5 Practical Things That Help You Make Time to Cook Dinner

updated May 29, 2019
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(Image credit: The Kitchn)

Many of us are swimming in the same proverbial soup — that mad dash between activities after work and/or school, and the shrinking window of time in which to prepare dinner. This became immediately apparent when my children reached school age and began activities such as soccer and karate in the evenings. But through all of this, I cook. Maybe it’s stubborn, maybe it’s smart. It’s simply what feels right; it’s my default move.

Even still, we need other moves when we feel crunched. The first one is to disabuse ourselves of the notion that every single dinner has to be completely homemade, all the way down to the perfectly sourced and prepped veggies. Go ahead and break that rule – you’ll be happy you did.

Here are five more moves that can help you make time to cook.

(Image credit: Kelli Foster)

1. Institute a meal plan.

It does not have to be rigid; even a somewhat fluid menu is better than complete chaos and head scratching at 6 p.m. every night. On soccer and karate days, we are usually home by 6:40, which isn’t too bad, but my 7-year-olds go to bed by 8 or 8:30 and we need to review homework and get them showered, too. Those are the nights when I want to quickly whip up something easy and nutritious. Templates can include frittatas or even scrambled eggs with some veggies or herbs thrown in. Think: large salads (grains- or greens-based) with some kind of protein we can quickly grill. Sandwiches don’t have to rule the roost at lunch, and soup is an endless template; quesadillas and tacos kind of are, too. Stir-fries and pasta dishes pair with veggies that I’ve maybe chopped in the morning or the night before, and then stored in the fridge in containers, ready for their call of duty.

2. Prep, cook, and freeze in batches.

The freezer is your friend. I usually do a big batch of dried beans in the slow cooker and let it go for most of the day. Then I measure them out into two-cup portion sizes and freeze them in zip-top bags for future use. This works well with grains such as rice, farro, quinoa, and wheat berries, too — the latter of which seem to take forever to cook.

Summer pesto or chopped roasted or blanched seasonal veggies are gems to uncover; I do this with summertime peppers, which are ridiculously expensive in the winter. But even pasta sauce, meatballs, pierogi, soups, chilis, and balls of dough for pizza and calzones are freeze-worthy candidates. If your freezer is loaded with goodies, dinner is moments away.

3. Leave room for takeout.

Designate one night a week for takeout, and do it without guilt. It can be a moving target, something in flux depending on the week, or the same night every week, if that better supports your schedule. Pizza once a week or so isn’t terrible; I usually supplement it with a salad I can throw together while we wait for its arrival or pick-up. We typically fluctuate among pizza, Asian food (hibachi or sushi, usually), and Middle Eastern fare such as hummus, tabbouleh, and falafel. Make it count; make it something you will really look forward to.

One editor’s take on this rule: Why My Week Always Includes a Pizza Night

4. Take advantage of prepared foods.

Take advantage of your grocery store’s extensive selection of reheat-and-eat sides to accompany something else you’ve got planned for the main course, or pick up a rotisserie chicken to toss with your farmers market greens at home. This section of the grocery store is also typically loaded with helpers such as store-made stocks, sauces, dressings, dips, balls of pizza dough (are you sensing a trend here?), and so on.

But there are other choices you can make on busy nights, too, such as pre-chopped and washed veggies. Yes, it will cost you a bit more, but that trade-off may be one well worth it. And if you’re lucky, you may wrangle an extra meal out of it; that rotisserie chicken you purchased for dinner tonight transforms into chicken salad or soup tomorrow (or leftovers for lunch).

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

5. Put the machines to work for you.

Invest in a slow cooker and/or a pressure cooker, or pull out the ones languishing in your pantry. These work to your advantage, but in opposite ways. I use my slow cooker at least once a week, prepping things in the morning or mid-afternoon, a luxury I have because I work from home. One of my favorite recipes is chicken burrito bowls. Pressure cookers do the inverse; risotto is rescued from its attentive, needy status — all that stirring is meditative and lovely, but maybe not during a weeknight — and becomes a viable option, on the table in well under half an hour. You can set the table and prep the salad while you wait.

What are some of your go-to tips and tricks for making dinner time prep happen more quickly?