Using Time Wisely: 3 Time-Saving Dinner Strategies

Photograph Credit: Flickr (Marinca Kasiske-Enders)

Among homework assignments, sports schedules, and family outings, squeezing in a nutritious dinner is challenging. By the time we complete homework, snag a few minutes of reading, and look at the clock, the time has come to start dinner.

Going to the kitchen and staring into the pantry, I come up with nothing. So, I go to the freezer and the refrigerator with the same result. Returning to the pantry, I open the door and expect a meal’s ingredients to magically congregate on the second shelf.

With my hopes dashed, I have wasted time and energy seeking for a solution to my “what’s for dinner?” quest. If I find no inspiration, then our family will also waste spend money at a restaurant.

In using time wisely, I find using a menu plan, my crock pot, and my freezer wonderful time-saving dinner strategies. These 3 time-saving tips help bridge the gap between “what’s for dinner?” and “supper’s ready.”

Menu Planning

Photograph Credit: Stock.xchng (Maxime Perron Caissy)

Finding a tool that works for your family and schedule is the key to your success. Though I use a monthly plan, I only fill in a few days to a week at a time. Seeing the full month allows me to plan our meals around busy seasons and entertainment events.

Are you overwhelmed at the sound of menu planning? It’s okay! As you gain knowledge, the fear of the unknown will subside. Allow me to walk beside you via links to this three-step process:

1. Discovering your type of plan

2. Starting with the food in your house

3. Finding creative inspiration

Crock Pot Options

Photograph Credit: Flickr (Tanya Gordon)

Knowing that the day will be long, I love coming home to the smell of our family’s favorite pork chop dinner slowing cooking in my crock pot. A little work in the morning (or previous night) makes dinner time delightful.

If you seek crock pot inspiration, look no further than Stephanie O’Dea’s website: A Year of Slow Cooking. For one year, Stephanie made at least one dish each day in her crock pot. Her recipes range from entrées to desserts. Whatever your occasion, your crock pot can save the day.

Freezer Cooking

Photograph Credit: Flickr (Alexandra Munier)

Making meals ahead of time saves you money, energy, and time. Coming home, popping a complete dinner in the oven, and snuggling with your little ones is a blessing.

On days when we arrive home near supper time, I get bombarded by my children, who need attention. Before I can place my purse down, I hear a barrage of questions, requests, and excitement.

Addressing these issues and having to prepare dinner overwhelms me. But with dinner ready, I can enlist help and get dinner warming while spending time with my family.

If you enjoy freezer cooking, The Money Saving Mom’s Guide to Freezer Cooking by Crystal Paine is a great  resource. In addition to her free downloadable e-book, Crystal documents her monthly freezer cooking days on her website, moneysavingmom.com.

By incorporating menu planning, crock pot options, and freezer cooking in your schedule, you can turn the “what’s for dinner?” anxiety into “supper’s ready.” Implementing these time-saving strategies will save you money, energy and time as you continue using time wisely. Happy planning!

Question: What are your time-saving strategies for getting dinner on the table?

153 comments to Using Time Wisely: 3 Time-Saving Dinner Strategies

  • I am a huge lover of crockpot and freezer cooking. I have to admit though that I am not much of a menu planner. I tend to decide dinner “on the fly.”

    • Angie, great to hear! I love menu planning and my crock pot. The freezer cooking idea is still new for me, but works when I implement. :-)

  • The biggest time saving meal preparation for me is my crockpot. I love using it! I have done a bit of experimenting with freezer cooking, and I am hoping to put more time and effort into that.

  • I am terrible at meal planning! I think I’d do better with freezer cooking so I could just grab whatever we wanted each evening and be ready to go. I’ll have to check out that ebook…

    • The e-book is packed full. I’m going to start small as I just double recipes at this point. Great job starting where you are and thanks for sharing.

  • I plan my meals for the week and I make sure that on days when I know I’ll be busy I schedule an easy meal. Something healthy like a stir-fry – cook rice, ready-cut vegetables from the supermarket, some (vegetarian) burgers (cut up) and a jar of wok sauce. Or I buy frozen pizzas (NOT healthy). But I try to keep to the schedule so we have healthy meals on days that I have more time, and quick meals on days when there isn’t much time.

  • D

    One of my strategies is to take whatever meat I need out of the freezer in the am while eating breakfast so that there is always something defrosted to concoct into a meal.

  • I use a crockpot often I love it! I also sometimes just cook enough one night to also use for the next. Like making a roast and then using the extra to make french dips the next night.

  • My boss does freezer cooking, she does an entire month for her and her husband. I prefer the crockpot. I also like to make double meals on the weekend and freeze one for a day during the week. I usually take some kind of meat out of the freezer the night before so it will be thawed by the next day.

  • I wish i didn’t have an apartment sized freezer so i could do this lol!!! Freezing things in advance would be amazing!! I can only manage to do a little bit though and nothing too big lol

    • Eschelle, even without a freezer, your crock pot and simple menu planning will save you money, energy, and time. Try to find the good in your blessings of today. :-)

  • I try and take the meat out the night before or I waste ages.
    Great tips

  • I love menu planning. One of my favorite dinners is homemade pizza, and I actually just posted the recipe for Homemade Pizza Dough on my blog The Daily Citron. I’m always open to time-saving tips so I’m going to be checking out more of your site.
    Cheers,
    Viva

  • I would love to do more Crock Pot cooking, however, my family tends to be a little picky, so I haven’t really figured this out yet. I do menu plan. I make up a list every week of 7 meals that we have ingredients for. Then in the morning, I take a look at the list and try to decide what I need to start defrosting for that night. I used to “schedule” our meals, but often found that I wasn’t in the mood for what was “scheduled.”

    • I, too, love the flexibility of a menu plan. If you aren’t in the mood for one meal, then switch it with another. Great tip!

  • I always find I save money when I manage to plan the meals for the week and shop for just them instead of a bit of this and a bit of that and “I’ll figure something out”. It makes a big difference time-wise too, when I can plan what we’re going to have depending on what plans, after school activities etc we have for that day!

  • we love our crock pot!!! and we love the way the house smells when we cook anything inside of it.

    such a great post! thank you for the tips and links! :-)

  • I always plan meals based on the market’s sales flyer for that week. And simply planning the meals a week at a time does the trick for me. I always have a few rotating meals assigned to the tough nights when we have little time, and various activities, but are still hungry (!) and don’t want to pay to eat out.

  • All great ideas. You remind me that I need to get some frozen meals out of my freezer.

  • We go through the whole “what’s for dinner?” back and forth nearly every night. We definitely need to start doing some menu planning!

    • Katie, just start slowly. As you see the time-saving benefits, you will gain momentum and come to love your menu planner.

  • Sometimes I wish I could marry my freezer.

    Seriously, pulling a container out of the freezer and having a decent dinner in a matter of minutes after a long day is wonderful. I’ve had less luck with the crock pot, but maybe that’s because mine is retro. Really retro. I got it for a wedding present a couple of lifetimes ago.

  • I have tried freezing meals but my dh complains every time. They lose flavor he says. The only thing I can get away with is frying hamburger meat up and then packing it in one pound ziplocs to use for spagetti.

    • Julie, I have a hubby, who does not care for leftovers or most frozen meals. Finding what works for you is fantastic. I also freeze ingredients and then toss it all together before baking. Thanks for sharing how you adapt a time-saver to your family’s needs.

  • Even though I am home all day I still face these questions as well and so this is why I Love my crockpot as I can throw something in pick up the house and work a bit before my son gets up and demands my attention. Plus I usually make double and have dinner for another night. I used to do this through Homemade Gourmet but when they went out of business I found I could do it on my own. The only thing I do not do is use a planner and it would be easier as I would know what I need when I go to the grocery story instead of trying to remember it all and either buying items I do not need or forgetting something I did need and then having to go back.

    • Glenda, love the idea of doubling your crock pot meals. Just another way to stock your freezer without added energy or time. Thanks for the tip!

  • i always try to cook once, eat twice. i get those plans foiled often, but most of the time it helps. like if i buy a roaster chicken, i get the biggest i can find- the next night we’ll do homemade pizza or quesadillas, etc with the rest of the chicken!

    • Great tip! With a hubby who does not care for leftovers, I like reusing the leftovers in a totally different dish – disguised.

  • Oh my gosh, I have to time savings strategies. I will need to add your site to my RSS feed and visit back often for some of your great tips!

  • Jamie

    We try to menu plan every week, and I definitely notice that we eat worse and spend more money the weeks we don’t. I want to do more freezer cooking, thanks for the tips and links.

  • Good for you, planning is good. I only plan on big dinner. Iguess the difference is, I love to cook with a passion so, I work with what I got on hand unless, I want something truly different. Your methods is great and if it works for you, go with it.

    • That’s the key – finding what works for you. I am definitely a baker. I follow recipes and measure ingredients. Those who cook – add a spice here and there – with fantastic results are awesome! Most cooks are very spontaneous and creative. Go with it! Knowing what works for you is the key to using time wisely.

  • :) I hate cooking. I have tried all three plans above and I usually resort to chicken nuggets or spaghetti.

    Hubby is helping me cook too. We are always home for dinner, we just don’t make great dinners.

    :)
    Lisa

    • My husband and I used to try a new recipe each week. We spent the evening in the kitchen and had a great time. We found some “keeper” recipes, and then others that never should be listed in a cookbook. :-) Hope you enjoy your time together.

      We also found eating out on evenings with specials and coupons at our favorite restaurants was a time-saver and money-saver to our budget. Most of the time we ate the dinner and took the leftovers for lunch. Also, prepackaged salads and entrees can decrease your cooking time. Keep experimenting to find what works for you. :-)

  • I always make sure to have all my main ingredients in stock and when I buy in bulk I always break the ingredients into smaller servings. For example, if I buy round steak on sale for $1.99/pound and it’s the family portion and 18 pounds is too much for our family of four (haha) I will open the package and divide the meat up so that there are lots of meals, instead of having to pull out a huge package of meat and then try to use in the next few days or have to freeze again.

  • These tips have saved my sanity over and over again. :) The other thing that helps us is that I have a list of our favorite, cheapest, easiest meals on my desktop. It has things like tacos, breakfast for dinner, and a soup that doesn’t need much prep. On those days I can always fall back on my list.

  • I have to say that I think about crockpot and freezer cooking all the time but those also take some meal planning and I can’t seem to eek out the time to do meal planning. I know I need to just put aside those excuses and put time in my evenings to think about meals the next day or the next week! Thanks for the article and hopefully we’ll both be successful in better planning for our meals!

    • Hang in there, Kathy! I menu plan while cooking and shopping. When I get inspired, I jot it down. Not sure if it will help you, but scheduling a time to meal plan has not worked for me. :-)

  • I love my crock pot. I use it as often as I can. I would like to do freezer cooking as well, but my husband doesn’t like frozen meat. He feels that it defeats the purpose of buying it fresh if you freeze it after. I guess he makes a point, but running to the store 3 times a weeek for fresh meat is rather a pain. I am a stay at home mom, so according to him I have nothing but time to do these things. Ugh. Men!

  • I really need to dig that crock pot out of its package (still wrapped) and learn how to use it! I’m a terrible cook, mostly because I don’t have the patience to learn. The whole “set it and forget it” thing would really help.

    • Nikki, just making spaghetti is easier with the crock pot. I put the sauce, cooked sausage, browned hamburger, or frozen meatballs, and spices in the crock pot. Then let it cook on low for 5 or more hours. Then just make the pasta, toss the salad, and toast the bread for a quick, delicious meal. :-)

  • SUPER tips – maybe now i can finally start managing my time well!! :D

  • You will be pleased to know I am a huge fan of meal planning, crockering + freezing. I feel like I’ve met my soul mate :)

  • The whole freezer cooking thing sounds great to me…I’ve just never done it. I’m a huge fan of the crock pot!

  • I don’t have a crockpot right now, although I did love mine! On days when I know I won’t have much time to prepare dinner, I plan something that doesn’t take long to prepare, like tacos. All I have to do is brown the ground beef. I could save even more time by doing even that ahead of time, but I haven’t yet. I also like making a roast in the oven. It’s almost as good as the crockpot.

  • I do a great job following my meal plan for the first few days of the week and then fall of the wagon later in the week. My goal this year is to keep to my meal plan and I hope to use my blog as a way of holding me accountable! :)

    • Emily, I still have difficulty following the plan if we are not in the mood for a dish. By having 2 or 3 favorite meals available, we can adjust our plan to fit our needs.
      Great job working through your menu plan as you find what works for you.

  • I menu plan for the whole month. We have Taco nights every Wednesday and leftovers on Saturday. I use my crock pot only to make homemade yogurt but need to use it more often. Never got into freezer cooking.

  • I do prep for the meal early in the day when I have a little time. I will cut all the veggies, get the salad ready and season the meat. So when it comes time to get dinner on the table it is just cooking and all the prep is done. I usually have a little time about 1-2pm so this is when I do the prep. Then cooking of dinner just is not as much work. I do use a crockpot and would love to use it every night as it makes getting dinner done so easy.

    • Love the idea of spending a little time during the day to easy the cooking time at the dinner hour. Thanks, Shelly, for sharing how you are using time wisely.

  • I love the idea of menu planning and stocking up on homemade freezer meals, but never seem to get to a point of actually doing it! I need to work on that. Thanks for the tips and links!

    • I struggled with making menu planning a priority. When I finally got it, the change transformed my time schedule. Now, I must menu plan to save time later.

  • Menu planning has been my saving grace. At least one child will ask on the way home from school what is for dinner. I hated saying that I had no idea! Plus with menu planning I can make sure ahead of time that I have everything that I will need for that meal. I only shop 2 times a month so I plan my meals accordingly. Usually close to grocery shopping time we are out of cheese, so no meals can have cheese, etc. It has helped keep our grocery bill down as well.

    • Glad to know my kids are not the only ones thinking of food hours before dinner time. You have a great system in place which sounds like it works for your family. Great job!

  • I have a list of ‘emergency meals’ that I try to keep the ingredients on hand to make. I also love, love, love my crock pot. Actually I have 4 crock pots and it seems at least one is always going :-)

  • I love my crockpot and I want to start making more freezer meals. I just seem to keep running out of time…some days I just don’t want to plan at all!

    • Totally understand, Deedra. I don’t like to think about food everyday which is why I try to menu plan after grocery shopping. This change works for me.

  • Meal planning always is a struggle for me. I try to buy bouble quantities of items so I can make the same meal 2 times a month- that helps. BUT I’ve learned to just get it done and the rest of the household runs more smoothly :)

  • Preparing as much ahead of time as I can. Menu planning is the best and first thing. Great article.

    • I agree, Dianna. When my menu plan catches up to me, I must stop and plan. If not, the meal times take control of me rather than being in control of the meal times.

  • These are all great tips! I’m still working on developing a meal plan habit. When I do it my stress levels are so much lower!
    I also enjoy learning from Crystal (Money Saving Mom) when itcomes to freezer cooking. She has so much great info on the subject!

    • Britni, menu planning takes time. Just keep working through tweaking what isn’t working until you find what works for you. Happy exploring!

  • Menu planning is big one for me. I created a menu-o-matic and have a list of entrees, sides, and desserts. It is randomized in a database and I mix and match to create meals.

  • I would so love to use my crock pot more often! I’ve tried quite a few recipes and have only found one or two that are really good and that my whole family agrees on. I will defintely try out that slow cooker blog that you mentioned :)

  • Great ideas! I need to start using my crock pot more to save time on dinner.

  • I have done much with freezer cooking, although I’d like to. But I am definitely a crockpot girl.

  • Thank you for the resources! I’ve Ben wanting to put a bunch of freezer meals together but didn’t know where to start!
    I’ve been menu planning a week at a time, and grocery shopping once a week. It’s saved me tons of time, money, and “what’s for dinner” panics.

  • I need to menu plan, I know this, I just can’t seem to do it :/ thanks for the tips

  • I like to make it up as we go along, but I do agree planning makes for more time efficiency and better shopping. Thanks for sharing.

    • Planning more meals than you need helps when spontaneity overcomes you. At least you have more choices from which to choose.

  • I think we would starve without our crockpot! Good ideas. Thanks for sharing.

  • I loved all your tips! I really need to do some of them. Sometimes it is so hard with everyones schedule to make a good meal. I’ve been wanting a crockpot for a long time. I think I am going to treat myself to one here soon!

    • Keeping up with schedules, Krystle, is a constant juggling act. Enjoy the process while using time wisely with your family.

  • I love my crock-pot!!!!! I cook Thanksgiving for 40 people and do all then cooking with the help of my 7 crock-pots.

  • Wow. Great post! I really don’t like to cook, but the biggest issue for me is figuring out what to cook. Menu planning might just be the solution for me. Thanks for including some great links! I will look into some of them and hopefully be inspired in the kitchen!
    suzy

  • What great tips. I’m a huge fan of the crock pot. I usually make bar-b-que chicken (boneless) and it’s enough for the entire week for pizza, salads, and sandwiches.

    We don’t eat out much, but when we do I always love a good coupon. Thank you for a great post.

    • We love to eat out, but only with coupons. My son wants to know what the coupon is before we arrive. He’s only 6-years-old. :-)

  • I’m also a fan of the crockpot, throw the stuff in, and no worries!

  • Awesome a woman after my own heart. I love connecting with other food blogs. I am following you on Facebook. I am always looking for new faces to promote on my newsletter. Let me know if you are interested. Great ideas. I use all of these. I have always thought the Crockpot was a gift from God. Have a beautiful day!!

  • I don’t yet have a family to cook for, but I really the ideas of freezing and having crock pot meals. I’ll keep them in the back of my mind. :)

  • A menu plan and a well stocked pantry/fridge are the best tools for saving time! I have several pantry meals…meaning everything I need to make a meal are stored in the pantry. So that if I run out of fresh ingredients I always have those pantry meals to fall back on.

    Wendy
    Around My Family Table

  • menu planning is key. I have no idea how others prepare dinner with out one!!!

  • Back home we usually do freezer cooking. It save time and energy especially that everybody is working and the kids are going to school

    • I enjoy relaxing with my children while our dinner bakes in the oven. I schedule freezer cooking meals for days when we will arrive home late due to an activity, meeting, or doctor’s appointment.

  • I totally agree with your tips. Especially planning…. It doesn’t save time and energy only but also you’ll see if you are getting a balance diet with the meals

  • Freezer cooking is definitely not for me — I get the feel that freezing destroys the texture of many foods.

    My time-saving technique? Keep it simple. There are many tasty recipes with very few ingredients and little need for complex preparation.

  • Menu planning is the single biggest time saver and stress manager! Great tips!

  • My crockpot is my best friend. Frozen chicken thighs, Lipton’s onion soup mix and a chicken bouillon thrown in at 9am is a magically great meal at 5Pm. Toss a salad and we are golden!

    I have yet to try freezing some dishes. I do freeze a lot of holiday meals and eat them over the next few months. I love having Thanksgiving in January all over again. OH! I learned a great trick. Steam your turkey back to life, so much more tender.

    ~Allie

    • Thanks, Allie, for the tip on steaming your turkey. I’m assuming you place your frozen turkey on a rack in a roasting pan and tent it. Then place your oven on a low temperature (200 degrees F) for a few hours. Am I on the right track?

  • I Love Stephanie O’Dea’s website and my crockpot. I am attempting to get a new menu for my planning going and use it! It really simplifies our life!

    • I’m still amazed that Stephanie used her crock pot each day for an entire year. I’m just so thankful for those family outings that provide a meal away from home. I need a break from the kitchen every now and then.

  • Crockpot cooking is my favorite. Even our kids can help chop vegetables for a crockpot meal, and nothing beats the whole house smelling so wonderful all day long!

  • Three VERY GOOD tips….tips I know but need to use more!!!

  • I have great intentions to do these things but somehow they all slip right by me and then it’s dinner time, lol…I love the freezer meals idea though!

  • Great tips! I usually make a whole chicken in the crockpot once a week and then use it to make 4-5 meals! It’s much easier to make something when i already have the meat part of it ready

  • We must be looking in the same pantry. I keep saying I’m going to plan out our meals, but I don’t. The one time recently that I did make 3 extra meal and froze them I was so excited to open the freezer door and see those meals. So why don’t I do it more often? I have no idea.

  • I use several strategies you have mentioned – freezer cooking, the crockpot, and making menu. By far, though, making a menu is my greatest tool. Especially if I remember to check it. I used to to a week at a time of suppers but still found myself at lunch going, “hmm now what to do today?” Breakfasts were always the same.

    I started seeing people post their monthly menus. I couldn’t believe that it was possible. So I asked one lady how she made her’s up – she uses the computer to make a calendar and just types in what their are going to eat. So easy. Not only that but you can copy and paste, and even do several months at once. I knew that we ate a lot of the same meals every month, so I tried it. Now why did it take me so long? So the monthly menu is what works best for me right now. I include breakfasts (7 different ones that repeat each week), lunch, snack, supper. I also try to make a new dessert on Sundays. I do leave a few blank spots as something is bound to arrise and meals get put off. This plan doesn’t mean I have to follow it strictly, but it gives me 60 different meal ideas for lunch and supper (assuming none repeat, like pizza, though there are a few that do, like pizza).

    • Great to hear that you found a system that works for you. By tweaking and adjusting, you found it. Congratulations on your perseverance as you found how to best use your time wisely.

  • I have had a strong desire to start using my Crockpot more. I have a board on Pinterest for this even. Thanks for sharing with us!

  • I love the crockpot! It’s so forgiving, I can throw meat in still frozen, and still have a meal ready by dinner time. Great article!

  • I love this! I used to do the freezer cooking. I loved it, and then we no longer had our spare freezer and never had any room. Just this week we got a new spare freezer and I’m so excited to start doing it again!