We know getting weeknight dinners prepped, cooked, and ready can be as daunting as confronting a difficult client or meeting a tough deadline at work. At Blue Apron, we help busy people get dinner on the table by delivering recipes and ingredients to their homes, and in the process, we’ve heard about every manner of dinner dilemma.

So in this column, we’ll be sharing the solutions we’ve cooked up to all your meal predicaments. You can submit your questions about weeknight dinners, leftover-based lunches, and any other mealtime crises to questions@themuse.com. We can’t wait to hear from you!

Dear Blue Apron,

Sometimes, feeling optimistic around lunchtime, I consider inviting friends over to have dinner at my house on a Tuesday or Wednesday night. It sounds so nice to be able to decompress with them after a long day. But by the time I’m ready to leave the office, my enthusiasm for cooking and cleaning has dwindled down to zilch. Either I end up meeting friends out at a restaurant (which I can’t do too often for my budget’s sake), or I make myself something quick and eat alone in front of the TV. How can I get myself to entertain on a weeknight?

Ambitious

Dear Ambitious,

We love your determination! Enjoying an evening with friends at home really is an incomparable way to rejuvenate after a long day of work. There’s nothing like laughter and conversation to counter all that time spent in front of a computer. And somehow, sitting around your coffee table finishing that bottle of wine and enjoying second helpings together does even more for your soul than meeting buddies out at a restaurant ever can.

So, how to get from dreaming to dining? Here are three ideas for making your idea of a cozy evening a fun—and a not-too-difficult—reality.

 

1. Plan Ahead

Spontaneity is a luxury. With a busy lives and careers, we all find we can’t actually be as impulsive as we’d like. Which is why your lunchtime daydream tends to crumble by the end of the day—unless you’ve done a little bit of planning.

There are two ways to do this. First, you could plan the dinner a week or so ahead to give yourself extra time to choose a dish and shop. Maybe even make this a regular occurrence—plan to eat together every Wednesday, or the first Tuesday of every month. Then you always know when it’s coming and can be prepared before you go to work.

But, if you want to be able to call friends on a whim, keep your weeknight dinner options open by making sure your kitchen is always stocked with something that could kick-start a delicious meal. Maybe you make sure you always have the ingredients to make your favorite dish at the ready. Maybe you join a CSA (or order from Blue Apron!) so you have fresh ingredients delivered to your door every week. Or maybe you just always keep rice, frozen peas, and frozen chicken thighs on hand to pull out in a pinch and make a simple one-pot Arroz Con Pollo. Whatever it takes, making sure you have something around to get you going will make it feel like less of a feat.

2. Don’t Fuss

Make your friends what you’d make yourself. Hold on—read that again. Once more.

When hosting, we all have the desire to serve fancy, memorable meals. But a weeknight dinner with friends is about being low-key and spending time together—that’s the memorable part. So keep the food free of flourishes. If all you want to eat after a long day at work is a bowl of noodles, there’s a good chance your exhausted friends want to slurp down their noodles right beside you. This isn’t Saturday night. You’ll satisfy everyone’s craving for comfort and spare yourself added stress and mess.

That said, we don't mean you should serve your guests cereal! Good, super low-key options include grilled cheese and chicken noodle soup. To step it up just a notch, try simple pasta dishes, like whole wheat spaghetti with ricotta and zucchini—all you need is a pot of boiling water, and then this dish practically cooks itself, the ricotta turning into a luscious sauce. A baked salmon layered between sliced oranges looks fancy but is super simple—all you really have to do is put a filet on a baking sheet and then toss together a side salad. Done.

3. Accept Help

“What can I bring?”

We’d wager that’s the first thing your friends will ask when you G-chat them to see if they’re free for dinner. Answer this question honestly.

Bottles of wine or beer are always welcome: Booze contributions save you money and a trip to the liquor store. But feel free to sub in something else if there’s an ingredient or errand that will make your dinner preparation easier. If one friend goes to the gym near a good cheese shop, ask him to grab a container of fresh ricotta for your pasta. If another buddy’s office is on top of a cupcake store, request dessert. (Not that you need dessert—see point two.)

Naturally, don’t make anyone go far out of the way—this is supposed to be fun and easy, after all. But do think strategically and attempt to save yourself any motivation-squelching tasks by crowdsourcing them to your guests.

Now—remember your lunchtime motivation and invite your friends to come over before it’s too late. Then you’ll all be able to look forward to a fun, food-filled evening to get you through the rest of the day.

Photo of friends having dinner courtesy of Shutterstock.