If you've ever walked in the door half an hour before dinnertime and had no idea what to cook, you know the feeling of desperation that sets in. Your own hunger has you nearing despair. Throw in a bunch of kids who claim to be absolutely starving and you've got a recipe for something—but unfortunately it's not dinner. It's disaster.
One little trick will save you: Spend just a few minutes planning dinner in the morning, or the night before. Taking 10 minutes or less to plan and organize your dinner will save enough sweat and tears to be worth every second. If you're home with a napper in the middle of the day, even better—you can save your prep until then.
Here are four types of meals that lend themselves well to a prep-ahead strategy, along with tips on what to do—and when—so you can get dinner on the table in no time. Once you get into this meal-planning mindset, you'll start finding all sorts of ideas for turning your family favorites into quick, no-stress dinners.
Chop Ahead: Taco, Fajita or Burrito Dinner
This make-ahead meal planning strategy is all about chopping, slicing and shredding: Set your alarm a few minutes earlier in the morning so you can quickly get your toppings—tomatoes, lettuce, avocado, cheese and so on—ready to go. If you get cracking with your Vegetable Chopper, you'll be twice as fast. Then put everything in its own Smart Seal container and stick it in the fridge, and you'll be 20 minutes away from dinner. When it’s almost time to eat, all you have to do is warm your tortillas and cook the taco, fajita or burrito filling.
Bonus: This is a build-your-own type dinner, which is always a big hit with the kids. Seat your toddler in her booster seat with her Roll-Up Bib, her own fork and spoon, and her Stick and Stay plate—and leave her in charge of creating her own burrito (with some assistance)—and she’ll be happy as a clam.
Gather Ahead: Sheet-Pan Supper
If you set aside 10 minutes or so, you’ll be able to assemble all your sheet pan ingredients and get them as close to ready for the oven as possible. In the morning, open packages of chicken legs or sausages (or both) and dump them in a bowl together. Peel potatoes and refrigerate them in a bowl of water, ready to be wedged up at the last minute. Cut your broccoli, cauliflower, squash, asparagus or whatever veggie combo you’re using into bite-size chunks, and toss them all in a bowl with oil, salt and pepper.
When it's go time, basically all you’re doing is getting your ingredients onto the sheet pan and putting them in the oven. Grab one pan and put the meat on it, along with the potato wedges, quickly tossed with oil, salt and pepper first; the meat drippings in the pan will enhance the flavor of the potatoes. Spread the other vegetables on a second sheet pan. Into the oven at 375°F they go, and 35 minutes later (for most veggies) to an hour (for meat and potatoes), everything's ready to eat. Set the table with any condiments your family likes—mustard, ketchup, horseradish—and you're good to go. A no-cook sauce like pesto is also easy to blitz together in advance and makes a great match for the roasted chicken and veggies.
Freeze Ahead: Soup or Stew
Since soups and stews benefit from long simmering on the stovetop—something that's usually not going to happen on a weeknight—plan to cook these ahead of time and store some or all of the amount you made in the freezer. That way, during hectic weeks, all you’ll have to do is defrost your dinner the night before. It pays to keep the freeze-ahead strategy in mind anytime you’re making a meal in your slow cooker or instant pot too: You might as well double the batch and freeze the leftovers for another busy weeknight evening. Homemade pastas, burritos and plenty of other dinner favorites freeze well too. Just grab a freezer-safe Smart Seal container and fill 'er up.
Want to serve something on the side, like cornbread? Spend a couple of minutes in the morning whisking the dry ingredients together, and set them aside; whisk the wet ingredients together and refrigerate them. At dinnertime, you'll just have to combine the two and pop them in a preheated oven.
Simmer Ahead: Tomato Sauce
My all-time favorite tomato sauce to make ahead—often in double batches so I can freeze some—is from Marcella Hazan (see recipe below). The sauce is easy to prep and cook since it has just three ingredients, so you can get it all going on a weekday morning if you have time. Serve it the same night, or save it for another time. Just put the pot on to simmer first thing in the morning or during naptime. Turn the stove off when you're headed out for the day, and transfer the pot to the fridge or leave it on the stovetop if you’ll be eating in a few hours.
When it’s almost mealtime, put on the water for noodles, or get your zoodles ready. Then toss a salad, reheat your sauce—defrosted ahead if necessary—and dinner is ready to go.
Want more tips to help you conquer meal-planning stress? Check out more prep-ahead cooking strategies here.