Q&A: Dinner time--How's it getting done?

Katie writes:

"I'd love to hear from some of your readers on how they get dinner timedone.  It seems life was more organized in the past, but after a job change for one and increased responsibilities for others, it's not unusual to get home until 6:30.  So, by the time dinner gets made, we're often not done eating until around 7:30ish and it used to be we were close to an 8:00 bedtime but with summer it's more like 8:30, but the evening feels rushed.  I know that left to our own devices we wouldn't eat dinner right before bedtime, so it seems a little wrong to do it to our son.  So, probably the answer is to look at our schedules and get someone's jiggled around to getting home a little earlier (even 6 routinely).  I'm also concerned that having bedtime slip towards 8:30 just seems to late on a routine basis for a 2 1/2 year old (gets up around 6:30 or 7:00).  He's getting a little inconsistent on the napping."

Before we start talking about this, let's remember that some of this bedtime stuff is cultural. In some parts of the US, people work 8-5 so it's realistic to have kids in bed at 7:30 or 8. In NYC and other areas no one's at work before 9 and no one's home before 6:30 or 7, so parents would never get to see their children if they went to bed early. (Remember that book that came out a few years ago advocating that all kids have 7 pm bedtimes? Ha.) My Egyptian coworker finds it hilarious that I put my kids to bed so "early" (between 8:30 and 9 in the summer) because in Egypt everyone stays up until midnight and they sleep in later in the morning.

So it seems like it makes the most sense to look at your family situation and your kid's sleep sweet spot and use that instead of some external measure of when your kid should goes to bed, because, as usual, one size does not fit all.

But, on to meal prep. I think you're going to have to shift the emphasis off of starting from scratch when you get home from work. That leaves you with tons of options, though. Many of them are going to involve doing prep either the night before or a few days ahead. For instance, you could chop all the vegetables and protein the night before and leave them in containers in the fridge, then as soon as you get home start the rice and toss everything in to stir-fry. You'll be ready to go in 20 minutes. Or you could start using a slow cooker so you can slap everything together in the morning and it'll be ready when you get home. A countertop grill also cooks really quickly, so you could prep everything the night before and grill it up in 10 minutes when you get home. Or you could cook big batches of things on the weekend and reheat them for dinners throughout the week.

I really think the key is planning the week's meals in advance. And figure out who does what prep when as part of that plan. Because once the prep is done, the execution doesn't take very long (especially if you have helper appliances like slow cookers, rice cookers, countertop grills, etc.).

Readers, what are your favorite do-ahead or time-saving meal ideas?