When B. and I first started budgeting, one of our biggest areas of problem spending was eating out. We were spending a LOT of money eating out and we weren’t even spending it on nice places or good meals- just on Taco Bell and McDonalds and other quick food that tasted ok but felt crummy. Generally, we would get busy, or stressed, or tired or hungry and eat out instead of cooking. Or the chicken wouldn’t be defrosted and then we had no idea what to do for dinner. Or I would forget to pick something up at the store. Basically, anytime that the meal plan fell apart due to time or circumstances, we would turn to fast food.
Enter the last minute meal. To those of you skilled at grocery shopping, cooking and meal planning, this post is going to seem like a “no duh” concept. For me, the idea of keeping ingredients on hand for fast, easy meals was a revolutionary concept (my father is probably shaking his head at this point- I should have definitely learned this from him).
Take tonight, for example. Just as I was about to walk out the door at work, the phone rang. It wasn’t a call I could ignore until tomorrow. By the time I got to daycare to pick up F., we were running twenty minutes behind. Dinner (grilled shrimp) was going to take at least 20-30 minutes to make and I wasn’t even sure the shrimp was actually defrosted (ha, it wasn’t). For those of you with toddlers, you’re probably wincing along with me. Meltdowns were imminent. I strongly considered just swinging by those happy golden arches. Enter the last minute meal.
Because my father is amazing, I have a shelf in my basement stocked with homemade, canned soup (pictured below- be jealous. Be very jealous). So tonight, I pulled out a jar of homemade soup, toasted up some bagels and cut up some melon. Was it the most nutritious dinner? Probably not. But it was ready in 10 minutes and I can guarantee that it was more nutritious and tasted better than McDonalds. And it didn’t cost me anything more than I’d already spent on the food we had on hand.
You need to have a stash of last minute meals. We’ve had weeks that ended up being so crazy busy that all we ate all week was last minute meals. There are three key characteristics to planning good last minute meals:
- They can’t be perishable– Last minute meals only work because you can keep the ingredients on hand somewhat indefinitely. Some frozen foods work as last-minute meals (see below) but refrigerated foods almost never do, since there’s no way to know when a last minute meal is going to be needed.
- They should take no more than fifteen minutes to make– The definition of last minute meals means that you’re in a time crunch. These meals should not include meat that needs defrosting or pretty much anything that needs to bake in the oven. That doesn’t exclude all frozen food though. For example, we keep a bag of frozen ravioli in the freezer on a regular basis, because it takes only five minutes to cook. And of course, a bag of chicken nuggets, because toddler.
- They should be something you regularly want to eat- So I’ll be honest- our bag of chicken nuggets has been in the freezer for a long time. I just don’t really like frozen chicken nuggets, so I almost never make them. Last minute meals are only effective if they’re actually something you want to eat.
Still need some inspiration? Here’s are some of our common last minute meals. All with things we usually have on hand that take less than 15 minutes to make.
6 Last Minute Meals
- Ravioli with Alfredo sauce– I prefer ravioli to straight pasta with sauce because ravioli has some protein (cheese or meat stuffed). So you get your protein without having to defrost any ground turkey. And I use doctored up store Alfredo sauce. It’s shelf stable and…not the worst?
- Breakfast for dinner- I always have eggs on hand (F is an egg fiend!), so some nights, I’ll just make eggs, toast and fruit/cut up veggies for dinner.
- Soup– Soup, toast and fruits is a fast and easy meal. If you buy it from the store, look for a low-sodium variety. If you make it yourself, use a pressure canner! (regular water bath canners don’t get hot enough to kill all the bacteria, so you can give yourself botulism. Use a pressure canner. PLEASE use a pressure canner). I don’t recommend making and freezing soup for last minute meals because the thawing process often takes longer than fifteen minutes.
- Chicken nuggets and tater tots– These take about 15 minutes in the oven to heat up. The best I can say for this meal is that it’s food and my toddler will eat it.
- Semi-homemade pizza– I usually have a store-bought pizza crust and the makings for pizza on hand. The mozzarella cheese and pepperoni both have a pretty long life in the refrigerator, so it’s not hard to keep them on hand (plus I use shredded mozzarella in a LOT of other things, so ti’s pretty much a staple around here). The store-bought crust I get from Wally World cooks in 8 minutes.
- Quesadillas– These are great for using up any random vegetables you might have laying around. I mix that with a can of black beans, a little shredded cheese (whatever you have on hand, I always seem to have two-three bags of shredded cheese laying around) and bam- quesadillas. Tortillas have a pretty long shelf life, so they generally last for awhile.
So there you have it. Like I said before- none of these meals are going to win any nutrition awards, but they’re definitely cheaper and probably healthier than eating out. What are some of your favorite last minute meals?