20 Ways to Get Dinner on the Table Faster

Photo: makelessnoise

One of my proudest moments as a mom took place in the drive-through lane of a fast-food restaurant. A series of unusual events while traveling led my family to such a place. What made me feel accomplished was not where we stood (or sat, in this situation) but the confusion and dismay of my oldest son. He questioned the sanity of receiving food in a bag from a window and then consuming the food while driving or riding in a car. I was thrilled that he thought this set-up was unusual.

Like many parents, I have made eating dinner together a priority. But family dinnertime amidst full schedules often requires that dinner get on the table in a certain time frame. If you are a mom or dad who cooks regularly, then you are likely familiar with the challenge of preparing healthy, hearty, and homecooked dinners that kids and adults enjoy (or at least consume). Toss in the requirement that meals should be easy to get on the table quickly and this feat, repeated nightly, may seem herculean. 

While I won't boast that I have achieved perfection in fixing great meals quickly, I can say that I have learned some strategies and tactics that help get dinner on the table, faster. Here are tricks and techniques that have worked for me. (See also: 7 Time-Saving Kitchen Tips From an Insider)

1. Plan Ahead

To move as quickly as possible during the week, I plan meals on the weekends. But I don't just figure out what meals to serve. I scrutinize the family's schedule and then match dinner menus to specific evenings based on food preparation and cooking times.

Tonight, for example, my youngest son doesn't get finished with band practice until 8:30 p.m., my husband will arrive home at 5:30 p.m. or 6 p.m., and I have a meeting at 7 p.m. We should all be around to sit at the dinner table, even though dining schedules may not sync. A great option here is a meal that is relatively fast to make and heats up well. On other days, if I know I will have extra time in the morning but not much in the evening, then I may do some prep work before the start of the day or opt for a one-dish slow-cooker meal. 

By figuring out meals ahead of time, I can make a grocery list, restock on basics, and get items that are needed for recipes.

2. Substitute Ingredients

Substituting ingredients quickens the dinner-making pace. Use what you have on hand rather than buying, storing, measuring, and mixing every single ingredient called for in a recipe. This saves money but also prevents me from stopping dinner preparation to go to the store to find the item, ask my husband to pick up an item, or find another recipe.

For example, I may use cream cheese for cream soup or sour cream; sea salt and pepper for herbs; crushed tomatoes for spaghetti sauce or fresh tomatoes; water, wine, or bouillon for chicken broth; walnuts for pecans or almonds; breadcrumbs for nearly any casserole topping or breading; cereal for oatmeal.

Occasionally, I leave out ingredients if they are not commonly available. If you can safely omit certain items (that is, the dish still tastes good and the texture is intact), you can get dinner on the table faster without much compromise.

3. Develop a Repertoire of Quick Dinner Fixes

When I took a cooking class at the community college, I learned from my instructor (a professional home economist) that most people have a repertoire of about 5-10 dinner menus. They cycle through these so that favorites or standbys are served every couple of weeks. Periodically, cooks will try a new dish and add that to their rotation. Since learning about this common habit, I stopped feeling bad about serving the same thing over and over. However, I try to introduce new items in order to avoid family burnout on favorite foods.

Within my repertoire, I like to have dishes that are quick to fix. What surprises me about the easy-to-prepare meals is that my family often likes those just as much or more than dishes that are time-consuming and expensive.

So, to get dinner ready faster on a consistent basis, develop a list of meals that are quick and easy to make. Take, for example, this simple chicken dish — place boneless chicken breasts in a greased baking dish (I use cooking spray); pour a jar of salsa over the chicken; top with extra sharp cheddar or your favorite cheese; cover with aluminum foil and bake for about 30 minutes at 350 degrees; remove the foil and continue baking until the cheese is melted and the chicken is done.

4. Get More People Involved

Delegate duties to get dinner on the table faster. Hand off time-consuming tasks like chopping vegetables or shredding cooked chicken. Or hand a recipe to someone else and let that person prepare the entire dish.

5. Grill Out

A great way to get more people involved without too many cooks in the kitchen is to grill outside. One person grills the entrée while the other fixes side dishes.

For a simple recipe, marinate boneless chicken breasts in Italian dressing and cook on the grill about 10 to 15 minutes until done. To add veggies, make kabobs. Cut chicken and vegetables (such as green peppers and onions) into large chunks, place on skewers, brush with marinade, and place over the grill.

6. Fix a Cool Entrée

Raiding the refrigerator for dinner doesn't have to be a last-ditch effort of desperation. You can plan and fix a gourmet entrée (like a roast turkey or elegant chicken salad) that is perfect for light summer meals, a group get-together, evenings when family members eat in shifts, or nights that you are busy. Add some quick side dishes, and you can have a hearty meal in minutes. 

7. Serve Cool Veggies

Make side dishes ahead of time and store them in the refrigerator, just like the cool entrées.

A couple of my favorites in this category include red potato salad and coleslaw. The key to making great potato salad is cooking the potatoes enough but not too much. To increase the nutritional value, add more vegetables like chopped celery or bell pepper.

For coleslaw, use a packaged mix or toss chunks of raw cabbage (and other vegetables that you'd like to add such as purple onions, carrots, or green peppers) in the food processor to shred or chop.

8. Serve Fruit as a Side Dish

You may have the main dish covered. But getting side dishes on the table for a well-balanced meal can be tricky. So, add fruit to your evening rotation of easy and fast side dishes.

Chill and serve canned fruit or jarred fruit packed in natural juices or light syrup, such as mandarin oranges or a tropical mix of mangoes and pineapples. Try fresh cored pineapple, chopped and stored in the refrigerator until it's time to eat. An even simpler-to-make side dish is a bowl of grapes, rinsed and ready to eat.

9. Prepare a Pasta Dish

Prepare noodles in about 20-30 minutes while you are preparing a sauce or topping. You can sauté zucchini and mushrooms in olive oil and serve over pasta with Parmesan cheese and red pepper flakes. Or make a traditional meat sauce with ground beef and jarred pasta sauce that you've snagged in a BOGO or Buy Two, Get Three Free promotion. 

To speed things up, clean and chop the vegetables the evening before your pasta dinner. If dinner involves a traditional sauce, make multiple batches or at least a double batch so that you can serve half for dinner fresh now and freeze the other half for a subsequent, ultra-easy meal later.

If you happen to be preparing dinner about the time that you need to pick up your kids from an extracurricular activity, leave the pasta to cook on its own: bring the pasta to boiling, stir to break up the noodles, place a lid over the pot, and turn the burner off; the pasta should cook in about 30 minutes.

10. Make Tortilla Meals

A quick, healthy, and cheap meal is anything made with tortillas. Get the ingredients together and let your family assemble them according to each person's preferences. Heat tortillas and toss in two or more of these ingredients: black beans (rinsed and heated); chopped tomatoes; shredded cheese; cooked chicken or beef; guacamole; or sauteed vegetables such as green peppers, red peppers, and onions.

Prepare as much as you can the night before, or buy ready-made shredded cheese during store sales. Serve some items on the side (black beans, for example) if you'd like.

11. Have Breakfast for Dinner

An omelet or a frittata mixed with vegetables and cheese, served with a fruit side dish and bread, is a great meal. You and your family may want to avoid dishes that may be better suited for leisurely breakfasts and brunches. But in a pinch, eggs or even pancakes with fruit are fast meals that can help you out in a jam.

12. Toss a Dinner Salad

Salad can be an entire meal or a side dish. Make a dinner of Cobb salad or chef's salad for a no-cook meal.

Put together ingredients that blend well and help finish off leftovers. For example, toss lettuce with leftover fruit from side dishes, feta cheese, toasted almonds or walnuts, boiled eggs, and chickpeas. If the salad is a side dish, then serve with homemade soup and bread.

13. Simmer Main Dishes or Entire Meals in a Crock Pot

Prepare crock pot meals that will be ready when you finish a busy day at work or home. Try chicken with black beans and cream cheese or check out great, cheap, and easy crock pot recipes like pot roast with vegetables or coq au vin.

14. Roast Your Dinner

Roasting meats and vegetables (or veggies only) is a fast and easy way to make a delicious, healthy dinner.

One of my favorite dishes is roast chicken (using boneless chicken breasts) with red potatoes and asparagus. Cut all ingredients into bite-sized pieces. Sprinkle with rosemary or garlic (or just salt and pepper), toss with olive oil and lemon, and cook in a 400-degree oven. Stir occasionally until done, which should take about 30-45 minutes. For variations, substitute your favorite vegetables like zucchini, red peppers, or mushrooms for asparagus.

15. Use Potato Baking Nails

My parents always used baking nails to speed up the potato-baking process when I was a kid. I still use them to get the oven flavor and texture, which seems to differ from the microwave taste. To use, insert nails in the center of the potato and cook; this technique shaves at least 30 minutes off the usual cook times.

16. Slice Thin

To speed up the cooking of a dish, I slice ingredients to make them thinner. For example, I often slice a chicken breast in half, even if the recipe doesn't call for this action. I do the same with slower-cooking vegetables like potatoes and carrots. This technique can be helpful for nearly any recipe.

17. Repurpose Leftovers

Eating leftovers sounds boring, but having them available can be a godsend. Develop a menu of dishes that reheat well, not just for lunch but also for dinner. A pot roast or turkey, for example, could serve as a main dish a couple of times each week and is great for those weeks with many afterschool or evening activities. Broccoli-rice casserole and mashed potatoes also reheat well.

Leftovers can also be used in completely new dishes; for example, I may make a chicken casserole from leftover roasted chicken, rather than just serving the same meal twice. For ideas on repurposing main dishes or sides, see these articles on fancy ways to use leftovers and rotisserie chicken.

18. Use a Pressure Cooker or Other Fast-Cooking Device

A pressure cooker can help cook meals faster. A convection oven (as well as microwave and toaster ovens) can also reduce cooking times. There may be a learning curve with these appliances, so some of your recipes may take a tad longer at first but will eventually save time. 

19. Batch Cook

Many people find fast-dinner-prep nirvana in batch cooking-freezing-thawing-reheating or similar assembly methods. My attempts in this area have fallen short, though I do freeze and use spaghetti sauce regularly. A friend makes batches of hot chicken salad (I omit the peppers, use unsalted almonds, and substitute cheddar for Swiss cheese and breadcrumbs for potato chips), and I have found this casserole to be wonderful when reheated. 

20. Keep Basics on Hand

If you always have a few basics on hand, then you can easily put together a meal. But defining basics or staples can be tricky as they vary from person to person, family to family. For me, the basics include:

  • Frozen fruits and vegetables (blueberries, broccoli, green beans, mixed vegetables)
  • Frozen meats (chicken, ground beef)
  • Nuts (peanuts, almonds, walnuts, pecans)
  • Dairy (cheddar, feta, mozzarella; milk; sour cream; eggs; yogurt)
  • Canned or jarred goods (salsa, pasta sauce, beans, fruit) 
  • Fresh fruits and vegetables (apples, bananas, lettuce, carrots, celery)
  • Baking and cooking items (oil, butter, flour, sugar, salt, pepper, spices like chili powder and cinnamon, white wine)
  • Grains (whole wheat bread, tortillas, pasta, brown rice)

Nearly all of these items can be stored for several weeks with the exceptions of fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy products, and bread. There are many items that I freeze to keep longer; for example, I keep cloves of garlic in the freezer as well as peeled bananas and homemade breadcrumbs.

The suggestions that I make for preparing meals typically involve these items and maybe one or two extra ingredients. 

Cooking should be a leisurely activity, except that it isn't when you have a full schedule. Use these techniques and dinner at your house will be faster than fast food or pizza delivery

How do you get dinner ready faster? 

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Guest's picture

This is a great list. When I was younger, I was amazed that my mom always had time to make an entire meal for us to sit down and eat-which is an important part of childhood. For quick dinners she'd either do breakfast (eggs, bacon, pancakes) or tortillas with ground beef and then whatever toppings we'd like. Or, if we were all going to be eating at different times, shed have something cooking in the crock pot all day long and we'd each take some when we were around- everyone got a hot meal on their own time, and it was delicious!

Julie Rains's picture

Thanks, and your mom sounds great. It's interesting to see how folks have accommodated varying meal times of family members -- something simmering in the slow cooker sounds wonderful.

Guest's picture

I've started cooking breakfast in the morning. My son gets up earlier and earlier, so now I can cook and make his breakfast, my lunch and drink my coffee. Then when I come home it's done, we can eat and I can go exercise or do whatever I want.

Julie Rains's picture

Great idea to get everything done at one time.

Andrea Karim's picture

Grilling is our new favorite way to cook. My parents have always been big grillers, because it means you don't have to clean up and oven or a stove afterward. After talking us into buying a (relatively pricey) grill that they both adored, we've found that grilling up a protein of some kind + some marinated veggies is all we need to have a healthy, well-rounded meal.

Mind you, it's just the two of us right now. I imagine it gets more complicated with kids.

Julie Rains's picture

The grilling sounds great. There is the occasional clean up but now that you mention it, grilling does involve fewer dishes. The challenge with younger kids is keeping them happy (or not fussy) when you are getting dinner ready; later, it's keeping them from snacking right before dinner and juggling their schedules...so it can be chaotic but the less complicated meals can be just as good (and much easier than fancier stuff).

Guest's picture

My little freezer is full of bags containing diced peppers (red, green, yellow), cooked ground beef, diced cooked chicken, cooked rice, diced onions, etc.. I also cook beans in the pressure cooker and bag them up in 2-cup bags......Quick and easy to put something together.

Guest's picture

These are great tips! I like to prepare meals that I know will produce enough leftovers for a second (lunch the next day) or even a third meal.