Our favorite famous chefs like Giada De Laurentiis, Martha Stewart, Curtis Stone and Guy Fieri have something in common with us regular home cooks: They all have to get dinner on the table every day, too, even when work, childcare and general life gets hectic.
Heading into busy back-to-school season, we asked top chefs and cooking experts for their best tips on how to take the stress out of dinnertime. They shared tons of great ways to get organized and cut down on last-minute dinner prep time. Bonus: Many of their tips will likely help you save money by reducing food waste and by cutting down on those there's-nothing-in-the-house trips through the drive-thru.
Here are 17 ideas you're definitely going to want to add to the recipe box:
1. Make a weekly meal plan like Kelsey Nixon.
"Setting aside some time each week to determine a family meal plan is like having an insurance policy on dinner," Kelsey Nixon told TODAY Food. "A simple menu will eliminate the stress of deciding what you're going to make and allow you to make better food choices for your family. Post your meal plan somewhere visible in your kitchen and take a quick glance at it as you're heading out in the morning."
2. Be a make-ahead maven like Andrew Zimmern.
“I like to plan as much of the week’s food as I can and cook most of it on Sundays," Andrew Zimmern said to TODAY, noting that like any parent, his weeknights are busy. "That’s my day to cook three, four or five things. I put some stuff in the freezer, like soups and pasta sauces and the rest in the refrigerator. I try to do smart menu planning with dishes that are not going to fall apart after one day. I don’t think there’s a time in the last five years that you could open our fridge and not see some grain salads using quinoa and bulgur and three or four different vegetables that are steamed or roasted to be utilized later in the week."
"My goal is to take weekday cooking down to a 15-20 minute exercise in warming and finishing," Zimmern adds. "Steamed broccoli can be sautéed crisp with olive oil and garlic with a pinch of chili flake to accompany an Italian pot roast that simply needs warming in the oven. I love to slow roast some sweet potatoes, cool them, then slice them into one-inch thick rings, stick them in a little tray and wrap them in the refrigerator. They can be pan-fried for two or three minutes, crisped up and seasoned with brown sugar and goat butter. A roasted chicken can be warmed up for a main dish and leftovers can become lunch sandwiches for a day or two later.
3. Create DIY meal kits like Giada.
"Sunday night I make what I think of as my own meal kits," Giada De Laurentiis revealed to TODAY. "I bundle everything I need for each night's dinner together on its own tray or in a bowl in the fridge. That way Monday night when I get home I just pull out the Monday tray and off I go."
4. Make double batches of everything like Catherine McCord.
"Whenever I cook I always make a double batch of everything from turkey meatballs for easy dinners, to chicken noodle soup for lunch to pancakes and waffles for breakfast and easy pancake or waffle sandwiches," Catherine McCord of Weelicious told us. Freeze or refrigerate the extra batch for a meal later in the week (or month, if you've frozen it). It's like a dinnertime insurance policy!
5. Repurpose leftovers like Guy Fieri.
"For busy parents, working people and anyone trying to feed a family on a budget (so, like, pretty much everyone), repurposing leftovers is a fundamental, economical and time-saving way to cook because it makes the most of your food money and time in the kitchen," Guy Fieri told TODAY. "And in my house, it helps keep the peace when I’m on the road. I try to be home with [my wife] Lori and [son] Ryder on weekends, but during the week I’m often traveling. I don’t like to leave them high and dry to cook from scratch every night I’m gone. So on the weekend, I’ll cook up a meal with dishes that can be easily turned into other stuff later in the week."
6. Disguise those leftovers like Curtis Stone.
Cooking for kids (or adults) who say they don't like leftovers? Rather than telling them to suck it up and make their own darn dinner, take this tip Curtis Stone shared with TODAY and make a meal with leftovers you can disguise as something else.
"For instance, make a pot roast on Sunday to enjoy for dinner that night, then use the leftover meat in a marinara sauce that you can toss with pasta for a delicious and easy pasta supper on Monday," suggests Stone. "Or make a pork shoulder roast — it's an inexpensive but large roast that is delicious with potatoes on Sunday and then amazing when coarsely shredded and stuffed into corn tortillas with shredded cabbage, guacamole and salsa for tacos on Monday or Taco Tuesday!"
7. Prep a DIY salad bar like Katie Lee.
"A giant salad is my favorite, but it takes too much time to prep at the end of a long work day," Katie Lee told us. Her solution: "At the beginning of the week, I wash the lettuce and cut up a ton of veggies and put them in separate containers. When it's time to eat, I make a quick vinaigrette in the bottom of a big mixing bowl, then load in all of my salad ingredients like I am at a salad bar. I call it my 'trough' and I love it!"
8. Always have homemade dressing on hand like Giada.
Make Katie Lee's mealtime idea even easier by combining it with this tip from Giada: "I always have a jar of homemade dressing in my fridge," says De Laurentiis. "It makes getting vegetables on the table a cinch. But it also works as a condiment on a sandwich or a piece of grilled fish or meat."
9. Cook just one meal for the whole family like Kelly Senyei.
"We subscribe to the 'one family, one meal' approach in our home, which means even our one-year-old eats the same thing my husband and I have for dinner," Kelly Senyei of Just a Taste told TODAY. "It's a big win all around because he's constantly being introduced to new foods that young kids might not ordinarily eat, and it prevents me from making two different meals (read: time-saver!)."
10. Make an all-in-one sheet-pan supper like Curtis Stone.
"With sheet pan dinners, you can place all your items on one sheet pan and bake, broil, roast or steam them together," says Stone. "One pan means less clean up, which is the real bear and deterrent for weeknight cooking." Stone likes to cook a pork tenderloin coated in hoisin sauce with asparagus and bok chok, while Dawn Jackson Blatner makes sheet-pan Miso-Glazed Chicken and Bok Choy and Roasted Broccoli, Radicchio and Chickpeas.
11. Cook throughout the day like Kelly Senyei.
If you have a busy schedule but find yourself at home and free for spells of time during the day (for example, if you have young kids who are napping), grab spare time to do prep for dinner tonight or for meals later in the week.
"I'm all about the make-ahead element of dinnertime, and I prefer to cook meals that can be prepped in stages and finished or re-warmed right before serving, such as pre-roasting veggies in the a.m. then giving them a quick run under the broiler before serving them at dinnertime," says Senyei. "When possible, splitting the prep up over the course of the day (or even days) prevents that last-minute rush and chaos." With the help of your freezer, you can make meals like marinated chicken, stuffed shells, chicken enchiladas and lasagna weeks and even months in advance.
12. Establish a set dinnertime like Kelsey Nixon.
"Having a consistent routine when it comes to the timing of dinner is a small detail that can make a huge difference," suggests Nixon. "The dinner rush can be stressful, but establishing habits like eating at the same time each night can make things feel just a bit more in control. It's also a good way to make sure that everyone gets to bed at a decent hour which will hopefully result in well-rested and happy kiddos."
13. Use packaged foods (in moderation!) like Katie Lee.
When you feel too busy to cook, keep in mind that sometimes cooking can be as simple as opening a bag of pasta and a jar of sauce, especially if you choose healthier versions.
"I've recently started buying lentil pasta and it's delicious and very healthy," says Lee. "If I really don't feel like cooking, I have a bowl of lentil pasta with Rao's jarred sauce." Other convenience foods like canned beans and frozen vegetables can help make dinnertime a lot easier.
14. Keep favorite ingredients on hand like Catherine McCord.
"I have the kids make a list of their ten favorite foods and always keep them on hand to make quick lunches and dinners," says McCord. "This way I know they will love what I offer and they can mix and match them to prepare complete meals."
15. Combine ready-made and from-scratch ingredients like Lindsay Ostrom.
"I manage the dinner rush by having some ingredients that are made from scratch and some that are shortcuts," Lindsay Ostrom of Pinch of Yum told TODAY. "For example, I might make some homemade yellow curry paste on Sunday and keep it in the freezer for quick and easy curries, and then when it comes time to put everything for my curry together, I might buy pre=chopped broccoli and carrots so that I can put the whole meal together quickly and easily. I find that having just one homemade sauce of some sort in the fridge can make a meal out of almost any other ingredients, whether it's a salad, stir fry, pasta or a veggie bowl."
16. Utilize your slow cooker like Martha Stewart.
"I like to save time to make time to do other things, and [using a slow cooker] is a good way to put a meal at the ready, while you’re at work or busy," says Martha Stewart, who recently stopped by TODAY to demonstrate slow-cooker recipes from her new cookbook, "Martha Stewart's Slow Cooker: 110 Recipes for Flavorful, Foolproof Dishes (Including Desserts!), Plus Test-Kitchen Tips and Strategies."
17. Feel the pressure (cooker) like Guy Fieri.
"I discovered (what Mom has clearly always known) is that the pressure cooker is, hands down, one of the most useful, most efficient, most economical kitchen tools there is," raves Fieri. "Picture those nights when you come home from a long day, the crew is clamoring for dinner, and you need something fast. Well, that’s where the pressure cooker comes in, because it makes it possible to cook in a fraction of the time, what it would take in a regular pot, and you get killer flavor and texture.”