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Tara O’Brady, author of “Seven Spoons” and mom to 11- and 13-year-old boys, uses an upright blender to make quick puréed soups. “They come together lightning fast in a blender, especially one with a cook function,” she said. “The rest of dinner might be grilled cheese sandwiches, but there’s a homemade, hearty soup to accompany, and I feel like that’s a win.” (The Vitamix 5200, which we recommend in our guide to blenders, will heat soup, although it won’t actually cook the ingredients.)
Sheet pans can also do double duty for baking and making easy dinners. “I love my sheet pans: It’s a way to make delicious dinners with minimal cleanup (this is key),” said Emily Weinstein, deputy editor of The New York Times Food section and editor of NYT Cooking, who has a 21-month-old daughter. Ms. Weinstein will pile vegetables and a protein onto one pan (she recommends this recipe for sheet-pan squash and sausages served over farro or herbs), or she’ll bake carrots on one pan and meatballs on another (she also recommends these four simple shape-and-bake meatball recipes). We recommend Nordic Ware half-sheet pans, if you’re looking for good ones.
Maximize your freezer
On nights that you’re cooking something special, take advantage of the effort by making extra to freeze. “I always try to make a double batch of Bolognese, meatballs, or falafel, or simply cooked beans in their broth,” said Ms. O’Brady. “Quinoa, pasta, and grains also hold well in the freezer. I’ll roast a second chicken, or plan on extra when braising or grilling meats and vegetables that freeze or keep well.”
Frozen dinners certainly extend past meals you’ve made. “I love frozen or pre-prepared dumplings or tamales from Trader Joe’s or bought, wrapped, and frozen, from our great local vendors,” said Ms. Copeland. “These are two things I serve about once a month each that feels like a complete night off.” And freezing specialty items you love can help elevate even the simplest meals. Ms. Téllez freezes freshly made tortillas from a tortilleria near her home in Queens, N.Y., then defrosts them as needed.
Collect a few back-pocket dinners
For those times when you don’t have a dinner plan, try to learn a few dishes that you can always fall back on. For Ms. Téllez, that often means hot dogs wrapped and baked in Pillsbury crescent rolls, served with ketchup and mustard, along with frozen veggies or a spinach salad on the side. For Mr. Lam, that’s generally spaghetti aglio e olio — pasta mixed with garlic sautéed in olive oil — combined with whatever vegetables he has on hand. For Ms. Weinstein, it’s a breakfast classic: “My now-and-forever easy dinner is scrambled eggs with toast. It’s one of my favorite foods, and I can always make it, no matter how tired I am.”
And dinner doesn’t always need to be cooked. “I rely on grazing, platter-style meals at least once a week, and much more in the summer,” said Ms. Copeland. “This lets me get away with serving all the things — meats, cheeses, crackers, vegetables, dips, olives, bread, hummus, or whatever we have on any given day — in new and inventive ways that always end up to be a please-all meal.”
On the nights when you really don’t have energy — maybe a child is sick, or you’re late getting home from work — it’s worth budgeting for takeout, especially if it will relieve your stress level. “I try to leave one day a week when we order out,” said Ms. Téllez. “Just having the one day of a break is really nice. I try to keep a Wednesday or Thursday, when I’m in a rut.”