Back-to-School Meal Planning

Last week signaled back to school for families in some parts of the country, and it starts this week here in New York. Watching my friends post first-day-of-school photos reminds me of the 180-degree turn it'll mean for our schedules. No more sleeping in and eating breakfast at noon. Instead of sitting down to dinner at 8pm, that's when I'll be tucking the kids into bed. One thing back to school doesn't have to mean, though, is back to takeout. With some smart planning, we'll be enjoying the same home cooking, just a little earlier than our lazy days of summer.

Prep School: Set yourself up for success on busy weeknights by having vegetables ready to use. You can chop or slice onions and leave them in sealed containers one to two days advance. When I have a recipe that calls for only half an onion, I immediately chop the other half and store it in the freezer in a zip-top bag. Then I can just toss it into the skillet when I'm ready to use it (no need to thaw it first). The same goes for garlic. Chop a whole head and spoon it into mini ice cube trays. Just pop out what you need when you're ready to get cooking (no need to thaw it first).

Snack Attack: Rather than have the kids fill up on junk food, I always keep carrots cut into coins or sticks in the fridge. Throw in some hummus and it's a healthy appetizer to keep hungry kids happy while dinner is cooking.

Twice As Nice: Learn to love your leftovers. Transform last night's white rice into tonight's Italian Fried Rice. Make extra spaghetti on Monday and turn it into an Asian-inspired noodle dish on Tuesday. You'd be amazed at the meals you can make with leftover cooked burgers (20-Minute Bolognese pictured above).

Put the Kids to Work: Cooking is a great way for kids to practice math skills. Choose recipes that are fast and easy for busy weeknights, because admittedly cooking with kids takes more patience and time. Having them help out may seem like more work at first, but it's a great way to slip in some extra family time while getting dinner ready.

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