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11 steps to fast weekday meals

PHOTO: Schedules get busy when the kids are back at school. So you have to figure out ways to make weekday dinners simpler.  |  Lynne Sladky~AP

With the start of school, those laid-back dinners families have been enjoying all summer have come to an abrupt end.

Homework, kids’ sports and activities, your job — all of these take a huge bite out of family time, so it is imperative that dinner is quick and easy.

That does not mean a stop at the nearest fast-food drive thru is the only option. You can serve good home-cooked meals that won’t have you toiling at the stove for hours. If you do, you and your family will be eating better choices AND you’ll save money.

Here are a few of my tried-and-true solutions:

Plan! I have said this before, and will say it again: you gotta have a plan if you are going to get dinner on the table quickly several nights in a row. Just knowing what you are going to make eliminates the guesswork, and, the stress.

No shame in tradition. Decide things like: on Mondays we’ll have a slow cooker dinner, Tuesdays can be Taco Tuesdays, etc. At least do it while you get used to planning meals. It simplifies things.

Got it? Once you have a plan, your weekend shopping becomes clearer because you’ll know what you need to have at hand. Check the week’s planned recipes and your pantry before going to the supermarket. You do not want to have to stop — with kids in tow — at 5 p.m. and join that 10-items-or less line that’s 10 deep because you don’t have one stinking ingredient. That’s a recipe for disaster.

Don’t go it alone. Get those kids of yours involved. Even the youngest of children can help set the table. The older ones can chop ingredients, make a simple salad or cut up fruit for dessert. This will teach them a lesson they will take into adulthood: making one’s own meals is important and doable. And don’t let them slink away afterwards. Certainly they can help with the cleanup and meal prep for the next day; it’ll make everything go faster.

Create a USEFUL pantry/freezer. It doesn’t help to just have a lot of food on hand; all that does is create clutter and eventually, waste. You need to have the staples that fit into your own regular meals. For me, someone who follows a low-carb diet, my must-haves include canned tuna, cans of tomatoes and tomato paste, eggs, cheeses, bacon, olives, pickles, herbs, bouillon cubes and my go-to spices as well as chicken breast, hamburger patties and veggies in the freezer. With these on hand I can pull together a meal in no time. Figure out what you need to have and stock up.

Say yes to a slow cooker. Honestly, I don’t know how I could have put dinner on the table so quickly for so many years without a couple of them. Stews, roasts, soups, spaghetti sauce, chili and a slew of other one-dish dinners can be made with a slow cooker. (Look up slow cooker recipes online and you’ll be surprised at what else you can make in one.)  Usually there are leftovers for another meal and/or lunches. And you walk into your house at the end of the day to a home that smells like someone was there cooking for you. You can find slow cookers at affordable prices; I really recommend buying one today.

Make time to prep. Look over your plan to see what the following night’s dinner is. Then spend 20 minutes chopping and storing veggies for the next day; pull what you need from the freezer and relocate it to the frig so it will ready when you need it tomorrow. (With a little delegation from you, the kids can help here too.) On the days I was most slammed for time, the night before I’d even leave the pot I’d need to cook pasta the next day with the water in it (with a lid on it) so I could just walk in and turn on the burner. Carve out time on the weekend to do your planning, shopping and some prepping.

Embrace mason jar salads. Have your kids help put together some for the week. That way one course of dinner is ready as soon as you walk in the door. The trick with these salads is the order: put the dressing first, followed by protein/ grains (if using)/cut-up veggies, extras (nuts, cheese), then the greens. This way items with moisture don’t make everything else mushy. Turn the contents over into a bowl and a salad is ready! No more listening to little people whine about how hungry they are!

Don’t do pizza on Friday. If you are going to order pizza for dinner one night, make it Wednesday. That’ll free up time on Wednesdays to prep for dinners for Thursday and Friday. Try this and you will see it takes some of the stress out of the week.

Breakfast for dinner. Make omelets. It’s a good way to use up leftover chopped veggies and cheese. (Let the kids create their own and you’ve got extra kitchen help.) Or just scramble eggs with a side order of bacon. Serve it with cherry tomatoes or celery sticks and dinner is done. (No one said weekday dinners had to be complicated; the simpler the better. The goal is to nourish your family.)

Extra! Extra! I always recommend people double meals; for example, roast two chickens at the same time or make a double batch of pasta sauce. But for some reason, they resist. If you’re one of those resisters, then take baby steps to get used to doing this. Just do it once a week and before you know it your freezer will be filled with complete meals that’ll free up time when you need it.

Hope this helps you create easy and satisfying meals when time is tight.