My Meal-Prep Shortcut for Getting Dinner on the Table on Busy Weeknights

Broccoli & Chicken Alfredo Spaghetti Squash

Pictured recipe: Broccoli & Chicken Alfredo Spaghetti Squash

When I first started working at EatingWell, I was a newly married, childless foodie who thought nothing of spending hours making involved recipes for dinner. Flash forward 10 years and I have two super-hungry, always-tired-after-school boys, a husband who is also wiped from work, and a crazy dog—who all need attention and food when we get home. Which leaves two parents with very little time to focus on getting dinner on the table.

When my kids were younger, I would cook after they went to bed. But for a variety of reasons, I've mostly stopped that. I enjoy my evening freedom and I'm trying to go to bed a little earlier. I also used to meal-prep on the weekend—which I still do from time to time, but there are plenty of weekends when family time and personal relaxation trump time in the kitchen

(Here's our guide to staying healthy during the week when you skipped weekend meal-prep.)

So what's my secret to getting dinner on the table without cooking after bedtime or over the weekend?

I meal-prep in the morning. It may sound crazy, since trying to get four people out the door on weekday mornings can be just as hectic as evenings. But I squeeze in time while I am making breakfasts and lunches or after the kids get on the bus. Some days, it's just five minutes to marinate chicken or chop up peppers and onions. Some days, I spend a little more time and sometimes, to take the pressure off busier mornings, I'll do a little prep for the next day's dinner, while cooking dinner. Here are some more concrete tips and ideas to help you get started.

The best ideas to start meal-prepping in the morning:

Sheet-Pan Roasted Root Vegetables

Pictured recipe: Sheet-Pan Roasted Root Vegetables

Cut up any veggies and refrigerate them in an airtight container.

Precook your vegetables when you can. Start sautéing veggies for a soup or casserole, charring or roasting peppers, roasting tomatoes and so forth, and then reheat and continue cooking them when you make the rest of your meal.

Measure out spices. This is especially important when you're using a lot of spice, like in a chili or homemade taco seasoning.

Take out all your tools. Pull out your baking sheets and pots and pans. Place your cutting board on the counter and find the knives, utensils, measuring cups and spoons you'll need for later. Fill a pot with water if you will be making pasta or rice so there is one less thing to do during the evening rush.

Marinate your meat or protein. This is an easy way to make sure you have flavorful meat (or tofu!) and all you need to do is cook it.

Grate cheese. Save yourself one step later by grating your cheese in the morning. Helpful for taco night, pizza night or when you're adding cheese to a grain bowl or salad.

Make any sauces or dips. If your dinner calls for homemade sauce or dip, these can be easy to make ahead and store in the fridge for later.

Cook beans or grains. It may seem like you don't have time for this in the morning, but if you start a pot while you're getting lunches together or making breakfasts they can be done by the time you're ready to go. 

Keys to Prep-Ahead Success

countertop during meal prepping

The reason I'm motivated to squeeze my prep in, is that I am so much more relaxed when I go to work knowing that dinner is either already cooked or that most of the chopping is done. Dinner can get to the table in 20-30 minutes and I have a little freedom to hang with the kids, talk to my husband (gasp!) or walk the dog. For what it's worth, my husband does a lot of cooking. I'm just the one who is more motivated around meal-prep, because I am obsessed with food.

Another prep-ahead bonus—a lot of the dishes are already done in the morning instead of at night when we're also busy unpacking and repacking lunches. Here's how to actually make it work in your house.

Take advantage of simple nights

The prepping-while-you-are-making-another-meal strategy (breakfast, lunch or dinner) works best on days when the other meals are simpler and don't take as much time. So if dinner is a one-pot pasta, chop up some of tomorrow's taco night vegetables while dinner simmers away (and your cutting board is already dirty!).

Choose foods that don't need too much tending

Prep things that don't need a lot of attention and can happen in the background while you cook other foods (think: caramelizing onions). Get some beans going in your Instant Pot while you're packing up lunches.

Become your own sous chef

Start thinking of your meal as separate components, and prep your meal in parts. Ten minutes of veggie chopping after the kids go to school goes a long way to save time in the evening. When you pull out your preprepped ingredients, it's as if you hired a sous chef to get things ready.

Make it happen in real life

Not every week is full of mornings where I have time to grate cheese and cut up my vegetables to get a head start on dinner. When life gets a little crazier, I utilize my other secret trick.

I simplify my meals and buy healthy foods that are already prepped, even if they cost a teeny bit more. Think prechopped veggies, grated cheese, jarred sauces, marinated meats and the occasional prepared frozen foods (pizza, baked fries, dumplings) that I can dress up.

These are my dinnertime survival strategies right now, but I am already working on my next one—getting my kids to help more and cook a basic meal. Then, I won't need to be my own sous chef because I'll have two little ones helping get dinner on the table.

WATCH: How to Meal-Prep a Week of Mediterranean Lunches

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How taking a few minutes in the morning has saved my dinner-time sanity.
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Lisa Valente
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