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Win at Weeknight Dinners With These 10 Shortcuts

by
author image Caroline Kaufman, MS, RDN
Caroline Kaufman helps busy people live healthier, less stressful lives. She has an M.S. in nutrition communication from Tufts and an A.B. in English from Harvard. Caroline is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, writer, consultant for Health Warrior and the California Strawberry Commission and blogger at CarolineKaufman.com.

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Win at Weeknight Dinners With These 10 Shortcuts
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Cooking dinner can be daunting. You get home from work, you’re tired and you really just want to throw on pajamas, order pizza and watch Netflix. Unfortunately, all that takeout is doing us in. Restaurants and fast-food chains typically serve larger portions and pack in more calories, fat and sodium than home-cooked meals. When you’re in the kitchen, you control the ingredients. It’s much easier to eat healthfully when you’re the one wielding the salt and butter. In order to take the stress out of weeknight meals, you have to make it easier for yourself. Why are some people able to get home and have dinner on the table within an hour? They’ve mastered the tricks that make it possible to cook during the week, stay sane, stress less and eat well. Here are 10 tricks to get you started.

1. Create Weekly Menus
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1 CREATE WEEKLY MENUS

Every weekend, set aside time to create a weekly dinner menu. As you decide on recipes, add the ingredients to a running grocery list, organized by food categories like “dairy” and “produce,” so you can zip through the market. Sara Haas, RDN, LDN, dietitian and chef, recommends buying a week’s worth of groceries at one time so you’re all set for the week ahead. Take photos of recipes you like with your phone, tear them out of magazines or peruse food blogs and Pinterest for ideas. Wish someone would just plan your weekly menus for you? Services like Cook Smarts, Relish and The Six O’Clock Scramble will tell you exactly what to make and what to buy. Aviva Goldfarb, family food expert and founder of The Six O’Clock Scramble, says that members save about $100 and three to five hours a week using her ready-made dinner plans.

Related: 10 Easy On-the-Go Breakfasts

2. Batch-Cook Meals
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2 BATCH-COOK MEALS

Whether you prepare meals for the whole week or just two days, you’ll make your weeknights a lot easier. Lindsay Livingston, registered dietitian at The Lean Green Bean, spends about 90 minutes prepping food for the week every Sunday. Having staples like hard-boiled eggs, tuna salad, lettuce, precut veggies, breakfast bars, beans, rice and a few slow-cooked meats (like chicken or pork) “makes lunches and dinners come together so quickly,” she says. It only takes her 15 to 20 minutes each night to put dinners like burrito bowls and curries on the table. If a week’s worth of meals feels too daunting, make two or three meals on Sunday and do some advance prep work throughout the week, advises Aviva Goldfarb, founder of the meal planner The Six O’Clock Scramble. For example, “before you clean up Tuesday’s dinner,” Goldfarb advises, “chop the onion and dice the peppers that you’ll need for Wednesday night.”

Related: 13 Meal-Prep Hacks to Save Time in the Kitchen

3. Take a Knife-Skills Class
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3 TAKE A KNIFE-SKILLS CLASS

What’s the most tedious, time-consuming part of cooking? Preparing ingredients. The dreaded prep has been the undoing of many a bright-eyed home cook. We have all fallen for those fake “30-minute meals” that actually take an hour once you factor in the dicing, chopping, peeling and zesting. Luckily, there’s a way out. Knife skills. According to knife-skills instructor Norman Weinstein, you can cut 15 minutes off your prep if you know how to use a sharp knife. Find a course at your local culinary school or watch a YouTube tutorial. Cluttering your kitchen with tons of tiny chopping gadgets or finger-slicing mandolins will likely get in the way of achieving your Zen, but here are three prep tools that are worth the investment: a dishwasher-safe mini food processor, a sharp pair of scissors for cutting herbs and a microplane zester.

Related: 13 Meal-Prep Hacks to Save Time in the Kitchen

4. Doctor Frozen Foods
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4 DOCTOR FROZEN FOODS

When you’re too busy or tired to cook, frozen foods can be a healthy dinner -- if you know how to work them. Here’s the trick: Frozen entrees are a starting place, not a complete meal. Pair them with fresh produce and whole grains, which will help you feel full and improve the flavor and appearance of whatever’s in that cardboard box. For example, top a frozen, thin-crust pizza with extra vegetables and add a side salad. If you prefer chicken, beef or fish, add a whole-grain couscous salad with canned chickpeas, chopped red pepper and almonds. Craving pasta? Add veggies and a source of protein like tempeh, shredded chicken or drained and rinsed beans so it doesn’t turn into a refined-carb bonanza.

Related: 10 Easy On-the-Go Breakfasts

5. Get ’Appy
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5 GET ’APPY

Some apps can be real time-savers. Here are two that can help take the stress out of dinner: 1. Substitutions: You’re about to start cooking dinner and realize you’re out of eggs. Now what? Don’t give up, just turn to the Substitutions app for suggestions. If you prefer a book, “The Food Substitutions Bible” is an award-winning reference with more than 6,500 substitutions for ingredients, equipment and techniques. 2. AnyList: Create a smart shopping list that automatically sorts your ingredients into food categories. If you share it with family members, the app will update everyone’s list whenever something is added or removed.

Related: 13 Meal-Prep Hacks to Save Time in the Kitchen

6. Make Your Own Freezer Meals
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6 MAKE YOUR OWN FREEZER MEALS

There are three main ways to make your own time-saving freezer meals: 1. Cook Once, Eat Twice: While you can freeze almost anything, some dishes reheat better than others. Michelle Dudash, RDN, chef and syndicated columnist of DishWithDudash.com, recommends stews, casseroles, soups, slow-cooker meals and dishes made with ground beef like meatloaf and meatballs. 2. Dinner Kits: Frozen dinner kits contain all the components of a complete meal in one bag. Place each ingredient in its own labeled, dated, freezer-safe container, and then put them all in one big freezer bag. Take the “fajita kit”: marinated chicken cut into stir-fry pieces, tortillas and mixed vegetables. 3. Frozen Crockpot Meals: Prepare crockpot meals in advance and freeze them in one big container. Defrost the meal overnight so it’s ready to dump in the slow cooker in the morning. Dinner will be ready when you are!

Related: 10 Easy On-the-Go Breakfasts

7. Maintain a Well-Stocked Kitchen
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7 MAINTAIN A WELL-STOCKED KITCHEN

Equip your kitchen with staples that can be mixed and matched into a variety of meals. Stock your freezer with vegetables like edamame, chopped spinach and corn; mixed berries; rice; fish like salmon and tilapia; and ground meat. Keep heart-healthy oils, balsamic vinegar, whole grains, pasta, reduced-sodium broth, marinara sauce, canned tomatoes, peanut butter, salsa, canned salmon and tuna and canned beans in the pantry. With those staples and a few basic spices and fresh ingredients, you can make quick burritos, quesadillas, veggie-filled pastas, frittatas, tuna salad sandwiches, cold peanut noodles with chicken and whole-grain bowls with salmon.

Related: 10 Easy No-Cook Dinner Entrees

8. Cook From (Almost) Scratch
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8 COOK FROM (ALMOST) SCRATCH

Sometimes you have time to cook from scratch, and other times…not so much. When you’re in a crunch, don’t feel guilty about using premade convenience foods. Rotisserie chicken, frozen or fresh ravioli, hard-boiled eggs, minced garlic, prechopped vegetables and prewashed greens are all great shortcut foods. Whether you simply pair a protein with vegetables and whole grains, turn ravioli into a soup with canned tomatoes and broth (from your well-stocked pantry, of course) or make a hard-boiled egg and tomato sandwich, you’ve saved time without compromising quality.

Related: 13 Meal-Prep Hacks to Save Time in the Kitchen

9. Set Up a Speedy Kitchen
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9 SET UP A SPEEDY KITCHEN

Aviva Goldfarb, founder of the meal planner The Six O’Clock Scramble, offers her strategy to whip up a delicious, speedy weeknight meal. 1. Stay Organized: Stop wasting time hunting for ingredients. Create homes for different types of food in your pantry, freezer and refrigerator. For example, put all your baking supplies on the same shelf, cluster canned beans and tomatoes next to grains and pastas, and stash vegetables in one part of the fridge. 2. Start Smart: “Empty the dishwasher, clear off the counters and pull out all the ingredients" you need for dinner, she says. 3. Collect Trash: You’re wasting precious minutes walking back and forth to the trash while you’re prepping dinner. Instead, “collect all your scraps in a small container” and empty it when you’re done cooking, offers Goldfarb.

Related: 10 Easy No-Cook Dinner Entrees

10. Use Grocery and Meal Delivery Services
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10 USE GROCERY AND MEAL DELIVERY SERVICES

If time is your first priority, consider investing in grocery or meal delivery services to cut down on shopping and prep time. There are two major types of grocery delivery services: 1. Just Groceries: Peapod, Fresh Direct and Amazon Fresh typically deliver within one to two days, and Instacart can deliver within an hour of ordering. If you have your dinner menus planned and shopping list ready, you can save a ton of time ordering online. 2. Dinner Boxes: Don’t have the time or desire to plan menus and write shopping lists? Not a problem. National meal delivery services like Plated, Blue Apron and Chef’d deliver healthy, chef-created recipes and properly portioned ingredients to your door. You just do the prep and cook. Many offer special menus (like vegetarian and Paleo) and deliver boxes for two people or families.

Related: 10 Easy On-the-Go Breakfasts

What Do YOU Think?
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WHAT DO YOU THINK?

Do you ever stress out about what to make for dinner? Have you tried any of the tips listed in this article? Have they worked for you or not? Leave a comment below and let us know. Share your experience on what helps you take the stress out of weeknight dinners. Maybe your thoughts will help others.

Related: 10 Easy No-Cook Dinner Entrees

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