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Beat the Clock: 6 Meal-Planning Hacks for Healthy Dinners in a Jiffy

Photo by Natasa Mandic / Stocksy United / 535848
Photo by Natasa Mandic / Stocksy United

When you're spending your afternoon ferrying the kids from school and daycare to soccer lessons and ballet class, then to a late dentist's appointment before heading home, there isn't a lot of time left to actually make a tasty, healthy meal for dinner. The temptation to just go for fast food twice a week may be strong, but don't give in! Making your own meals means your kids will be eating healthier foods, and practicing family-style dining holds so many benefits for kids (think good eating habits, bonding time, and more). It's not impossible to make healthy family dinners with plenty of time to spare, if you put in a little planning ahead of time. Try these six tips to revamp your meal-planning process and reap the rewards:

1. Prep work every night? No way!

Shave some minutes off the clock by planning to make and serve dishes that use the same ingredients. Have an excess of beans? Soak enough for two meals, and have rice and beans on Tuesday and burritos on Wednesday. Was there a sale on produce this week? Make a fruit salad for dessert on Sunday night and use the leftovers to spice up a spinach salad on Monday. 

2. Have a weekend cooking session (and invest in food storage containers).

If you know there are certain nights each week that will be busier than others, why not whip up some extra meals on the weekend to serve later? It’s true, some dishes are best served immediately when they’re ready, but some meals taste just as good (or even better!) after a few days—like stews, braises, or casseroles. Having a quick and easy meal to pull out of the fridge on a busy night will save you time and energy (and give you extra bonding time with the kids).

3. Let the store help you out.

It might be a bit pricier, but picking up a pre-chopped pack of soup ingredients, pre-peeled garlic, or even microwavable rice at the grocery store will save on prep time. Not to mention, a lot of grocery chains have websites which now offer online shopping with same-day pickup at your local store—so you'll literally only spend about five to ten minutes at the grocery store. What's not to love about that? 

4. Don't leave your leftovers behind.

Leftovers are so often relegated to the back of the fridge and then forgotten. As you're preparing a meal, start thinking about how you could use any potential leftovers. Say you have roast chicken one night—use the leftover meat for tacos or a hearty chicken soup. If you're serving London broil, you could stir-fry the extra beef with some Asian-style veggies. Having a plan already in mind will make it much easier to utilize all the food you make!

5. On takeout nights, give your future self a helping hand.

Sometimes we all just need a night off from cooking a full meal, and there's nothing wrong with ordering a pizza every now and again. On those nights, use some of your extra time and energy to set yourself up for cooking success in the future. For example, you could go ahead and clean that batch of dishes on the counter now instead of saving it for after work tomorrow, or even do a little prep work for a meal—like pre-chopping or pre-roasting vegetables, or making the filling for veggie pot pie

6. Keep your pantry well-stocked.

Even with the best laid plans, life just happens—and you’d be surprised at how much quicker and easier it is to craft meal solutions when you have some essential ingredients waiting in your pantry. Out of fresh produce? A can of greens is a great substitute. Did the bread loaf go bad? A quick pot of rice will save the night. Investing in your pantry will make more of a difference than you think!

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