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5 time-saving tips for easy weeknight meals

Check out these great time saving, make-ahead tips and recipes for easy weeknight meals like chicken scallopini and minestrone soup.
/ Source: TODAY

Even though you know dinnertime is a daily event, getting a fresh, hot meal onto the table can sometimes feel like a challenge, especially if you've been working all day. But we have strategies to help you reclaim your last meal of the day.

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The biggest mistake people make is to begin the process in the late afternoon, according to Matt Wadiak, co-founder of ice Blue Apron. "Around five o'clock they go to their computer and find a recipe, then they go grocery shopping and by the time they're ready to cook it's gotten late and they're rushing," he says.

The solution is to take action and do at least some planning and prep work when you have more time, like on the weekends. Here are 5 savvy, stress-saving tips, time-saving, make-ahead tips for easy weeknight meals.

1. Wash and chop produce staples immediately after you buy them.

Wadiak worked as a personal chef for many years and said he always had peeled carrots and onions as well as washed, bagged salad greens ready to go in his refrigerator. "I suggest making this part of your shopping day, so you're not only unpacking the onions when you get home from the store, you're also peeling them, chopping them and putting them in a container," he says. When it's time to start cooking, you'll have fewer tasks to tackle, and as Wadiak says, "you'll also have a neat-looking refrigerator."

2. Invest in a good knife and make sure it's always sharp; then use it correctly.

It doesn't have to be too expensive, but it's really hard to cook if your tools aren't in the right shape," says Wadiak, who prefers lightweight Japanese knives for their flexibility. He also says that whether you take a class or just watch some YouTube videos, you'll save yourself lots of time if you learn a few basic knife skills like the proper way to peel and chop a squash or mince garlic.

3. Cook big batches ahead and freeze them.

This is a tried-and-true tip, but Wadiak has a suggestion for making it more fun. "I'm Italian-American and when I was growing up we used to have parties over the weekend, where a bunch of people would come over and help make something like sauce, we'd make a day of it and reap the gains later," he says. A single stew, for example, can be served over quinoa, mixed into a stir-fry or turned into a strogonoff. If you're not up for hosting a gathering, you can always lean on your Crock-Pot for some help. "One day with the slow cooker can have you eating for six months," he says.

4. Master the mise en place.

If you've ever ordered from Blue Apron, you'll notice that the recipes always call for mise en place, or preparing and laying out every ingredient before cooking begins. This ensures that you're never caught unprepared before moving from one recipe step to the next. "Doing the full mise en place might take longer in terms of total time but what you gain is mental sanity, you work cleaner and your food ends up tasting better because you are paying attention to how you are cooking it," Wadiak says.

5. Organize and declutter your kitchen.

This means getting rid of cookware and food that you aren't using so you can better see what you have, and similar to the produce approach, taking things like spices and dry ingredients out of their original packaging and storing them in uniform containers. Wadiak admits that he's "kind of obsessed with the Container Store" and that his own spice drawer is extremely well-organized and includes labels he prints himself. "Not only does this give you easy access and make you a more efficient chef, it brings the joy back into cooking when you can find everything," he says.

This article was originally published on April 13, 2015.