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How to Get Dinner on the Table in the Summer

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Feeding Family on Budget

For most of the year I have a regular routine when it comes to meal planning and getting dinner on the table that it goes something like this:

  • I plan our meals and grocery list on Saturday morning
  • I go grocery shopping on Sunday morning before the grocery crowds form
  • Each evening I start preparing dinner sometime between 5:45 and 6:15 and dinner is on the table at 6:45

This system works well for me because it spreads out the burden of planning, shopping, and prep throughout the week so it never feels overwhelming. During the summer, however, our schedules get much more fluid and flexible, which can make planning, shopping, and meal preparation more of a challenge. Sometimes it is a weekend activity that means I can’t get the planning or shopping done, sometimes it’s a trip to the pool that goes later than expected which means the dinner prep window gets smaller (although the hungry bellies don’t get any less intense). Sound familiar? If so, I wanted to share how I shift things so that I am able to get dinner on the table in the summer as smoothly as possible.

A Looser Plan

When I sit down to make a meal plan for the week in the summer I still look at our schedule for the week to figure out what days might require planning around an evening meeting or event, but I don’t lock things in as concretely as I do during the school year. For example, normally, I might put down a specific main dish and set of side dishes to go with it, such as “spaghetti and meatballs and a green salad with cucumbers and tomatoes,” but this week one of my days had the plan: “pasta and salad.” This was because I wasn’t sure what kind of pasta sauce I was going to have time to make that evening, so I left it more open. As it turned out, I had very little time to get dinner on the table, so instead of a richer, more time consuming sauce, I went for a quick skillet sauce that I could make in the time it took to cook the pasta and I put so many vegetables into the sauce that it turned into a one dish dinner because veggies were more than covered in the sauce, saving that salad for another night.

Warm Eggplant Pita Sandwiches

Depend on Simpler Meals

When a late arrival home means a later dinner, simple meals can make the difference between a happy family meal and a full on meltdown by tired and hungry kids (or, let’s be honest, adults). Some of my favorites to fall back on in the summer include sandwiches, both cold and hot, and omelets or scrambled eggs. These can be accompanied by salads, vegetable sticks with dip, or even fresh fruit.

Depend on Delicious Seasonal Produce

One of my favorite tricks to get dinner on the table in the summer is to depend on the amazing flavors of all of the produce that is in season. Whether it is throwing together a chef’s salad with loads of different fresh vegetables topped with some proteins of choice (e.g., hard-boiled eggs, diced cheese, diced deli meat, leftover grilled meat, canned tuna, chickpeas, or black beans are all great options); grilling zucchini, eggplant, peppers, and corn; making a gazpacho (cold summer vegetable soup); or whipping up a pesto sauce fresh herbs and greens, I love to use the flavors of summer as a centerpiece for the meal, especially since vegetables can be cooked so quickly.

Stay Flexible 1

The other day, my friend Jessica Levinson posted on Facebook about a night when she had planned to make a pasta dish for dinner, but her girls had been having so much fun with their friends at the pool, that she decided to let them have more time and let go of her plan completely. She resorted to a meal made up of odds and ends—some leftover lunch, a fried egg, a quick sandwich, some fruit, etc. As she pointed out, everyone got fed, and everyone was happy. This is a perfect example to me of how flexibility can help to get dinner on the table in the summer. Sometimes we can get locked into our plans and ideas of what “should” happen, but if we can just live in the moment and enjoy the time in front of us, the meal will come together.

Stay Flexible 2

The other way that flexibility can help to get dinner on the table in the summer is to move your meal plan around. Just because a meal was planned for Monday doesn’t mean it has to happen on that day. For instance, this past week I had planned on roasting a chicken on Sunday night, but our summer afternoon plans shifted and I ended up not having the time. Instead, I made the meal I had planned to make on Friday (homemade pizza) on Sunday and roasted the chicken Monday night. It may not have been ideal since we had enjoyed a different version of homemade pizza just two nights before, but it meant that our fun afternoon wasn’t cut short and that was more of a priority.

Later Dinners, Earlier Showers

While bedtime routines can feel sacred to many families, especially when kids are younger, as my kids have gotten older, I have found more flexibility here. So having later dinners and earlier showers has become an approach that I depend on more and more to get dinner on the table in the summer. When we get home late but I still need to make dinner (usually because none of the other options above will work or I have already fallen back on them in a crazy summer week), I will send the boys up to shower while I get dinner ready. This helps to still make sure that they can get to bed at a reasonable hour, keeps them distracted from their hungry bellies, and buys me a little time to get dinner on the table.

Use the Slow Cooker or Instant Pot

While we tend to think of the slow cooker and Instant Pot as kitchen tools that are ideal for winter stews and casseroles, they are actually phenomenal in the summer as well. Not only because they buy you more time to enjoy activities outside of the house, but also because they won’t heat up your home on hot days. Here are some ideas to get you started.

Depend on No Cook Meals

No cook meals come together quickly and easily, don’t heat up your house, and often are a great option to bring with you as a picnic, so you don’t even need to be home for dinner. Here are some of our favorite no cook meals.

There is so much to value about summer—the time outside, the longer daylight hours, the adventures we can have with friends and family, and the fact that there is no homework that needs to get done are just a few of the reasons that I love summer. So as you soak up those memories, laugh with friends, and take just one more dip, maybe one of these tricks will help you to enjoy that time just a little bit more.

Do you have ways to get dinner on the table in the summer? I’d love to hear about them in the comments! And if you could like more dinnertime inspiration, sign up for a free trial of our online meal planning service to see how simple getting dinner on the table can be!