Stock up on go-to ingredients
I always have a few key foods in my kitchen so I can pull something together, even on the most hectic night. My standbys are eggs, lemons, garlic, an onion or shallot, carrots, another sturdy vegetable (think broccoli, not lettuce), canned tuna, vegetable broth, nut butter (usually almond) and rice. With just those (and a few well-placed spices), I can whip up a stir-fry, a vegetable scramble or my signature hearty tuna salad—or transform leftovers in the fridge into fried rice.
Your go-tos don't have to be the same as mine, of course. Pinpoint four or five items that will keep in the pantry or fridge for at least a few days (ideally longer)—and that have decent nutritional value and are versatile—then make sure you keep them on hand.
Use the weekend to plan ahead for the week
I'd love to be a well-organized meal planner, but that's not reality for me. (Sigh.) Still, it's not a total free-for-all in my house. During the weekend I do a big grocery run. First I check the pantry to see what staples we need (along with the go-tos, I try to keep canned beans, olive oil and coconut oil, soy sauce, a few types of vinegar and plenty of spices at the ready). Then I see what go-tos we need. At the store I grab those items plus salad fixings (including lettuce, tomatoes if they are in season, cucumbers and carrots), another in-season vegetable or two (this time of year it's eggplant, corn or summer squash), some kind of fish and one other protein. With all that food in the house, there's always something to pull together for a meal, even if it's just a quick sauté.
Also on the weekend, I try to batch-cook a grain for the week. While I'm putting the groceries away, I get a pot of water or broth—or a combination—on the stove to boil so I can make enough rice, farro, millet or quinoa to last the week. All told, the weekend prep takes about 90 minutes, and it makes the rest of the week go much smoother.
Work your freezer
Like many moms, when I cook—whether it's fish, casseroles, soups or even whole-grain pancakes (who doesn't love them for dinner?)—I try to make extras. I label the leftovers and freeze them. This also works for raw ingredients. If I'm chopping an onion, for example, I'll cut up an extra one or two, put the pieces in a plastic sandwich bag, seal that bag in a bigger ziplock bag and pop it in the freezer (then, later, I don't even defrost the chopped onion before tossing it in what I'm cooking). As a general rule, if I have just a bit of something left over, like canned tomatoes or pumpkin, I freeze it. (I keep a larger freezer bag full of smaller freezer bags filled with odds and ends. If the collection begins to grow too big, I go through it and use up the stash.)
Buy some shortcuts
Rotisserie chicken: a working parents' friend. We eat half a chicken for dinner, usually with a quick, tossed salad. Then I take the rest of the meat off the bird, shred it and—you guessed it—freeze it for another night, using one of our favorite recipes for leftover chicken. And if there's space in the freezer, I'll wrap and freeze the carcass, too, to make broth on the weekend. If I have not batch-cooked grains or beans during the weekend, I rely on precooked ones. Trader Joe's sells a nice vacuum-sealed cooked brown rice, and canned beans are a money-saving (and time-saving) pantry staple.