If there were ever an award worthy of giving a parent, it would be for one feat: delivering a nutritious meal to the table on time. That's especially true for me, given my 90-minute commute home from work, two children (a 3-week-old and 3-year-old), and a wife who does plenty else besides also taking on the cooking duties.
Over the years, I've developed a number of strategies to get a good dinner on the table. Here's how I do it.
1. Know that perfecting the shopping might include grocery delivery.
Want proof that the grocery store is often the most time-consuming part of the dinner experience? Look no further than the rise of dinner kit delivery services like Blue Apron, HelloFresh, and Plated — to name a few. I've used all of them, but the per-meal cost is simply too high to sustain.
I have enjoyed using new delivery services that are linked to my local grocery store (like Peapod and Instacart). I build my list over the week, then submit for on-time weekend delivery. Even online retailers like Amazon and Jet are getting in the grocery delivery game. The services are growing in popularity for one reason in particular: They're a great idea.
2. Prepare ingredients ahead of time.
I use that time saved not shopping on Sundays to do some meal prep for the week. Why chop onions multiple nights if you can do it once and then store them in a refrigerated, airtight container? Do this with all of the ingredients you constantly use.
3. Pre-cook when appropriate.
This tip is as much a time-saver as it is a way to get great flavor out of your ingredients. Things like tough meats, heavy vegetables, and hearty grains can all benefit from being cooked twice.
Take the time to salt and brown your meat a couple days before you roast it. (Besides adding flavor, browning your meat could lead to less time needed in the oven.) Blanch your green beans ahead of time if you're going to be sautéing them with garlic and olive oil. Stew your chicken thighs and shred them before re-heating on taco night. Save that second, quicker cooking step for the night of your dinner.
4. Master your oven's delayed start feature for preheating.
It's amazing how much time you can save by using a feature available on virtually every oven. Rather than waiting for your oven to preheat when you get home from work, program it in the morning before you leave. I only recently started doing this and kicked myself for not having discovered it sooner. Everything from squash to enchiladas have benefitted from this discovery.
5. Always keep a bailout meal ready.
When thinking about what you'll make for the week, it's helpful to keep something speedy on hand if you wind up with less time for dinner prep than usual. Always have one or two bailouts that you can quickly throw together. Maybe it's Mexican-spiced beans and rice topped with fresh avocado or a stir-fry with shrimp and vegetables you've already prepped. Bailouts will always come in handy if you're running late.
6. Think fresh.
Cook what's in season and it's very likely you won't have to do as much to make the ingredient taste good. This is especially true for your vegetable dishes — both sides and mains.
And when all else fails, remember: There's always takeout. And the point isn't to be a dinner god every night of the week, every week of the year. The point is to feed your family.
Welcome to Dinner with Kids
This series explore the shifting dynamics of the dinner table when kids are involved. We asked families of all shapes and sizes for their tips on mealtime success. You'll learn a few things, laugh a whole lot, and find that when kids are involved, dinnertime is always a little more eventful.