or fritatta situation. Or even a quiche! Choose variations you like (I recommend these Baked Green Eggs With Roast Tomato & Chilli Salsa or these Mexican Baked Eggs) and do the same for your kids.
Make it Kid-Friendly: It doesn’t take much to make this beloved breakfast treat kid-friendly. Instead, it’s about what you add. Make it fruit, yogurt or eggs, and real deal maple syrup for the sweetest brinner of all. (PS: These protein-packed pancakes are winners.)
Make it Kid-Friendly: Here’s another one that can easily please everyone in the family. My kids LOVE a spread, and the same is true for me and my husband. Everyone chooses what they like and chances are high the kids will try something new.
Classics That Parents Secretly Like Anyway
We can act like we don’t like chicken nuggets but, fellow parents and caregivers, listen to me. We’re the only ones hurting when we lie to ourselves. So—plot twist—here are a few traditional “kid” dishes with a parent-friendly spin.
Pizza, The Real MVP
Make it Kid and Parent-Friendly: It’s hard to go wrong with pizza. Kids love it, parents love it, and it’s so dang easy to cater to different palates. One of my kids is currently off the sauce (literally) but instead of handing over cheesy bread, I put out a ton of toppings and encourage him to make a face on the dough. He 100% of the time adds ingredients he’d normally never touch and while he still picks them off before eating, I’m playing the long game here. And parents, may I highly suggest you eat this pie while the kids make their face pizzas. (P.S. Here are the best store-bought crusts.)
Elevated Pigs in a Blanket
Make it Parent-Friendly: Crescent dough may be a flavor gift from the gods but you know what feels slightly better than eating pastry from a can? Pizza dough. Here’s what you do: buy or whip up a pizza dough then roll it out into a rectangle. Slice eight pieces of dough across the width and roll up a smoked sausage or organic hot dog, beginning on one end of the sausage and slowly moving it toward the other. (AKA, wrap it like a mummy.) Brush the dough with an egg wash and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Serve with your ideal dipping sauce and veggies or fruit of choice. MAGIC, I tell you.
Make it Parent-Friendly: It’s one of those comfort foods you just can’t and should not quit. I’m not averse to a simple cheddar grilled cheese à la Chef, but grilled cheese is easy to upgrade with ingredients like tomatoes, bacon, pepper jam, pears, fresh basil—you name it.
Mac and Cheese
Make it Parent-Friendly: Speaking of cheese, it’s easy to turn up our noses and just imagine the microwavable Kraft stuff. But there is so much more to explore. This Vegan Cauliflower Mac & Cheese comes to mind.
Make it Parent-Friendly: Yes, I am on a cheese kick but honestly, when am I not? Here’s what you do: you buy superior cheese that you grate yourself so it’s not caked in non-melty stuff. And you stuff oversized tortillas with your cheese of choice and these pork carnitas. I’m telling you… heaven.