If you've had one of those days, and you find yourself glancing at the clock only to discover that it's already 5 p.m. (What!?) and dinner is not simmering cheerfully on the stove, then you may feel like you have limited options. Yes, there is the frozen meal or take-out route. And sure, you can still start from scratch, shopping and cooking and sitting down to eat late and exhausted.
Or, you can brush up on some little food shopping hacks that can significantly cut your prep and cooking time, and get you and your family to dinner faster.
Here are six tips for the next time you're in the supermarket, whether the dinner clock is ticking or you're just paying it forward.
• Make the salad bar your sous chef
Walk on over to that salad bar and take a good look at it from an ingredient perspective. So many prepped foods to choose from! Sliced peppers, diced onions, cubed zucchini, shredded chicken, cooked beans, washed baby spinach leaves, broccoli florets ... a bounty of prepped items, all ready to turn into a stir fry, vegetable lasagna, frittata, soup — and sure, maybe even a salad. And the nice thing is, you can buy exactly how much of each item you want.
• Explore other precut/washed/prepped produce
Next to the whole fruits and vegetables you can find a section of other prepped produce, usually uncooked. Shredded carrots, spiralized sweet potatoes, peeled garlic, shelled peas, bags of washed salad lettuces, and so on. I know I'm not alone when I say that peeling, seeding and cubing a winter squash at the end of a busy day can feel like a real obstacle to dinner, but a container of peeled, cubed squash is a game changer.
• Rotisserie chicken, the best dinner saver ever
Cold, warm right out of the container, or reheated, there are few supermarket gifts as happy-making as a rotisserie chicken. Add a salad and something starchy and you are done. But shred up that meat and you have a springboard for a bazillion other dinners: chicken salad, quesadillas, enchiladas and burritos, soups, stir fries, casseroles. I buy a rotisserie chicken often because I know that it will get me to some chicken dinner in the coming days, and usually a different one every week.
• Stock up
Once a month, do a little inventory of your most-used ingredients and make sure you've got a good stash of all of them. Pasta, beans, rice, broth, canned tomatoes, and fridge staples like eggs and grated cheese — having a full inventory saves you last-minute dashes to the market. Bonus points if you can stock up when these items are on sale.
• Buy bulk
Buying in the bulk-food aisle definitely saves money, and offers you some nice whole-food choices. But it can also save you time once you get it home. Decant all of your bulk items — quinoa, lentils, rice, oatmeal — into containers, preferably clear ones, and label them. Organize them by category in your cabinets or pantry closet — for example, whole grains, cereals, baking ingredients. Then when you are ready for them, there they will be, easy to find and easy to access. It's also easy to see when you are running low on any of them.
• Don't underestimate the freezer aisle
Yes, you will want a carton of ice cream and maybe a frozen pizza for backup, but there are so many ingredients and meal components in the freezer aisle that can help you get dinner on the table faster. Frozen vegetables are really high quality, often quite economical, cook up super quickly, and don't have to be defrosted before using. Peas, corn, edamame — all of these are quick ways to get vegetables onto the plate or into a dish. Many now come in microwavable pouches. Frozen fruits make quick smoothies; frozen hash browns aren't just good with eggs but also as a pot-pie topping; and frozen shrimp and fish cook up in a flash.