5 Secrets to Getting Dinner on the Table No Matter How Busy You Are

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5 Secrets to Getting Dinner on the Table No Matter How Busy You Are

Get out of your weeknight dinner rut with these essential meal-planning strategies from The Dinner Plan cookbook.


My family is busy. Really busy. And I bet you can relate. No two nights are the same: Ice hockey practice, choir rehearsals, board-of-ed meetings, a friend's birthday dinner, math tutor, guitar lessons, a dog that needs to go to the vet. It's a miracle that the kid doesn't end up getting checked for fleas while the dog strums "Blackbird." Add making dinner to the mix and you've got a recipe for extreme frustration.

Having a repertoire of foolproof, crowd-pleasing recipes definitely helps you avoid the rut of making the same thing over and over (or reaching for the pizza-delivery number). But after publishing our first cookbook, Keepers, and talking to readers, family and friends, my co-author Kathy Brennan and I realized that just as important is having a dish that suits the kind of day you're experiencing, something we call "situational weeknight cooking" and feature in our new cookbook, The Dinner Plan.

Here we've included one stellar example for each situation (and bonus, some even work for multiple scenarios and the ace Chicken Parm hits all 5!).

Related: Healthy Family-Friendly Dinner Ideas

1. Make-Ahead

Detox Salad

Pictured Recipe: Healthy Detox Salad

On days where we have a little spare time in the morning or the night before, we reach for a Make-Ahead Recipe—dishes that can be made in advance and give us a head start on dinner. With this veggie-packed Detox Salad recipe, everything can be prepared ahead of time, except the avocado. Keep the undressed salad and dressing, covered, in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. When you're ready to eat, toss with the dressing and avocado.

2. Staggered

Kitchen Sink Burritos

Pictured Recipe: Kitchen Sink Burritos

On those nights where everyone is coming and going, we look to one of our Staggered Recipes—dishes that be left on the back of the stove to be reheated as needed or served at room temp on the kitchen counter so family members can help themselves when they get home. This vegetable-and-protein-packed bean burrito is perfect any time of day, from breakfast (add a scrambled egg) to a late-night snack. Bonus: You can wrap it in foil and hand it to family members who are on the go.

3. One Dish

Skillet Chicken Parm

Pictured Recipe: Skillet Chicken Parm

When the thought of a big cleanup is unbearable and we want something that also reheats well, we go for a One-Dish Recipe. It took some trial and error to adapt Chicken Parm into a weeknight-friendly, one-dish recipe. We skip the breading of the chicken to save time and also keep things a bit more healthful. We often keep the Parm at the back of the stove alongside a pot of spaghetti so plates can be made as needed.

4. Pantry

Mexican Lasagna

Pictured Recipe: Mexican Skillet Lasagna

If we open the fridge to find it's bare and we haven't had the time to make it to the supermarket, we go for a Pantry Recipe, which only requires long-shelf-life ingredients that you can keep on hand in the pantry or freezer (so, ingredients like root vegetables, canned beans, eggs, frozen shrimp and puff pastry). This Mexican-inspired lasagna is just as soulful as its Italian cousin and can still be made on a busy weeknight in about 30 minutes with just one skillet and ingredients you probably already have.

Related: Our Best Pantry Soup Recipes

5. Extra-Fast

Shrimp Scampi

Pictured Recipe: Shrimp Scampi

On those chaotic nights where dinner needs to be done in 30 minutes or less, we're extremely thankful for an Extra-Fast Recipe. One of the reasons we love this Shrimp Scampi recipe is because it's so versatile. Serve it as an appetizer or as a main course with rice, orzo or your favorite grain, spooning the garlicky sauce over everything.

Related: 20 Healthy Dinners You Can Make in 20 Minutes

About the Book

The Dinner Plan: Simple Weeknight Recipes and Strategies for Every Schedule

The Dinner Plan: Simple Weeknight Recipes and Strategies for Every Schedule is the second cookbook from Caroline Campion and Kathy Brennan and is the followup to their IACP award-winning cookbook Keepers. Campion and Brennan met as editors at Saveur magazine and were inspired by their own families to create the ultimate game plan for weeknight dinners. The Dinner Plan has 135 recipes—including meat, fish, pasta, meatless, soups, sandwiches, grains and snacks. There are also lots of tips and guidance for making you a happier and more confident cook… no matter what the week throws at you.

Photos: Maura McEvoy & Caroline Campion (Detox Salad)

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Get out of your weeknight dinner rut with these essential meal-planning strategies.
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Penelope Wall
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