How to Shop Your Pantry, Plus 3 Weeknight Dinners to Master

Related To:

Melissa d'Arabian

My kids have been in school for exactly four days. Which is about how long it took to remind me that the summer routine of winging it for dinner won’t work anymore. Gone are the afternoons of lazily brainstorming dinner ideas at 5 p.m. from the comfort of a pool lounge chair (“grilled salmon or chicken, sweetie?”). In September, 5 p.m. without a dinner plan wreaks havoc on the delicate soccer-school-homework-ballet ecosphere of our home.

Anyone out there relate? What do you do?

Some common strategies: Race around like a madwoman cobbling together something – anything – that will feed the hungry bellies around the table, letting nutrition take a break for one tiny night. (Anyone?) Go to the drive-thru, or order delivery. Serve cereal (again).

Here’s the thing: We’ve all been there. And if any of those strategies sound familiar, know that I am writing from my own playbook, sharing the solutions that my experience has taught me won’t work long-term for our family. This is a no-guilt-zone here, so keep reading.

But there is a better way, and the solution is actually quite easy: Have a short list of dinner recipes up your sleeve that you can make quickly and easily, and without shopping.

Sounds easy, so why don’t we all just do it? The trick is to focus on ingredients that you don’t mind keeping in your home at all times so that you don’t ever have to wonder, “Can I make it?” In fact, you have done it so many times that you can gather everything you need from your cupboards in one fell swoop, Rachael Ray-style, perfectly balancing all the ingredients and kitchen equipment on top of one another with grace and ease (seriously, how does she do that?). You don’t need to have 50 different dinners that you can make – only a few will be enough. Why? Because as you get better at making these dishes, they will become “yours,” and you’ll be able to make some swaps, change things up and try something new.

Since we were carefree and at the pool mere hours ago, let’s start small. I’m offering you my personal survival kit: three dinner recipes that you can easily work into your repertoire. Master these three easy recipes and 5 p.m. will become less stressful. I’m even going to help you make a list to take to the grocery store! This will be easy. Shop the pantry and master the recipes. Ready?

The recipes to master:

Rustic Lemon-Onion Company Chicken (which is a version of my 4-step chicken, so if you can make this one, you can make them all!)

Fish Piccata (actually, also a version of 4-step chicken, but with fish. See? I told you this would be easy!)

Garlic Spaghetti (I make it with whole-grain pasta for an extra nutritional boost if I’m going meatless, and sometimes I’ll top it with leftover protein from another night.)

The list of stuff to buy and keep in stock:

Fish (any mild white fish; I prefer fresh, but I always have one package of frozen fish for busy weeknights)

Boneless, skinless chicken breasts
Whole-grain spaghetti (or other pasta)
Yellow and red onions
White wine (can use broth)

Fresh herbs: parsley, basil, thyme (optional; can use dried in a pinch)

Stuff you probably already have, but if not, then buy:

Dried thyme and Italian seasoning (I prefer over dried basil)
Fresh garlic
Extra virgin olive oil
Chicken (or vegetable) broth
Salt and pepper
Easy, right? I keep my promises.

What are your tricks for keeping weeknight dinnertime running smoothly?

Next Up

10 Make-Ahead Weeknight Dinners (Plus Dessert!)

Too busy to cook during the week? Instead of relying on take-out, prep one of these recipes ahead of time and you'll have a healthy dinner at the ready.

Chefs’ Picks: Weeknight Dinners

Make weeknight mealtimes a little more zen with these pro tips.

3 of a Kind: Udon Shops

Udon — the chewier and plumper cousin to the ramen noodle — is slurping its way into the spotlight at these three shops.

Melissa's Summer Dinner Formula, Plus 12 Fresh Recipes

Get Melissa's take on simple summertime meals, and check out a dozen of her veggie-focused recipes.

Our Top 5 Grilled Weeknight Dinners

Reclaim your summer from the dreaded midweek slump.

5 Healthy No-Cook Weeknight Dinners

Don’t want to slave over the stove during the hottest summer days? Make these five no-cook recipes instead.

How a Therapist Handles Weeknight Dinners

13 tips for reducing evening mealtime stress.

Top 3 Most-Searched Ingredients on, Plus Recipes

Find out which three ingredients lead the way in searches on, then get recipes for using them.

Italian-Style Macaroni and Cheese, Plus Pantry Staples for Roman Cooking

Discover a new, wide world of Italian flavors with Tasting Rome by Katie Parla and Kristina Gill.