5-Step Dinners: My Go-To Weeknight Meal Template
Take the decision-making stress out of weeknight dinners with our simple 5-step meal template. Endless dinner combinations await!
One of the hardest parts about dinner is deciding what to make for dinner. That is, after all, why we started our meal planning service. However, there are busy weeks when you need an even simpler answer – enter my go-to weeknight meal template.
5 Step Mix-and-Match Dinner Template
Our 5 step dinner template is an easy go-to formula to create a balanced meal any night of the week without a lot of planning.
I acknowledge by requesting this info, I'll be added to Cook Smarts' newsletter list. I can unsubscribe at any time.
Dinner in 5 Simple Steps
It’s the template you can use when you don’t have a plan because it eliminates dinner decision fatigue. So long as you have a protein, some veggies, and a few pantry staples, you’re on your way to dinner.
This template walks you through 5 easy steps to creating a dinner that includes a tasty baked protein, crispy roasted vegetables, and a healthy salad. All you need to do is choose a marinade that also doubles as a dressing, a protein, a vegetable, and the ingredients for your salad.
The process is simple and always the same, so it’ll take just a few times to commit it to your memory, so you’ll be able to get dinner executed in no time.
Step 1: Make Your Marinade / Dressing
Most marinades can easily be made into a dressing but I’m offering up 4 of my favorite, versatile sauces that have very different flavor profiles, so you won’t get bored.
This vinegar-based marinade is already naturally a dressing. You can choose whatever vinegar you have on hand, and switch it up between weeks, for a whole different flavor profile.
For those who love herbs and garlic, this flavorful marinade helps you enjoy both at the same time! It’ll go great on every protein and vegetable, so you can’t go wrong with it!
Indian food may just be my all-time favorite! I even chose to honeymoon there because I love the flavors so much. This quick and easy marinade and dressing gives an Indian twist to anything you put it on.
This sauce imparts deep umami flavors into anything that it’s used on thanks to soy sauce and miso paste. A little bit of rice vinegar and some sweetness balances it all out to create a delicious combo.
Meal Prep Tip
I usually make at least 2 of these versatile marinades at the beginning of the week so they’re ready to go after a busy day. They can be stored in old jam jars, but I love the sleek look of these containers. If you’re making them ahead of time, leave out the fat because that can solidify in the fridge. When I’m ready to use it, I just pour out the amount I need and whisk in the oil.
Get the recipe for all 4 of these marinades and dressings, plus so much more, in our Go-To Weeknight Dinner Template download!
Step 2: Marinate Proteins
Once you’ve picked out your marinade, the next step is to choose a protein. We’ve chosen 9 meat-based options and 3 plant-based options that’ll be affordable and simple to make for a weeknight meal.
- Chicken breasts, halved
- Chicken thighs, boneless
- Pork chops
- Pork tenderloin
- Vegan sausage
Toss 1 pound of your selected protein with ~4 to 6 tablespoons of marinade. Marinate meats and vegetarian proteins for up to 20 min or 1 day. Marinate seafood for 20 min, if marinade is acidic (made with citrus, vinegar, or wine), to 2 hours, if marinade is non-acidic.
For land-roaming meat proteins, you can use a fork to tenderize it. This creates more points for the marinade to seep into providing more flavor faster!
If you’re prepping right before cooking, simply chop your veggies while your marinade is working its flavor magic. By the time you’re done, it’ll be ready to go!
*For meatballs, simply incorporate your marinade into the ground meat with your hands and then roll into 1.5” balls.
For more marinating tips, check out our Guide to Marinating Like a Pro here:
Need some marinating tips? Get marinating times and tips for chicken, pork, beef, fish, shrimp, tofu, and vegetables, plus five… Read more.
Step 3: Prep Veggies
Now it’s time to select and prep your veggie(s)! To save on time, preheat your oven to 425F before you start chopping vegetables. It’s important to preheat your oven, so that food cooks evenly and quickly.
Toss your prepped vegetables with some oil, salt, and pepper, and get your sheet pan ready. Both meats and veggies will be cooked on the same sheet pan. Cooking everything on a sheet pan makes clean-up so much easier, and having the ingredients cook altogether maximizes the flavors.
Step 4: Assemble & Cook
Once your proteins are marinated, your veggies are chopped, and the oven is nice and hot, it’s time to cook!
Follow the time charts below to figure out which veggies and proteins get cooked first. Longer-to-cook ingredients should go in first and faster-cooking ingredients later. So for example, if you wanted to make a sheet pan dinner of chicken thighs, sweet potatoes, and bell peppers, you would cook the sweet potatoes first for 10 minutes, then add bell peppers and chicken thighs and cook for an additional 15 minutes, or until done.
Make sure that the ingredients are spread out on a single layer on the sheet pan. If it’s too crowded, use 2 sheet pans to prevent ingredients from steaming rather than roasting. If ingredients don’t have enough space between them, you won’t get that nice caramelization – crispy, browned edges and tender interiors.
Vegetable Oven Cooking Times (in minutes)
- Asparagus – 8 to 12
- Beets, cubed – 30 to 40
- Bell peppers, sliced – 12 to 18
- Broccoli, florets – 18 to 23
- Brussels sprouts – 20 to 25 (halved) or 25 to 30 (whole)
- Butternut squash, cubed – 25 to 30
- Carrots, chopped – 20 to 25
- Cauliflower, florets – 18 to 23
- Green beans – 12 to 18
- Mushrooms – 12 to 15 (halved) or 18 to 20 (whole)
- Okra – 18 to 23
- Parsnips, chopped – 20 to 25
- Potatoes, cubed – 25 to 30
- Radishes – 15 to 18 (halved) or 18 to 20 (whole)
- Spaghetti squash, halved – 25 to 30
- Sweet potatoes, cubed – 25 to 30
- Zucchini, chopped – 12 to 18
Protein Oven Cooking Times (in minutes)
- Chicken breasts, halved – 15 to 18
- Chicken thighs, boneless – 20 to 30
- Meatballs – 15 to 20
- Pork chops – 15 to 30
- Pork tenderloin – 15 to 25
- Salmon – 10 to 15
- Sausage – 15 to 20
- Shrimp – 8 to 10
- Steak – 8 (med rare) to 15 (well-done)
- Beans – 15 to 20
- Tofu – 15 to 20
- Vegan sausage – 15 to 20
Faster Cooking Tip
When you’re in a hurry, frozen veggies are a great shortcut. They’re already prepped, affordable, and can cook in the same amount of time. When starting with frozen, preheat the oven with the sheet pans inside. That means the veggies will start defrosting immediately once they hit the heated pan.
Step 5: Toss Salad
While proteins and veggies cook, wash / prep, and combine ingredients for a simple side salad. Drizzle with reserved dressing right before serving. Below we offer you a variety of ingredient options that can be easily prepped on busy weeknights.
- Baby kale
- Baby spinach
- Green / red leaf lettuce
- Iceberg lettuce
- Mixed greens
- Napa cabbage
Veggie / fruit toppings
- Bell peppers
- Sugar snap peas
- Cheese (shredded, goat, feta)
- Sliced almonds
- Sunflower seeds
For more salad ideas, be sure to check out our infographic guide to 50 Simple Salads. It includes 50 salad combos for every season, so that you’ll never get bored!
Grab Your Easy Weeknight Meal Template Download
We’ve put all of this information into one of our awesome downloads for easy referencing. We’ve even included spots for Post-Its so that you can write down your favorite weeknight meal combos and keep them handy for those weeknights when you’re too tired to even think.
Here are a few of my current favorite crazy-fast combinations:
- Salmon + asparagus + arugula, strawberries, and goat cheese with a balsamic vinegar marinade
- Shrimp + frozen cauliflower + mixed greens, avocado, and sliced almonds with a garlicky-herb marinade
- Steak + baby carrots + kale, celery, and walnuts with the Asian marinade
- Tofu + okra + romaine, cucumbers, and cashews with an Indian marinade
To making weeknight dinners crazy easy simple!
Let me know your favorite combos in the comments below! I’m always down to try new dinners, since it helps with coming up with new meal plan menus. 😉 You may just see your favorite combo in a future meal plan!
If you’d like to receive weekly cooking tips and dinner ideas in your inbox, join our cooking community and sign up for our newsletter below. We’ll send you helpful resources that will help you cook smarter and healthier.