As the lazy days of summer give way to the chaotic months of fall, it can be easy to feel a bit overwhelmed. Suddenly you’re not only juggling everyday life, but also after-school activities, PTO meetings, homework assignments and a long list of other fall-related busyness — not to mention football season and the fast-approaching holidays. In the midst of our busy schedules, getting dinner on the table can often feel like a Herculean task.

Ashley McMakin knows how hard it can be to get dinner on the table. She built her business — Ashley Mac’s, a full-service café, catering and to-go service — on this simple truth. Step inside any of her four locations throughout Birmingham and you’ll be greeted with large freezers and coolers filled with home-style dishes ready to be popped in the oven and onto your family’s dinner table. This culinary maven has dedicated her career to streamlining mealtime.

And, as a busy mom of four busy kids, Ashley has picked up a few other tricks for making dinnertime — and life — just a little easier during the busy back-to-school months. Here are her top six tips for creating a less-stressful, more harmonious dinner plan for the busy fall season.

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Ashley McMakin of Ashley Mac’s

Tip 1: Don’t be afraid to outsource.

“Even if you love to cook, don’t be afraid to outsource meals,” Ashley says. “I say this as a mom of three — actually four, because we have a 16-year-old foster child for the next two years. Cooking for a family of six every night, along with sports and activities, just isn’t realistic for this stage of life. Give yourself a break!”

Thankfully, all four of Ashley’s stores offer a plethora of her Gourmet On-the-Go frozen casseroles, sides and their famous sour cream biscuits, as well as hot and ready-to-serve family meals. From family meals like lemon rosemary chicken, poppyseed chicken and bistro steak served with savory sides and fresh salads to Gourmet On-the-Go casserole options that will please both parents and kids, Ashley Mac’s has proven to be a lifesaver for countless parents looking to get dinner on the table in a pinch.

Says Ashley with a smile, “My husband still has to remind me — you know we started this business for people like us!”

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Outsourcing time spent grocery shopping, cooking and serving dinner saves your sanity and allows for more family time.

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Ashley Mac’s family dinners (choice of lemon rosemary chicken, poppyseed chicken or bistro steak) are hot and ready to serve and come with a side, salad and bread. These dinners require one hour’s notice and they can be picked up hot and ready to serve any time between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m.

RELATED: Ashley Mac’s: A Passion for Food and People

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Ashley Mac’s poppyseed chicken family dinner is a tried-and-true customer favorite, but the lemon rosemary, pictured here, is a close second. The lemon rosemary is a healthier option, but that does not mean that it is not just as delicious!

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Ashley Mac’s Gourmet-To-Go frozen casseroles come in a variety of sizes and flavors, including a lot of kid-friendly options like baked spaghetti, chicken pot pie and macaroni and cheese. These casseroles are also perfect for someone who is recovering from surgery or just had a baby. They can keep it in their freezer and eat whenever they may need it.

You can serve these to-go meals straight out of the container or arrange them on your best serving ware for guests.

Tip 2: Grill extras on the weekend.

Monopolize your time by lumping in meal prep with one of Alabama’s greatest fall traditions: Grilling out while watching football.

“We love to grill out — especially during football season,” Ashley says. During the tailgate party, Ashley recommends throwing in some extra chicken breasts or steak on the grill to use throughout the week ahead. Get creative with your weekend bounty and turn it into chicken salad or steak sandwiches, or throw them on salads, baked potatoes or pasta for a great weeknight meal the whole family will love.

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The bistro steak family dinner served with roasted red potatoes, chopped BLT salad and sour cream biscuits

Tip 3: Build your own bowl.

Mix it up (literally) and do a build-your-own-bowl night! Make it easy by combining a delicious mix of grains, roasted vegetables, greens, cheese and maybe a soft-boiled egg for added protein. Go with a Mexican theme or lean toward Asian flavors and toppings to make things fun and shake up the culinary routine. “You can make this meal meatless,” Ashley says. “Or add in some fish or chicken — the possibilities are endless!”

Best part? The family has no idea this actually doubles as a “clean out your ‘fridge” night!

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Easy dinner time solutions like the build-your-own-bowl night lessen the meal prep required, so you can turn your attention to connecting with family.

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When there is less cleanup needed for dinner, you can make a mess elsewhere — like doing activities the kids love!

Tip 4: Make a sheet-pan dinner.

Ashley offers a refreshing dose of honesty, saying, “Who wants to be cleaning up at 9 p.m.? Not me!” She touts the virtues of the easy-to-make and easy-to-clean sheet-pan dinners. Her recipe? “Throw on some chicken or fish and some chopped vegetables on the pan. Season with olive oil, salt and pepper and your favorite herbs, and roast for a quick one-pan dinner!”

Tip 5: Plan ahead on Sunday.

“Check your calendar beforehand to maximize your meals for the week ahead,” says Ashley. If the next five days are filled with band practices and after-school tutoring, then it might be best to plan easy, simple dinners. If it’s a rare low-key week, however, then plan on hitting the grocery store heavy on Sunday and loading up on dinner options.

“There’s no need to buy groceries for five dinners if you’re only going to be home for one night,” she says. And don’t beat yourself up if dinner is a hot dog from the ballpark concession stand. We’ve all been there, and no one expects you to be Giada De Laurentiis!

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On Sunday, make a meal plan based on the week ahead.

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Easy dinners make for happy families.

RELATED: Ashley Mac’s Home Kitchen: A Stunning Before & After

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Kids love Ashley Mac’s mini cupcakes!

Tip 6: Crank up the crock pot.

Nothing is more satisfying than tossing a couple savory sides in the crock pot, letting them simmer all day, and coming home to a house filled with the aroma of a sumptuous supper. Especially when the weather turns cool, Ashley turns to her crock pot for an easy dinner. Each crock pot dinner in her house surprises her with its low-maintenance meal prep and impressive flavor.

“Every time I use it I always think, ‘I should do this more!’” she says.

Bonus Tip: Slow Down!

At the end of the day, what’s most important during back-to-school season is taking time to take stock of the memories being made. And, if something doesn’t get checked off the to-do list, don’t harp on it or beat yourself up.

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Use any of these tips so you can step back and savor family time.

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Simplified dinners give you time to help the kiddos when they need help with homework.

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That adorable face won’t be that small for long, so don’t get mired down in dinner stress and miss out on this special time!

“There’s always something to be done,” Ashley says. “For me, I feel like it’s important to always try and take a step back and realize I only have this one life, and I want to be present with my family and do what I’m called to do to the best of my abilities.”

Ashley Mac’s has four locations throughout the Birmingham area — Cahaba Heights, Homewood, Inverness and Riverchase. For store hours and menus, visit ashleymacs.com.


Show this article for $5 OFF Family Dinners and *Gourmet To Go Dinners

*Frozen entrees and sides only
**One use per customer
**Offer ends 10/26/18


And thank you to Eric and Jamie Photography for these gorgeous photos.

This article is sponsored by Ashley Mac’s.