7 Dinner Planning Hacks for Busy Parents and Hungry Kids

If your family is like mine, they like eating dinner. And if you’re like me, though you enjoy cooking dinner, you secretly wish your family didn’t expect to eat a meal every single night. Dinner is not a passing trend—it is here to stay, which means we need to figure out some ways to deal with it. Here are some of my favorites.

1. Have a plan

“A failure to plan is a plan to fail.” When Benjamin Franklin said this, he probably wasn’t talking about dinner, but it is applicable, nonetheless. Waiting until the last minute to figure out what’s for dinner inevitably means, at best, stress, last-minute scrambling, and at worst, an expensive and unhealthy stop at the drive-thru window.

Before I shop for the week, I pull up my husband’s and my shared Google calendar to see what our week looks like, including nights I know one or both of us won’t be home for dinner, and nights when I will be pressed for time. I jot that info down.

Next, I write down what we will have each night, whether it’s a “real” meal, leftovers, or something I’ve already made and plan to defrost. Finally, I add any ingredients I need to buy to my shopping list, organizing them in columns, according to where they are locating in the grocery store.

On a typical week, I schedule three home-cooked meals, two nights of leftovers, one night for the kids to eat kid food with a sitter when my husband and I go out, and one night with a question mark, so I have the flexibility to move things around if needed. Somehow, this system always works out. Meanwhile, I have friends who swear by using a consistent 14-meal rotation every two weeks, to avoid the headache of selecting meals and creating a new shopping list every week.

It doesn’t matter what system you use, only that you find a system that works for you.

2. Don’t have a plan

Some weeks, I don’t have the energy to create a detailed plan. One way to avoid meal planning, but still get something healthy on the table with minimal stress, is to shop with an awareness of roughly how much of each kind of food you need.

For example, on a “plan not to plan week,” when shopping for my family, I fill my cart with about two-fifths fruits and vegetables, one-fifth meat and fish, one-fifth starches like rice, quinoa, bread, pasta, and sweet potatoes, and one-fifth items from the middle aisles, including oats, crackers, dried fruit, and snack foods.

For dinners, you can mix and match whatever you have. Simple meals I might create with this method include:

  • Baked salmon, rice, and steamed broccoli
  • Roasted chicken, baked sweet potato, and roasted cauliflower
  • Stir fry with beef, onions, bell peppers, miscellaneous vegetables, and rice

3. Make a large batch of something for the week

There’s no need to reinvent the wheel every night. Of course, you can simply reheat leftovers if you have enough for another meal.

If you don’t have enough leftover food for an entire meal, or you’re adverse to eating leftovers (apparently such people exist—I am not among them), here are examples of ways to incorporate leftovers into another meal:

  • Serve a vegetarian soup. The following night, add rice and pre-cooked chicken sausage when you re-heat it to add volume and variety.
  • If you roast a whole chicken one night, dice up the leftovers to add to a salad or pasta with sautéed spinach or broccoli the following night.
  • Roast a large amount of root vegetables as a side dish. The following night, use the leftover veggies in a frittata, or toss them into a bowl of quinoa along with some toasted nuts and goat cheese or Parmesan cheese.

If you like the idea of a big salad that will keep for several days, here are a few tips to limit moisture and optimize freshness:

  • Avoid “mushy” ingredients like cucumber, tomato, and mushroom.
  • Instead, choose crunchier veggies, like carrots, cabbage, radish, Brussels sprouts.
  • Run your greens thought a salad spinner after washing.

4. Take advantage of your freezer

If there is dish your family loves, double the recipe and freeze half for a night when you’re too crazed to cook. Better, yet, triple it, or even quadruple it. I can count the number of cookbooks I own on one hand, and one of them is Don’t Panic, Dinner’s in the Freezer. In addition to offering recipes that are perfect for freezing, it also explains exactly how to freeze food to save space and to prevent freezer burn. The book also makes it easy to double, triple, or even quadruple the recipe without a calculator, offering four versions of each recipe, depending on how much you plan to make.

5. Plan an easy night once a week

Dinner doesn’t have to be picture-worthy every single night. Ideas for easy dinners that require minimal prep and limited clean-up include:

  • Grilled cheese and tomato soup (My friend makes this meal religiously once a week!)
  • Leftovers
  • Breakfast for dinner
  • Sandwiches and carrot sticks
  • Rotisserie chicken and a green salad
  • Frozen pizza and steamed broccoli
  • Macaroni and cheese from a box with meatballs or sliced sausages
  • Pizza bagels

6. Keep staples on hand

Sometimes the day, or even the week, doesn’t unfold the way you anticipated. Your kid is sick, your car is in the shop, work is crazy, or your partner is traveling. When life interferes with your plans, you can avoid stressing about dinner if you have a few staples available. Items to keep in your pantry, freezer, or fridge include:

  • Canned tuna fish
  • Rice (including minute rice!)
  • Canned beans
  • Frozen veggies
  • Eggs
  • Quinoa
  • Pasta
  • Frozen veggie, salmon, turkey, or beef burgers
  • Frozen pizza
  • Canned chicken soup

7. Batch process

If you’re using one ingredient for multiple meals in a week, chop and store it all at once. This saves you washing your knife, cutting board, and work surface multiple times. Plus, it allows you a big sigh of relief, knowing you’ve got a head start on more than one dinner.  

Take it a step further and prep everything you can at once, for the entire week. You can make it fun by turning on music, sipping a glass of wine, and sharing the work with your partner. If your kids are old enough, get them to help. Young kids can pull a chair or a step stool up to the sink and rinse veggies. Older kids can use a paring knife or a peeler on vegetables or potatoes.

Use freezer bags to store your prepped ingredients and label them with a Sharpie to make sure the ingredients go into the correct meal. If you prefer to use Tupperware containers, label them with a post-it note.

Serving a nutritious meal before your family is too cranky and tired to enjoy it can be stressful—but it doesn’t have to be. Trust me, I’ve tried all of the strategies listed above. A little creativity and planning go a long way in lightening the daily burden commonly known as dinner.