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Prep work makes weeknight dinners easier

There is often no denying how busy the week can be for the average individual or family. Very frequently people eschew cooking dinner simply because they find the process takes too much time during an already hectic day. Some look to fast food or dining out as an alternative, but such decisions can be costly and potentially unhealthy. Though home cooking can be time-consuming planning ahead for weeknight meals can drastically reduce the time it takes to whip up a good meal.

While it may seem like people are spending more time eating out, statistics point to the contrary. In a 2009 survey sponsored by CBS News, 43 percent of American respondents said they cook 6 to 7 nights out of the week, and 32 percent 4 to 5 nights out of the week.

Those who are still dining out or ordering in instead of cooking may benefit from these time-saving tips.

* Make a meal schedule. Take a cue from schools and office cafeterias by creating a weekly or monthly meal calendar. Come up with items you enjoy eating and combine them for meals. Use magazines for inspiration if necessary. Having a schedule of what you will be cooking enables you to shop for the ingredients in advance and to know exactly what you'll be serving each night -- two time savers.

* Create a detailed shopping list. Use the meal calendar to make a list of the ingredients you will need for each meal. Some ingredients will overlap (i.e. fresh spices, like garlic and parsley), but there may be some ingredients unique to a particular recipe. Buying all the ingredients in advance enables you to have them on hand when it's time to cook, instead of running out for something missing.

* Do preparation work on the weekend. Spend a few hours over the weekend prepping food for the upcoming week. If vegetables need to be diced, do so and store in zip-top plastic bags. Meats that take a long time to cook can be pre-cooked and simply reheated before being served. Certain meals, like casseroles and baked pasta dishes, can be made entirely and stored in the freezer. Having some of the work already done may mean weeknight meals will only entail putting all the ingredients together and heating.

* Invest in a slow cooker. If you prefer a hot meal right after walking in the door, a slow cooker can be an invaluable tool that delivers meals-on-demand. A slow cooker works by cooking ingredients at a very low temperature over a long period of time. Ingredients can be added in the morning before leaving for work, and the meal will be ready and hot by the time you return home. There are dozens of different slow cooker recipes and cookbooks completely devoted to meals made in a slow cooker. It is a versatile tool and one that can be an asset in a busy person's kitchen.

* Think outside the meal box. Dinner doesn't necessarily have to be "dinner" foods. Turn pancakes, eggs and sandwiches into heartier meals with the addition of a few ingredients. Omelets can be enhanced with cubed meats and vegetables. Top pancakes with fresh fruit and granola for a more substantial meal. Paninis are hot these days, so take an ordinary sandwich and make it gourmet just by pressing and heating.

Taking the time to plan ahead for meals means that weeknight dinners can be less hectic.