Don’t know what to make for dinner? Sometimes it can seem like there’s “nothing” to eat. Nothing easy jumps out at you. This list of easy meals will change how you eat on those nights.
With a dozen easy dinner ideas and multiple variations of each, you’ll never be stumped for what to make for dinner. You can even print off the included cheat sheet so that dinner inspiration is always at hand.
Estimated reading time: 12 minutes
It’s happened to all of us. You return home famished after a hard day full of grumbling coworkers, whiny children, and sluggish traffic. You scurry into the kitchen to grab a bite to eat and upon glancing in the fridge, you realize there’s nothing to eat.
Well, maybe not nothing.
We exaggerate, of course, when we say there’s nothing to eat. You have food in the fridge, but nothing jumps out at you and says, “I am what to make for dinner!”
When we say there’s “nothing to eat”, what we mean is… There’s nothing easy to make.
Along with the thought comes a flood of others:
- I don’t have time to make dinner.
- I’m too tired to cook.
- I don’t want to eat out.
You find yourself in a quandary. You need to get dinner on the table, but the overwhelm? Well, it’s up to your chin.
Plus, you’re getting hangry.
Dinnertime doesn’t have to be this way.
You can have a meal plan and stick to it like glue. But let’s be real. Life happens. You can count on life to have plans of its own.
But what to make for dinner?!
I’ve found myself in this situation on more than one occasion. It was mentally exhausting — and weary on the budget. To conquer it, I developed a list of 12 back-up meal plans of what to make for dinner, so I wouldn’t be tempted to run to In-n-Out Burger one more time.
This list contains 12 easy meals which come together quickly from ingredients you most likely keep on hand regularly. In this way, when you don’t want to or can’t follow your meal plan, you have a Plan B to fall back on.
As much as I do love a Double-Double, protein style….
I decided not to freak myself out wondering what to make for dinner; instead I’d choose something from the list, knowing it would work for my family.
These family-favorite meals can fit any budget. They are super flexible and allow you to make good use of regularly affordable pantry staples.
Since they come together in 30 minutes or less, they are clearly what to make for dinner on those chaotic nights.
Rice Bowls are so easy and versatile. You can top them with whatever little bits of meat, cheese, beans, and veggies you have on hand.
Depending on which rice you buy, dinner can be ready in 20 to 45 minutes. Cook some rice, assemble your toppings, and get to good eating!
- protein (cooked meats, beans, shredded cheese)
- vegetables (fresh or sauteed)
- toppings (cheese, salsa, sour cream, Asian dipping sauces)
See how many different ways you can top a rice bowl!
Pasta and Red Sauce
Homemade sauces are freezer-friendly so it’s easy to always have a pint or two in the freezer. The sauce thaws quickly in a pan on the stove top, and pasta can be cooked in a jiffy.
But, even without a frozen cache of sauces, you can prepare any number of pasta dishes in a matter of minutes with what you’ve got on hand.
- red sauce
- a veg or two to serve on the side
- Parmesan or Asiago cheese for sprinkling.
Quesadillas are a regular stand-by around here. If hubs and I go on a date night, quesadillas serve as an easy meal the older kids can fix themselves with little prep work and easy clean up.
We adults prefer a little something more than cheese and tortilla, so I often add grilled meat or chicken or some sauteed vegetables. Salsa, guacamole, and sour cream are favorite for dipping.
Again, you can raid the fridge for little bits of leftovers to tuck into a tortilla. You’ll find all kinds of delicious combinations!
This black bean and sweet potato quesadilla will amaze you.
- shredded cheese
- toppings such as sour cream, salsa, guacamole
- cooked meat or vegetables for extra filling
Grilled Cheese Sandwiches
The breadier counterpart to the quesadilla is the grilled cheese sandwich. These come together in a flash with a panini press or an electric griddle.
Keep an extra loaf of bread in the freezer and a block of cheese in reserve in the fridge. Let your leftovers guide you to beef up your grilled cheese.
Serve with fruit or veggie dippers on the side.
- sliced bread
- side dishes
You can please the masses with a sandwich bar. Slice up whatever veggies and pickles you have on hand as well as cheese.
For extra protein you can add a few cans of tuna, a few hard cooked eggs, or whatever cooked meats you might have on hand.
- fruit and veggie dippers
Snacky Lunch or Dinner
We sometimes serve this on purpose for special occasions, like New Year’s. But, if it’s a regular old week, I’ll dig around in the fridge until I’ve found enough mocktail/cocktail foods to fill people up.
You’d be surprised with what fun additions you can come up!
- hard cooked eggs
- nuts and seeds
- fruits and veggies
- bread and crackers
- other appetizer foods
Put your favorite pizza toppings on a tortilla, bagel, french bread, pita, or even an English muffin and run it through the broiler for a quick pizza. So easy, it’s not even funny.
For a low carb option, I top large portobello mushrooms or zucchini boats with sauce, meat, and cheese.
- flat breads (tortilla, bagel, pita, lavash, naan, or french bread) or vegetable base
- favorite sauces and toppings for pizza
Breakfast for Dinner
Breakfast is an easy fix — any time of the day. Fry a few eggs, toast a few slices of bread, stir up some pancakes. Easy!
- pancakes (you can make your own mix!) or waffles
- hash browns
- cereal and/or oatmeal
- sausage or bacon
Quickest Chili in the West
Chili can be such a quick and easy comfort food; you’ll only need about 20 minutes for The Quickest Chili in the West. You can even tuck in a few leftover veggies and meat to use up what you have and avoid waste.
Add cheese, sour cream and chips for a filling supper. Wrap the leftovers up in tortillas a night or two later.
- canned beans
- crushed tomatoes
Chicken Noodle Soup
My kids love chicken noodle stuff. They have rarely had the canned version because homemade Chicken Noodle Soup is so easy and economical.
If you keep cooked chicken in the freezer (or buy canned) it is an easy weeknight supper. Use up leftovers from a roast chicken or turkey.
- egg noodles
- chicken broth or stock
- cooked chicken
- zucchini and/or carrot
Thursday Night Soup
Making soup from leftovers is one of the easiest meals to pull together. Thursday Night Soup offers the direction you need as well as the freedom to improvise. You can prepare a tasty soup from almost nothing.
- tomato paste or sauce
- broth or water
- leftover meat and vegetables
Nachos can be an appetizer, but they can be what to make for dinner. With so few ingredients, a pan of nachos comes together in a flash. Don’t hesitate to toss on leftover veggies and meats you might have in the fridge.
- enchilada sauce
- sour cream
How to Create Your Own List
Chances are you’ve got some family favorites built around staple ingredients, your very own list of what to make when you lack inspiration or a plan. Write down those menu plans so you’ll have a catalog to draw from.
Don’t worry if they don’t seem like a “real meal”. Neither does a Big Mac.
Having this list of 12 Easy Meals to Make will help you get over the rough patches when dinner doesn’t seem like it will happen any time quick.
You still won’t want to go out to eat, but only because you’ll some easy meals to enjoy at your own kitchen table!
To make it easier for you to create a list, I’ve put together a quick and easy worksheet to help you track your easy meal ideas and the ingredients you’ll need to keep on hand so those ideas can become easy meals.
- Download the printable worksheet. (When you subscribe to the free Good Cheap Eats newsletter, I’ll send you access to our free resource library.)
- Print out the worksheet. Any paper will do.
- Post the worksheet in your kitchen somewhere, maybe in the pantry where you’re sure to see it on those nights when you’re stumped for a meal idea.
- You may also want to keep a picture of the list on your phone for easy reference while grocery shopping.
- Stock up on the basic ingredients so you have them on hand next time you’re not sure what to do.
How to Get More Organized in the Kitchen
A quick list of easy meals will come in handy when you don’t know what to make for dinner. Trust me. But what if you could be more with-it in the kitchen? All the time?!
What if you had a plan for feeding your family — and yourself — in a way that didn’t stress you out?
What if you walked into your kitchen every day, confident that you’d be able to pull off great meals without freaking out?
What if you could grocery shop, knowing that you could stay on budget and have everything you needed for the week’s meals?
I designed the Good Cheap Eats Club to help you do this — and more. Each month, we work together to iron out the kinks in your kitchen systems so that you never, and I mean, never, find yourself standing in front of the fridge wondering what to make.
Not only that, you’ll learn to save both money and time so you aren’t chained to the stove.
Click here to find out more details about the club.
What do you think?
What do you do when you don’t know what to make for dinner. Tell us what’s on YOUR list so we can add it to ours.
This post was originally published on September 17, 2012. It has been updated for content and clarity.