Around simplify 101 you might say we have dinner on the brain. No, we’re not sporting spaghetti on our heads or anything crazy like that. Instead we’ve been talking about dinner and cooking and meal planning and how to make the whole thing a few notches easier. Why all the talk about dinner? Well, tomorrow our new online “Easy Meal Planning” workshop is  starting up, and with the new school year in full swing, it’s a good time to take a step back and simplify dinner. In the spirit of making dinner easier, in this post Jennifer shares five ideas to simplify getting dinner on the table. Hope you enjoy!  ~ Aby

Is it fair to say that back-to-school time can be a bit, uh… hectic? The transition to our “new normal” – complete with school days, homework, and after-school activities – takes a bit of getting used to in my family. This time of year can make simple things like getting dinner on the table seem anything but simple!

Whether it’s back-to-school, a job change, holidays, or sports seasons, certain times of the year are simply more hectic than others. When you approach these seasons, think about what you can scale back on. Cooking dinner is an area that I try to put into auto-pilot at these times. While dining out and carry-out can work in a pinch, my family values home-cooked meals. Here are some things we do to simplify dinner time.

Simplify Dinner Salad

Salad can save the day. Not everyone feels that salad is satisfying enough, but I think with the right combination, it can be. First, you’ve got to go big. And second, you’ve got to include some protein in the form of cheese, beans, hard-boiled eggs, nuts, or even some grilled meat leftover from the night before. Third, pull out some crackers or crusty bread, and then even the carb-lovers are happy.

Slow down when you’re in a hurry. I like that bit of advice for life and meal-making! The slow cooker is my best friend this time of year, and I often prep it the night before or while I am making breakfast and packing lunches. This may be silly, but when I have prepared 3 meals for my family by 9 a.m., I feel like some sort of super hero. My latest favorite slow cooker recipe is Honey Sesame Chicken from 5 Dinners in One Hour. Oh, so good!

Honey Sesame Chicken

Slow Cooked Honey Sesame Chicken
5 chicken breasts
¾ C. honey
¼ C. light soy sauce
½ C. chopped onion
¼ C. ketchup
2 t minced garlic
¼ t red pepper flakes (optional)
2 t olive oil
4 t cornstarch
6 T water
Place chicken in slow cooker. Mix next 7 ingredients and add to cooker. Cook on low for 6-7 hours. Mix last 2 ingredients in a small container, adding to slow cooker the last 15 minutes of cook time. Stir to combine. Before serving, sprinkle chicken with 2 T sesame seeds. Serve over cooked rice with steamed broccoli.

Count on casseroles. I love casseroles during busy times, not just because of their ease but also because it’s often great comfort food. When I know we are heading into a busy season, I will double a few of our favorite casserole
recipes — one for now and one to freeze for later. Keep in mind, though, that certain foods common to casseroles don’t freeze well. Avoid potatoes, sour cream, and cream cheese. Also, slightly under-cooking vegetables or pastas for casseroles will help them maintain a better texture during freezing, thawing and ultimately baking.

Bring on “brinner.” Breakfast for dinner gets raves at my house. In fact, my kids would love it if I served it once a week! Pancakes, waffles, fresh fruit, and yogurt are some of the staples for our brinner. Most recently, I served it up in the form of a DIY yogurt parfait bar with various types of yogurt, fruit and toppings. It doesn’t get any easier than that!

Yogurt Parfait Bar

Embrace a wrap. Why I don’t turn to sandwiches and wraps more often, I honestly don’t know! If I’m OK with serving breakfast food for dinner, why would I feel badly about lunch food at dinner? Really, serving up a sandwich maybe even toasted or grilled — is a cinch. And as an added bonus, my kids are completely delighted with PB&Js and baby carrots for dinner. Score!

Soup is so simple. For that very reason, I think it can sometimes be overlooked. But, a hearty soup with bread makes for a very satisfying meal. I remember coming home from elementary school on fall days to the delicious aroma of homemade soup. My mother would make it while she had time in the afternoon and let it slowly simmer. Mmmm, this is making me anxious for cooler weather so I can make some of my favorite soups! My mom had a great idea to prepare it as she had time before we arrived home from school. Another option is to choose
quick-cooking soups. Keeping broth, canned tomatoes, canned beans, frozen veggies or other favorite soup staples on hand allows you to whip up a soup super-fast! One of my favorite fast soups is a Tortellini Soup recipe I adapted from eMeals.

Tortellini Soup
4 cups chicken or vegetable broth
1 10-oz. package frozen tortellini
16-oz. package California blend frozen vegetables
14.5-oz. can fire roasted tomatoes
Bring broth to boil. Add vegetables and tortellini. Return
to boil and boil gently for 5-7 minutes or until tortellini is cooked through and
vegetables are tender. Stir in tomatoes. Serve with grated parmesan cheese, if

What’s your favorite tactic for dishing up dinner during busy seasons? Feel free to share your recipes with us in the comments!