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Dinner Helpers

Now serving: Suppertime strategies that save time and reduce stress.

By Ann Matturro Gault | null null , null

Solving that pesky question of dinner every night — whether you cook, take out, or shop for it — can be a busy parent's top stress trigger. To make your evenings easier, start with some advanced planning. Kathy Peel, professional organizer, author, and mother of three, knows a mom who has a weekly date with her supermarket circular. While she enjoys a cup of coffee, she peruses the ads, clips coupons, and plans the week's entrees around store specials.

Others take an even more predictable route. Variety may be the spice of life, but not when it comes to serving supper. "Having hamburgers on Mondays and chicken tacos on Tuesdays may be boring, but it puts an end to the guesswork," says Michele Borba, Ed.D., author of 21 books including 12 Simple Secrets Real Moms Know. "Stressed out moms are the ones who try to be too dang creative with dinner! The rest of us have figured out that routines really reduce the stress."

Or play restaurant by posting a menu of meal choices. These should be recipes that have gone over well in the past and that you know you can prepare quickly and easily. On Sunday night, let each family member order the meal for one evening that week. Post the resulting weekly menu on the refrigerator door. The first parent or teenager home knows what to start for the dinner.

Sunday is also a good time to make extra meatballs and stock up that freezer with cooked chicken breasts. Pull it out in the morning to thaw and dinner is a breeze. A very "1950s model," Borba says, but it works! And remember, two casseroles are a cinch to put together once all the ingredients and utensils are assembled. Cook once, freeze the extra casserole, and eat twice. (For easy cleanup, line that pan with foil before you cook with it.)

More mealtime sanity-savers:

  • Salad days: Wash and spin-dry lettuce and other greens on Sunday and store them in a sealed plastic bag in your refrigerator. Cut cucumbers, grated carrots, and chopped onion can be stored separately in small bags. During the week, appoint your 11-year-old salad chef and have him toss it all together. Kids can also mix up meatloaf, shape hamburger patties, shuck corn — take advantage!

  • Super slow-cooking: Resurrect the Crockpot. Assemble ingredients for pot roast, pork chops, or soup, and simmer all day. Coming home to a meal that is ready to be served is a huge stress-saver.

  • List it: Keep a running grocery list posted in the kitchen. Have family members add to it throughout the week. Or list food categories (meat, dairy, paper products, etc.), and make a template everyone can add to.

  • Prestock the pantry: Develop a repertoire of five meals that you can prepare in less than 30 minutes, and always keep the ingredients on hand.

  • Egg on your face: When you're pressed for time, serve breakfast for dinner. Eggs — scrambled, fried, or sunny-side up — can be just as satisfying at dusk as they are at dawn.

  • Order online: Several meal delivery companies will deliver entrees to your door. Grocery shopping online is another time-saving option. New Jersey mom Cinzia Cortese, a college professor, swears by it. "My grocery store charges a $10 fee to use their website. I order online and pick up the bagged groceries a little while later. It's wonderfully convenient, and I find I spend less money too. I'm not tempted with impulse purchases," she says.

  • Pay for prep: Try one of the many meal-prep services springing up around the country. You spend two hours in their kitchen and come home with eight to 12 freezer-ready dishes. No shopping, measuring, or cleanup required!

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