A Survival Guide to Weeknight Cooking

How to feed the family on busy nights, according to chefs and home cooks
September 12, 2018 Updated: October 8, 2018

For working parents, weeknight cooking can be a second job of its own. And in the midst of back-to-school season, a flurry of new schedules and school projects and ever more hectic nights, getting dinner on the table for the whole family seems an especially daunting task.

Fortunately, there’s no shortage of advice out there. A whole world of working parents and home cooks, as well as recent cookbooks like Pam Anderson’s new edition of “How to Cook Without a Book,” her classic guide to cooking by heart, or Carla Snyder’s “One Pan, Whole Family,” a compilation of quick dinners for the recipe-loyal, provide plenty of busy weeknight inspiration.

Here are some of their best pointers.

Stock Your Kitchen

“Surrounding yourself with good food is the first step in effortless cooking,” Anderson writes. Fill your fridge, freezer, and pantry with essentials and replenish them regularly.

Many pantry basics can last for years—canned tomatoes, cartons of chicken broth, boxed pasta and grains. Oils and vinegars are a must; red and white wine are great for quick pan sauces; and a colorful selection of spices and dried herbs add instant flavor.

In the fridge, Anderson always keeps a hunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano and a jar of pesto on hand, along with a steady supply of seasonal fruits, vegetables, and fresh herbs. Meanwhile, the freezer can be stocked with a variety of meat and seafood, tightly wrapped and labeled, as well as frozen vegetables, pizza crusts, and loaves of crusty bread.

“Any one of these ingredients could be the inspiration for a quick dish on a harried night,” Anderson writes. “I call it money in the bank.”

Stocking your kitchen applies to equipment, too. In “One Pan, Whole Family,” Snyder recommends investing in a heavy ovenproof skillet, like a 12-inch cast-iron, and a heavy-duty sheet pan with tall sides.

And to make prep time less of a chore, she prescribes a sharp, 8-inch Santoku-style knife and a 20-inch, dishwasher-safe cutting board—“the best gift you can give yourself,” she insists.

Think Ahead

The second step is less of a step, and more of a mindset: always think ahead.

“As I get into the kitchen I naturally ask, ‘What am I cooking now that will help me pull off the next meal?’” Anderson writes. That could be a doubled portion of tonight’s rice or noodles, to save for tomorrow’s fried rice or stir-fry, or an extra pan of roasted vegetables, to become tomorrow’s pizza topping or blended soup.

Better yet, start at the store. Buying two rotisserie chickens, instead of one, can kickstart three different meals: whole legs glazed and re-roasted in the oven for tonight, breast meat shredded and seasoned for tacos for tomorrow, and chicken soup made from the bones and excess meat for the day after.

And for easy, week-long inspiration—and instant flavor boosts for simple dishes—batch-make goodies like caramelized and pickled onions, a jar of all-purpose vinaigrette, and bits of bacon, prosciutto, and sausage crumbles to keep in the fridge.

Meal Prep

For a more systematic approach, consider making a meal plan.

“It doesn’t have to be complicated or fancy, it just needs to be a road map of how you are going to feed your family over the course of the week,” says Kristin Koskenin, registered dietitian nutritionist and founder of Eat Well, Live Well. “If you can, take some time during the weekend to prep vegetables for dishes you plan to make.”

Patricia Barnes, a mother of five and the blogger behind Red Headed Patti, recommends enlisting some extra hands. “I encourage the kids to help out and we spend a couple of hours prepping and bonding,” she says. “It’s a productive family activity and it saves time during the week.” Bonus: Picky kids are more likely to eat dishes they’ve helped create.

But if you don’t have those hours to spare, not to worry—work with the time you have, says Katie Farrell, founder of food and lifestyle blog Dashing Dish. “If you only have time to write down what you plan to make that week and go to the grocery store, then you will be in better shape than if you don’t have any plan at all. Don’t feel that you have to prepare everything all at once.”

Simplify

In the end, simple is best, and for weeknight dinners, one-pan meals can be a lifesaver. Snyder offers over 70 of hers, each streamlined and ready in 45 minutes or less, in “One Pan, Whole Family.”

Chicken thighs and veggies can simmer in the same skillet or roast on the same pan; the starchy cooking water for pasta can boil down into its own sauce. Along the way, don’t be afraid of shortcuts like canned beans or quick-cooking brown rice, Snyder says. They’re sometimes necessary to balance the different cooking times, and can easily simplify a recipe.

Benefits range from start to finish: there’s no need to figure out what to have with what, eliminating a big mental block; the cooking itself is simplified; and perhaps best of all, clean-up is a breeze.

Snyder offers a last piece of advice: “Drink a glass of wine when you’re cooking. I don’t think anything makes cooking more amenable than having a glass of rosé in the summer and red wine in the winter.”

“Get a decent knife, get a good cutting board, pour yourself a glass of wine, and just make dinner.”

RECIPE: Double-Roasted Chicken Legs With Hoisin Glaze
RECIPE: Lemon Chicken Soup With Spinach and Dill
RECIPE: Pulled Chicken for Tacos and Quesadillas

RECIPE: Chicken and Swiss Chard in Cider-Cream Sauce
RECIPE: Stovetop Lasagna with Spinach
RECIPE: Prosciutto-Roasted Ruby Trout with Zucchini and Butter Beans

RECOMMENDED