10:00 p.m. It looks like a tornado has swept past my kitchen, but it is just the aftermath of an intense night of extracurricular activities. A backpack leans against a table. Homework folders that need to be signed lay atop it. My pocketbook and keys are thrown across the dirty kitchen table that has yet to be wiped down. Pungent dirty dishes line the countertops and fill the sink. We’ve just gotten my son to bed after a long night of a play rehearsal (his extracurricular activity of choice), and it’s close to 11:00 before I am done cleaning everything up and resetting for the next day.
Luckily, this scene is a distant memory. In the past, when Aidan had a long night at a rehearsal, I’d still try to cook a simple yet regular dinner so we could eat together early before heading out in order to avoid take out or fast food. Given the crunch between the bus stop, homework, and leaving the house on time to make his activities, my only choice was to leave the kitchen and dirty dishes a mess while gone and work on it late at night once we all got settled back home. After awhile of doing this, I realized there had to be a better way! As much as sitting down to a family dinner at the table is super precious to me, it’s pretty much impossible on certain nights when kids’ activities dictate otherwise.
It sounds so easy to pull into the drive through or throw a few Ritz crackers in your mouth and call it dinner on crazy activity nights, but convenience food can add up big time, and you owe your health and your sanity more than this if crazy nights are a regular thing. The whole family needs healthy fuel for energy and to make it through a sports season or whatever else everyone has going on. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a little fast food, but you need a sustainable plan for how your family will eat on crazy nights. (See my post on overall meal planning here as well as ways to help you eat out less here).
Enter the Dinner Picnic! Rather than spending money on overpriced takeout, create your own by prepping and packing portable dinners to eat “on the road” or at the sporting and/or extracurricular activity of the night. At first it might sound tedious to pack a second meal of the day after dutifully preparing your kids’ lunchboxes, but all it takes is a little forethought and food prep. The key is to find what works for you – maybe you can prep your picnic dinner before everyone wakes up in the morning, or the evening before if you’re a night owl, or you could even do a big Sunday cook for the upcoming week where you cut up fruits and veggies and cook some proteins to use for the days ahead. Nothing successful is sustainable without a plan, and if you can find a prep plan that works for your family, you will make great strides in eating healthier and alleviating some of the Crazy Night stress! Here are some of our tried and true ideas for busy night dinner picnics!
Grilled Cheese on a Stick: Prep a bunch of grilled cheese sandwiches as you regularly would. After cooling a bit, use kitchen scissors to cut up the sandwiches into small cubes. Before heading out, heat them up in the oven, then string onto wooden skewers or lollipop sticks. Pair with some carrot sticks or fruit for a yummy meal!
Grilled and/or Rotisserie Chicken: This versatile go-to can be used atop salads, or put into wraps or sandwiches for a quick meal. I love to pair grilled chicken slices with couscous and veggies for a cold or room temperature complete salad. You can grill off a bunch of chicken breasts all at once at the start of the week, then save to throw into your picnic dinner choices when needed. Rotisserie chicken is the greatest go-to tool in your easy dinner arsenal for similar uses. Check out how to make your own rotisserie style chicken here.
Make-Your-Own-Subs: Stock up on everyone’s favorite cold cuts, then pile them up in delicious sub or club rolls with cheeses, meats, and condiments of your choice. You can purchase this bread ahead of time during your larger shopping trip, freeze, and defrost the night before using. Pair with some chips or potato salad and you’re good to go!
Breakfast-for-Dinner Burritos: Cook a bunch of breakfast burritos in advance, wrap in plastic wrap, and freeze. They defrost easily and can be zapped in the microwave before leaving for the Crazy Night picnic. To make, all you have to do is combine your favorite breakfast items like scrambled eggs, sausage or bacon, cheese, and diced peppers and fill a flour tortilla, rolling into a burrito. That’s it!
Mini-Meatballs: Whether you make your own meatballs or buy frozen, these are a great picnic dinner option. Wrap in foil after warming or reheating for your on-to-go picnic. Little Tupperware containers of ketchup, red sauce, or BBQ sauce make great condiments.
Pizza Muffins: see my blog here on super easy pizza puffs that pack well and are fun to eat!
Chicken Salad: We love to make mini chicken salad sliders on sweet Hawaiian rolls for picnics. They pair great with pickle spears and potato chips or veggies for a complete on-the-go dinner.
Pasta Salad: Cold pasta salads are the easiest thing to prep and pack! You can make it a thousand different ways. Add some cubed ham for protein and peas for fiber. Change it up and use tortellini or even ravioli.
Turkey or Pepperoni Pinwheels: Pinwheels are a cute alternative to a traditional wrap. Simply lay your cold cuts 0nto a tortilla and roll tightly. Use a serrated knife to cut into small pinwheels and arrange tightly in a portable container. You can add cheeses, lettuce, tomato, and condiments to fill out the pinwheels. Pair them with some freshly cut fruit or veggie sticks and dip and it’s a healthy way to fill up on the go.
Casseroles divided up: Take your hot dinner to go by making everybody’s favorite casserole dish and divvy it up into individual hot Thermos containers. This applies to soups and macaroni and cheese too! Keep it simple – baked ziti or a chicken rice casserole will go a long way on nights you need to eat fast.
Sometimes there is no way to prevent the Crazy Nights, but a little preparation can go a long way in saving some money while still providing nutritious food to the family. Invest in some great coolers, Thermoses, and food containers, and make sure the car is loaded with cups, napkins, paper plates, and utensils. On the go dinner picnics might just make your busy weeknights a little more enjoyable. Good luck out there!