Building Back to School Basics: Weeknight Dinners

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Building Back to School Basics: Weeknight Dinners

Dance practice Monday, ball practice Tuesday, school event Wednesday, music rehearsal Thursday, and game on Friday. Do you relate to this weekly schedule for your family? Burning fuel driving from one place to the next, time running out to get everything done on your to-do list, and to make one thing simpler that night you pull into the fast and convenient food establishment. We have all been there! With a jam-packed schedule trying to do the best for our families, time can slip away to plan for healthier meal options during the week.

It is becoming more customary for families to eat out vs having a meal at home. A National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) found that between 2015-2018, over one-third of children and adolescents consumed a fast-food meal on a given day. From 2017-2020, the CDC reported the prevalence of childhood/adolescent obesity at 19.7%, which is around 14.3 million 2-19 year-olds being affected. From a fast-food industry standpoint, their business plan is great for reaching those in a rush, but it is not reaching the nutritional needs of families. These statistics are not meant to place shame or guilt on a parent/guardian who is trying to do their best. Give some love to yourself, and your children, but also to the food you eat. Sometimes it requires tips and tricks that help in the action of meal planning healthier dinners that have the same quick convenience as the fast-food establishments.

Finding time to meal plan and prepare can only be a sustainable action when you find what motivates you. Is it making sure your children get all their nutrients, making healthier family habits, having more control over what goes into your food, or spending less on eating out? Try taking it a bite at a time to find what schedule and recipes work best for your family.

MyPlate Meal Planning Tips:

  1. See what you have. Take stock of what you have in your freezer, cabinets, and refrigerator that can be used to plan meals.
  2. Map out your meals. Write out meals, beverages, and snacks on a calendar or piece of paper and use it as a guide to stay on track. Have it in a place where everyone in the family can see it.
  3. Make it MyPlate. Plan the meals to fit the five food groups- fruits, vegetables, grains, lean proteins, and low-fat dairy or fortified soy products. Watch the nutrition facts label for hidden added sugars, saturated fats, and sodium.
  4. Think about your schedule. On that same meal calendar or paper, write down your weekly events. Visualizing which nights are busier, can help you determine a game plan for when you will prepare the meals. Maybe on the slower weekends, you choose to prepare the sides- including whole grains, vegetables, or beans.
  5. Make a grocery list. Go into the store with a game plan of the meals you will be making. Make a list of all the ingredients and mark off the ones you already have. Taking time to buy for the whole week will save you time.
  6. Make leftovers part of the plan. Prepare enough of the meal or side to eat multiple times or freeze some for a later date.

This recipe is one where you can prepare the rice or pasta side on the slower weekend and then prepare the remaining on the scheduled night. One reviewer said that the leftovers tasted even better. Can come together for a quick meal during the week when you follow your game plan!

Simple Chicken Creole

Makes 8 servings


1 tablespoon Vegetable Oil

2 Chicken Breasts (whole, skinless, boneless)

1 can Diced Tomatoes (14 ½ ounces, undrained)

1 cup Chili Sauce

1 large Green Bell Pepper, chopped

2 Celery stalks, chopped

1 Onion, chopped

2 Garlic Cloves, minced

1 teaspoon Dried Basil

1 teaspoon Parsley

¼ teaspoon Cayenne Pepper *

¼ teaspoon salt

*reduce spice according to family preference.


  1. Heat pan over medium-high heat (350 degrees in an electric skillet). Add vegetable oil and chicken and cook until the chicken reaches an internal temperature of 165°F. Use a food thermometer to check.
  2. Reduce heat to medium.
  3. Add tomatoes with juice, chili sauce, green pepper, celery, onion, garlic, basil, parsley, cayenne pepper, and salt.
  4. Bring to a boil; reduce heat to low and simmer, covered for 10-15 minutes.
  5. Serve over hot, cooked rice or whole wheat pasta.
  6. Refrigerate leftovers within 2 hours.

N.C. Cooperative Extension’s goal is to provide the community’s residents with research-based knowledge. For more information on nutrition, health, food preservation, and food safety in Lee County please contact the Family and Consumer Sciences Agent, Ashley Szilvay at 919-775-5624.