How To Put Real Food On The Table Even When You’re Strapped For Time

How To Put Real Food On The Table Even When You're Strapped For Time

Feeding my family real food has been one of my highest priorities. And with having 6 kids, it hasn’t always been fun. It’s taken a lot of work and I’ve had to adjust my methods every time there is a change in our life; sports, new baby, trips, etc.

Many times I am tempted to just order pizza or buy boxes of meals that can be thrown together, but being the nerd that I am, I always calculate the cost. Buying boxes of Hamburger Helper always seems to end up being more than if I just purchased the groceries to make my own goulash. And whenever I look at how much we would spend on pizza- well, we could have a yummy seafood meal for that price!

There are times when I would give in and spend the $40 on pizza, and of course, the whole family enjoys it. (Why do they eat so much more when it’s pizza?? 5 slices for a 5-year-old? Seriously!?)

Part of what helps me is comparing the cost of real food vs. junk food, but then also, if I am tired and don’t want to put out the effort to cook, often I am hungry right then and pizza is still going to take at least 30 minutes to get to us. Most of the meals I make can be done in 30 minutes, so…

I can’t justify in my mind spending more money and not saving any time, only to eat food that is subpar. So, I will cook.

During the really busy seasons of our lives, I’ve had to rely on a few tricks:

Planning out meals is extremely helpful.

I love spreadsheets and charts, I like having breakfast, lunch, and dinner planned out, having a grocery list that’s organized by category, etc. The most helpful for me was to sit down and plan out a whole month. It took time, but honestly, not as much time as I used to spend wandering around the kitchen thinking “The kids are hungry. Again. What am I going to feed them this time??” Even if I didn’t have my whole month planned out, having a list of all the meals that I could make was helpful. It saved me from cooking the same thing every single night. Click here for a full course on how to create your own menu plan.

When I have a baby I make the same 4 meals all the time.

For some people, this is going to seem way too boring. But here’s the thing: having a new baby is a lot of work. Making dinner for a large family is a lot of work. To avoid being overwhelmed, I was willing to eat the same thing every week. I think the older generation had a lot of wisdom in their “Meatloaf Monday” and “Taco Tuesday” method. When you make the same thing, it means you always have to purchase the same thing at the store. It simplifies shopping and there are only 4 things to choose from when it comes time to cook, so it simplifies the decision making as well.

You can also find meals that are simple and have limited ingredients so they go together quickly and you can guide children in making them if they are helping out. Click here for 50 3-ingredient dishes.

Make a double batch of everything.

It doesn’t take very much time to double the amount of food you’re cooking. And when you have a double batch, that means 2 meals. Either put it in the freezer or serve it later. I personally don’t mind eating the same 2 days in a row. My week might look like this: cook on Monday night, eat leftovers Tuesday, cook Wednesday, eat leftovers on Thursday, cook Friday, eat leftovers on Saturday, etc.

Sure, the kids might get bored with the same meals, but they still eat because they are hungry and there isn’t anything else to eat. (My husband has never complained- but I’m the one that lives to eat, he’s the one that eats to live, so it works for him.)

I make a double batch of breakfast foods as well. Pancakes and french toast can be reheated in a toaster. Baked oatmeal and rice pudding are great served cold. Breakfast sausage is easy to grab and reheat.

Teach the children to work, and put anyone else in the house to work.

I taught the kids how to chop veggies, stir food, open cans, grease pans, they can get food items out of the fridge and put items back in again. They can set the table, clear the table, put leftovers away and wash the dishes. If there is a baby in the house, someone is appointed babysitter while I cook dinner. Sometimes that means they have to sit outside with the baby, play with him, read books or when he was really little, just sit and hold him (or wear him in a wrap), because it was easier for me to cook if the baby was occupied. Before I had older kids, I used a baby swing for that. (I really hate how much room a baby swing takes up, so once I had children old enough to hold the baby for me, I haven’t had a swing in the house.)

Once my husband got home from work, if I was still cooking, I would ask for his help, either he would take over the baby-watching or he would cook alongside me. I really enjoy visiting about our days while cooking together.

My kids have friends over, and that still doesn’t stop me. I just roll with it and teach the other kids how to do things. I have no doubt that it would be awkward at first to be a 15-year-old boy visiting a friend and ending up chopping tomatoes or grating cheese with their mother barking orders. But they keep coming back, so it must not be that bad! I really believe they are learning something important and they can visit while they work instead of zoning out in front of a video game.

Have a routine.

I start cooking at 4 PM every day. I actually have a preset alarm on my phone, so at 3:50 PM it chimes, telling me I need to start dinner preparations. I try to be home and have everything else on my to-do list is done (cleaning routines, homeschool, etc.). Also, with having a cleaning routine, it means that the dishes were done after breakfast and lunch, so the kitchen is ready. Just having dishes done after every meal makes a huge difference in how easy it is to prepare dinner. If you need help implementing routines, check out Jumpstart Your Decluttering.

Follow theΒ 80/20 rule.

We eat really good healthy food 80% of the time and 20% of the time, I don’t worry about it. It means when we go to a birthday party, my kids will eat cake and ice cream. If we had obvious issues with certain foods, then I wouldn’t let them, but so far nothing has been that dramatic for us. I really prefer to avoid artificial food dyes, high fructose corn syrup, and rancid GMO oils, I don’t stress about it. The majority of what our family eats is good, and if they have the opportunity to eat junk food, of course, they will want to eat it. I don’t have the energy to let it control my life.

About the author, Rachel

Hi there! I’m Rachel Jones, and I founded Nourishing Minimalism in 2012 at the beginning of my minimalist journey. If you're looking for encouragement in your journey, I go live in my FREE Facebook Groups every weekday- feel free to join me there: Nourishing Minimalism Facebook Group


  1. Katherine on 03/12/2015 at 6:52 AM

    Thanks Rachel, It was me who asked you about this on facebook so thanks for doing a blog post on this. I really appreciate it! I know I am way too hard on myself so I need to ease up on that first. I used to menu plan monthly so should get back into that habit (I have a whiteboard in my larder). I think where I lost it was when I tried too hard to have fantastic variety. Thanks again!

    • Rachel on 03/13/2015 at 11:25 PM

      As mothers, we sure are hard on ourselves, aren’t we? πŸ™‚

  2. Jessica on 03/14/2015 at 12:22 PM

    I used to think I had to present a restaurant-quality gourmet meal every night to my family. I don’t. My family is just as happy with the nachos (chips spread with some homemade black beans, cheese, diced tomatoes, avocados, and cilantro–15 minutes from start to finish including cooking time) as they are with the fancy chicken dinner that took almost 2 hours to prepare. And I’m happy because my feet aren’t hurting. πŸ˜‰

    Or there’s always quesadillas with a green smoothie on the side! Voila, carb, protein, fat, and leafy green veggies in under 10 minutes. πŸ™‚

  3. Jena on 03/14/2015 at 2:02 PM

    Wonderful article with great tips! I especially like the 80/20 rule, which I do for my family as well. I think this is such an important point for families just starting out eating real food to recognize. There can be wiggle room and it is ok if we eat the rare unhealthy food.

  4. Merissa on 03/19/2015 at 12:59 PM

    Just perfect. I especially loved your 80/20 rule which helps keep things realistic.

  5. Josie on 04/23/2015 at 10:35 AM

    Thanks Rachel – it’s heartening to see the effort you put into feeding your family real food and you have great strategies for making it happen. I found you post very helpful as I have three small children and it can be quite a challenge as I also work out if the house 3 days a week. Meal planning, using the crock pot and keeping things pretty simple works for me. I also do time consuming ‘foundations’ for recipe on the weekends eg bone broth and tomato/vegetable sauce which both end up in many meals during the week.
    Blessing to you!

    • Rachel on 04/23/2015 at 10:58 AM

      Excellent idea to make intensive things on the weekends! Thanks Josie. πŸ™‚

  6. Anita on 03/04/2016 at 8:48 AM

    Hi Rachel,
    Just wondering what your 4 meals are and also if you start prepping dinner at 4pm, what time do you eat dinner. I have a 6 month old daughter who has just started eating solids. Exciting times πŸ™‚

    • Rachel on 03/04/2016 at 4:58 PM

      Hi Anita,
      It changes depending on time of year, etc. but tend to rotate through: Spaghetti, Stir Fry, Rice & Beans, Soup and Lentil Chili, or during the summer it’s tacos, fajitas, Hamburgers or sausage on the grill. We normally have easy sides- fresh veggies, steamed veggies, etc.

    • Rachel on 03/05/2016 at 12:49 PM

      And we eat at 5pm πŸ™‚

      • Anne-Marie on 05/26/2016 at 10:26 AM

        I don’t even get in with my 4 and 1 year old until 5.30pm. I could rustle up something in 30 minutes if they would leave me alone, but they don’t and It’s a nightmare! They most often just have toast and snacks then we do proper meals at weekends.

  7. Adrianna on 06/06/2017 at 4:45 PM

    I enjoy reading your articles! Decided to take the law school plunge, with a family. The kids are helpful and learned to be independent out of necessity more than I could’ve imagined. Cooking a big pot of soup on Sundays and having a plan works for us πŸ™‚

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