When you’re a working parent, getting dressed every day is a miracle, let alone getting dinner on the table. But when your coworker talks about the fancy coq au vin she fed her family at approximately 6 p.m. the night before, it can be hard not to want to punch her in the face feel a little jealous. And curious. Like—how?
It might feel like the working parent who makes dinner every night is a magician, but it doesn’t require a magic spell—just a little bit of planning. And those who do it every day are sharing their best meal hacks. Read on for how these parents do it, so you can too!
If you’re thinking of what to make for dinner five minutes before you start cooking, you’re setting yourself up for failure. The key is to set aside some time one day a week to plan out exactly what to make and ingredients to buy—it saves a ton of time on busy nights. “Before I do the grocery shopping each week, I plan what meals I can make and think through how I could re-use certain staples or vegetables in different meals so I’m not wasting food,” says Jo Rossaka of Healthy Eating Jo.
Besides simply planning what to make, set aside some time to prepare a bunch of meals for the week ahead so you can grab and go or throw things together for days you can’t even think about a proper meal. “Sunday afternoon is a great time to prepare for the week ahead,” says Carla McMillan, healthy chef, yoga instructor and co-founder of Bodypass. “I like to roast a whole bunch of vegies to add to meals during the week—pumpkin, sweet potato, parsnips, cauliflower and broccoli. They’ll keep in the fridge for up to four days, so can easily be reheated to add as a side to a piece of fish, steak or chicken, that can be grilled in minutes when you get home from a long day.”
Utilize your time wisely
Some days it’s near impossible to have the time to cook—but some days it is. So make sure to use the days you have more time wisely. “I make a mix of quick and easy and lengthy meals depending on my schedule,” says Taline Gabrielian, founder of health food blog Hippie Lane. “If I’m squeezed for time, I make quick dinner options on the days I’m time-poor, and more lengthy dinners when I have more time.” And if you make too much food on the days you have a lot of motivation? Just freeze them and pull them out later!
Use a crockpot
“I can throw frozen chicken breasts and one full jar of salsa in the morning before I leave, and by the time I come home it can be used for chicken tacos, on a chicken salad, or something else that takes fewer than 10 minutes to pull together,” says Christina Galoozis, a Chicago mom. It doesn’t have to be a slow cooker; an instant pot, air fryer, any device that allows you to be hands off and shortens cooking times speeds things up.
Keep staples on hand
A few nonperishable items in the cabinet means quick, easy meals you can whip together in a pinch. Make sure your pantry is always stocked with things you can ensure will create a balanced meal. “Keep pasta and tomatoes or rice and frozen veg for those nights when you’re really pressed,” says vegetarian blogger Stacey Roberts of Veggie Mama. “You don’t have to have loads of items (unless you’re bordering on a doomsday prepper pantry, like me), but if you’ve got one or two full meals that are there ‘just in case’, you should always have something to get you through.”
Utilize multiple devices at once
Just because you’re using the stove doesn’t mean you can’t use the oven. Find recipes that help you be more efficient in the kitchen. “I’ll sauté some veggies on the stove top and then bake some chicken in the oven at the same time,” says Diana Mitrea, a certified personal trainer in New York City. “It cuts your cooking time in half. If you do one thing at a time, it will take significantly more time.”
Enlist the help of the kids
Though it may sound like it would slow things down, letting the kids help you cook actually helps you get much more done. More hands, more time! “Getting kids involved is a great way to get more accomplished,” says Kristin Chinosi, owner of the New Hampshire-based cooking school The Culinary Playground. “The more hands-on they are, the more likely they are to want to expand their palate and taste more things.”
What’s your secret to making a homemade dinner each night? Which tip do you think you’ll use tonight?