The most popular family meals – and how to give them a twist

Top tips to liven up the most popular family meals, from roast chicken to pizza, and stir-fries to fajitas...

most popular family dinners
(Image credit: Future)

From Sunday roasts to midweek pasta, we've rounded up the top 15 most popular family meals, with tips on how best to cook them to help breathe new life into dinner time.

A recent survey of 2,000 adults looked at the UK's favourite family dinners – and the all-conquering Sunday roast was the winner by a country mile, with nearly half of the respondents giving it the top spot. The research, conducted by gravy brand Bisto, revealed that other favourites included curry, spag Bol, and Shepherd's pie as well as chilli, pizza, and, naturally, good old fish fingers. 

A spokesperson for Bisto said; "These results celebrate the classic dishes that bring families together. In these particularly challenging times, the results have shown many long to spend quality time together over one of the top meals, like a roast dinner. This is something we will look forward to even more after lockdown restrictions on household mixing are lifted.”

Yet, despite it being the most popular dish, a brand new study by Tesco has found that home-cooked Sunday roasts are in decline with 36% of us saying we're roasting less frequently because of energy costs, But, fear not, there are solutions to this – you can make a whole roast chicken in the air fryer, for a start. In fact, all these family meals are what you can cook in an air fryer.

roast chicken

(Image credit: TI Media Limited)

1. Roast dinner

Why so popular? Literally the dinner of champions. Crispy, tender roast chicken with stuffing or flavoursome beef, a little pink in the middle, served with fluffy Yorkshires. Pork with crispy crackling or – perfect right now for incoming Spring  – melt-in-the-mouth slices of slow-cooked lamb with fresh mint sauce. 

All, essentially, with the fluffiest roast potatoes, your veggies of choice and, let's get serious, generous helpings of (very good) gravy – the most important component of any roast. An incomparable Sunday dining choice, I think we can all agree.

How to give roast dinners a twist: Try pushing Asian ingredients, like chilli, lemongrass, and ginger, under the skin of your roast chicken before cooking for a fragrant flavour, or opt for a less obvious choice of meat like this roasted orange duck

Notes of Spanish cooking, such as paprika, work well, especially with chicken, try the slow cooking beef brisket, or serve your lamb Greek style, roasted with a tomato and mint sauce with macaroni pasta. 

Get the recipe: Roast chicken

2. Casserole

Why so popular? In this era of slow cooking and air frying, casseroles are having a moment. With slow-cooked, tender meat and root veggies, stews and casseroles are the best kinds of comfort food, plus they're a one-pot dinner solution that creates their own delicious gravy with very little effort required.

How to give casserole a twist: Adding a large spoonful of wholegrain mustard will give any stew a delicious kick, while less obvious veggies like sweet potatoes are wonderful in the mix – try 'smushing' some of them into the sauce after slow cooking for thickness and flavour. 

Serve your casserole with couscous and look to Africa for tastes like this Moroccan red lentil and lamb stew –  served in a tagine for maximum effect, even if it's just a dreary Tuesday around the kitchen table. Preserved lemons are a wonderfully flavoursome addition to this kind of casserole, and provide a touch of the exotic holiday vibe we all need in our lives.

Get the recipe: Beef casserole

Hidden veg bolognese

A hearty ragu, as the Italians would call it

(Image credit:

3. Spaghetti Bolognese

Why so popular? Using oh-so-common tinned tomatoes and dried pasta, all we need is to buy some mince (or don't – it's pretty good, not to mention thrifty, with lentils as a protein base instead) and a classic and hearty spag bol is easily rustled up from everyday essentials already in the cupboard and fridge.

How to give bolognese a twist: Use turkey mince or Quorn for a lighter version or if you're eschewing meat. Stir some pesto through the tomato sauce for a flavoursome twist, or try adding some porcini mushrooms (and their soaking water) for a depth of flavour. 

Ditch the spaghetti for a different pasta (we love a pappardelle with a ragu like this) or gnocchi. Try your bolognese in stuffed peppers, topped with mozzarella, and baked. 

Get the recipe: Spaghetti Bolognese

4. Pasta bake

Why so popular? From a simple tomato sauce right through to lobster butter, pasta can be anything from a speedy, easy midweek dinner to a special meal à deux, so the possibilities are endless. 

A one-pot, balanced meal like a pasta bake with chicken or tuna is probably our ultimate go-to for a family dinner, though. 

How to give pasta a twist: There is truly no end to the things you can do with pasta. Put it in a frittata, add unlikely ingredients like sweet potato (honestly, it works), or make your own pesto with a twist by adding a heap of the veggie du jour, kale

Pasta can even be dessert, cooked like rice pudding with cream and vanilla – or even chocolate pasta, for goodness' sake. Yes, it really is a thing.

Get the recipe: Chicken and tomato pasta bake

Hairy Bikers' chicken curry recipe

A homestyle chicken curry is a classic 

(Image credit: ALTA19)

5. Curry

Why so popular? The British palette sure has evolved over the years, with the majority of us opting for a spicy curry recipe over classics like fish and chips these days. Thai, Indian, even Vietnamese, Malay, or Sri Lankan, we've embraced Asian food wholeheartedly and learned a lot about how to work those wonderfully fragrant flavours. 

How to give curry a twist: Rub curry paste on meat or fish before frying for the taste of curry in a hurry, or try a meat-free option – cauliflower is particularly perfect for a veggie curry. If you tend to stick to Indian curry, give a Thai dish like this massaman curry a whirl.  

"It's the nation's favourite meal but there's no need to order it when you can make your own healthier version. Homemade curry is great because you can adapt the spice levels to suit your own taste. If I'm too tired to cook rice, I skip it and just serve with nice big naan bread instead," says food writer Octavia Lillywhite. 

Though, for a change from both rice and naan, try making curry pancakes with chapati flour and curry powder, and use whatever curry you fancy – like this classic chicken one – as a filling.

Get the recipe: Hairy Bikers' chicken curry

6. Jacket potatoes

Why so popular? Popped into the oven and forgotten about (well not completely, we hope) is a meal with no fuss, so long as they're cooked well, with a crunchy outside and fluffy center – no the microwave is not ok here, unless you crisp in the oven or air fryer afterward, folks. 

The choice of jacket potato filling ideas is endless and stretches way beyond the obvious – though, granted, there are times when you absolutely cannot beat baked beans and a generous grating of strong cheddar. Proper butter and salt and pepper are essential (in fact, we'd be happy with that as a topping alone).

How to give jacket potatoes a twist: Scoop out the insides once cooked, mash with spring onion and cheese, and put back into the skin, sprinkle cheese on top, and grill. Divine. 

Posh up your jacket with a steak filling in a red wine sauce or go pizza topping style with mozzarella, peppers, and olives. Tuna is another fave of course jazzed up with more than humble mayo and sweetcorn, like in this twist with lime and coriander.

Get the recipe: Tuna, lime and coriander jacket potato

cottage pie recipe

(Image credit: Future)

7. Cottage pie

Why so popular? A hearty, one-pot dinner for those cold, grey, drizzly days – one for the slow cooker, and something to look forward to after a long day at work.

How to give cottage pie a twist: Switch the mashed potato topping for carrots or sweet potatoes for a more nutritious spin, or just add in with the regular spuds. Try making a veggie version stacked with protein-rich lentils and mushrooms for umami – you might not think of it but a decent splash of soy sauce is great in there too. Plus there's always cottage pie's close relation, the shepherd's pie, with lamb mince instead of beef. 

Octavia Lillywhite says it's a good one for being both thrifty and saving time, too. "This is so great if you're into batch cooking because you can make a load of the filling then divide it into three – one batch makes filling for cottage pie, another is a base for chilli (just fry off a diced red pepper in some hot chilli powder and add it, then add kidney beans); the last one you can serve with pasta as a Bolognese sauce."

Get the recipe: Cottage pie

8. Bangers and mash

Why so popular? Bangers and mash, that quintessential British dish, is simple, comforting, and completely irreplaceable in our national culinary lexicon. Smooth and creamy mashed potatoes and golden-baked sausages are a match made in heaven. A perfect winter warmer, that is also pleasingly economical and can stretch to feed a brood of people.

How to give bangers and mash a twist: Try adding gravy and onions to the roasting tin while the sausages are cooking for a one-pot sauce, and throw in a bunch of fresh herbs like rosemary and thyme. 

Experiment with your bangers – there are some great chicken sausages out there these days (try Heck – they're way lower fat than pork ones too) or beef or lamb –  getting some middle eastern flavours like a touch of ras el hanout in there works well too. 

For your mash, add a spoonful of Dijon mustard, some finely chopped spring onions, and even some sliced black olives. And try our sausage and mash bake. Instead of the usual cabbage or broccoli on the side, serve with stir-fried greens with plenty of garlic.

Get the recipe: Cumberland sausage and mash

Sichuan pork stir fry

Flavours of Asia and anything goes for a speedy stir fry, with rice or noodles

(Image credit: Rights unknown)

9. Stir-fry

Why so popular? Great for using up veggies, healthy, and super speedy to knock together, stir-fries are a great way to meet that 5-a-day target for the whole family. You can endlessly switch up the ingredients and adapt things to suit everyone's tastes too.

How to give stir fry a twist: Serve at the table with bowls of coriander, chillies, and lime wedges so that everyone can choose how they like their flavours. Experiment with different types of noodles – try  Japanese udon or rice noodles – and add interesting, less obvious elements like crushed peanuts or hard-boiled eggs for extra protein. 

Top with raw ingredients such as grated carrot, finely sliced spring onions, and peppers, and experiment with different proteins, like tempeh or edamame beans. "It's the ultimate speedy dinner - I can have it on the table in less than 15 minutes," says Octavia Lillywhite. "I always keep some raw prawns in the freezer, then all you need is some fresh veg and a bit of sweet chilli sauce."

Get the recipe: Chicken stir-fry

10. Pie

Why so popular? Because sometimes – actually, make that always – nothing hits the comfort food spot quite like a pie does. And that's especially so when it's wholesome and homemade, whether a good honest chicken and mushroom, a steak and kidney, or something more outlandish.

 Perfect with creamy mash and a side of greens, extra gravy isn't just recommended, it's basically a necessity.

How to give pies a twist: Experiment with any flavours you fancy  from Friday night's curry in a pastry shell to leftover cottage pie mince – add Indian spices and turn it into a keema pie. 

Pies are a wonderful way to use up leftovers and experiment with pastry – while shortcrust and puff are the most common varieties for a pie, filo is a great, lighter option – like in this spinach and feta  or a chicken and chorizo filo pie

Get the recipe: Chicken and mushroom pie

Homemade fish fingers golden covered in crisp crumb

(Image credit: Getty)

11. Fish fingers

Why so popular? An icon of childhood dinners, it doesn't get much more British than a humble fish finger, beloved by kids, not to mention big kids and the nostalgic comfort food factor they deliver. 

And fish fingers come on a long way since 'our day' – there's way more to them than serving with oven chips and peas (not that there's anything shabby about that option, of course) – with gourmet fish finger sarnies even making their way onto gastro pub menus.

How to give fish fingers a twist: Make your own, for a start, and try adding new flavourings to the coating – dried herbs, like tarragon or dill, or dried chilli flakes and lemon zest are a wonderful match for the flaky white fish. 

Try making your fish fingers with salmon or even trout to up your omega 3s and fancy things up, and serve with interesting alternatives to chips or mash, whether that be sweet potato wedges, an artichoke dip, or a pea and mint puree.

Get the recipe: Home-baked fish fingers

12. Fajitas

Why so popular? This classic of Mexican recipes is always a winner as build-your-own dinners so often are, especially thanks to the novelty factor they give out for kids. Served with cool sour cream, vibrant salsa and slightly spiced guacamole, a sizzling hot plate of fajitas score seriously high on the family dinner flavour stakes. 

How to give fajitas a twist: Try mixing your meats – a prawn, chicken, and beef combo works well – or use battered white fish as the protein star of the show. Lightly griddled and sliced fresh tuna steak works a treat too. And try baking your fajitas in the oven covered with a tomato salsa sauce and grated cheese topping in enchiladas style. 

"Fajitas are great for adding extra 'hidden' veg. As well as the peppers, add some sliced onion and some thinly sliced field mushrooms (the big fat ones that come in packs of 3 or 4). Once they're covered in the sauce, no one will notice," says Octavia Lillywhite.

Get the recipe: Beef fajitas

you can cook pizza in an air fryer

Tomato, basil, mozzarella – because why mess with perfection?

(Image credit: Getty)

13. Pizza

Why so popular? Well, c'mon, it's pizza. What's not to love about the thin, crispy dough (ok, those who love deep pan style do also walk among us) with vibrant tomato sauce and lightly toasted mozzarella? 

It's easy, it's quick, you don't need cutlery, and a lot of fun can be had with toppings. So very many wins.

How to give pizza a twist: "I love making my own pizza and a chef taught me this trick for the best tomato sauce base. Get a tin of tomatoes (not the chopped kind). Pour off some of the liquid. Stick them in a blender and blitz until smooth. That's it - you don't need anything else. It tastes better than passata from a jar. Season and add herbs too if you like, but there's no need," suggests Octavia Lillywhite. 

Pizza doesn't always have to have a tomato base either. For a grown-up 'white' version try a plain dough with thin slices of potato, garlic, rosemary, and olive oil. Add baked eggs, drizzle with pesto, use goat's cheese instead of mozzarella, and add honey, or even have a go at a homemade calzone.

Get the recipe: Pizza

14. Frittata

Why so popular? Possibly the single best way to use up all those bits and bobs in the fridge, a frittata is a slightly more involved take on an omelette, perfect for dinner time, and an ideal easy, quick, nutritious, and protein-rich way to get a midweek meal on the table. Even purely, simply with mere potato and onion, classic tapas menu style, it's pretty delicious. 

How to give it a twist: The marvelous thing about a frittata is that, much like an omelette, anything goes when it comes to throwing in flavours. Protein-wise, try smoked salmon, trout, or chorizo sausage, and instead of regular pots, mix in some roasted sweet potato. 

Caramelise the onions, top with grated Parmesan, or throw in salty feta and olives for a Greek take, or prawns, spring onions, and a chopped green chilli for a Vietnamese flavour. Try serving your frittata cold in packed lunches for an alternative to sandwiches – in fact, it could be a sandwich filling, making a jolly refreshing change from egg mayo. 

Get the recipe: Frittata


Simple ingredients, great balls of flavour

(Image credit: TI Media Limited)

15. Meatballs

Why so popular? Hearty, filling, and an economical way to cook mince (it'll go way further than in a sauce), meatballs are a definite crowd-pleaser and often one of the first meals that older kids learn to cook (if you train them well, they'll be taking over on this one in no time). 

And they're oh-so-versatile – pick a carb, any carb, be it spaghetti, potatoes, or rice, and they will compliment it a treat, pan-fried and stirred into a simple tomato sauce. Meatballs are also excellent to make in bulk and freeze for another day.

How to give meatballs a twist: "I love meatballs because they're so adaptable. Mix pork and beef for extra flavour, or use lamb instead and add some fresh mint. Anytime I find mince in the reduced section at the supermarket I grab it to make into meatballs, then I put them straight in the freezer ready to add to tomato sauce, or serve in pitta with tzatziki, rocket and fresh chillis," says Octavia Lillywhite. 

Equally, try serving them the Scandinavian way with a rich creamy sauce and mashed potatoes (hands up who only goes to IKEA to eat this on their way to buy tea lights) – it's also an excellent way to use up that jar of cranberry sauce lurking in the fridge. And then there's that American classic – the meatball sub. Serve in a sub roll or mini baguette with a drizzle of tomato pasta sauce, melted mozzarella, peppers, and onions.

Get the recipe: Meatballs

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Lara Kilner
Food Writer

Lara Kilner is a writer and editor with two decades of experience in national newspapers, magazines, and websites. She writes about food, lifestyle, travel, health and wellness, and entertainment, and regularly interviews celebrities and people with interesting life stories and experiences. Her foodie content has included interviews with Jamie Oliver, Rick Stein, Queer Eye’s food expert Antoni Porowski, the Hairy Bikers, Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, Raymond Blanc, Andi Oliver, Paul Hollywood, Prue Leith, and Nadiya Hussain.