You’ve been eating dinner for your entire life—and prepping it yourself since you reached adulthood—so why does it still seem like an endless puzzle to solve now that you’re a parent? The solution to “What’s for dinner?” too often ends with speed-calling takeout or opening up a box of cereal.
The struggle is real—but it doesn’t need to be.
The key to overcoming the weeknight-dinner question mark is to embrace meals like any other life activity, says Stephanie O’Dea, a cookbook author and slow-cooking expert who swears by meal plans. “You make detailed plans and strategies to succeed for life goals like your health, family vacations, and retirement savings,” she says. “Meals should be no different.”
Family Meal Planning Strategies
Make it a family activity.
Get your partner, kids, and whoever else eats meals with you involved in meal planning and preparation. This not only cuts down on your workload, but also—when you let kids help select meals and assist with shopping and prep, such as peeling and measuring—they learn more about healthy eating habits.
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Create theme nights.
“Knowing what kind of food is on the schedule takes the stress out of decision-making, and provides structure for the entire week,” says Jackie Ballou Erdos, RD, owner of Balancing Act Nutrition in New York City. Select a few theme nights, like Meatless Monday, Taco Tuesday, and Stir-Fry Friday.
Streamline prep work.
Yes, it’s true: The best way to save time is to do all your prep at once. For instance, when chopping onions for a meal, chop 2–3 onions and store the excess in zippered bags in the fridge or freezer. The knife and cutting board are out, your eyes are already tearing—and the small amount of extra time spent now is a fraction of the time you’d spend on the same task another day.
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Stock your kitchen.
Erdos recommends keeping your fridge, freezer, and pantry always stocked with the essentials. For example:
- Fridge: Milk and yogurt (plain or Greek), cheese (meltable shredded varieties like mozzarella, parmesan for grating, and strong cheeses like feta or blue for garnish), fresh fruit and herbs, hummus, salsa, eggs, baby carrots and other seasonal vegetables, and bags of prewashed lettuce.
Freezer: Frozen fruit (no added sugar), frozen vegetables (no sauce), precooked chicken breast strips, shrimp, and veggie burgers.
Pantry: Whole-grain bread and tortillas, quick-cooking grains like brown rice and quinoa, whole wheat pasta, natural nut butters (almond and peanut butter), canned beans and soups, canned tuna and salmon, cooking oils (olive oil, avocado oil), nuts (almonds, walnuts, cashews) and sauces and condiments (balsamic or red-wine vinegar, chicken or vegetable broth, spice blends).
Cook once, eat all week.
Saturday and Sunday are ideal for prepping bulk items for the week. Cook one big batch of grains and refrigerate for use all week, and roast a sheet pan or two of vegetables and store extras in containers. Likewise, “cook a few pounds of chicken or other meat at a time and then separate into proper portions to keep in the freezer,” says O’Dea. “Pull one portion out during the week to add to pasta sauce or chili.”
Embrace speedy or slow cooking.
If cooking is your main time cruncher, especially for days when you play chauffeur or have to work late, invest in a multi-cooker. With a pressure-cook option for speedy meal prep (like a batch of beans), and a slow-cook option so you can load it up with ingredients in the morning and come home to a hot meal, a multipurpose cooker lessens your hands-on time.