Ever wondered how other people manage to cook healthy, fast and interesting meals at home all week, and still have time to spare? When it comes to making fast, easy, interesting dinners for the week ahead, turns out it’s all in the planning.
We asked some members of the Williams Sonoma Test Kitchen—who manage to pull off testing recipes all day long, then cook dinner at home every night—for their tips on making the weeknight dinner situation as seamless as possible.
The key? “Pay it up front, and make things super efficient,” our culinary director, Amanda Haas, tells us. Take a few hours every weekend to look to the week ahead and map out which foods you’ll be buying, what dishes you’ll be prepping and cooking, and how much everything will cost you.
Sit down and write out a shopping list every weekend for the week ahead.
Amanda takes the time to sit down every weekend and trace her steps for the week ahead, planning when she and her family will need to eat and filling in the blanks on what they’ll be eating. To give her kids some options, she’ll even let them request a favorite dish or two for dinner that week. She even puts pen to paper to plan out snacks (“Snacks are the pitfalls of life!”).
Have a roster of 10 favorite “go-to” dinners.
Keep a running list of recipes on hand that are both low-fuss and tried-and-tested family pleasers. That way, when you inevitably run short on inspiration for the week ahead, you have a collection of dinner ideas that you can fall back on. Amanda suggests keeping these really basic; for instance, one of her standbys is a recipe where she brushes salmon with a simple honey-mustard sauce and grills it until a nice glaze forms on the fish.
Your shopping list can also be a built-in budget.
When Amanda writes down her grocery list for the week, she lists every ingredient she’ll need, plus how much she thinks it’ll cost, then totals it up at the very bottom. If you don’t already, “start paying attention to price tags,” she says. “That way, at least you’ll know what you’re in for.”
Find your grocery shopping golden hour.
For everyone in the Williams Sonoma Test Kitchen, finding the time to shop ahead for the week is top priority. As far as timing goes, play around and find the supermarket sweet spot that’s right for you: Amanda tends to shop around 7 a.m. on Saturday or Sunday mornings, while test kitchen cook Emily McFarren prefers shopping on Saturday afternoon (it’s not crowded, and you get to sleep in!). Avoid Sunday afternoons and evenings, which are often the busiest, most stressful times to shop.
Find little ways to cut back on costs.
In addition to her grocery list budget, Amanda finds little ways to keep expenses in check. While it may sound obvious, she always takes the extra time to poke around and make sure she doesn’t have any of the items on her shopping list in her pantry already. She sticks to raw ingredients like produce and meat and bulk bin items, avoiding packaged foods. Instead, she makes a lot of her own building blocks from scratch, like romesco sauce and chimichurri.
For those times when budget is tight, she suggests cutting down on meat: Instead of buying two pounds of meat, slash that amount in half and bulk up dishes with more veggies and grains.
Commit to cooking for 1-2 hours on the weekend.
Emily takes 20 minutes to prep a bunch of fruit and vegetables immediately after coming home from the market. That way, you don’t have to take time out of your weeknight to chop that random half an onion for a recipes. Likewise, Amanda suggests putting something in the oven, like a roast or prepped vegetables, immediately once you get home from the store—that way, you can cross another thing off your to-do list.
Amanda suggests focusing on creating building blocks that you can mix and match into different meals throughout the week, such as cilantro and mint pesto (which she simply makes by hand with a knife and cutting board), salsas, cooked grains and the flavorful Italian pepper, onion and tomato side known as peperonata. Amanda loves quinoa because you can make a big batch of it in a rice cooker, and it lasts all week. (Note that if you make quinoa in batches for the week, it can dry out a bit when made ahead, so reheat it with a sprinkling of extra water.)
Remember: It doesn’t have to be perfect.
In truth, all that matters is that food’s getting put on the table. Even though she’s a big proponent of doing everything ahead, Amanda occasionally uses the grocery service Instacart, which delivers to your door but comes with a surcharge. For her, sometimes it’s entirely worth it for the convenience: “It’s a time-money proposition.”
New to cooking this much, and worried you’ll forget an ingredient or misread a measurement? Don’t worry too much about it. The women of the Williams Sonoma Test Kitchen, for all their expertise, are the first to remind us that it’s not about being perfect. Or, as Amanda put it: “Cooking is not spinal surgery.”