Whether your schedule is tight or if you’re wanting less to coordinate on weeknight dinners, I’m rounding up some ideas to get you started and tactics that might speed you up. We’re going more places (like to work!) and have more weeknight commitments (like soccer practice!) and meals together are a priority so having a plan helps. Also you NEED the rice reheating hack below (trust me, game changer).
I aim for them to:
1- hit a few food groups
2- not feel complicated & not something new
3- make the most of our time.
They do not have to be: perfect or everyone’s favorite or have all homemade elements
First: Look at the week – plan the easiest meal when you need it most. Take off the pressure – you’ll eat dinner again so not every night has to be fantastic. A family I knew called leftover night “a feast” (think: lighting candles and kids brought swords to the table like knights) with lots of containers from the fridge – good branding, right? I don’t feel confined to always Meatless-Monday & Taco-tuesday but maybe some structure and mindset helps you.
Then: plan if the workcan be divvied or when prep/a head start might happen, or what shortcut you need. It doesn’t have to be Sunday all day batch cooking. 10 minutes in the morning between when the kids were off to school and before I left for the office used to be a great headstart for me. Maybe set a calendar reminder to take something out of the freezer or to prep that one step the night before. Even pre-chopping or defrosting, or gathering all fridge things all together can be hugely helpful.
Lastly: get an ongoing list started for fast meals. Maybe a bunch of post-its inside one of the cabinet doors, maybe it’s a shared google doc, maybe that’s a list in your phone. Ask your fam what they love to see for dinner! Note down ideas or what worked, then you build that list and use as you think about what meals will look like. Think of your plan as a big picture – is it chicken every night? Are the first few days unrealistic with too elaborate meals and it might feel all downhill from there? This list saves your brain when you’re trying to plan & shop.
Entering a busy day/week without a plan feels so so daunting. Plan one or 2 nights to start and see how it goes. Referring to the list of what you can make without lots of thought/stress is. the. goal. I often start with one pasta night + one leftovers/anything goes night + one international night (Mexican & Greek are our favorites). Then I will get more specific from there.
For make-ahead faves:
Quiche + salad (this BLT Quiche!)
Calzones that just need to warm (this Veggie Calzone with Fire Roasted Tomatoes)
Casseroles/crockpot meals would fit the bill here, but all the foods together isn’t always a hit at our house right now, and putting pressure on that one dish for the roulette of who-will-eat-what.
Burritos (assemble with all cold/cooled fillings so it doesn’t get soggy) then micro or pan sear for a crunchy exterior + some made ahead rice (go Mexican or here’s a “burrito-ized” chicken, broccoli & rice wrap!)
Lasagna (this traditional one or variations) – I’ve assembled & let it bake at night for an hour while we watched TV and then it can cool when I’m getting ready for bed. Day-of, either warm the whole thing or slice & reheat!
Rice: if it seems terrible reheated then you need this tip. You have to reheat in the microwave completely covered. Cover the previously prepared rice with plastic wrap or with a silicone plastic cover (mine look like flowers but are like this) or in a stasher silicone bag. No extra liquid needed and warm it in the microwave. It’ll get right back to the fluffy or sticky consistency it was before. Out of the fridge it looks so so SO dry. Try it with leftover Chinese take-out and we all have Mr. J to thank later. I often make it just before serving in the pressure cooker (white rice takes ~4 minutes, but leftovers are very handy)
For meals you can prep-ahead:
Sauces (I’ll mix up sesame peanut sauce & then just cook noodles at dinner time) + edamame from the freezer = a go-to and a hit at our house.
Paninis are great to assemble in advance and oven bake or pan fry when it is time (or prep & freeze to defrost in the fridge day-of) (like this eggplant parm one)
For the fastest & least-cooking meals:
pasta (add to that cheat-sheet all the ways you like it – a reminder for tomato sauce vs pesto vs alfredo vs peanut sesame noodles or a stuffed (tortellini/ravioli) makes for variety for us.
breakfast for dinner is fun: fruit + pancakes/or eggs/or avocado toast (don’t serve allll the brunch favorites or you’ll be into more elaborate-dinner territory).
quesadillas (add some avocado on the side or some beans to keep it filling) fit well for “to-order” if you’re feeding family members at different timing.
pizza beans are popular for us – make ahead or they cook in 10 minutes
freezer staples can become dinner if you hit a few food groups – meatballs & garlic bread, breaded chicken to go into wraps, or freezer snacky dinner like soft pretzels + veggies to also dip) or apps for dinner (like mozzarella sticks or frozen falafel with hummus) are hits too.
Rice bowls (like these!) especially with the rice make-ahead tip above!
sandwiches- esp the ones you don’t pack for school/work: Grilled cheese, tuna, egg salad.
taco filling to be salads/burritos/nachos/etc
nicer-than-usual canned soup + crackers & cheese
I don’t always shine for sides – but for quick meals I especially try to have veggies we can eat raw or that could be roasted/air fried (esp broccoli, carrots, bell peppers), or something hands-off like sweet potato fries or a frozen veg like corn/peas. The micro packets of rice or lentils that cook in 30-seconds are perfect for speed. Kids don’t care if it necessarily “goes” with the meal so I don’t overthink it. I forget about rolls or crescents or biscuits but my kids love them (and the tubes last in the fridge forever) so that’s something I should add to our sides.
Last tips to help you plan & make quick dinners:
1- get to know your microwave settings (discovering the inverter defrost was so helpful). Power level does this too if you’re defrosting in a hurry or getting a head start.
2- label the fridge or freezer items (I use masking tape w/ a sharpie) and that helps when planning or if I’m saving something for a specific meal.
3- keep a cheat sheet of what’s in the freezer. If I know I have frozen sauce to work with I won’t buy more.
Now, go brain dump onto a list so you have some ideas next time you’re trying to plan. Go!