For busy families on a tight budget, the words "quick, easy and affordable" are music to the ears when it comes to planning weekly dinner menus. Stock your pantry with herbs, condiments and staples such as rice, pasta, beans and soups to pair on short notice with meats, fresh vegetables and dairy products. Dinner preparation can also be a fun, interactive experience if you recruit family members to help measure and mix ingredients.
Create your own salad, sandwich, taco or stuffed potato bar and invite family members to help themselves. For salads, put out a large bowl of lettuce, spinach or mixed greens and smaller bowls containing chopped veggies, hard-cooked eggs, grated cheeses and croutons. Offer a variety of salad dressings such as ranch, blue cheese and southwest chipotle. Display sandwich bar ingredients such as bread, deli meats and cheeses, lettuce, tomatoes and condiments. Serve chips or add a cup of soup. Make a large batch of taco meat and serve it alongside tortilla shells, shredded lettuce, chopped tomatoes, grated cheese, sour cream and salsa. The taco meat can be made in advance, put in the refrigerator or freezer and then reheated. For a potato bar, bake large russet potatoes and -- when cooled -- slice off the top third and scoop out the insides. Mix the potato with some butter, garlic and cream, or try ranch dressing for a new twist. Offer the potato mixture along with choices such as chopped broccoli, cheeses, bacon bits and diced cooked chicken to fill the scooped-out skins.
There are hundreds of varieties of pasta to which you can add sauces, herbs, cheeses, vegetables, meats and seafood for a filling entree. Many varieties of pasta take less than 10 minutes to cook. Add a salad with creamy dressing and garlic bread, and dinner is on the table. If you have more time, make a hearty lasagna with alternating layers of lasagna noodles, meat or vegetables, and cheese. Once the lasagna is placed in a 350 degrees Fahrenheit oven, cooking time is about 45 minutes.
Quiches and Frittatas
Quiches and frittatas look as if they might be a lot of work but are basically egg, grated cheese and cream custard mixtures to which are added meats or seafood, chopped vegetables such as spinach, broccoli, onions, black olives and asparagus, and herbs such as cayenne, garlic, cilantro, marjoram, thyme and parsley. Baking time in a 325 degrees Fahrenheit oven is about 50 minutes. A bonus aspect of quiches and frittatas is that if you have any left after dinner, they can be microwaved the next morning for breakfast.
Cream-based soups such as cream of tomato, mushroom, celery, chicken or potato are a mainstay of inexpensive casseroles. Add your choice of cooked meats, grated cheese and chopped vegetables along with rice, noodles or potatoes, and top with breadcrumbs. The baking time for many casseroles is between 20 and 30 minutes in a 350 degrees Fahrenheit oven. If it's challenging to get everyone around the table at the same time, prepare individual casseroles in 10-oz. ramekins or souffle dishes. Add a salad with an interesting dressing, such as a hickory bacon and onion, and some bread.