Cherie Lowe Queen of Free

My girls have gone back to school. The flurry of activity leading up to the big first days of 10th and fourth grade left a quake of activity in our lives and our homes. Notebooks and folders required labeling. First day of school clothes demanded laundering.

Important papers about book fees, extracurricular activities and teacher requirements clustered on kitchen counters. After both made their way to the classroom, I realized one task I had neglected during the last busy week of summer.

During the months of June and July, our lives flow in a spontaneous pattern. Our family doesn’t take on much during the summer, and so usually dinner becomes a “eat when you’re hungry” sort of tradition. I make sure the refrigerator is fully stocked but am more laid back about meal planning.

But as soon as school starts, I know our family needs more focused time when it comes to dinner. Between practices and homework, household chores and bedtime, dinner is required to slide on the table as close to 5:30 p.m. as possible.

Most families fight a similar battle. Whether your kids ride the bus or you pick them up, whether they play in the band or on the field, the first couple of weeks back to school can be brutal when it comes to finding healthy, affordable dishes to feed everyone in the evening.

Plus, thanks to the Meet the Teacher nights and the meets and games just around the corner, we don’t have two to three hours to prepare said ideal meal. Enter these smart, quick dinner time fixes guaranteed to get the job done without breaking the bank.

Pizza

Look, I get it. You don’t have time to chop or saute or grill. Sometimes a family just wants to gather around the table and eat some pizza. But it’s easy to drop a wad of cash on delivery or even pick up from the nearest pizza chain. Consider purchasing deli style pizza in the grocery store for a fraction of the price.

Then plan which night you’ll be grabbing a slice instead of waiting until the panicked last minute to call in an order somewhere. But even in those emergency situations, it’s smart to check out the best deals possible.

Papa Murphy’s often offers a 25 to 50 percent discount when ordering online, and Domino’s runs a similar promotion on a rotating basis. Sign up for the eClub of your favorite go-to pizza place and monitor the deals to cash in when the price is right.

Pre-chopping veggies

Here’s what I know about your week: There will be a curve ball that comes out of nowhere. A child will forget to tell you need to bring cookies or that there’s a mandatory parent meeting. And in this moment you have the opportunity to feel the power of pre-chopping. On Sunday nights, it’s a great idea to go ahead and pre-cut fruits and vegetables so that you can quickly prepare meals without much work or thought.

In particular, I recommend chopping onions, mushrooms, and multi-colored peppers. All three of these veggie powerhouses easily flow into fajitas, pasta, homemade pizza, salads and omelets. When you have the items already prepared and at hand, you’ll feel less flustered and more prepared to toss together a meal easily.

Pre-cooking meats

Similarly, it’s never a bad idea to batch cook some sources of protein prior to needing them. Whether you brown a double batch of ground beef to freeze half and use the other half for dinner or you grill an entire bag of boneless, skinless chicken breast at once, you’ll be grateful to have a main course that simply needs warmed. You can also add items like these easily to soups, pastas or the beloved Taco Tuesday.

Pre-planning is key

No matter what you eat, you need a written plan. Whether you toss items in the slow cooker during the wee hours of the morning or you throw together PBJ as the kids climb of the bus, knowing what you’ll be eating before the dinnertime rush gives you peace of mind and ensures you have the ingredients on hand needed to prepare at least five dinners per week.

You don’t necessarily have to hold hard and fast to the exact plan or day, but you do need to know what you could prepare during the week. Write down your plan each week. It’s easy to overlook this crucial step but you’re more successful when you actually write down your goals and plans.

You can do this. You don’t have to live in the drive thru. Every line item in your checkbook doesn’t have to be a restaurant. Feed your family well, enjoy a meal together and save money all at once.

Greenwood resident Cherie Lowe and her husband paid off $127,000 in debt in four years and now live debt-free every day with their two kids. She is the author of “Slaying the Debt  Dragon: How One Family Conquered Their Money Monster and Found an Inspired Happily Ever After.” Send questions, column ideas and comments to newstips@dailyjournal.net