10 Ways Busy Parents Get Dinner on the Table — Fast!

With these clever tricks, you'll get your family fed quickly even on your most jam-packed day.
By: Beth Chaikin

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The Art of Weeknight Dinner

Some nights you barely even have time to place an order for pickup, let alone try that new pasta recipe. Between scooping up the kids from practice, handling homework and getting everyone ready for the next day, there's basically no time left to make — or eat! — dinner. We get it. And so do these busy parents, who have almost perfected the art of weeknight cooking. Here's how they pull it off.

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They Start Prepping Right After Grocery Shopping

As soon as Laura Fuentes, mom of three and blogger behind MOMables, gets home from the grocery store, she washes and chops produce and assembles salads into containers. "Chicken salad and egg salad — to be used during the week — get made ahead of time too," she says. She'll also cook up one 16-ounce box of pasta and toss it with olive oil to save for up to four days in the fridge. It's a handy base for nearly any veggie or meat combo. "That's enough for a family dinner and possibly one or two kid lunches during the week," she says.

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They Have a Go-To Backup Meal

There's always going to be a day when things just don't go according to plan. Maybe you were hoping to stop by the store to pick up stuff for a salad — and it just never happened. Or maybe you totally forgot to defrost the steaks. If you consistently keep the ingredients on hand for at least one dish, you'll be set. "My go-to meal is my cheesy sausage bake," says mom and blogger Jenny Flake. "I've always got these ingredients available for days when things get crazy and I didn't plan anything else."

Photography courtesty of Jenny Flake

They Stick to a Strict Recipe Time Limit

"With two working parents in our household, my rule of thumb is that cooking time should be 20 minutes or less, and prep time has to be five minutes or less," says busy dad Josh Grossman. That means no fussing with homemade sauce or anything that needs a lot of prepping. New recipes are fun, but anything that calls for a bigger time commitment should be saved for the weekend.

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They Make Too Much Food — On Purpose

Twice the food doesn't necessarily mean twice the work, especially when everything can cook at the same time and the extra food is flexible for later use. "Always cook for more than one meal," stresses Liza Baker, the mom of two behind Simply: Health Coaching. "If I were making a roast chicken for dinner, I would just make two. During the next week, the second chicken might become a chicken salad, a filling for tacos, topping for nachos, a casserole ingredient or an ingredient in a soup."

 

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They Freeze with Flair

We don't know very many families who don't have a bonus freezer in the basement or garage. But here's the secret to using one: It doesn't have to be filled with frozen pizzas or microwavable stuffed turnovers (read: basically junk food). When Caroline Turben, mom of two and Extravagant Gardens blogger, gets home from the grocery store, she cleans and seasons all the poultry and fish before divvying it up into meal-sized freezer bags. "I take out one bag each day before I leave home," she says. When she gets back, most of the time-consuming prep work has already been done. 

 

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They Get the Kids Involved

Sure, kids can set the table or handle some chopping (depending on their age), but one thing that kept coming up when we interviewed parents for this story: DIY pizza night."I'm not sure if the kids love kneading the dough or topping it better," says Laura Lomax, a mom of two and the registered dietitian behind Greens & Grains Nutrition. The whole process takes about 45 minutes, you can use lots veggies as toppings, and Lisa can usually get the kids to make a few extra pizzas at the same time to freeze for later. 

 

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They Make Breakfast for Dinner

Most breakfast foods are pretty quick to prepare (makes sense since we're so often running out the door while eating them!). That makes them a great option in a pinch for dinner. Plus, what kid doesn't flip over breakfast in the evening? Kelsey Banfield of The Naptime Chef loves an omelet. "A simple omelet can be filled with vegetables, meat and cheese, and takes two minutes to make," she says. "It's easy, healthy and there is minimal cleanup involved!"

 

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They Use the Grill — A Lot

The grill is key for cooking a lot of meat (quickly) at once. And it's not just a summertime shortcut. Alyssa Brantley, the blogger behind Everyday Maven, uses her grill year-round. "Except in really heavy rain," she says. "Who wants to stand outside in that?" She'll grill a ton of chicken (double or triple what she'll need) and save the extra for later in the week. 

 

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They Love Their Small Appliances

Microwaves, slow cookers and pressure cookers got several nods of approval from these busy parents. "Sometimes I use the microwave to steam vegetables because it's faster than boiling water on the stove," says Banfield. Slow cookers were touted for their seemingly magical powers to cook dinner while everyone is out of the house. And parents praised pressure cookers for their ability to cook a lot of meat in a matter of minutes.

 

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They Reinvent Their Leftovers

Sometimes leftovers get packed up only to sit in the fridge for a few days before getting thrown away. You already know it's wasteful, but it also creates more work for you; you mean for them to save time for yourself, after all. If you're worried about everyone getting bored eating the same meal two nights in a week, think about different ways the leftovers can be reimagined, suggests Angela Smith, an Austin-based mom of four. "Leftover pot roast becomes a steak sandwich on night two," she explains.

 

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