The Best Products for Making Dinner Easy on Busy Days
This post may contain affiliate links, which means I’ll receive a commission if you purchase through my links (at no extra cost to you). Please see my disclosure for more information.
Why does dinner feel like the most overwhelming part of the day? Even on days that seem to be going perfectly, 4:00 p.m. rolls around and gets me stuck almost daily. WHY do these tiny humans need to eat dinner every. single. night?
I used to love love LOVE to cook, back when it was just my husband and me, in the days when dinner didn’t have to be eaten at a certain time and I could try new recipes every day if I wanted to. I still do love to cook most of the time. It’s just a bit harder to get motivated now that it’s a nightly obligation.
Over the years that I’ve been a parent, I’ve found that there are plenty of solutions out there. There are blogs with 15-minute recipes and small appliances that make my job more efficient. I’m not ashamed to admit that I keep frozen chicken nuggets and tater tots in my freezer at all times for emergency dinner situations – bake and serve with fruit or veggies and ranch for a full meal 🙂 (This is also my #1 tip for moms with a newborn and an older child who needs to eat because it’s a dinner that can be made one-handed!)
Like me, I’m sure you also want to make the most of your time in the kitchen. You don’t have to be a fancy chef to use the tips and items below – you just have to want to put a healthy, clean, inexpensive dinner on the table for your family. Let’s get you on your way to being more productive and efficient in the kitchen so you can spend more time doing things you love!
Products to Keep You Efficient in the Kitchen
#1 Instant Pot
I put off buying an Instant Pot for a couple of years. I was a little bit afraid of them – I didn’t know if I had the mental capacity to learn *another* kitchen appliance, and I was worried about it exploding when one of the kids was nearby. Both were irrational fears – there are so many safety features built into the pot, and it turns out that it’s really easy to use and can do SO much!
Fast forward 5 or so years… I love Instant Pots so much that I have TWO of them! They are the best for making quick and easy dinners (or, let’s be honest, for cooking a roast or pulled pork when I forget to put it in the slow cooker in the morning). I use mine to make yogurt, rice, mac and cheese – you name it, I’ve probably tried it in the Instant Pot. Well, except for wine – I found a blog post detailing how to make wine in the Instant Pot, but I haven’t tried that one yet 🙂
Instant Pot tip: Don’t forget to account for the time it takes for the pot to come to pressure when you’re working backwards to figure out what time you should start dinner! If the recipe says to cook for 10 minutes, it will take an additional 10 or 15 minutes to get to pressure, then the cook time starts, THEN you have to either do a quick release or wait for the pressure to naturally release. So a “10-minute cook time” is really at least 20 minutes!
#2 Meal Planning Notepad
While special equipment isn’t totally necessary to meal plan, pretty things always help me because they’re just more fun to use! I love to have cute notepads that are made specifically for weekly meal planning. There are some that stick to your fridge with magnets (like this one!) and some that don’t (check the dollar bins at Michaels, Joann, and Target – they usually have them). Some people use a magnetic dry erase board on their fridge. There’s no need to buy special equipment, though – a regular notebook works just fine.
I’m not going to cover meal planning in depth in this post (that’s another post for another time), but I do want to say that it truly saves a ton of time and money. Spend the hour or so each week to plan your dinners and make your grocery list, and you’ll save so much mental energy every night during the week!
Meal planning tip: You don’t have to assign each meal to a particular day – for me, that gets old fast. I just choose my meals for the week and then, when it comes time to prep, I pick whichever sounds best to me that day.
This one is pretty obvious, right? Throw something in the slow cooker in the morning and forget about it until dinnertime! I have this Crock-Pot that I love – you can set the cook time, then it switches to the “Keep Warm” setting when time is up. I bought this one shortly after an unfortunate meatball incident in my car – the lid clips are perfect for transporting without spills!
You can also use your Instant Pot as a slow cooker, but it only heats on the bottom, whereas the Crock-Pot heats on the sides and bottom, so I prefer to use my slow cooker for actual slow cooking. I generally try not to keep two kitchen appliances that do the same thing, but I make an exception in this case!
Crock-Pot tip #1: You CAN overcook things in the Crock-Pot! Pay attention to the cook time in the recipe that you’re using, especially if it’s meat or pasta. Nobody likes Crock-Potty meat!
Crock-Pot tip #2: Try making granola! This is one of my favorite things to do in my slow cooker. My kids love it on top of Instant Pot yogurt, and I love that it’s easy to make and fully customizable.
#4 Freezer Meals
There are a million ways to do this. There are cookbooks and websites that give you step-by-step instructions (try Pinterest or Google!), but my favorite freezer meal prep system is Wildtree – their products are all-natural, mostly organic, and so yummy! The Make-Ahead Cooking Collections are so amazing – it takes about 1-1/2 hours to put together 10 meals, and the cost per serving is super reasonable. I’ve been prepping Wildtree make-ahead meals for my own family since 2015. I was a customer for a couple of years, then I was a rep, then I was just a customer again, and now I’m an affiliate. I’ve used and shared Wildtree even when they weren’t paying me 🙂
I’ve tried every single one of their Make-Ahead Cooking Collections (most of them multiple times), so it’s hard to recommend just one, but if I *had* to choose one recommendation, it would be Family Favorites. My kids’ favorite is Burger Nights, which is also amazing. The only downfall is that it’s almost a requirement to space the meals out – nobody (except my son Carter) wants burgers every night!
Freezer meal tip: For truly delicious freezer meals that don’t get weird from being frozen (I’m looking at you, lasagna!), choose recipes that don’t require you to cook anything before it’s frozen!
#5 Good Food Storage Containers
Invest in a set of glass food storage containers so you can easily see what’s in your fridge and find what you need quickly. In a pinch, you can even use large, wide-mouth Mason jars, but storage containers are easier to grab and go for lunches. I love these ones with snap-tight lids. I also love these Pyrex ones (I have multiple sets!), but the tops can leak a little, so they’re not as good if you’re using them to take leftovers to work for lunch.
I strongly recommend glass over plastic containers – glass doesn’t warp or absorb smells the way plastic does, plus it lasts much longer (if you don’t drop it on your tile floor…). Glass is also better if you plan to use your containers in the microwave. On the flip side, choose plastic if you’re sending the containers in your kids’ lunchboxes! Plastic containers are generally easier to store too, because they stack nicely. These are my choice for plastic containers – the locking lids make them virtually leak-proof, and they last longer than some of the cheaper brands.
Food storage container tip: If you’re feeling extra fancy, you can chop veggies for your recipes (and for snacking) right when you get home from the grocery store. This will save you even MORE time in the evenings! (I’m really bad at pre-prepping for my recipes, but I do try to cut veggies and fruit for snacking. However, I DO typically start my dinner prep around lunchtime, so clear glass containers are great for that as well. It works because I’m already in the kitchen, and it’s a time in my day when I have a few extra minutes to spare!)
#6 Recipe Organization
In order to be successful with meal planning, I strongly recommend some type of organization system for your favorite meals. I use both Pinterest and a plain old binder to keep track of recipes that I prepare regularly.
For Pinterest, I have a “Recipes to Try” board. Once I’ve tried the recipes, it either goes into a board called “Pinterest Recipe Favorites” or it gets deleted. What are my criteria for making it onto the list of favorites? It has to be fairly easy to make, my husband and I both have to like it, and at least two of my four kids have to at least tolerate it. My standards aren’t super high – lol!
For the binder, I use plastic sheet covers for each page that gets put in there so they’re kept safe from food splatters – I am NOT the world’s cleanest cook! You can even buy ready-made recipe binder kits! I’ve never used one of these, but they sure are cute!
Recipe organization tip: Now that my kids are old enough to cook on their own, they each have their own binder of recipes. They get to add recipes that they love to prepare, plus I pre-stocked each binder with our family favorites, so when they eventually leave home, they can take their binder with them and have mom’s home cookin’ whenever they want 🙂
FAQ – Time Management, Productivity, and Efficiency in the Kitchen
- What is the easiest thing to make for dinner?
- Chicken nuggets, tater tots, and fruit! Keep the first two items in your freezer all the time. Is it the healthiest? No. Does it work in a pinch. Absolutely!
- Freezer meals. If you have a few meals in the freezer, you can pull one out in the morning and cook it for dinner, along with a couple of sides. Easy!
- Meal delivery services like Hello Fresh or EveryPlate. These boxes won’t necessarily save you money, but they will most definitely save you time. And most of the meals are delicious! One downfall: They’re made for families of 2-4 people. The recipes don’t work for my family unless I double them, which is too expensive!
- Pasta. Boil a box of noodles, open a jar of sauce – done!
- Leftovers. We usually have a weekly “yo-yo” night in our house, which stands for You’re On Your Own. My younger kids aren’t literally on their own, but it means that they have to decide what they want for dinner from the available leftovers, or I’ll make them something super easy, like eggs and toast.
- What are the top 5 food prep steps?
- Step 1: Dedicate a specific day for meal planning. Look at your calendar for the next week to see if you have any particularly busy days that need easier meals. Or, if you know that you’ll be home all day, you can make something new or elaborate. I usually try one new recipe per week to keep myself from getting bored. I fill in the rest of the week with family favorites, freezer meals, leftovers, and a breakfast-for-dinner or takeout night!
- Step 2: Make a grocery list. I like to do mine on a 8-1/2 x 11-inch notepad – there’s plenty of space and I can see the whole list at once. Then I use a highlighter to mark off the items that I’ve thrown in the cart (the virtual cart OR the actual cart!). Some people like to have their list in their phone, which also works.
- Step 3: Shop! Also choose a specific day for this if possible. I either order groceries on Friday so I can pick them up on Saturday, or I go shopping on Saturday.
- Step 4: Prep what you can. I’m not great at this step, but, at the very least, I’ll cut up fruit and veggies for snacks for the week. If you’re more motivated than I am, you can pull up your recipes for the week and cut chicken into pieces, dice onions, etc., for dinners!
- Step 5: Execute the plan! You now have all your meals planned, all your ingredients purchased, and some of your slicing and dicing done – now you can relax a bit and find a better use for all of the time that you used to spend stressing about what to cook! Don’t worry if you don’t execute the plan perfectly – next week is a new week 🙂
- How do I motivate myself to cook?
- Keep it simple. Search for 5-ingredient dinners or 15- or 30-minute meals when planning your week. There is SO much out there! Short ingredient lists and quick-to-prepare meals are a requirement in my house. You can do anything for 15 minutes – you can use this time management strategy for dinnertime as well!
- Give yourself a night off every once in a while. This is exactly why we started implementing “yo-yo” nights at my house – sometimes mom just needs a break. My husband, while he does many things around the house (like all of the dishes!), isn’t much of a cook (although he does make what my kids call “daddy nachos” on occasion, to give me a night off). PB&J and frozen pizza are perfectly acceptable dinners, and they require almost no work on your part.
- Do the math. The other night, my family of 6 grabbed dinner at Panera. It cost us $70!?!? Panera serves good food made from quality ingredients, yes, but I could just as easily have made the same meal for under $20. A meal at a fast food place even costs us $40 or so – and we’re stuck with a bellyache later! When I consider takeout, often the money savings is enough motivation to stay home and cook.
- How can I make cooking at home more fun?
- Theme nights! Meatless Monday, Taco Tuesday, Spaghetti Sunday… You don’t even need alliteration to make this work – Pizza Fridays and Breakfast-for-Dinner Thursdays are great ideas too. You can choose an international day as well – try a meal from a different country every week. Make a schedule that your family loves!
- Turn up the music. Pick a fun channel on Spotify or Pandora and dance your way through the dinner-making process 🙂
- Make a food bar. My favorites are baked potatoes, tacos, and pasta (red sauce, white sauce, and different veggies, meats, and cheeses). Along the same lines is homemade pizza – put out all the toppings and have your kids make their own!
- Head to the farmer’s market. There’s just something about seeing all of that fresh, local produce that inspires me. In the summer, I’ll go to the farmer’s market BEFORE I do my meal planning. I buy what looks and sounds good, then I plan around those purchases!
Dinnertime Can Be Rough – But You’ve Got This!
Getting into a meal planning routine, especially one where you’re using new tools, takes time. I definitely still have days when I dread cooking dinner, but pre-planning and having the proper tools really does make a difference! I hope that you’re able to try some of these products and ideas to manage your time, efficiency, and productivity in the kitchen!
If you’d like to see what recipes are on my “Favorites” list, follow me on Pinterest! I’d love to have you 🙂
Do you have any additional tips or products that have helped you to be more productive in the kitchen? Leave a comment!