Weeknight Dinner Survival Tips and Tricks

If right now you're sitting at your computer looking for ideas on what to make for dinner, you're not alone. Weeknight meal conundrums are as likely as the kids asking, "what's for dinner?" for the millionth time. We're here to help you break out of your rut and turn the every-night chore into a piece of cake.

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Dinner's Ready

We get it: The dinner struggle is real. With busy work schedules, kids' practices and homework to get done, everyone's time is crunched. Coming up with an idea for dinner can seem overwhelming. But with these handy tips and tricks, we hope we can take a little bit of the struggle out of meal-planning for your family.

Use a Calendar

It may seem like an idea from the distant past — heck, maybe your mom even had one! — but using a calendar to plan your week's meals is a real time saver. Of course, you have to put the work in on the front end. If you're a weekly shopper, use a small whiteboard (or just a piece of paper hung on the fridge) to write out each weeknight's meals. Then, fill out your shopping list accordingly. You'll save money and time in the long run. Even if you don't do a big weekly shop, having the calendar will help you know what you need to pick up for that night's dinner and alleviate the "what am I going to make tonight?" question so many of us face.

Go International

My favorite way to shake up my family's routine dinners is to make something foreign. If you've got fussy eaters, pick a dish with a flavor profile close to something your family loves. My family's favorite: chicken curry. You can adjust the spice to your family's taste or swap in different meats or veggies. The best thing is if you aren't confident enough a cook to make an exotic meal from scratch, the grocery store's international aisle is full of meal starter kits that just require a protein or vegetable. Done and done! Try something Indian, Chinese or Thai to start out.

Batch Cooking

Health gurus and big households alike swear by the process of batch cooking. What you'll need to do is plan out your week's meals (hello, weeknight food calendar!) and set aside a couple of hours on the weekend to prep the components of your meals. Getting all your prep work done ahead of time means that you can just throw together a night's meal in a flash. Veggies, meats, stews and even salads can be portioned, packaged up and labeled so that all that needs to be done when it's mealtime is putting the pieces together.

One-Pot Wonders

For a few decades there, one-pot meals sort of went out of fashion. The children of the Casserole Generation revolted and wanted nothing to do with their parent's way of cooking. Thankfully, we went to therapy and came to our senses. With the invention of much better slow cookers and pressure cookers, one-pot meals are all the rage again. Chilis, stews, curries, roasts, you name it! It can all be done without dirtying every pot in your cupboards. And don't forget pasta, the savior of many a weeknight meal. If you've batch-cooked, all you'll need to do is boil the pasta, throw in some veggies, and a protein if you like, add a sauce and call it dinner.

Social Media #FTW

When I'm feeling especially forlorn about my dinners, I head to social media for some serious inspiration. You know all those gorgeous Instagram food photos you've seen? Well, you can actually make them! Shocking, I know. Pinterest is a goldmine of cooking ideas, though some recipes are notoriously a little suspect. (BBQ Pulled Pork Cinnamon Rolls, I'm looking at you.) But even if you don't choose to make a recipe you've seen on your favorite social media site, you will surely come away with some ideas that are outside of your ordinary routine.

Breakfast for Dinner

One of my friends, who has four grown children that she raised as a single mom, answers "breakfast for dinner" quite simply when I wonder, "what should I make tonight?" It's sort of a genius solution that I often forget about. Who doesn't love waffles with sausage? In my house, I like to do a decorate-your-own-waffle setup. Fruits are easily added in as a fun topper, and if you want to up their calcium intake and be loved forever: whipped cream! One night without veggies won't kill them.

Dinner Round-Robin With Your Pals

I came up with an idea while bemoaning the fact that I often end up cooking the same five dinners on rotation to a pal of mine. She said she did, too. But when I asked her what hers were, lo and behold, they were different than mine! So I invented a game of round robin that couldn't be easier to play. Get a group of your friends, a shared spreadsheet, links to recipes (if needed) of your top five meals and add them to your document. It's as easy as that. If you do this with just five of your friends, suddenly you'll have 25 tried-and-true dinner ideas at your disposal to lighten your mealtime panic. The more friends, the more ideas.

Let the Kids Pick

Sometimes coming up with dinner ideas that will please my whole family is just too much for me to bear on my own. But if I put on my boss hat and delegate the responsibility to those sitting around the table with me, voila! Stress alleviated. Will they always pick the healthiest meal? No, I guarantee you they won't. But sharing the responsibility and taking the opportunity to get the kids involved in meal prep will make them better adults one day. Not to mention that if you get them cooking, they'll be downright proud of their accomplishment — even if it's just mac 'n cheese and nuggets.

Stock Your Pantry

Yet another tip to take from our parent's generation: your pantry is your friend. Keeping a healthy diet for you and your family does require loads of fresh ingredients, but the building blocks of your meal can be shelf-stable. Some things to have at your disposal at all times to pull together a great last-minute meal: grains like rice, quinoa or couscous, beans, canned whole tomatoes, pasta, broth and spices will get you on your way to a winner of a dinner.

Designate a Takeout Night

Do I always get a homemade meal on the table for my busy clan? Nope. I do not. Designating one night of the week as a takeout night can feel like a huge relief. For me, my sanity-saver is pizza Friday. My kids look forward to it as a reward at the end of their school week, and I look forward to it as a reward for all my cooking. When we're all doing the best we can to spend quality time with our families around the table, sometimes letting someone else do the cooking is just what the chef ordered.