Shortcuts for Fast Weeknight Meals

Most people are busy balancing family life and careers. This can make mealtime challenging. Sometimes it seems easier to go through the drive-through lane of the nearest fast-food restaurant than to spend time in the kitchen. But making dinner doesn't have to be time-consuming or difficult.

Arriving home from work at 6:30 p.m. and then thinking about making dinner leaves many people feeling stressed out. It is possible to create healthy meals the entire family will enjoy with planning and smart time management in the kitchen.

Here are some tips that can make for easier meals in a snap.

* Mark the calendar. Sure it may seem like a page right out of the school cafeteria operations, but planning at least two weeks of meals in advance can alleviate the toughest part of meal creation -- deciding on the menu. This enables a person to shop for all of the ingredients and stock up the pantry and the refrigerator. Come mealtime, it's simply grab and cook.

* Prep in advance. Some people like to spend Sunday afternoon pre-cooking items that will be used during the week. For example, one can bake chicken cutlets that can be used for a variety of meals later on. Or slice and dice items so that the preparatory work is done. Package into individual baggies or bowls for later use. Sometimes the longest time spent on meals is the prep work.

* Take some shortcuts. Not every meal that is cooked needs to be entirely from scratch. Mix fresh-made elements with store-bought options. For example, serve barbecued flank steak with prepared salad greens from your grocer's refrigerated section and cornbread from their bakery.

* Consider breakfast foods. Breakfast foods tend to cook faster and with less prep work than others. One night a week serve pancakes, French toast, omelettes, or Belgian waffles. It's easy and tasty.

* Invest in a slow cooker. Slow cookers cook food on very low heat for several hours. Many now feature programmable displays so a person can punch in the cook time and the slow cooker will automatically shut off when done. Individuals can come home after a long day of work and school with an entire meal fully cooked and ready to eat.

* Stir-fry satisfies. Meats and poultry cut into smaller strips and pieces will cook much faster than an entire steak. Pair this with favorite flavors, such as ginger and teriyaki and seasonal vegetables (fresh or frozen) and serve over rice or noodles. There are dozens of stir-fry recipes a person can create with a little experimentation.

* Have leftover night. One night of the week can be set aside for leftovers to clean out the refrigerator. Simply reheat and serve, letting each member of the family concoct a buffet-style meal, featuring a little of this and a little of that.

* Make-your-own. Foods that involve participation are enjoyable and often fast. Tacos, fajitas, personal pizzas, nuggets and dipping sauces -- all of these options are quick to make and eat. Plus, they get the kids involved in meal preparation.

* Pastas a plus. A pot of pasta can be boiled in 7 to 10 minutes. In roughly the same amount of time, it is possible to put together a sauce to top the pasta, whether oil and garlic, tomato or something cream-based. Pasta should be the go-to dish when a person is short on time and needs a hearty meal.

Cooking for the family during the week can be done quickly and easily with organization and a little know-how.

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