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5 simple ways to get dinner on the table

As a cookbook author, I might “cook for a living”, but sometimes it’s still a struggle to get a home-cooked meal on the table in a timely manner. Our family’s busy schedule includes everything from swim lessons to physical therapy to meeting a commuter train most school nights. I confess that the siren song of takeout beckons me more often than I would like.

In an effort to eat more healthfully and save money, I’ve narrowed down five easy strategies for feeding my family homemade meals without the hassle. I hope they’ll help you, too.

1. Plan your meals.

Having a meal plan is really half the battle to eating well on a budget. When I fly by the seat of my pants, I crash and burn – and spend too much money.

Meal planning doesn’t have to be complicated. It can be as simple as as jotting down five meals you could make with what you already have on hand.

Paying for a meal planning service is a great way to simplify if you’ve got more money than time. Let someone else do the thinking! There are also free meal plans to download to give you a little extra help.

2. Choose simple meals, like breakfast for dinner.

I’m pretty sure my kids could eat breakfast foods every night of the week. I’m not suggesting you stock up on Sugar Coated Chocolate Bombs. Breakfasts, like Whole Wheat Banana Pancakes or Eggs and Sweet Potato Hash, are nutritious, simple meals that everyone loves.

When you’re stuck for a dinner idea, just start making that second breakfast of the day. Or the third.

breakfast-hash-textPhoto by Jessica Fisher

3. Lean on the quick fix.

I spent most of 2014 compiling recipes that took me 30 minutes or less to prepare. I was shocked at how much variety was possible in half an hour, less time than it takes me to find my keys and wait in line at In-n-Out Burger.

Since then, I regularly stock my cupboards and freezer with ingredients that I can prep quickly and easily, such as salad greens, canned beans, quick-cooking grains, frozen chicken tenders, frozen vegetables, and flatbreads. Having these ingredients at the ready makes whipping up dinner super easy.

4. Set up your kitchen for success.

When my kitchen is cluttery and the sink is full of dishes, it’s as if my cooking space were lined with Kryptonite. If that’s something that works against you, too, consider clearing things out, dejunking the cupboards, and giving yourself a little kitchen make-over. Something as simple as a larger skillet or a nicer chef’s knife can make a world of difference.

A more organized kitchen will make your feel awesome — and make the dinner prep so much more fun.

5. Just eat something.

While I love to set a fancy table and prepare a great feast, I’ve found that it’s important to give myself a break. Every meal does not have to be an event.

Give yourself permission to nosh on a snacky dinner and relax tonight.

Dinner time doesn’t have to be the “witching hour”. A few simple tweaks to your routine can make your meal prep time sweet and easy.

What’s YOUR favorite way to get dinner on the table without a lot of fuss?

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  1. Beth

    Yes! To all! Especially to #1 (meal plan) and #2 (breakfast for dinner.) I would add #6 – fix enough to eat twice. It might not be practical if you’re feeding 10 people but even growing up my mom would generally fix enough for 10 (but there were only 6 of us) and we’d have a variety of leftovers to choose from for lunch the next day. For my family of three I always cook at least twice as much (easy, coming from a family of 6 🙂 .)

    • Jessica

      Cooking double is a great strategy!

  2. Susan

    My advice is also to look at your calendar when you are meal planning and recognize up front which days are going to be disasters at dinner time. On those days, I always plan a slow cooker meal or something that I can make ahead and that just bakes while I am running around and my older kids are home to throw it in or pull it out. Some days it is just easier to make dinner at 8:30 a.m.!

    • Alissa

      That’s so key Susan! My meal plan is just a list on the fridge, but the first thing I do is write the dinnertime activities on the list. “Soccer night” = either a crockpot meal or something that can be cooked ahead and reheated.

    • Jessica

      Good advice!

  3. priest's wife @byzcathwife

    One of my sisters- she has 6 kids 13 and under- sometimes does a ‘dab dinner’…lots of dishes that are served family style. She gets rid of leftovers and anything in the fridge that is not enough for a full meal (half a jar of apple sauce, a small salad, 1 pack of hebrew national)

    • Julie

      I used to do this frequently when my kids were little. We called it schorgasbord dinner and they loved being able to choose what they ate. Round it out with veggies and dip or some cut up fruit and you are good to go.

  4. Amanda

    Most slow cooker meals take 4-6 hours which does not work for the working folk. If you have it ready to cook while you are at home the next day you’ll have a heat and serve meal. Someone told me they would put there’s on overnight but how do you sleep if the house smells wonderful:)

    I love #5 – I routinely find myself telling my kids they do not have to love everything they eat.

    • HokieKate

      I have a slow cooker with a timer that switches to “keep warm” after the set cooking time. It was less than $20 and works great for my family. I start it before I leave for work and it’s ready when I get home.

    • Jessica

      Even for those of us who work at home, those short-cooking crockpot meals can get overcooked. So weird. The reason you use it is so you don’t have to worry about the time, but it doesn’t work out that way.

  5. Barefoot Hippie Girl

    My favorite way to get dinner on the table fast is by using the She Plans Dinner menu planning service. I take the menu, and arrange the meals according to my schedule. More prep time meals on slower days. Fast dinners on busy days.

  6. Susan

    Near the end of both my pregnancies I doubled & froze meals until my freezer was full. After my baby was born last year I decided – why only give myself that gift when I have a newborn? It’s so easy to double a meal you’re already making! Now I double & freeze meals about once a week until my freezer is full, then have a frozen meal whenever it’s convenient & when I’m all out, start again. This works so well for me!

    • Jessica

      Yes! That’s one of my favorite ways to fill the freezer. Need to do that soon!

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