How Working Moms and Dads Manage to Cook Dinner Every Night

How Working Moms and Dads Manage to Cook Dinner Every Night

It’s not easy to get dinner on the table every night, and all the more so for working moms and dads. Busy parents often wonder: How can I possibly work full-time and make dinner? How can I start cooking healthy for my family? Here, we’ll dish out the best tips and strategies our members shared with us for how to cook dinner every night as a working parent.

  • By Leila Kalmbach
  • October 12, 2021

Working parents have a lot on their plate, and it leads many to wonder: How do I make time to fill the literal plates in the house? Between school drop-offs and pickups, helping with homework, cleaning up the house, chauffeuring kids to after-school activities and friends’ houses, and working full- or part-time jobs on top of it all, it’s a lot. Yet working moms and dads are also expected to somehow get dinner on the table every night too! 

Look, not all nights are meant for cooking. Some nights are made for takeout pizza. And let’s be honest, some nights are made for pretending toast and pickles counts as dinner (or whatever your child’s preferences du jour are). But let’s say you want to actually cook dinner every night. How do those parents do it? Is it even possible?

Our sources say yes — with a solid strategy and a few great tips in your back pocket. Following are suggestions and ideas from Cook Smarts meal plan members who are also busy parents. They shared what they actually do on a daily and weekly basis to make sure they’re able to cook dinner every night, with as little stress and hassle as possible.

1. Distract the kids

“Am I the only one who uses the TV as a babysitter?” laughs Cook Smarts member Beth B. No, Beth, you’re definitely not! Let’s be real: Kids can make cooking dinner take two or three times as long as it would if they weren’t around! While we’re all for inviting them into the kitchen and introducing them to ways they can help prep or cook, sometimes you just need them out of your hair long enough to get dinner together. There’s no shame in putting on the TV, giving the kids an iPad, or letting them play by themselves or with another adult so you get some good, quiet time to cook.

2. Eat at the time that works for you

Who says dinner should take place at 6:00 or 7:00 every night?! Cook Smarts member Laura L. shares that her family eats dinner “ridiculously early (4:30) as soon as the kids get home from school. They are at their most hungry and eat the best.” This gives her time to play with the kids after dinner and then give them a bath without the usual post-dinnertime rush. Then they eat a snack and are in bed by 7:00. And why not? Eating two or three hours before bed (or more) is what most adults do, and it helps us sleep better not to go to bed on a full stomach. Can’t wrap your head around eating that early? Laura shares that when her kids were really young, she’d feed them leftovers for dinner each day from the night before, then cook and eat after the kids went to bed. Brilliant!

3. Keep it simple

Cooking dinner every night doesn’t mean making complex, multi-dish meals each night. On the nights you know will be busier (or that you’ll be particularly tired), plan for healthy quick dinners that you already know how to make, and that you know you can get on the table without stress. Our members shared that some of the meals they keep in their back pocket for this type of night are grilled cheese with raw veggies, spaghetti, crockpot meals, quesadillas with steamed broccoli and fruit, bean and rice bowls, fish stick or lentil tacos, sheet pan fajitas, and baked salmon with veggies.

4. Embrace leftovers

Eating a home-cooked meal without having to cook? Yes, please! If you make double portions every time you cook, the off days will be a breeze. “I only cook every other night,” says Jessi J. “Every night in between is leftover night.” Another option is to cook two days in a row, then eat leftovers the next two days. That way, you can alternate meals and aren’t eating the exact same thing twice in a row. 

5. Prep in advance

“Weekend prep is my lifesaver,” says Cook Smarts member J.J. P. And she’s not the only one — many of our members pointed to weekend prep as the only way they’re able to cook during the week. Weekends are a great time to wash, peel, and chop veggies for use throughout the week, as well as to make vinaigrettes, sauces, and marinades you’ll be using for the week’s meals. Cook Smarts’ meal plan recipes list out prep that can be done on the weekends for easy reference, but if you’re using recipes from a cookbook or elsewhere on the Internet, just scan through for tasks that can be done in advance. Print out the Prep List below for an easy way to check things off, and for more tips on learning how to meal prep, refer to this article.

If weekends aren’t a good time for prep in your house, take advantage of evenings after the kids are in the bed to spend a few minutes prepping for the next day’s dinner. Or do like Emily F. does and use random bits of time during the day: “I try to help ‘future me’ — if I have 10 extra minutes in the morning or the night before, I pick one thing that will help make the evening easier.”

6. Keep frozen veggies on hand

Keeping frozen chopped veggies on hand will mean you’re prepared for whatever life throws at you. Asparagus is slimy? Ran out of time to chop carrots? Make a last-minute substitution from the freezer and you’re back on track. “Those microwave steam-in-bag veggies are a must!” says Sara M. And they don’t have to be relegated to your contingency plan, either. It’s perfectly acceptable to include a side of microwaved frozen veggies as a regular part of your healthy quick dinners and call it a day!

7. Establish a routine

“Routine is HUGE for us,” says Jennifer W. A. Many parents shared that they pick their kids up from school, have them do homework, cook, eat, then bathe the kids and put them to bed, in the same order and at the same time each day. But routines aren’t just for kids! Establishing new habits takes brain power, but once they’re routines, those habits can be outsourced to the part of your brain that handles automatic tasks. In other words, cooking dinner each night will get easier — but only if you’re not scrambling each day to figure out where meal prep and cooking can fit into that day’s schedule. Establish a routine that you can more or less follow daily, and soon cooking dinner will start to feel automatic.

8. Be easy on yourself

Last, remember that if you’re not accustomed to cooking dinner on busy weeknights, it can be quite a lot to add in. Cooking isn’t just about standing over a stove, after all; it’s about choosing meals, making a grocery list, shopping, prepping, cooking, and cleaning up. It’s okay if it takes a while to get it all down — you’re not going to be perfect from the first try. And even once you feel that you have a handle on cooking dinner every night, it’s okay not to get it right sometimes. It’s okay if it’s hard. It’s okay to give up and order takeout when you need to.

In summary? “Give yourself a lot of grace,” says Stephanie S. We think that’s great advice.


If these tips to help busy parents cook dinner every night are useful to you, stay tuned for more infographics and how-to articles by signing up for our weekly email below. Or if you’d like more help to get dinner on the table, sign up for a free 14-day trial of our meal plan service for a variety of healthy quick dinners!

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