How to Cook Dinner, During the Workweek, Without Losing Your Mind

Kathryn Dillon

Image by ivabalk from Pixabay

It’s 5:00 on a Tuesday. Do you know what you're making for dinner tonight?

Are you so exhausted from work, school, childcare, that you really don’t give a darn, and that makes you feel guilty?

Do you want to get better at meal planning but have no idea where to start?

Do you like to cook but feel like you simply don’t have time?

You’re not alone. I’m here to help!

I understand not everyone is as obsessed with menu planning as I am

I’m sure it dates back to my years in the restaurant industry when I read cookbooks like novels to inspire my dinner specials, but the obsession with creating weekly menus truly came to fruition when I moved in with my husband and suddenly had another person to feed. He doesn’t really dig cereal for dinner.

(Side note: No diatribes about traditional gender roles, please — I love to cook, he doesn’t. I hate to clean, he doesn’t. It works!)

As I quickly learned, even people without kids have a hard time getting tasty, nutritious meals on the table during the workweek.

That epiphany was almost 20 years ago, and not much has changed.

I’ve been working from home for almost a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic (and believe me, I recognize the privilege in that) so you might think I'd have a little more energy for my household duties, but think again. I’m still worn out after spending hours staring at a computer screen in my home office.

By the end of the day, my brain is fried like the egg in the anti-drug commercials of the 1980s. (This is your brain. This is your brain on Corporate America.)

I know I’m not the only one.

So I’d like to share the tactics that help me regularly cook dinner, even during the week, without completely losing my mind.

Build a recipe library

I have a lot of cookbooks and subscribe to numerous food blogs. If you don’t like reading cookbooks as much as I do, blogs are a great way to regularly get recipe inspiration delivered right to your inbox.

We have access to so many superb food writers, these days, covering a wide variety of lifestyles and dietary needs.

But the tricky thing about recipes is that you have to remember you wanted to make them.

Have you ever tried to map out a meal plan and ended up staring at the wall waiting for inspiration to strike? Nobody has time for that!

I know there are recipe-storage apps for this task, such as Recipe Keeper, which will likely appeal to the tech-savvy, on-the-go cook.

However, my favorite method is a good old spreadsheet. Google Docs would be a good choice since it’s already hosted online, but I use Excel.

Sometimes I’m just an old dog and I don’t need a new trick. Excel and I go WAY back.

The thing I like best about spreadsheets is that I can design them to meet my own needs, rather than being forced to conform to what an app thinks I want.

I have two recipe spreadsheets - one specifically for online recipes and one for cookbook recipes. Each spreadsheet has two tabs — recipes I’ve tried and want to make again (“Keepers”), and recipes I haven’t tried yet (“To Try”).

I use the following columns for my spreadsheets:

1. Source (i.e. the cookbook or web site where I found the recipe)

2. Recipe Title

3. Category (Appetizer, Entrée, Main Dish Salad, Soup, Side Dish, Side Salad, Breakfast, Bread, Beverage, etc)

4. Type (Meat, Poultry, Fish/Seafood, Vegetarian)

5. When (Weekend or Weeknight) – this allows me to quickly filter out any recipes that require too much time for a weeknight, based on my own criteria.

6. Notes – this is a place to jot down things I might want to remember about the recipe, such as if it needs a special ingredient I don’t usually have on hand, or if I adapted the recipe when I tried it.

7. Link – this is where I put the URL for recipes I found online

The columns can be filtered, making it easy to see all the soups at once, or all the poultry dishes, or all the meals I’ve flagged as “weeknight appropriate”.

Whenever I get an email from one of my food blogs, and I like the look of a recipe, I add it to the online recipe spreadsheet immediately so it doesn’t get lost in the vortex of my inbox.

(It’s scary in there.)

When I make one of the “to try” recipes and we like it enough to eat it again, I transfer it to the “keepers” tab.

I keep the spreadsheets in the Cloud (using Dropbox) so I can access them anywhere, even on my phone.

It’s all about the plan

Planning ahead is crucial when it comes to getting food on the table.

If I ended a normal workday and had to figure out on the fly what we were having for dinner, we’d eat a lot more takeout and PBJs.

I’m a big fan of takeout, especially because it has allowed me to support my favorite local restaurants during the pandemic, but my budget can only handle so much of it.

Meal planning is easier when you set basic parameters, and the spreadsheets help with that.

Think about the foods you like, and then imagine them as a rotation. Mine might look something like one pasta meal, one soup, one main dish salad, one chicken dish. Another week might include a sandwich or quesadilla, or fish. In the winter, there may be more than one soup on the docket, because hello cold weather!

To choose the specific dishes, I filter on each category in my recipe spreadsheet, then filter on “weeknight”, and pick something that looks good.

Make sure to document your meal plan in a place where it will be accessible when you need it (calendar, notebook, spreadsheet, or app), and then use it to create your grocery list.

Being the old dog and Excel aficionado I referenced earlier, my weekly menu plan lives in a simple spreadsheet. I’ve been using this free template for quite a few years:

But if you’re a fan of apps, here’s a great recap of the top menu-planning apps of 2021:

Pre-prep and/or keep it simple

Weeknights aren’t typically for elaborate meals. Weeknights are for heating up that soup you made in the crockpot over the weekend, or for quick skillet dishes like quesadillas or stir-fry (provided you’ve chopped the veggies in advance because if you’re like me, you don’t always trust yourself anywhere near a knife when you’re done with work).

If you can carve out a couple of hours over the weekend to pre-prep, you’ll be golden for the week.

My husband and I often crave hearty, vegetable-heavy fare, so on Saturday, I roasted batches of cauliflower and root vegetables, pre-cooked farro and lentils, and chopped other veggies in preparation for hearty main-dish salads.

If you cook chicken breasts or thighs in the crockpot on Sunday, you can shred them to use in meals throughout the week — chicken salad, wraps, tacos, enchiladas, soups, sloppy joes, etc.

Quick-cooking fish is another terrific weeknight option. Dredge it in flour and throw it in a hot skillet with some melted butter and olive oil, and it’s done in a few minutes. Squeeze in some fresh lemon juice and add a few capers for an easy pan sauce.

One of my favorite easy vegetarian dishes is tofu “eggless” salad. It’s basically mashed tofu mixed with all your favorite egg salad fixings. Talk about simple — it’s a lot less tedious than boiling and peeling eggs (unless, of course, you pre-cooked the eggs over the weekend). Serve the tofu over greens as a salad, or make a sandwich on a nice crusty bun.

I'm a recent Instant Pot convert, having received one as a Christmas gift, but I can already see the benefits. It's perfect for nights when I didn't plan or prep ahead because it speeds up the cooking process so I can spend less time in the kitchen.

Always make extra — and don’t expect to cook every day

I learned quickly that it’s not feasible for me to cook six or seven days a week. It’s just not going to happen. What WILL happen is vegetables rotting in the crisper, and hearing a husband who hates to waste food complaining about it.

Making extra food when I’m already cooking is the epitome of efficiency because it requires little additional effort for the value.

We’re a family of two. I usually end up with leftovers by default, but I double recipes that are freezer-friendly and store the extra in individual portions so I can grab what I need later. This is a lifesaver (and a money-saver) for work lunches or zero-effort dinners.

Realistically, cooking four to five days a week is all I can handle. By making enough to have leftovers, and keeping individual portions of homemade meals in the freezer, it’s easy to fill in the blanks on the days cooking is out of the question.

Recognize your limitations

If you’re currently ordering takeout after most workdays, it’s unrealistic to think you can suddenly start putting a home-cooked meal on the table every night.

Do what you can. There’s nothing wrong with taking baby steps — you’ll be less likely to get frustrated and retreat to your takeout menus.

Look ahead at what your week entails. Do you have a big project at work that will require long hours or a lot of errands to run? Will you be helping kids with homework in the evening? You’ll want to keep things extra-simple on those nights.

I’ve personally learned that I loathe cooking on Friday nights. I’m worn out from the week, and would much rather enjoy a martini in a comfy chair with a cat on my lap than head into the kitchen for an hour.

Friday meals are always quite simple, and often involve what we lovingly refer to as “snack dinner”. Treats like hummus with pita and vegetables and shrimp cocktail make regular appearances. Snack dinners are a fantastic way to get something hearty, healthy, and fun on the table with minimal effort.

And finally, the counterpoint to planning — stay flexible

All of this gets easier with time. It’s almost second-nature to me now, though some weeks flow more smoothly than others. That’s natural.

You should know, for full disclosure, that we still eat tater tots and frozen pizza for dinner on occasion. Sometimes we’re too exhausted to even call for takeout, and I’ve depleted our homemade freezer stash.

Don’t judge. I’m long past beating myself up over that.

Life happens. You don’t sleep well one night and are too tired to cook when dinnertime rolls around because you barely made it through that last hour at your job. Your best friend calls unexpectedly and needs your supportive ear. Your kid forgot to tell you about the school project that's due tomorrow.

Go easy on yourself and accept that the best-laid plans are flexible enough to turn on a dime if life gets in the way.

Keep something in the freezer or cupboard that you can turn to in situations like this, and don't worry about it.

The groceries will still be there tomorrow.

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I live and write in Northeast Ohio, about everything from food to mental health, pets to relationships, music, art, and sports. My articles usually have a personal slant because I believe we as a society and as individuals grow stronger through truth-telling and connection.

Cleveland Heights, OH

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