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Old School Jams – 20 Minute Dinners

Earlier in our Old School Jams series, I talked about the importance of a well-stocked pantry. One of the reader requests when I started this series was “could you link to some recipes that are tried and true or give some great shortcuts for the ‘kids are climbing my legs for dinner’ and it is 5:30 and I don’t have a d**n clue what it’s gonna be??“.

Even if kids aren’t climbing your legs while cooking, I think we have all been in a position where we are staring an empty plate in the face with the clock ticking and our tummies rumbling.

I also love that she blanked out most of “damn” to make sure I wasn’t offended.

A well-stocked pantry is like being able to shop from your own grocery store. The magical combination of dry goods and items from your fridge /freezer allows you to pull of a feat of epic proportions. Below, I’m sharing some of my favorite go-to dinners when time is short, patience is low, and hangry attitudes are high.

The immediate answer for me when I need a quick meal is “eggs”. From shell to plate, eggs can be a no brainer. A frittata can be whipped up quickly, and it incorporates meat (if desired), cheese, veggies, and starches all in one cast iron skillet. The bonus of the frittata is that it is gluten-free and if you make it in cast iron, you don’t need to wash the pan afterwards. 🙂 If the weather is hot and you don’t want to use an oven, a quick omelette can also be your answer.

Additionally, if you have a stock of frozen items, you can add a muffin, pancake, or waffle to the side. Some fruit as well, and boom, dinner.

People always talk about having spaghetti for days on end when they discuss frugal eating. But if you are gluten-free, or purchase more expensive products, your plate of pasta may not be all that thrifty. Until recently, Jack was not a fan of noodles of any kind, so pasta rarely graced our table. Now that it is an option, I’m thrilled to be able throw some whole wheat rotini in a pan of salted water, and have dinner ready within 10 minutes. That being said, such a loaded plate of carbs is not always the healthiest option. I serve pasta/noodles a max of two times a month.

Pasta can also be versatile in the form of a cold pasta salad. Rinse the cooked pasta with cold water, add some leftover grilled chicken, or a drained can of beans, sliced veggies, and a simple vinaigrette. Serve with a side of roasted veggies or a salad, and dinner is done.

Avocado cups
If you have a ripe avocado sitting in your fruit bowl, it can become the delicious base of a hearty meal. Simply cut an avocado in half, and top with tuna salad. I’ll drain a can tuna, add plain greek yogurt (you can use mayo too), a splash of lemon juice, dried chives, and dried dill. Serve your avocado tuna salad with some DIY garlic bread. Or simply dip some bread in olive oil and balsamic.

I used to work at a popular Italian restaurant in Moscow, Idaho that was known for serving beer in a fish bowl. They had the most delicious garlic bread I had ever tasted until that point. When I watched the cooks make it, I realized how stupidly silly it was to recreate at home. Simply slice a baguette or even take a slice from a loaf of bread. Pour a little olive oil on a shallow plate, and dip the broad face of the bread in the olive oil. Place on a hot cast iron skillet, and cook until it is lightly browned and crusty. Dust with dried parsley, garlic, and grated Parmesan if you have it. I promise you’ll never go back to buying that grocery store garlic bread in the gold foil.

You could also just go super simple and top a piece of toast with sliced avocado. You don’t need to make it complicated.

Yep, you can create a soup in under 20 minutes. With my recent foray in to all things soup related to accommodate my mom’s new liquid diet, I can tell you there are few things easier than a quick smooth soup/bisque. Almost all my soups start with a quickly chopped onion sweating down in olive oil for about seven minutes. Then you throw in some garlic, and get creative from there. Two cans of black beans, a cup plus a splash of chicken or veggie broth, pinch of salt, cumin, and smoked paprika added to those onions quickly becomes a hearty black bean soup. You can blend it to make it smooth, or increase the broth and serve it as is.Top with a little shredded cheese, sour cream (don’t do that. Sour cream is gross), or plain Greek yogurt to dress it up. Serve with a side of tortilla chips and make it more fun to eat as you scoop it up.

You could also empty two cans of whole tomatoes over the same pot of onions and garlic, some dried basil, smoked paprika (clearly, I put that stuff on everything), some kosher salt and pepper. Blend, then add some milk or cream, and voila – tomato bisque. Full recipe for Easy Homemade Tomato Soup.

One of my favorite speedy meals for fall and winter is homemade ramen. Noodles, broth, some sesame oil, veggies, squirt of sriracha, and maybe frozen pot stickers if you have them and it all comes together into a super satisfying meal.

Heavy apps
It never ceases to amaze me that people think dinner has to be complicated and look like a “proper” dinner. Many of our meals would make my grandma cringe because there isn’t a hunk of meat, a (boiled) vegetable, or a starch on my plate. But, if it fills you up and makes you happy, why can’t it be dinner?

We have what looks like a school cafeteria tray that we will use on occasion for appetizer dinners. Hard-boiled eggs, sliced cheese, crackers, maybe some deli meat, veggie sticks, and fruit can be a satisfying dinner. Add a bowl of popcorn, and everyone in the house is happy. Popcorn is a whole grain you know.

I always remember when my parents would make nachos for dinner. It meant we got to eat in the living room on little lap trays, and watch TV like TGIF or the Wonderful World of Disney. To make your own, place some parchment on a rimmed baking sheet with tortilla chips (stale are fine!), some shredded cheese, a can of drained black beans, some shredded meat (we always have some cooked in our freezer), and bake at 300 degrees until the cheese is melted. Top with sliced avocado and some salsa, and no one is complaining about dinner. I looooove this canned salsa, and it is so easy to crack it open and use for last-minute meals.

A friend of mine used to make “noodle glop” once a week for her three kids. They didn’t have a lot of money, so one night a week she would pull everything out of the fridge and put it on the counter. Kids could choose what leftovers they wanted…and it was served over a plate of spaghetti. Everyone got what they wanted – she got a cleaned out fridge, and the kids “owned” their dinner.

One of the benefits of having a kick ass toaster/convection oven is that you can use it like a super fast oven that doesn’t heat up your whole kitchen. I use it a ton in the summer because our kitchen is southwest facing, my house is entirely windows, and I’m a giant punk when it comes to heat. A normal cast iron skillet can fit in the convection oven, which makes delicious roasted veggies a speedy side dish. You can also take a tortilla, English muffin, bagel, or pita bread, swirl some marinara on there, a little bit of grated cheese, and in five minutes you have personal pizzas.


While the idea of a salad is generally super boring to me, it can serve a purpose in a pinch. A bed of greens, some drained (canned) beans, sliced meat and cheese, other veggies, and hard-boiled eggs can become a great chef’s salad.

And of course, there are some days when none of the things above sound remotely appetizing for you, your day has been a total shit show, and you’re OVER life, there is no shame in ordering pizza or take out. Or just eating a bowl of cereal. Even a giant bowl of ice cream can be a filling meal. Because, let’s be honest, if you eat it in the evening, you can pretty much call anything dinner. 🙂

What is your favorite go-to last-minute dinner?


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7 comments on “Old School Jams – 20 Minute Dinners”

  1. My favorite quick go-to meal is ground meat with veggies and lots of seasonings. Or fish right from the freezer with frozen chopped broccoli and boiled potatoes.

  2. I read these ideas aloud to my husband… And now we are having Nacho Night instead of Taco Tuesday this week!

    My go-to weeknight meal is baked sausage with rice and random steamed or blanched or baked vegetable. Another plus: I can prepare it one-handed while fending off my toddler!

  3. Thanks for the ideas! Your humor makes me smile!
    Grilled sandwiches with soup from the freezer or salad. Mac and cheese plain or with meat and or veggies. Quesadillas are good too!
    Prayers for your mom are being sent. Hugs to you!

  4. Thanks for the think outside the box ideas for dinners!
    I do not currently have a cast iron skillet, was never sure if I would use one all the time and so never purchased one.
    Are they difficult to prep for use and to maintain between uses?

    Maybe a post about prep, maintenance and what you use a cast iron skillet for??



  5. I can totally agree! A great summary of healthy tasty fast meals. Everything can be dinner!

    When I worked in the US the ladies around my age who just got married always stressed about dinner. They also had the “ideal” of protein, starch, vegetables and then had (leftover)-lunch envy on my food that adheared nothing to their ideal.

    Now 10 years later I am so so tankful for all the evenings before I had kids that were spent outside, exercizing, reading books in a chair at barnes and noble, enjoying life …. and then eating cereal or eggs.
    I share your love for eggs as dinner, we do eat a lot of pasta (whole grain spelt pasta that has eggs in it, usually with 50% pasta, 50% vegetable sauce that I cook in big batches and freeze), we love the occasional bread dinner, and my newest thing is loaded mashed potatos. I have 2 kids 1 and 3 who willingly eat almost everything and I think that has a lot to do with us usually enjoying our food. – also if you cook dinner that only takes 20 minutes to prepare and your 3 year old will not eat it, because he is 3 and the broccoli has the wrong shade of green, or the tomato touched the cucumber then it’s a lot less of a deal then if you plan and cook for an hour 😉

    And we make our garlic bread by toasting it and then rubbing a clove of garlic on the toasted side. Delicious 😀

  6. Sarah,

    Not only are you cool but I have to commend you on what a great daughter you are to your parents. I can feel how much you adore them. God bless you girl.