5 Weeknight Meal Shortcuts

By: Alia Hoyt

On any given weeknight, you're going to be exhausted from the day's events. See more pictures of easy weeknight meals.
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At the end of the day, most of us practically fall into bed. We're exhausted after a day full of responsibilities. Commuting, working, completing chores, taking children to extracurricular activities, helping with homework and bathing and bedding the kids seem to sap all our energy. Even more daunting is the fact that whole process is destined to repeat in just a few short hours. Add to that the pressure that we feel to provide healthy, homemade meals to our families, and the balancing act spontaneously combusts. Too often, when something has to give, mealtime takes a hit. While the occasional dinner out or drive-through stop is nothing to worry about, making these trips too often is neither healthy for the waistline nor the wallet. HowStuffWorks has come to the rescue of the weary, however. We've compiled a helpful list of weeknight meal shortcuts, designed to turn dinnertime back into the enjoyable (and delicious!) family experience it should be.


5: Plan Ahead

Plan ahead for weeknight meals. Make a list (and check it twice) when you're grocery shopping.
Plan ahead for weeknight meals. Make a list (and check it twice) when you're grocery shopping.
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No doubt you've experienced this annoyance before in one variation or another. Tacos sound delicious, but the shells on the counter require meat and toppings in order to be appetizing. The idea of spaghetti is mouth-watering, but not without the noodles that remain on the grocery shelf where they were forgotten. The vast majority of mealtime predicaments can be prevented with a little planning. Before heading to the grocery store, simply sit down and make an old-fashioned list. Plan a menu for the entire week with your family's input, making sure to include all the basic elements: main course, vegetables, starches and side dishes. This planning will add a few extra minutes on the front end, but it will save tons of wasted time hitting up the grocery store on the way home from work. It will also keep you from resorting to taco shells stuffed with spaghetti sauce.


4: Freezer-friendly Meals

The frozen food industry is thriving for a reason: People enjoy a good entrée at the end of a long day without having to wait for it to be prepared. If you've got a couple of hours on Sunday, you can make fresh meals, freeze them, then defrost and bake on a busy weeknight. There is certainly no shortage of tasty make-ahead dishes. Casseroles can even be frozen for as long as three months, so extra-ambitious cooks can whip up a double batch and freeze one for a meal down the road. Keep in mind that food should always be cooled off before placed in the freezer to maximize freshness. Also, make sure to label each one with cooking instructions to minimize backtracking when it's time to defrost and dig in. You only need to cook vegetables, meats and grains until they're tender to avoid overcooking them during the reheating process [source: Betty Crocker]. Preserve your meals in airtight containers or freezer bags.


3: Rock the Crock

If this woman had used a slow cooker, dinner would be ready by now.
If this woman had used a slow cooker, dinner would be ready by now.
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Slow cookers are underutilized countertop appliances that yield delicious, low-effort meals. Slow cookers know no boundaries: They're capable of turning out full-scale dinners, soups, desserts and even hot beverages. Some recipes require a little prep work, such as browning the meat beforehand to produce maximum flavor. Many recipes, however, simply require the chef to dump the ingredients in, flip the switch and come home to a fully cooked meal.

Using a slow cooker is relatively easy, but heed the experts' advice for best results. For example, don't fill the cooker until it's bursting; instead, a pot about one-half to two-thirds full is ideal. Always use fully thawed meats to ensure they get cooked thoroughly. Also, resist the urge to take the lid off for a quick taste test -- each sneak peek will cost an extra 15 minutes of cooking time.


2: Delegate

The most effective managers know how to delegate tasks to get the job done in the most efficient way possible. Take this bit of business savvy and apply it in the kitchen the next time the kids whine for dinner. Toddlers can carry napkins and placemats to the table, while older children can be entrusted with silverware, plates, glasses and condiments. Also, enlist the help of other adults, even if they're not keen on the kitchen. For example, grilling aficionados can take over the main course by presiding over hamburgers, chicken, steaks and kabobs as they cook. Making dinner preparation a family affair takes the pressure off the chef and helps everyone feel involved. Now, if only there were a way to make washing dishes more enjoyable!


1: Breakfast for Dinner

Serving your family breakfast for dinner is a quick solution to a weeknight meal woe.
Serving your family breakfast for dinner is a quick solution to a weeknight meal woe.
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Nutritionists say that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, so why not have it twice? On days when meat and veggies are conspicuously absent from the fridge, a very late brunch is a fantastic option. Staple items, such as flour, milk and eggs, are all it takes to whip up a fresh batch of pancakes and scrambled eggs. Waffles are just as easy and delicious. Up the nutrition ante by topping either dish with strawberries, blueberries or by mixing in mashed-up bananas and walnuts. If you're feeling a little more adventurous, try making a frittata with last night's leftover vegetables. For the traditionalists among us, a bowl of whole-grain cereal, a slice of toast and that orange that's been languishing in the crisper will suffice.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Betty Crocker.com. "Cooking Casseroles." 2009. (July 20, 2009).http://www.bettycrocker.com/how-to/cooking-basics/make-ahead-meal-strategies/Cooking-Casseroles.htm
  • Betty Crocker.com. "Do-Ahead Cooking Strategies." 2009. (July 20, 2009). http://www.bettycrocker.com/how-to/cooking-basics/make-ahead-meal-strategies/do-ahead-cooking-strategies.htm
  • Betty Crocker.com. "Weekend Cooking." 2009. (July 20, 2009). http://www.bettycrocker.com/how-to/cooking-basics/make-ahead-meal-strategies/weekend-cooking.htm
  • CBS News. "Bringing Breakfast to Dinner." July 8, 2009. (July 20, 2009).http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2009/07/08/earlyshow/living/recipes/main5142994.shtml
  • Crock-Pot. "Cooking Tips." (July 20, 2009).http://www.crock-pot.com/Hints.aspx?id=ct&fgid=44
  • Food Network.com. "Breakfast for Dinner: 30 Minute Meals." (July 20, 2009).http://www.foodnetwork.com/30-minute-meals/breakfast-for-dinner/index.html
  • Food Network.com. "Eleven Tips for Slow Cooker Meals." (July 20, 2009).http://www.foodnetwork.com/quick-and-easy/eleven-tips-for-slow-cooker-meals/index.html
  • Woman'sDay.com."10 Easy Make-Ahead Meals." June 8, 2009. (July 20, 2009).http://www.womansday.com/Articles/Food/10-Easy-Make-Ahead-Meals.html