8 Fast Get-Ahead Strategies for Weeknight Dinners

Unscramble your weeknight dinner routine with these helpful tips and ideas.

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Ditch the Dinner Doldrums

Yes, you can feed yourself (and your family) fresh, healthy meals without breaking the bank — or resorting to the Tuesday-must-be-meatballs syndrome. The secret: incorporating a few simple prep-ahead strategies into your routine. (Ordering takeout isn't one of them, though we'll cop to doing that on occasion too.) Try one or two of the following ideas to unscramble your weeknight dinner routine, starting now.

Go with the Grains

They're infinitely adaptable, full of fiber and easy to make in advance. Cook up a double (or triple) batch of quinoa, farro or barley on a Sunday night, then use it throughout the week as a side dish, fried "rice" base, burrito filling, Buddha bowl component or salad mix-in. Find easy instructions on cooking 16 of the tastiest whole grains here.

Avoid Menu Planning

Not the type to plot every meal in advance? Stock your fridge strategically and you can still cook just what you are in the mood for without resorting to last-minute shopping trips. On the weekend, buy five proteins (think chicken breasts, pork tenderloin, tofu, shrimp, ground beef) and five vegetables (sweet potatoes, broccoli, collards, zucchini, peppers). Freeze the proteins you won't be eating in the next two days, then mix and match as you are in the mood. Monday can be chicken stir-fry, Tuesday stuffed peppers, Wednesday grilled pork kebabs with sweet potato fries — you get the picture.

Prewash Greens

You can buy them bagged or wash them yourself — either way, having a big salad spinner full of prepped greens helps turn a simple chop into a meal. If you've got an extra five minutes, prep two types; use tender Bibb leaves as lettuce cups for a Monday stir-fry, and saute sturdy kale on Thursday to serve with, say, polenta and sausages.

Expand Your Definition of Dinner

Take your cue from the restaurant small-plates trend and graze your way through suppertime with a well-stocked "appetizer" tray that doesn't require any cooking. Start with some cured meats (prosciutto, soppressata, salami) and a couple of cheeses (hard or soft), then add olives or pickles, crudite (baby carrots count!), a little tapenade, pesto or relish if you have some, and a hunk of bread. Or rewind your day and go with the crowd-pleasing breakfast-for-dinner option. An omelet and a glass of wine? Yes, please.

Love Your Leftovers

The fastest dinner is one that's already made. Corral those odds and ends lurking in the corners of your fridge and put them out on the counter with some bread, melty sliced cheese and easy add-ins (think jarred pesto, roasted red peppers, artichoke hearts or pickled jalapenos). Plug in the panini maker and let everyone in the family go to town. (Or, griddle sandwiches, like grilled cheeses.) This use-it-or-lose-it trick also works with personalized pizzas (you provide the dough and mozzarella) and tacos (everything goes with a tortilla and cheese).

Roast It All

Invest in a sheet tray: There is hardly a vegetable that doesn't taste great tossed with a little oil, salt and pepper, then roasted in the oven at 350 degrees F. (OK, maybe lettuce and zucchini don't qualify.) Brussels sprouts, potatoes, cauliflower, winter squash and fennel all come out sweet and caramelized. The best part? You can pop them on a baking sheet with a protein (pork chops, chicken parts, roasts) and they'll cook at the same time for a true one-pan meal.

Fill Your Freezer

Keep these dinner building blocks on hand and you are halfway to an evening meal when you walk in the door: frozen dumplings (pot stickers or pierogi), sausages (Italian, chorizo or andouille), shrimp, pizza dough, peas, bacon, spinach, corn, edamame and stuffed pasta (tortellini or ravioli).They are all easy to transform into quick dinners. Pot stickers + Edamame + Chicken Broth = Asian Soup. Corn + Cream + Shrimp = Chowder. Bacon + Peas + Tortellini = Pasta Salad. You do the math.

Save Room for Dessert

An apple crumble is easy on a weeknight when you've already tossed the sliced fruit with sugar and spices and frozen them in a zip-top bag for later. (A perfect use for those apple-picking overloads or farmers market bonanzas.) Or make like a Food Network Kitchen editor: The next time you whip up drop cookies, freeze a few on a sheet tray to bake from frozen later. Your next molten chocolate chip cookie is never more than 12 minutes away.

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