Planning family meals an easier way

Healthier kids' meals are coming to 19 fast food chains across the country. Nationwide, at least 15,000 restaurants will take part. The meals will include more fruits and vegetables and less fat, sugar and salt. All the restaurants will now have at least one menu item of no more than 600 calories plus a side dish of 200 calories or less. The participating restaurants' menus will feature items with lean proteins, whole grains and low-fat dairy products. Find out who has stepped up to offer these new options and what they'll offer. Restaurant chains making kids' menus healthier iStockPhoto

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Are you nagged every day by what to make for dinner? The question is often daunting, plaguing you from breakfast on. Many times, the brain blanks at the sheer enormity of the question. You forget all the wonderful things you've made before. You forget the ingredients you need. You forget what you have at home. You forget what you need to buy.

Why?

Because you're busy. Between sending expense reports to your boss and fielding a call from your daycare provider about an incident with Cheerios and your child's nose, you cast a fleeting thought toward dinnertime and what it may hold.

Family Dinners are Worth Remembering

There's a lot to do in one day. And at the end of it is dinner. While it may be easier to fly through a drive-thru, take a moment and think back to the last time you found yourself there. Remember the half hour you spent behind that truck without an exhaust pipe, your kids screaming in the backseat? Take that time and devote it elsewhere - like your own kitchen.

OK. We understand that the thought of cooking at the end of a long day is the last thing you want to do, but really, you can do it. There's lots of help out there. And best of all? You don't have to wait until the end of your day to get it all started.

Let us be a guide of sorts. It could all get a lot easier - at least where dinner's concerned.

Start with what you have now in your kitchen. Remember that chicken breast pack in the back of your freezer? Or those veggies primed for the skillet in your crisper drawer? They're the start of something great! We mean it! And then you buy what you need to fill the gaps.

But how do you know what to make with what you have now? The sites below - and we've pointed out some of the best aspects of each site - offer this kind of service for free. For these sites, you simply enter what you've got and it compiles a list of tasty recipes from around the online world that you can whip up at home.

You can work with what you've got and save some money. And then, when you go to the grocery store next time, you can start shopping with a plan for definite meals based on ideas you're sure to pick up along the way. Other benefits of planning your meals? You'll begin to cut down on waste and needless worry about how to feed your family every night.

Check out some of the cool recipe search sites that can help:

Supercook

Supercook is a recipe search engine that finds recipes you can make with only the ingredients you have at home. The interface is rather friendly, but you have to either be at home to know what you've got to add or go through the drop-down list letter by letter to make sure you're remembering everything you have in your kitchen. This is not necessarily the most efficient way of cataloguing your kitchen's contents, but if you know you have, for instance, chicken and spinach, you can start with those ingredients and see where you need to go from there.

Supercook is a website aggregator - meaning it scans the web world for recipes - so you have a lot of sources to pick from. In that search for chicken breast and spinach, for instance, we found recipes from RealSimple.com, EatingWell.com, and MarthaStewart.com. Quite the variety! This site is especially good if you're just are starting out and aren't quite comfortable with the ingredients or methods and want to find simple and quick options.

RecipeMatcher.com

Recipe Matcher's tag line is "Miscellany In, Delicious Out." We like that.

This site, like Supercook, depends on you to remember on-the-fly what's in your kitchen. If you're sitting at work - and don't take pictures of your pantry and put them up as your computer's wallpaper - this could be problematic. However, the site does have an account option where you can create an online pantry for yourself with the groceries you have in your kitchen. So it is a little bit of work, but if you go through your kitchen and enter what you currently have, their database gets you started. They pull up all the options that fit and offer options with some of the ingredients you have to guide your grocery shopping. Pretty cool!

Another nice feature of this site is the ratings section on each recipe. So often you don't know how a recipe is going to turn out; but with the comments area, you find out from other cooks what worked about the concoction you're thinking about whipping up - and what didn't.

AllRecipes.com (App also available here)

AllRecipes.com allows you to search by ingredients you want and don't want. Again, you have to remember what's in your pantry, but the option of screening out certain foods is absolutely fantastic if you have picky eaters in your house. The recipes on this site are also rated by stars and reviewed by users.

RecipeBridge.com

RecipeBridge.com searches recipes across the web. They also have a top 10 recipe searches of the day on their homepage and a list of recently viewed recipes. These are great to get you started, particularly if you're not at home and you're not sure what you have. We like that this site gives a short rundown of what to expect with most dishes offered, instead of just the ingredients straightaway. And the variety of sources - from the Williams-Sonoma to Self magazine, is great, particularly if you or your family members have certain dietary needs.

Recipe Puppy (App also available here)

Recipe Puppy does what it says it does well. The simple search engine - with limited advertising - asks you to enter your ingredients (separated by a comma). When you press enter, recipes that match your specifications come up. In the case of our example ingredients: spinach and chicken, recipes appear with these simple choices. Additional ingredients needed to complete the meals are also listed to help diversify your search. You click the plus sign next to the ingredient, for instance, garlic, and you search will narrow further according to your tastes.

MyFridgeFood (App also available here)

We like this site because it's your entire kitchen a la grocery list at your fingertips. You don't need to go home and enter anything yourself. The items are listed. You just have to remember if you have items at home.

If you can't remember if you have these items, you may have a limited choice of recipes to select. One interesting aspect of this list: it's a great reference the grocery store. Consider this list a cheat sheet; it has the essential building blocks, such as sauces and spices, that many meals need, but are often forgotten when shopping.

We hope one of these options will help you out. Feel free to let us know in the comments section if you've used one of these sites. Did the recipes they suggested work for you and your family? What are some other ways you've made planning dinner easier for your family?

  • Amanda Cochran

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