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During the week, when my days are a mad rush to wake up, drop my son at daycare, put in a day’s worth of work, then get dinner on the table before he totally loses it, a quick and easy dinner is not just preferred, it’s essential. Giving my family real food every night is so important to me, but I just can’t afford to spend all evening doing so. Unfortunately, recipes aren’t always what they promise to be.
Just yesterday, I took on a dish called Quick Tomato Curry. We were just getting back from a weekend away, so I didn’t even begin cooking until after 7 p.m.—dangerous territory when you have a son who reaches full-on meltdown mode around that time of the day. But the title of the recipe assured me it was quick, so I marched forward.
More than 30 minutes later I was still cooking. I took another look at the recipe title, surely I had read it wrong. Nope—according to the directions, this “quick” curry takes 50 minutes, excluding any chopping and prep time. (This doesn’t include the 15-minute pause I took to rock my son to sleep when he did, in fact, melt down.)
So in an effort to avoid this disappointment in the future, I asked real parents to share their best tips for getting healthy dinners on the table in a flash. Here’s what they had to say:
1. Make your appliances work for you
Your KitchenAid Stand Mixer isn’t just for baking cookies. Chelsea McDonnough, the author of the lifestyle blog Two Twenty One, uses this kitchen workhorse to its fullest potential—she uses it to make quick work of shredding chicken. Simply cook chicken breasts, place them in a KitchenAid mixing bowl fitted with the standard paddle attachment, put the machine on stir, then slowly increase the speed to 3 or 4 and watch your chicken break into perfect shreds, no hands-on time required.
2. Try tin foil dinners
As the busy author of the food blog Creme de la Crumb and the mother to twin toddlers, Tiffany Edwards knows a thing or two about cooking healthy weeknight dinners in a flash. Her antidote to busy nights: foil packets. You do have to cut up a few veggies, but a rough chop is sufficient and the entire meal—protein, starch, and vegetable—cooks right in a square of foil, on the grill or in the oven, in as little as nine minutes. So while you may have to wash a knife and a cutting board, there are no pots and pans, or even plates, to scrub.
3. Spruce up frozen meals
In a pinch, the freezer aisle is your best friend. It’s full of items that make cooking even remotely possible on busy nights. But Joanna Goddard, author of A Cup of Jo, says there’s an easy way to make these dinners feel fresher and more personalized: doctor them up a little. With a few extra ingredients, like fresh tomatoes, sausage, and mushrooms, a plain old bag of gnocchi can be transformed into a colorful and satisfying meal.
4. Make dinner in the morning
Renee Cook, author of Tune My Heart Blog, says switching things up and cooking dinner right after breakfast helped her through the tougher phases of her kids’ early childhood years. “If I made dinner after breakfast, when I still had energy for the day, I could spend the pre-dinner witching hours reading to the toddler(s) on the couch, or taking a quick nap while they watched a movie,” writes Cook. Make an entire meal ahead of time and warm it when it’s time to eat, or do the prep work to speed up the process later.
5. Plan ahead and stick to themes
Rather than spend countless hours thumbing through cookbooks each week, plan out your meals a month at a time, suggests Jen and Madi, mother-daughter duo and authors of the blog Hairs Out of Place. And while that may sound intimidating, setting particular themes for each night ultimately makes it easier to select recipes and ensures the family always knows what to expect. Try vegetarian on Monday, ground beef on Tuesday, Italian on Wednesday, a roast and veggies on Thursdays, leftovers on Fridays, seafood on Saturdays, and sandwiches on Sundays.
6. Try one-pot pasta for a low-maintenance dinner
Pasta night is generally a low-effort one, but one-pot pasta makes it even easier, says Nora Rusev, author of Savory Nothings: “I can make it with two whining kids in the kitchen without breaking a serious sweat.” There’s no boiling then draining, and there’s no dirtying another pot to make sauce—everything cooks to perfection in a single pot.
7. Use kitchen shears to make quick work of cutting
Kitchen shears are generally undervalued, says Erin Chase, author of $5 Dinners. Use them to quickly snip herbs, break down canned tomatoes, cut up chicken, crack nuts, and chop small vegetables for salads. It takes a fraction of the time cutting them with a knife does—plus saves time on washing extra dishes, like a knife and cutting board.
8. Cook one dish to use multiple ways through the week
The best way to simplify dinner prep is to pick one star ingredient—chili, chicken, pork, beef, or vegetarian—and make a big batch at the beginning of the week, says Chopped Junior champion Mason Partak. A big pot of chili, for example, can be enjoyed on its own one night, and turned into something different for a few nights afterward. Think: taco salad, nachos, chili wraps, chili dogs, and even spaghetti. Sick of chili, but stuck with leftovers? Freeze it for another time, says Partak.
9. Embrace the microwave
No, we’re not suggesting frozen TV dinners. Mike Vrobel, author of Dad Cooks Dinner says the microwave is the key to weeknight baked potatoes. Traditional cooking methods take 60 minutes or longer, but you can cut that time in half (or more!) by nuking your potatoes to soften, then finishing in the oven to crisp.
10. Swap rice for couscous
When you need to get dinner on the table—stat—Kristen Oliphant says couscous is a game-changer. Simply add couscous to boiling water at a 1:1 ratio, and let sit for five minutes. Et voila—a delicious foundation for just about any meal in just a couple minutes.