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Mealtime hacks for busy parents and caregivers

The five handiest appliances to get you through parenthood. Plus, meal-prep tips that help you get food on the table, fast. 

alarm clock with dinnerplate as face and cutlery as hands (1)
Last updated: 18 June 2024


Checked for accuracy by our qualified fact-checkers and verifiers. Find out more about fact-checking at CHOICE.

Being a parent or caring for a child means you're basically on meal-prep and snack duty for the rest of your life (well, around 18 years at least). That's literally thousands of breakfasts, lunches, dinners and in-betweens you have to plan and shop for and cook, prepare and pack. 

Is it any wonder then that mums, dads and caregivers are constantly looking for inspiration and ideas for how to keep kids fed and happy? 

Then there's the pressure to keep meals tasty and nutritionally balanced; stick to a budget; and perhaps cater to an allergy, intolerance or special food requirement or two – not to mention kids' often wildly illogical and inconsistent approach to what they will or will not currently eat. 

It's a recipe for exhaustion, stress and overwhelm. Deep breaths. 

We round up some of the go-to appliances CHOICE parents have found helpful over the years, and some of their best tips and advice for how to make meal planning easier.

Mealtime saviours: the handiest appliances

Here are the top five most-lauded appliances that kids' caterers (i.e. parents and carers) say are their godsends when it comes to delivering meals. They can go a long way towards reducing stress and increasing inspiration in the kitchen. 

1. Air fryer or multi-cooker

Speed and convenience are of utmost importance when you get home with hungry kids who need to be fed. Want crisp chicken nuggets in 15 mins flat? Perhaps golden drumsticks in under 30 minutes or grilled sausages in under 10? 

These versatile appliances deliver. Air fryers are quicker than ovens to preheat and cook, easy to operate and can be used for a huge variety of meals (find out why we love air fryers). 

And, if you opt for a multi-cooker with an air fryer function, a whole other world of easy food-prep solutions opens up to you, with options for slow cooking, pressure cooking, rice cooking, dehydrating and more.

2. Food processor

Cooking with fresh ingredients from scratch generally means a fair bit of slicing, dicing and chopping. 

A food processor is a clever kitchen shortcut that can cut down meal-prep time to help you batch cook quickly or sneak extra veg into bolognaise and stews without having to spend hours at a chopping board. 

It's a mean shredding machine, too, especially great for jobs like shredding carrots and cheese (did you know CHOICE rates each food processor we test on how well it shreds cheese? And everything needs cheese, no?). 

A food processor is also a dab hand at making dough and pureeing veg for soups, both of which can be the basis for some great meal ideas.

3. A good blender

Substantial smoothies, loaded with nutritious fruit, veg and proteins, are the ultimate parent hack to get your kids' bellies full of lots of good stuff, so a powerful blender that can sit on your benchtop is worth adding to your kitchen arsenal.

Sneak nutrient-dense foods like nuts, oats and chia seeds into fruit smoothies for power-packed breakfasts or afternoon snacks; easily puree steamed fruit to stir into porridges; or blend up roast vegetables with stock to make soup. There are so many ways a great blender can help inspire and lighten the load. 

There are so many ways a great blender can help inspire and lighten the load

Best of all, they are super versatile, so you can tailor something delicious that'll suit your kids' taste buds. 

High-performance blenders are generally more expensive, but they are also more powerful and good performers easily blitz coarser ingredients such as kale or nuts, which can make them worth the investment.

4. Dedicated freezer

Planning ahead and freezing meals is one of the best ways to avoid getting caught out at dinner time when the kids are being feral. Only problem is, freezer space is often at a premium and who has room to fit a load of dinners alongside your essential ice-cream stash? 

If you have space, a double door fridge-freezer or chest freezer can help you hoard a lifetime supply of frozen pizzas and dumplings, and that bolognaise you cooked up three gallons of.

5. Espresso machine/stovetop coffee maker

This one isn't for the kids (obviously) but many of us would not have survived the drudgery of feeding the sprogs day in and day out without a daily injection of caffeine. 

Making your coffee at home is also seriously more cost-efficient than buying from a cafe, which helps with the household budget. 

Although manual espresso machines outperform pod machines in our testing when it comes to the flavour of the coffee they produce, some people prefer the convenience and speed of pod or automatic machines.

Meal-planning tips we swear by

Whether it's ideas for lunchbox prep or dinner planning, here are some of the best tips from parents on what helps them cope with family catering duties. 

Clever prep 

Shop in bulk: "I do a menu and a shopping list on the weekend and then shop for everything we need for the week in one go. If you do online shopping, you can keep track of your shopping lists using the supermarket apps and add things as you remember.  For me it's about removing the mental load of finishing work then having to decide what to cook for dinner, which I hate. It's so much easier to know in advance what I'm going to cook each day."

Pool your prep: "I chop up heaps of carrot, celery and cucumber sticks on a weekend and keep them in the fridge, so they're ready to divvy up for lunchboxes throughout the week." 

Double up: "I don't do batch cooking, but I do cut big batches of veggies on the weekend and use half to make a soup and then freeze the other half to use to make another soup or stir-fry quickly during the week." 

Freezer space savers: "If you're batch cooking and pushed for space in the freezer, invest in some good reusable silicone freezer bags. After you fill them, lie them flat. Once frozen, you can stack them like records. It's a massive space saver and less wasted plastic." 

Lunchbox hacks

Lunchbox menu: "Create a lunchbox meal planner with a handful of options that are easy to make and let the kids pick out what they want for the next week so you can do shopping and meal prep ahead of time." 

Freeze-ahead lunchbox fillers: "Cooking up a batch of items on the weekend that you know your kids like and that freeze well takes the stress out of lunches. I bake muffins and things like brownies or pastry scrolls that freeze and defrost well and also stock the freezer with sandwiches and slices of pizza."

Think outside the box

Breakfast for dinner: "There is absolutely nothing wrong with serving up a plate of boiled or scrambled eggs with toast and baked beans for dinner. My kids love it!"

Snack plates for the win: "We are big fans of grazing plates for dinner. They're super easy to throw together and no cooking required, it's a great way to use up whatever you have in the fridge and the kids enjoy the variety. We do chopped up or grated carrots, cheese cubes, cucumber sticks, ham or salami sticks, pretzels or breadsticks with hummus or guacamole, pre-boiled eggs, crackers, pitas or toast, fruit, cherry tomatoes, nuts and seeds… whatever!"

Don't feel like everyone needs a gourmet meal every day of the week

Love your leftovers: "Don't make a big dinner from scratch every night. Designate one night to cook a double batch of say a curry, stew or bolognese and then save the rest for leftover night (preferably not the following night so you don't get sick of the food you made!)"

Take the pressure off

Delegate: "Once the kids are old enough, get them to help prep dinner and make their own lunches. You might be surprised how well they can manage it. Kids love making their own pizzas and sandwiches, especially if they get to choose their own toppings. Sharing the load between parents and caregivers is also handy – delegate certain days to certain members of the family so everyone lends a hand." 

Keep it simple: "Don't feel like everyone needs a gourmet meal every day of the week. I don't worry too much about variety. We have about three staples and no one minds having each of them multiple times per week. They all have three serves of vegies, some protein and usually pasta on the side, that'll do. "I just don't have the bandwidth to be coming up with new ideas all the time, especially knowing that it will probably go uneaten by my two-year-old anyway!"

Can meal delivery boxes help with the daily dinner dilemma? 

Sometimes doing the grocery shopping and cooking meals from scratch (including the mental load required) just isn't an option. Or perhaps you're stuck in a dinner rut and just need someone else to come up with some new delicious dinner ideas for you.

There are various prepared meal delivery services that deliver ready-made meals that require minimal prep beyond heating, as well as meal kit (or meal box) delivery services that deliver all the portioned ingredients and recipe cards you need to create a meal. These include well-known services such as Hello Fresh, Marley Spoon and QuiteLike.

If you're someone who often finds themselves making a last-minute dash into the supermarket or takeaway to get dinner, or you spend $3.50 on a bunch of herbs only to use half and let the other half wither away in the fridge, these meal kits can be a convenient and good-value answer to the dinner question, saving you time, money and reducing food waste.

Meal kits can be a convenient and good-value answer to the dinner question, saving you time, money and reducing food waste

They may not be worth the money, though, if you're already nailing the meal planning and regularly doing things such as looking for specials on ingredients and buying in bulk. 

Fiona Mair, CHOICE home economist and one of our testers, found a lot to recommend in the meal delivery services we have tested in our kitchen labs.

"Meal delivery services are predominantly marketed to time-poor families, and we found that some deliver great solutions for families looking to lighten the dinnertime load. If you have limited skills in the kitchen and want to eat home-cooked food, they can also be a great way to learn how to cook and get inspiration," says Fiona.

We care about accuracy. See something that's not quite right in this article? Let us know or read more about fact-checking at CHOICE.

Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.