11 ways to make weeknight dinner easier

Oh, it makes me sad that dinner puts parents (moms in particular) under a lot of stress.

But according to a recent segment on the “Today” show, that’s exactly what happens. Among other things, parents say they don’t feel they have enough time, according to the survey done by North Carolina State University that “Today” highlighted.

I think part of the problem is much like the “Today” show points out: parents are trying to create that ideal we have seen on TV forever. That’s not reality; even Barbara Billingsley, who played June Cleaver on “Leave It to Beaver,” probably couldn’t pull off what her character did — after all, she was a working mom!

So please, quit beating yourself up. Do what you can do. Quit trying for some idealized idea about what dinner should be.

I do think it’s important to eat real food, as close to its natural state as possible. But no one said that has to be dish that would win “Top Chef.”

During my own years of playing beat-the-block to get my family’s dinner on the table quickly, I learned a few tricks. Here are 11 strategies for getting weeknight dinner on the table with minimal fuss and pressure.

You’ve gotta have a plan. Very few of us can put together a meal at record speed for hungry children with homework without some organizing ahead of time. Take time on the weekend to figure out what you’ll have for dinner each night.

Check beforehand. Make sure you have all the ingredients you’ll need for the next week’s dinners. Nothing ups the stress like someone (probably you) having to run back to the grocery store for one essential ingredient before dinner can even be started.

Build that pantry/freezer. I follow a low-carb diet, so I know I need to have on hand: cans of tomatoes and tomato paste, tuna, frozen chicken breast, hamburger patties and veggies, cheeses, eggs, bacon, olives, pickles, herbs, bouillon cubes and spices. (These are the staples; I supplement them each week with fresh produce and protein.) These items help me pull together quick meals. For those not as carb-restricted as I am, keep on hand beans, pasta, rice.

Use your slow cooker. If you don’t own one, buy one (they are very affordable). You can make roasts, chili, spaghetti sauce, stews and all sorts of one-dish meals that will be ready when you come in the door. Recipes you wouldn’t expect (for mac ‘n cheese, enchiladas and lasagna) are available for the slow cooker, too; it really is a wonderful time saver. Prep the dish the night before and leave in the frig. Then put the slow cooker on the next day and just like that, your evening got a whole lot easier.

Prep some the night before. Say you will be making white rice to go with the stew in the slow cooker. Measure out the water in the pan and leave it (with a lid on it) on the stove. Measure out the rice in a cup and leave it on the counter. If you’re adding a bouillon cube, put that right next to the cup. Or, if you’re going to need chopped up veggies for a dish, do that while watching TV or listening to a child read out loud. Bag them and they’re ready for the next day.

Start with a bowl. Give your kids a bowl of fresh veggies — carrots, celery, green pepper strips, etc. — and some salad dressing (I’d really encourage homemade, but I get it if you can’t go there yet; just promise me you’ll consider it for the future). The fat in the dressing (don’t use the “light” variety; there usually is a lot of added sugar in those) and the veggies will fill them enough to put an end to whining. Oh, and you get in a serving or two of veggies very easily.

Make more. If you are roasting a chicken for Sunday dinner, think about doing two. You can then use the meat from the second one to fill tacos or a wrap one night during the week. Make extra vegetables too and you’ll have some on hand to just reheat as a side dish.

Breakfast for dinner. Omelets or bacon and eggs come together easily. Add some chopped veggies to the eggs, serve a bowl of cut-up fruit with it and dinner is done.

Get pizza on Wednesdays. A lot of people have pizza delivered on Friday nights. To me, Wednesdays make more sense. You can use the time you would have used to make one night’s dinner to instead prep and cook for Thursday and Friday meals. (Very simple for those two meals is fine, even encouraged, I’d say.) Try it; you’ll see you end up with five stress-free dinners in one week. Not bad, huh?

Freeze! Make extra of things like stew or chili and freeze them. Then you’ll have a ready-made dinner that you can leave to thaw in the morning when you know you’re going to have an especially busy night. Many people brown ground beef or turkey or grill extra chicken breasts and freeze those so they’ll be one step ahead for a future meal.

Get some help. And by this, I do not mean employees. I’m talking about your kids. Get the older ones to do the chopping; younger ones can set the table, all of them can help clean up afterwards. I’m just astounded by the number of kids who are left to goof off while their parents frantically pull together dinner. Helping out teaches responsibility. And gives parents a break. You need that.

Here’s to good eating, minus the stress!