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7 tips to make weeknight meals faster and easier

by Julia Curley / / Source: TODAY

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In a perfect world, family dinner would mean a healthy balanced meal that takes only minutes to cook and doesn't bust your grocery store budget. For most of us, the weeknight dinner doesn't seem possible.

... Until now! With the help of TODAY contributors Jean Chatzky and Joy Bauer, a truly satisfying meal is no longer just an aspiration.

The experts stopped by TODAY to show that with a little planning, a bit of meal prep and a few easy changes, you can create healthy dinners without frying your wallet.

Of course, healthy meals start at the grocery store. Chatzky and Bauer shared ways to cut calories and cost at the grocery store with TODAY earlier this week. But what do you do with all of your in-season and on-sale foods once you're back in the kitchen?

Joy Bauer shared her tips to help you take healthy foods from the grocery cart to your dinner plate.

1. Prep dinner in the morning.

For easy weeknights, dinner plans should begin in the morning. Jean said that the best way to save money at the grocery story is to only go once a week. This means that some of your week's protein — raw chicken or beef — will be in the freezer. Start off your day by taking frozen meat from the freezer to the fridge for defrosting.

"It's so tempting to defrost on the counter, but it could get into the temperature danger zone — and bacteria grows rapidly," Bauer warned.

2. Start using your slow cooker.

Yes, even in the summer — it still works like magic. Bauer even calls her slow cooker "the magic pot." Throw ingredients in the slow cooker before work and dinner is ready as soon as you're home again. Try these summer slow-cooker recipes this week.

3. Practice "double dipping."

Once the family finishes off a healthy dinner, Bauer recommends you "double dip." Or, wrap up dinner leftovers and put them in the fridge for tomorrow's lunch. In one easy step you've cleaned up dinner and packed tomorrow's mid-day meal.

4. Double or triple recipes.

If you really want to get more bang for your buck, double the recipe so you'll have plenty to bring for leftovers — and also freeze to eat at a much later date.

5. Start collecting recipes.

Having a stash of recipes will make it easy to know what ingredients you need to pick up during your once weekly market haul. Don't forget to buy enough for "double-dipping" lunch leftovers. Get creative with recipes and find new dishes that your family loves!

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6. Organize your frozen leftovers.

Another important way to take full advantage of your new habits is to label and date your frozen items. Once labeled, you can organize your freezer so that the foods set to expire first are in front and on top!

7. Get creative!

Plan delicious variations using the same recipe base. For example, Bauer recommends making a giant batch of meatballs. Then you can use them throughout the week in different recipes, like meatballs with spaghetti, meatballs on tortilla pizzas or meatball kebabs with roasted veggies.

With a few changes in your food shopping and food-prepping routine, you can save a lot of time and a lot of calories. At first, it may seem that grocery shopping once a week and thinking about dinner in the morning are unrealistic changes. But, in practice, these healthy habits free up family time and make your personal goals attainable.

Humans are creatures of habit. Pick up these easy tricks and you'll be happier, healthier and richer for it.

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