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9 shortcut meal ideas for back-to-school

These recipes are mindful of your time — by keeping the ingredients, steps, cooking equipment and clean-up to a minimum, while maximizing flavor.

It’s that time of year again — when many of us are sending our kids back to school and bouncing back from summer work hours. This time is all about reestablishing and readjusting to routines, which means meal-planning is essential.

But planning budget-friendly, well-rounded meals can be stressful. Whether you're doing your best in a shared dorm-room kitchen, packing your kid's school lunch, or you're simply trying to find a cheaper alternative to ordering out every night after work when you're just too tired to cook, it’s usually just easier to fall back on what you know.

And there's nothing wrong with leaning on go-to, no-effort meals like instant ramen, mac and cheese or even cereal and milk. We've all been there.

But there are plenty of recipes that prove that a little bit of effort goes a long way. For example, the beloved power bar of Hawaii, spam musubi, is not to be underestimated. Cheap cuts of meat and reserved veggie scraps can create quarts of versatile bone broth in a trusty slow cooker or Instant Pot. A jar of tomato sauce and eggs can be transformed into something shakshuka-like.

These recipes are mindful of your time — by keeping the ingredients, steps, cooking equipment and clean-up to a minimum, while maximizing flavor. Best of all, many of them are great for taking on the go. They'll show you that meal-planning and prepping doesn't have to be so intimating — in fact, it can be really gratifying.

Coconut-Black Sesame Granola

Whether you enjoy granola as your morning cereal, in your yogurt or even just by the handful, these toasty and sweet snack is a household staple. Since many schools have a nut-free policy to accommodate allergies, this recipe negates any nuts, subbing in black sesame seeds and coconut. Otherwise, you can use this as a delicious base recipe and bake in your favorite dried fruit, nuts, seeds or chocolate.

Mushroom Miso Soup

Mushroom Miso Soup

Caroline Choe

It takes a shorter time to make this soup than your morning oatmeal, and it has plenty of healthy benefits. Whether served right alongside some tamagoyaki or a piece of grilled salmon and pickled vegetables, this soup goes well with any meal of the day. Here's one of my favorite variations of miso soup, but by all means, you can customize it however you'd like.

Power Mini Grilled Cheese

Never underestimate the power of a simple grilled cheese! The takeaway in this recipe is that a little of anything goes a long way. This version is powered up by Swiss health bread, everything bagel seasoning and a touch of sweet fig jam. Since Swiss health bread is a dense, multigrain bread, it makes for a tiny sandwich, but one that packs a good amount of energy for a busy day.

Jjapaguri (Ram-Don)

Jjapaguri (Ram-Don)

Caroline Choe

This dish recently soared to new heights of popularity after folks saw it in the movie "Parasite," but it's been around longer than that, and my hope is that it quickly becomes a go-to comfort dish in your kitchen. Instant noodles are one thing, but "ram-don" (as it is also called) is a dish of stir-fried noodles that combines both instant noodle brands, Chapagetti and Neoguri, that you'll find yourself craving all the time.

Kimchi Bubble and Squeak

Bubble and squeak really is the answer for many questions to do with leftover cooked vegetables from the night before (particularly ones from a Sunday roast). The British favorite traditionally features soft potatoes and cabbage with some rashers of bacon. My favorite take on bubble and squeak is this version featuring kimchi, which I made for my guests at an event, and it was impressively gobbled up within seconds of it coming off the pan. If you need something interesting to pack away for children's school lunches, a picnic in the park or an on-the-go meal, fry up miniature patties.

Pizza Dip

Pizza Dip

Caroline Choe

When the pizza craving strikes and you don't want to wait for pizza delivery or spend the time making your own pizza, let microwaved pizza dip come to the rescue! It's got all the cheesy, saucy goodness of pizza but couldn't be easier to make.

Apple Pie Smoothie

Apple Pie Smoothie

Caroline Choe

Though smoothies have gotten the reputation for being more of an energy-booster or post-workout drink, this one is better suited for the dessert category. It has a little tanginess, creaminess and sweetness and a little more decadence due to the shortbread cookies.

Double Chocolate Chip Mug Cake

When you have an immediate craving for something chocolaty and sweet, this mug cake has got you covered. This recipe is also eggless and does well with a plant-based milk. A scoop of ice cream on top wouldn't hurt, either.

Lemon Mug Cake

Lemon Mug Cake

Caroline Choe

This single-serving cake is small in size but big on flavor. The bright, fresh lemon juice and zest add a big citrusy pop to this fast, quick and easy dessert.