Get details on the best apps, latest technology, and newest smart tools to make mealtime come together faster, easier, and cheaper.

By Suzy Scherr
July 17, 2017
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Family Making Dinner
Credit: George Rudy/Shutterstock

In a perfect world, we'd all have our meals for the week prepped, packed, and ready to reheat or take on the road in time to watch our favorite Sunday night TV show. We'd sit back, self-satisfied with the knowledge that a week's worth of healthy, delicious options for family meals are ready at a moment's notice: salad greens washed and prepped, dressings made, grains cooked and pre-portioned, smoothie ingredients bagged and frozen. It's all nice (in theory) and feasible (sometimes), but let's be honest: getting all that organized ahead of time is kind of a pain and tricky for busy parents to pull off on a regular basis. The reality is that some weeks, bagged salad and a rotisserie chicken are the only things standing between you and five nights of takeout.

Thankfully, figuring out how to get decent meals on your family's table doesn't have to be a daily struggle. A few smart, tech-savvy tools can make answering, "what's for dinner?" much easier. Here's how:

1. Use grocery delivery.

Grocery shopping can be incredibly time consuming (and is its own kind of inefficient if you end up lugging a toddler along to "help"). Buying groceries online frees up time, allowing you to shop at odd hours (say, while you're sitting in bed at 11 p.m. or tied to your house during your little one's nap) and can often save you money, since you're more likely to stick to a list. Services like Fresh Direct, Amazon Fresh, Peapod, and Instacart are convenient, time-saving resources that make grocery shopping a breeze. If you're an Amazon subscriber, you can use the site's wifi-enabled dash buttons to reorder products you use often with the touch of a button. Literally.

If you don't live in an area serviced by an online grocer, consider ordering pantry items in bulk from a site like Boxed or from the websites of popular brick-and-mortar stores like Costco or Walmart. You'll save time in the grocery store, too, since you'll mostly shop for fresh items. Your list might even be short enough to land you in the express lane!

2. Try a meal-planning service.

Parents who plan meals ahead of time feed their family healthier food, do more cooking theselves, try new recipes, and save at the grocery store. But all of that list-making can be a little overwhelming and time-consuming. That's why there are meal planners like Relish!, Cook Smarts, and The Six O'Clock Scramble– they'll help you save time, save money, and cook better food. Most plans will send you a weekly email with recipes (which often take no longer than 30 minutes). You'll choose the meals you want to make, and they'll compile a grocery list and email it to you. Easy!

3. Install a shopping list app.

Whether you're short on time, tired of coupon-ing, or just can't seem to remember that one last item on your list, grocery shopping can feel way more thorny than it needs to. Using a list-managing app can help ease the trouble, streamlining your next trip to the supermarket. While apps like ListEase, Grocery iQ, and GroceryPal won't magically perform the task for you, they will give you great ways of reshuffling the process (like letting you scan barcodes at home to build your list and comparing prices at stores near you) and ensuring that you don't forget anything along the way.

4. Download a coupon app.

When it comes to saving money on products you love, couponing is, was, and will probably always be the way to go. Happily, mobile apps make it easy to use coupons without having to lug huge reality-show-style extreme-couponing binders around, so you can put down the scissors and still save money. Grocery savings apps like iBotta and Checkout51 allow you to scan store receipts and then give you cash back. Or try a service like Deals to Meals, which scours weekly deals at major grocery stores near you and alerts you about the best savings in your area. The service will also help you create menus and grocery lists based on your local savings.

5. Subscribe to a meal kit delivery service.

Meal kits don't clear the table or do the dishes after dinner, but they take care of just about everything else. Well, almost. Consisting of pre-portioned meal ingredients, with pre-printed recipes that explain how to turn the ingredients into an actual meal, meal kits provide a relatively easy way for busy parents to feed their family a healthy, home-cooked meal. No planning, no measuring, no shopping; you can open the box and have dinner on the table before the post-soccer, après-music lesson, needs-help-with-homework parade comes marching through your kitchen.

If a meal kit isn’t enough to get dinner on the table on a busy weeknight, consider ordering prepared meals that are fully cooked and arrive straight to your door. FoodKick from Fresh Direct (available in New York City) sells completed meals that just need to be heated in the microwave (kid-friendly options like butternut squash mac ‘n’ cheese with broccoli are available Jimmy John’s (available in 43 states) delivers freshly made sandwiches made with all-natural meats and hand-sliced veggies. Yumble delivers prepared kid-friendly meals that can be heated in the microwave. The weekly subscription service is a healthy take on your own nostalgic TV dinners.

6. Use "smart" and/or multitasking appliances.

There are loads of time-saving devices out there that can help speed things along in the kitchen. Slow cookers are simple, relatively affordable, and with their "set it and forget it" functionality, they allow dinner to essentially cook itself while you're doing other things. Multi-cookers, like the Instant Pot, combine the functions of several appliances in one, offering versatility and efficiency. From pressure-cookers that slash cooking time for grains, vegetables, and meats to ovens you can control with your smartphone, outfit yourself with a few multitasking tools and make meal prep a breeze.

7. Turn your voice assistant into a sous chef.

A voice-activated virtual assistant like Alexa, part of Amazon's Echo, is especially handy in the kitchen, where following instructions hands-free can be particularly useful. In addition to providing the soundtrack to emergency dance parties for hungry little ones waiting impatiently for dinner (don't underestimate this skill!), a voice assistant can be called upon to maintain your grocery list, set timers, read recipes, and provide nutrition information. She can also answer questions, convert measurements, and even link to smart appliances. So, next time someone in your house wants to know what's for dinner, just ask your "assistant" to figure it out!