I'm getting ready for Week 3 of my 500-calorie dinner challenge where I'm cooking 500-calorie dinners from new book, EatingWell 500-Calorie Dinners, 5 nights a week for 5 weeks. The recipes I've been making for Week 2 have been going smoothly (and deliciously). I think my secret to success this week has again been planning ahead. (It's one of the 6 secrets to weight loss too.)

It's been super-helpful to know what I'm going to cook for dinner and shop for the ingredients for those recipes-and also helpful to plan when I'm going to actually have time to do the cooking. That's where thinking like a restaurant chef comes in handy.

In a restaurant, food flies out of the kitchen quickly because most of it is already prepared up through a certain point. (I started out my culinary career working as a prep cook, so I'm all too familiar with this end of things.) You can use this tactic of prepping dinners ahead of time so that when you get home on a busy weeknight, dinner can be ready even faster.

This past weekend I spent all day Saturday in the Adirondacks cross-country skiing. So I decided to stick around my house on Sunday and spend a couple of hours in the afternoon cooking. I made dinner for that night, but I also prepped the Flemish Beef Stew and put that in the refrigerator so I could throw it in the slow cooker on Monday morning. I baked Chewy Chocolate Cookies, which were on my menu for later in the week. (Unfortunately making these cookies ahead may not have been the most brilliant idea for my husband. I left a box of them on the counter on Monday, and when I got home from work that night, he had devoured all but one of them.) Here's the full menu for my third week.

I'm not the only one who's realized that prepping ahead is the secret to my dinner success. Nicci, my co author on the 500-Calorie Dinners book and our deputy editor of nutrition, uses this prep-ahead tactic all the time. Instead of spending time on Sundays cooking, she does a little bit of work each night after her son goes to bed, prepping ingredients for the next night's dinner. Alesia, another one of our editors, works four days a week. On her day off she usually cooks dinners for two nights, one that can be held and reheated the next night.

What's the secret to your dinner success?

For Week 3 of my 500-calorie dinner challenge, here are tips for what can be done ahead of time:

Here are a couple more time-saving tips to keep in mind for this week's menu:

  1. For the Linguine with Shrimp Escarole, buy already peeled and cleaned shrimp. I like to buy them frozen, then I can defrost them just before I'm ready to use them.
  2. When I'm having wild rice as a side, as I have planned for Tuesday, I just throw that on the stove when I get home. It only takes a second to get it started then I can go ahead and cuddle my dog and read my mail and clean up around the house before I start cooking the rest of my dinner. And if the rice is ready before the rest of the meal it's no big deal. It can sit, covered, and wait.
  3. I'll also make sure I'm thinking about lunch the next day when I make these dinners. I usually make extra salad and pack that up along with a little container of any leftover salad dressing to take with me the next day.