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Meal Prep: Time-Saving Tips to Make Dinner Less Stressful

It seems that no matter what stage of parenting you're in, dinner prep can be so stressful. Little ones are in the thick of the "witching hour." Or you've spent the afternoon shuttling your big kids from their never ending stream of after-school activities. Or you've just walked in the door after working all day and need to start dinner — right now!

Or maybe even all three.

It is so tempting to pop in a packaged meal or order takeout. But there are ways to plan ahead so that when you begin cooking much of the actual "work" is already done.

These are techniques I began employing when my now-grown kids were little — and am still using today with my kindergartener!

The MOST important tip I can give you is to start — today — meal planning. The hour you spend each week drawing up a list of meals — and shopping for all but the most perishable ingredients — will save you so much time (and stress) when it comes time to make dinner. You'll: A) know what you're going to prepare each night, and B) have all the ingredients. Read here for more on how to meal plan!

The trick is then to do as much advance prep as possible — either the night before or earlier in the day. Even if you only have 5 or 10 extra minutes, there are tasks you can tackle that will give you a head start when you find yourself flying into the house at 5 o'clock.

Here's just a sample of meal prep chores that take 10 minutes or less:

  • Fill the pasta pot with water and put it on the stove.
  • Dip and bread cutlets and stack them on a plate (separate the layers with wax paper).
  • Chop the veggies/crack the eggs/grate the cheese.
  • Wash and dry salad greens — wrap in paper towels and store in your crisper drawer.
  • Marinate your chicken/steak (and make an extra batch while you're at it, to stash in the freezer).

When planning meals for the week, try to double up on ingredients, so that you're only prepping once. For example, it's almost a given that I'll be making at least two dishes that call for chopped onions (one of my least favorite tasks). I'll chop them all up and put half in a ziploc bag for later in the week. Same goes for carrots, parsley, broccoli and garlic.

And my favorite meal-prep tip? "Mise en place." It's a fancy French term that simply refers to chopping and assembling all of your ingredients prior to cooking. I can't recall cooking any other way and it makes the process so much less stressful, and — dare I say? — more enjoyable!

Here's an example of what "mise en place" looks like:

This dish of linguine with shrimp has many components. If I were to try and chop, assemble and cook as I go, I'd be a frazzled mess by the time I sat down to eat.

Instead, I prep all of the ingredients and combine those that go into the pan together. So the shrimp is tossed with the oil, red pepper flakes and salt, the garlic is separated into two dishes (one with parsley, the other with olive oil), and the tomatoes are in their bowl along with the white wine, salt and red pepper flakes.

All I then need to do is heat the pan and add each dish in order (while enjoying a nice glass of wine).

Yes, there are definitely nights where takeout is the order of the day. But by employing these easy tactics, you'll find yourself relying on it less and less.

What are your favorite meal-prep time-savers?

Image via Sheri Silver

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