By Jackie Mills
Advertisement

These ideas can help you lighten up dinner (and we don't mean calories).

Like most of us, you're probably in the kitchen making dinner nearly every night of the week. The endless shopping, planning, prepping, and clean up can get to be a real drag, and cooking can become a dreaded burden.

You can't change the fact that you need to cook and eat, but you can change the way you look at the tasks it takes to make meals happen. Here are some tips on how to change your strategy, keep the bigger picture in mind, and remember what's great about a home cooked meal.

Photo: Getty Images

1. Don't stress — plan for success.

Planning and prepping take time and effort, but it's the only way to avoid dinner hour anxiety. On the weekend, map out the basics of each dinner you'll cook for the week. It can be as rudimentary as knowing the recipe you'll have for a main dish and shopping for those ingredients plus some quick-cooking fresh or frozen vegetables like broccoli, summer squash, carrots, and green beans and ready-to-toss salads to serve alongside.

2. Declutter your counters.

Visual clutter can translate to mental clutter. Rid your kitchen of any equipment, utensils, and dishes you don't use on a regular basis for cooking everyday meals. Put specialty equipment like cake pans on top shelves or in a basement or attic storage area. Donate items you know you'll never use. Throw away outdated foods, and recycle surplus plastic storage containers. This way, the things you use for everyday cooking are easily accessible and ready to go — and you don't have to move your dusty blender for the third time this week to create space for your cutting board.

3. Keep it super simple, especially on weeknights.

Be realistic in what you can prepare in the amount of time you have to devote to dinner. Though you may not have time to simmer a homemade pasta sauce, you can make stovetop dishes like Quick Chicken Piccata that come together in just a few minutes. Sheet Pan Dinner Recipes and Instant Pot Recipes are also great for weeknights because you can put those in the oven or set the timer and tend to other things while dinner cooks. Simplicity is the key when it comes to busy weeknight cooking.

Photo: Getty Images

4. Build your kitchen confidence.

If your disdain for cooking comes from lack of skill, opportunities abound to sharpen your kitchen know-how. Sign up for a local class in the fundamentals of cooking and knife skills, buy a basic cookbook that includes step-by-step photos, watch YouTube videos, or ask a friend who loves to cook to teach you some of their kitchen tricks and tried-and-true recipes.

5. Cook food that gets you compliments.

Nothing boosts your spirits like making other people happy by cooking and sharing foods you know they love. Whether your family likes dishes as comforting as burgers, soups, and tacos or as exotic as a spicy Indian Shrimp Curry, a peanuty Thai Chicken Satay, or a fast and flavorful Garlic Chicken Stir Fry, make foods that bring joy to the faces around your table — including yours!

6. Take a small step toward better health — and a better budget.

One of the greatest benefits of cooking at home is that it's probably healthier than restaurant or take-out food (unless you love to deep fry!) — and cheaper, too. At home, you can decide how much salt and sugar you add to your dishes, how much butter and oil you use, and you get to control the portion sizes. Cooking and eating at home completely takes away the temptation to order extra appetizers, jumbo-sized pasta dishes, and gooey desserts. That's a big savings on your waistline and your wallet.

Photo: Getty Images

7. Enlist help.

No matter their age, get the other members of your house involved in mealtimes to spark their enthusiasm about cooking — and to help you out. If they're young, help them learn responsibility by setting the table, tossing a salad, or cleaning up after dinner. For a first-time meal, start them off with something simple, like the easy cheesy Tortilla Rollups IV.

8. Express yourself.

Can't draw or sing, knitting is mind-numbing, and photography is a blur? Think of cooking as a creative outlet for yourself. Even if you're new to cooking and tend to follow a recipe exactly, you can put your own spin on a dish by changing up the herbs or seasonings, switching from maple syrup to honey, or adding your own signature garnish. Take inspiration from recipe creator Jill who creatively streamlined a favorite recipe for Jambalaya with Shrimp.

9. Practice gratitude.

Use your time in the kitchen every day (even while you're chopping onions and garlic) to remember all that's right in front of you to be grateful for. Appreciate the farmers who grow your food and the truckers who bring it to the neighborhood store. Count your blessings that you're healthy enough to cook, appreciate the miracle of the body's ability to use nutrients from delicious food to energize you, and recognize the love of the people you'll sit down to dinner with. Look around and you'll find endless things to give thanks for right in your own kitchen.

10. Relax, it's just dinner.

Burnt food, forgotten (vital) ingredient, the recipe sounded good, but the flavor, not so much? It's happened to even the most seasoned cooks, so don't let mishaps discourage you. Call for a pizza or scramble some eggs, and start fresh again tomorrow.