Stressed out mom cooking dinner for her familyHey Mom, what’s for dinner?” It’s a simple question that can cause a minor panic. With work, errands, and afterschool activities, most parents first walk through the door at dinnertime. They want to feed their family a nutritious meal but may feel their only options are take-out or microwavable pre-packaged food.

However, says Deborah Smith, executive editor of Jersey Bites, “People have a tendency to overestimate how much time and energy it will take to cook dinner.”

According to Ariane Duarte, a Montclair, New Jersey mother of two, restaurant owner, and chef for, “Planning and organization are the keys to eliminating dinnertime stress and getting a healthy meal on the table in a timely manner.”

Plan Ahead for Weeknight Dinners

Duarte says, “It’s much easier when you know what you are having for dinner before you leave the house in the morning than to stare at the fridge at six o’clock with no idea of what to make.” So take time on Sunday to outline a weekly meal plan and food shop. Websites such as DinnerTool can help.

Do some food prep on Sunday. Chop vegetables like onions and carrots in advance and store them in the refrigerator. Duarte says, “A little preparation on Sunday can help parents get weeknight dinners on the table that much sooner. If you clean and marinate chicken cutlets on Sunday, all you have to do on Thursday is take them out of the freezer and cook them.” 

Alison Bermack of Montclair, New Jersey, the founder of the Cooking with Friends Club, recommends making full meals in advance and freezing them. Bermack says, “The freezer is a mom’s best friend. Freezing homemade meals allows parents to feed their family healthy food that is ready in minutes.” She suggests preparing soups, lasagnas, burritos, dumplings, etc., in big batches so you’ll have meals for multiple nights.

What to Make for Dinner?

For some families preparing the same meals each week works well. Others may crave variety. There are many ways to expand your family’s palate, including books, online sites, and recipe swaps with friends.

But avoid trying more than one new recipe a week. Smith says, “Recipes are helpful, but gathering ingredients and reading directions can add stress for already time-crunched cooks. Instead, it can be liberating to experiment on your own.” Duarte adds, “A well-stocked pantry can add variety to any meal. Shrimp can go from Italian to Asian just by changing the seasonings.”

Don’t rely on processed, pre-packaged foods, Smith says. “These are really unhealthy and don’t really save that much time. Concentrate on buying most food in the outer aisles of the market. Look for organic meats and produce which are now readily available at almost every market.” 

Frequenting local farmers markets or growing a vegetable or herb garden are other great ways to incorporate fresh foods into a family’s diet and provide culinary inspiration.

Add Spice

Cooking dinner every night can become boring and burdensome. To add zest, Bermack suggests communal cooking: “Communal cooking allows busy parents a chance to socialize while still being productive.” She suggests forming a group where the children play while the parents cook, or cooking with friends while the kids are at school.

The idea of communal cooking can also include cooking with your children. Cooking together gives you an opportunity to talk to your kids while teaching skills such as measuring and reading directions. It can also help children with picky palates. Smith says, “Children involved in the cooking process may be more apt to try something new because they helped create it.”

Randi Mazzella is a freelance writer from Short Hills, New Jersey.

How do you deal with weeknight dinners in your home? Please share your planning and organizing tips!