Time-Saving Meal Services for a Hassle-Free Dinner

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Ice cream for dinner? Sure! That’s what summertime is all about, right? And while your kids might think you’re Super Mom if you keep that up all year, we’re guessing you’d like to have a little more representation from the non-ice cream food groups once school’s back in session. Whether your idea of cooking means making the most of your CSA share or pressing start on the microwave, we’ve got some simple tips to make getting dinner on the table a breeze.

Plan Your Meals
Even if you love to cook, dinnertime has a way of creeping up on you. No plan + empty pantry + hungry kids = take out more often than you’d like. Get organized with a meal planning service, and you’ll cut down on shopping trips and those last minute delivery orders to the local pizza joint. One service that we really like is Plan to Eat ($4.95/month or $39/year), since you use your own recipes and can even import your favorites from blogs and websites. From there, it’s easy to plan your meals and grocery list for the week with the handy drag and drop meal planner.

Or let someone else do the planning with one of the many meal planning services that provides menus and recipes for you. A few we like are The Six O’Clock Scramble, known for their kid friendly dinners ($3 – $7/month, depending on subscription type);  Whole Food Meal Plan, created by a local mama with a focus on whole food nutrition and gluten-free options ($19.95/month); and Deliciously Organic, made with organic, unprocessed foods (plans ranging from $4.99 – $12.99/month and $48 – $150/year). They all have free trials, so you can try a few different ones out before deciding which one works best for your family.

Stock Your Freezer
No matter how awesome your meal planning system is, there are those evenings when you get home from soccer practice/paddleboard yoga/chess club, and there just isn’t time to cook something from scratch. What you can do is stock your freezer with pre-made meals for those “too busy to cook” nights. Set aside a weekend afternoon, invite a few friends over, and host your own make and freeze party. (See here for tons of tips and recipes or join the Make-Ahead Mamas). If that’s too much effort, use a service like Dream Dinners that provides the ingredients, recipes, and kitchen space–you just have to show up, make your meals, and you’re set! Entrees can be made in three- and six- serving sizes, and range in price from $10.99 – $20.99 for the three-serving size and $19.99 – $38.99 for the six serving size.

If your idea of fun isn’t spending the afternoon cooking and freezing meals, let someone else do the work for you. The friendly folks at Eat Local have an entire store stocked with frozen entrees and sides. Everything is made with local and sustainable ingredients. For a small deposit, you can even get your food in reusable glass containers. Try the chicken pot pie with free range chicken and organic vegetables for $9.04 per serving, vegetarian black beans and rice for $7.98 per serving, or the grass-fed beef lasagna for for $10.98 per serving.

Hire a Private Chef (Sorta)
Private chefs aren’t just for celebrities. Okay, well maybe they are, but you can have the next best thing: a prepared food delivery service. Let someone else make the food and deliver it fresh to your door. Check out Delicious Planet for organic meals prepared by a nutritionist (entrees from $12- $16 per serving), Tumeric ‘n More for homestyle Indian and Pakistani meals (entrees from $6.99 – $13.99 per two-person serving, $40 weekly minimum), and Lucky Palate for a full vegetarian menu (monthly meal plans from $132 for two meals per week without dessert to $329 for six meals per week with dessert. They also have an a la carte menu).

When the back-to-school chaos hits, how do you streamline everything that needs to get done? Any tips for getting dinner on the table in a hurry? 

— Heidi Unruh

photos courtesy of juhansonin and Lars Ploughmann via Flickr and Delicious Planet via Facebook