The Ultimate Guide to Easy Weeknight Meals
This is my full guide to Easy Weeknight Meals for families or busy people in general! Includes sections on time, kids, meal planning, and emergency recipes!
The Ultimate Guide to Easy Weeknight MealsJump to Recipe
Hands down the most common question I get asked when it comes to cooking is how to get dinner ready during the week. Finding Easy Weeknight Meals isn’t, well, easy!
Part of getting comfortable in the kitchen is really mastering the weeknight meal plan. So, this is my Guide to Easy Weeknight Meals!
To prompt some of the items in this guide, I sent out a question to my email list in last week’s newsletter asking “What’s your biggest struggle for getting dinner on the table during the week?”
I got almost 100 replies. While some people had specific concerns, I would say about 80% of the replies were time related.
“My biggest struggle for getting dinner on the table during week is meeting the requirements for both quick and delicious. If it takes too long, I’m not going to bother, but also not being motivated by the end product results in being less likely to take even a short amount of time to make it.” – Jessica H.
But, there were also concerns about making sure meals aren’t boring!
“Things not being super repetitive. We have 2 toddlers and both adults are just a little bit picky about food, so we fall into 5-6 favorite recipes on repeat and get bored easily. I love tacos but 3 times a week is arguably too much!” – Cortney D.
Or even just meal planning in general. It’s ironic that in the age of the Internet where we all have millions and millions of recipes at our fingertips, actually finding something to make for dinner from a trusted source can be harder than it would seem.
“My biggest struggle for getting dinner on the table is thinking of what to fix. To coin a phrase, all I have are ingredients. By the time dinner rolls around, I’m tired–mentally and physically. I’m also hungry, so hungry that nothing sounds good (not even eating out at times!). I have a few default meals, but get tired of them after awhile.” – M.H.
In this guide, you’ll learn some of my strategies for getting dinner on the table for my family on busy weekdays.
Not every piece of this guide might work for you, but hopefully it gives you something to help your busy week and get you excited to make dinner for your family!
NOTE: This is a LONG Guide! Bookmark it or PIN IT for later!
Coming to Terms with Time
“We only have 1.25 hours between when my daughter gets home from daycare and when we need to start bedtime. So dinner needs to be 100% made in advance so she can eat it straight out of the fridge.” – Heather L.
The time problem is real when it comes to weeknight meals. Unfortunately, I don’t have any magic bullet for this problem. The truth is that cooking real meals takes time.
It doesn’t have to take a lot of time and the time can be distributed through the week, but it does require time.
Here are some important things I try to remind myself when I’m confronted with time issues in the kitchen:
- Could I prepare any of this meal in advance? I can’t tell you how many recipes I’ve made in a rush at 6pm, but then when I look back at the recipe I realized I could’ve made huge portions of it well in advance. Veggies can be chopped in advance, sauces can be made in advance, meat can be seared in advance, casseroles can be assembled entirely in advance!The first time you make a recipe it can be hard to parse what pieces can be done in advance, but on round two you should be able to know what pieces can be done ahead.
- Cooking time is NOT wasted time. Sometimes it’s helpful to change your mindset a bit. Spending time cooking is not a waste. You are spending time to feed your family, save money, and eat healthier.I know that sounds a bit whimsical when it’s 6:30pm and you just want food on the table, but a mindset shift can sometimes help so you feel like you aren’t just blowing hours.
- You will get faster. When I started cooking regularly, I would always be pissed off at recipe prep times because they would say 30 minutes but it would take me an hour. Of course, the person who wrote the recipe is probably a decent cook and I was just learning.Generally, now, if a recipe says 30 minutes, I can probably make it in 20! If you practice, you will get faster!
Throughout this guide to easy weeknight meals, we will talk about time as it seems to be the backbone sticking point to almost everybody’s issues.
Getting Little Helpers in the Kitchen
I recall (vaguely) my pre-child days as pretty chill. If dinner was a 7 or 8… no big deal. ALL OF THAT HAS CHANGED. It shouldn’t be surprising to hear that children make most things harder, including getting dinner on the table!
“The biggest struggle? My newly minted 3-year-old who is a hangry mess immediately after nap and wants to “help” and stir things on the stove.” – Jessica M.
“I have three kids under four who cling to me whenever I’m in the kitchen. Literally climbing legs sometimes. By dinner, I’ve cooked two meals for them already and am out of steam. I used to cook really good food even with two kids, but somehow the baby threw things for a loop.” – Kaitlyn O.
There is really only two options when it comes to dealing with children during meal prep time.
OPTION 1: Distract. I’m firmly in the camp of whatever works here. If that’s TV, then cool. We try to not do too much TV before dinner, but there have definitely been days where I openly thank the makers of Paw Patrol so I can finish the damn pasta.
What really works for us though is a small activity bin that we keep in the kitchen. It has small toys in it, a few crayons, paper, stamps, stickers, and maybe some play dough. Our kids know where to go to find an activity if dad is busy with dinner.
OPTION 2: Involve. This would be my preferred option if I can manage it, but it’s harder then option 1. When kids start getting older, you can find pieces of almost any recipe that kids can do. My two year old can already stir and actually not make a huge mess. It’s a miracle.
My four-year old can use kid-safe knives to actually chop things! Granted he isn’t exact and I usually have to fix some of his chops, but it keeps him busy and he likes it.
Okay, I lied about there being two options. There are actually three.
Option 3: FEED THEM.
Learn to Love Snack Time
“Real talk? My struggle is something nearly instant but healthy for Paddy as soon as we get in the door, and something uncomplicated to put together for Kevin and I that’s done somewhat quickly too. Or something nearly instant for all of us!” – Susan M.
Any time I know I’m not going to have dinner ready relatively quickly, I always try to make sure there is a snack.
I know it seems counter-intuitive because if you are rushed to make dinner, when in the hell are you supposed to also makes snacks?! But, snacks give you time to cook and also solve any HANGRY issues your kids might have. A consistent and somewhat healthy snack set up will decompress some of the dinner struggles.
To get started, be sure to check out these Three Easy Kid Snacks! The quick oatmeal cookies are great to have at the ready and the PB pudding can be made in one minute.
Also, be sure to browse my Snack Time category for loads of snacking ideas. Not all of them are kid friendly or quick, but it’s a good starting point!
Four of My Favorite Afternoon Snacks
- Peanut Butter and Apples. Sometimes my kids even convince me to stir a little Nutella into the peanut butter. I’m a push-over.
- Crunchy Veggies on Ice. This is my Mother-in-Law’s go-to snack. Just loads of pre-chopped veggies on a chilled platter. Kids love it for some reason!
- After School Protein Bars. These were a huge hit at House Macheesmo and are a heavy snack time feature when I’ve made a batch.
- PB Banana Pretzel Snack. An easy dip that’s always a hit with kids. Again, can be made well in advance!
Start an Never-ending Salad Bowl
“My biggest struggle with getting dinner on the table is that by the time dinnertime rolls around, I’ve spent an entire day doing work, and all I really want is to sip a red and read a book, not fix a balanced, healthy meal. Though that’s what I want for my husband and I, too. And I like to cook… so, go figure.” – Liz
Many fast dinners are not exactly healthy. Pretty much everyone knows that they should be eating healthy, but it can be hard when pizza is, like, RIGHT THERE.
Making a salad every single night would add a lot of time onto your prep so what I like to do is have a never ending salad in my fridge!
At the start of the week, I’ll chop up a bunch of veggies with some spinach or greens. Each day during the week, I’ll add one or two things to the salad to add volume and introduce some new flavors!
This keeps your prep low on the salad because you getting dividends from last night’s salad as well.
Obviously, at some point, the base salad gets wilted and then you have to reset the whole bowl, but we can usually make it through the week by just adding to the same bowl.
One note here: If you do this, don’t dress the salad until you serve it. Dressed salad won’t keep very long in the fridge!
Planning for Weeknight Meals
The most important part of meal planning is to create a ritual around it. It honestly doesn’t take a huge amount of time to plan a week’s worth of meals, but the time can keep getting pushed around if you let it.
Block of 45 minutes to do your first meal plan (these days I can do it in 20 – again you’ll get faster). Don’t do it while you are watching TV. Pour a cup of coffee or a glass of wine and make it an activity.
For me, I usually do this on Saturday or Sunday when the kids are resting (napping is too optimistic). Then we can hit the store with the plan fresh in my mind.
When it comes to tools, I am NOT a high tech planner. There are a million apps out there that in theory make this process easier and if they work for you, then more power to you! For me though, I use two things:
- Thing One: Google Calendars. I have a meals calendar that I can update anywhere. For us, I plan out meals about a week in advance (optimistically) and have a set calendar that is just for meal planning. I can also easily share the calendar with Betsy if she cared about what I was making (she doesn’t most days).
- Thing Two: Grocery List App. There are a bunch of these , but I have a system where I use my general To-Do list app (Todoist) and just have a special project that is for shopping lists. It syncs automatically between my computer and my phone so I can update it anywhere and always have it at the ready.
Ten Easy Dinners for Easy Meal Planning
What kind of food blogger would I be if I didn’t give you some of my favorite recipes in this Guide to Easy Weeknight Meals? Here are ten recipes that are frequently in my meal planning rotation. They have just a few ingredients, take about 30 minutes to make, and will get your meal planning wheels turning!
Most of these I would serve with a salad from the never ending salad bowl!
- Mushroom Onion Melts (20 min. meal, about 6 main ingredients)
- Cheesy Chicken Taco Skillet (30 min. meal, about 8 main ingredients)
- Baked Chicken Taquitos (Totally a make-in-advance and reheat meal. From my Eat Your Food! column)
- Easy Chicken Lemon Skillet (30 min meal, delicious over rice or serve it over angel hair pasta)
- Chicken Ramen Soup (30ish minutes. Kids love this one)
- Black Bean Tortilla Soup (40 minutes, but could be made entirely in advance)
- Cheesy Baked Hot dogs (Another Eat Your Food! favorite, served with a big salad)
- Lemon Zinger Tuna Salad (10 min prep, serve on toast or over greens for a low carb option)
- Veggie Lasagna Stacks (A total cheater to lasagna. So much less work and same flavors!)
- One Pot Spinach Mac and Cheese (30 minutes. One pot cleanup. Delicious!)
Use Condiments Wisely
One of the other big problems that people had in my quick survey was that their dinner ideas were stale. They felt like they were eating the same thing every night!
“Ideas. We get stuck in a rut.” – TC
If you find you are getting bored with your dinners, look in your pantry. Many recipes can be jazzed up easily with simple condiments and pantry staples. If you’re bored with a recipe, but that dinner otherwise fit your lifestyle, find some condiments that can jazz it up!
Here are TEN condiments that I try to always keep on hand to change up your easy weeknight meals!
- Really good mustard
- Pickled Jalapeno
- Chili garlic sauce
- Jarred pesto
- Balsamic vinegar
- Mild salsa (like tomatillo)
- Spicy hot sauce (like habanero)
- Good BBQ sauce (I like Stubbs)
- Italian giardiniera
You can add one of these condiments to almost any recipe on planet earth to change it up a bit.
Calling an Audible on Dinner
Okay. To put it honestly, shit happens. Even if you’ve diligently planned every single meal for the entire week and have all your prep done, you will inevitably get a flat tire on the way home and everything will go off the rails.
But, the nice thing about getting into a habit of cooking and meal planning is that it becomes easier to whip up something in almost no time. Maybe you have leftovers? Maybe you have something frozen from last week? There is almost always an option if you’ve been cooking more.
My Six Go-To Dinners that Require Zero Prep
- Make angel hair pasta. It takes literally five minutes. Toss it with butter or a jar of marinara.
- A Grilled Cheese sandwich with a salad. Any of these four easy fun grilled cheese recipes will get the job done!
- The ramen omelet. Okay… this was originally a breakfast idea, but in times of crisis, I’ll absolutely eat this for dinner.
- Corn souffle from scratch. Just kidding. This is not a fast recipe. Just seeing if you were paying attention.
- Pepperoni Pizza Pasta. Cook pasta. Stir together with things. Done.
- Sweet Potato Breakfast Burritos. Again I turn to breakfast for dinner in a pinch. These are literally 10 minutes of work and super filling and delicious.
- Tex-Mex Enchilada Meatballs. These are a really delicious freezer meal. Make them in a big batch and freeze some for emergency delicious tacos.
More Resources for Finding Great Weeknight Meals
I’ve written almost 3,000 words on how to conquer easy weeknight meals for families (or solo), but I’m far from the only resource on the Internet when it comes to this struggle. Here are a few other great resources that I personally use to find great weeknight meals.
- Simply Recipes! Okay. I know this is a bit self-promotional because I also write for them, but they do have a massive trove of wonderful quick recipes and they email out weekly meal plans which are super helpful as well.
- NY Times What to Cook This Week. I have this page bookmarked and check it frequently. I believe they make all the recipes available without a subscription.
- Bon Appetit Basically. I’m a big Bon Appetit fan, but I really love their Basically series for approachable recipes. The recipes are so down-to-earth that many times I can find something on it to make the same day, if necessary.
- Food Network 30 Min Dinners. Some of these may not be doable in 30 minutes if you are new to cooking, but it’s still worth a look for meal planning purposes!
Have a Tip?
If you have a tip or resource for making easy weeknight meals, leave a comment! Oh, and PIN THIS post or share it to save it for later reference!
10 Responses to “The Ultimate Guide to Easy Weeknight Meals” Leave a comment
I’m always trying to fine tune my week night meal planning. I appreciate your take on it, especially since I have enjoyed cooking every recipe I’ve made from your site (and more impressively, my family has loved eating them)! Do you use an app to store and organize your favorite recipes?
Hey Shanna! Thanks! You know… I’ve never found one that I absolutely love. Mostly I just go off of my brain, the internet, and if I put meals in to Google Calendar I can always look back at previous months to see what I made and copy them. :)
Great suggestions for the never ending struggle to get a reasonably healthy dinner on the table in a short amount of time. I find it helps me to make a large pot of soup on Sunday and keep it in the fridge for the day I’m too tired or just not in the mood to cook. I love your never ending salad bowl idea. I also try to cook double batches of things like pasta sauce, casseroles or taco fillings and freeze half, that way a quick thaw and reheat is all that’s needed for a huge head start on the meal. If all else fails I buy a steak and give it to my husband to grill!
Yes! I should’ve mentioned soups Laura. Easy to double and easy to reheat! Thanks for the idea!
Would love to see more details on the never-ending salad. I can imagine having all the greens & add-ins ready to go separately, & adding apples-walnuts-gorgonzola-vinaigrette one night (& eating it all), then tomatoes-mushrooms-ranch the next night, but not how I would add a-b-c one night and additionally add d-e the next (so it would work as a-b-c-d-e).
Oh, I love the google calendar for meal planning! I like to go back and look at what I’ve made for inspiration, and to make sure I haven’t made the same thing every week for the past two months. I used to do it on paper but babies changed that…who has time? Online means I can do it at work. LOL
Crock pot meals are very handy. Dump in the morning, dinner ready in the evening.
Great tips as always! I try to figure out what I’ll cook on the following weeknights while shopping at the local market, trying to alternate meat and fish and matching them with lots of healthy vegetables and big pots of soup, that I can cook in advance, so that it’s ready in just minutes!
Nick – What a great post, as always. Shocked you don’t have eggs on here! Migas, chilaquiles, or just scrambled with a piece of peanut-butter toast. When we are out of the food we’ve prepped for the week, this is my go-to for our 14 month old (also in the 1.25 hour window between getting home from daycare and bedtime that another reader cited).
So glad you mentioned that Sheebani! In general breakfast for dinner is always a great fast option. :) Thanks!