Make-ahead meals put you in control of your schedule. You do the preparation when you have some extra time on the weekend, then you have some quick, home-cooked meals when things get hectic later in the week. Prepping ingredients ahead of time or assembling the full meal for reheating can make the dinner hour more relaxed and manageable.

There are several ways to make your meals ahead of time. You can assemble a dish early in the day or the night before and keep it in the refrigerator until you’re ready to heat it in the oven. Or you can completely cook your meal, freeze it and then heat it at mealtime.

You can also get all the ingredients for a recipe prepped and even partially cooked, in most cases for up to two days ahead.

Many slow-cooker recipes are suited to being prepared ahead of time. Slow-cooker dishes like stews and chili also lend themselves to being refrigerated or frozen and reheated.

You can do “big batch” cooking on the weekend and have dinner for several nights during the week, Freeze the rest for future meals

Most casserole-type dishes lend themselves to being made ahead, like tuna noodle casserole, au gratin style dishes, chicken enchiladas or a creamy chicken and rice dish. Meatloaf, Chicken Parmesan and crab cakes, can all be prepared ahead and then cooked or reheated.

Soups often benefit from being made ahead because standing time allows the flavors to blend and most homemade salad dressings taste better when they are made a day in advance.

Freeze any leftover soup or stew in freezer containers with tight-fitting lids. Because food expands when it freezes, leave about 1/2 inch of headspace below the rims of the containers.

Taking an hour and a half on the weekend to tackle some preliminary preparation and cooking will save you precious time during the week.

Here is a suggested game plan for a busy week:

The Menu

Monday: Honey Mustard Chicken With Rice and Peas

Tuesday: Pasta with Broccoli and Sausage and Tomato Salad

Wednesday: Panko-Topped Fish with Greek Salad

Thursday: Vegetarian Spinach Rice Casserole and Carrots

Friday: Cheeseburgers with Pineapple-Mango Salad

Grocery List

Produce

  • 2 Limes
  • 2 Lemons
  • 1 ½ lbs broccoli tops
  • 1 bunch scallions
  • 1 head garlic
  • 1 English cucumber
  • 1 pint grape tomatoes
  • 4 medium plum tomatoes
  • 1 fresh pineapple, peeled and cored
  • 1 mango
  • 1 small bunch mint
  • 1 lb pkg carrot chips ( diagonal sliced carrots)

Meat, Poultry & Seafood

  • 1 lb chicken breast cutlets
  • 12 oz package Italian cooked chicken sausage
  • 1 lb thin white fish fillets
  • 1 lb lean ground beef

Dairy

  • Small wedge Parmesan cheese
  • Carton of eggs
  • 4 oz container Feta cheese
  • 8 oz pkg shredded mozzarella cheese
  • 8 oz pkg American or Swiss Cheese

Grocery

  • 1 jar Honey
  • 1 jar Dijon mustard
  • 1 quart chicken broth
  • 1 can evaporated milk
  • 16-oz box whole wheat rotini pasta
  • 16-oz package regular brown rice
  • 8-oz box Panko Italian flavored breadcrumbs
  • 7-oz tub pitted kalamata olives
  • 1 package English muffins

Frozen

  • 16-oz pkg. frozen chopped spinach
  • 10 oz pkg. frozen peas that are enclosed in a cooking pouch

Already Have at Home

  • Vegetable oil
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Worcestershire sauce
  • Garlic Powder
  • Kosher Salt
  • Black pepper
  • Italian dried seasoning
  • Dried Oregano
  • Red wine vinegar
  • Italian salad dressing
  • Ketchup

Suggested Plan for the Weekend Prep:

  • Make 6 cups of brown rice according to package instructions. Divide rice in half and store each half in an airtight microwave container in the refrigerator for dinner on Monday and Thursday.
  • Mix together the Honey Mustard Glaze for Monday’s chicken dish (recipe below). Store in a covered container in the refrigerator.
  • Chop Tuesday’s broccoli into smaller florets and refrigerate in a plastic ziplock bag.
  • Zest and squeeze one lemon. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
  • Chop scallions for Thursday’s casserole and place in a ziplock bag. Grate Parmesan cheese and store in an airtight container.
  • Freeze fish for Wednesday’s dinner on parchment paper in a single layer on a baking sheet for 1 hour, or until firm, then place on the parchment in a single layer in an airtight freezer container.
  • On Wednesday evening place frozen spinach in the refrigerator to defrost overnight.
  • Combine the burger ingredients for Friday’s dinner. Form into burgers as directed in the recipe and layer the uncooked patties between sheets of parchment paper in an airtight freezer container. Freeze. Move to the refrigerator to defrost on Thursday.
  • Cube pineapple and mango. Place in an airtight container.
  •  If you have time you can prepare and bake the rice casserole on Sunday and reheat it on Thursday.

Monday

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Honey Mustard Chicken With Rice and Peas

Makes: 4 servings

Ingredients

  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice
  • 2 tablespoons canola oil
  • 1 pound chicken breast cutlets
  • Hot cooked brown rice
  • 10 oz pkg. frozen peas in a cooking pouch

Directions

In a small bowl whisk together the mustard, honey, lime juice and 1 tablespoon of the oil. Remove 2 tablespoons of the mixture and set aside the remaining glaze in a small bowl.

Lightly brush both sides of chicken cutlets with the 2 tablespoons of glaze.

Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat. Place the chicken cutlets in the pan. They should not be touching. (If there is not enough room in the pan to cook the cutlets all at once, saute them in batches.) Cook the cutlets for 3 – 4 minutes per side, depending on the thickness. The cutlets should be lightly browned and cooked through.

Boil water in a medium saucepan and drop the frozen peas in a pouch in the saucepan and cook according to directions.

While the chicken is cooking, reheat the rice in the microwave.

Spoon rice onto serving plates. Top with chicken cutlets and drizzle with reserved glaze mixture. Serve peas on the side.

Tuesday

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Pasta with Broccoli and Italian Sausage

Pre-cooked chicken sausage keeps dinner prep down to the time is takes you to cook your pasta. Suggested sausages are from Al Fresco or Bruce Aidell. Serve with sliced plum tomatoes drizzled with Italian salad dressing.

4 servings

Ingredients

  • 4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
  • 4 cups water
  • 8 ounces dried whole wheat short pasta
  • 1 ½ pounds broccoli florets
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 4 links (12 oz.) cooked Italian chicken sausage, sliced
  • 1 teaspoon finely shredded lemon peel
  • 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon Italian dried seasoning
  • Grated Parmesan cheese

Directions

Bring chicken broth and water to boiling in a large pot. Add the pasta and cook according to package directions. Four minutes before the pasta is finished, add the broccoli to the pot. Just before draining, reserve 1 cup of the cooking liquid. Drain and return the pasta and broccoli to the pot.

While the pasta is cooking, heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Saute the sausage slices until lightly browned, 2 to 3 minutes.

Add the sausage and any olive oil in the pan to the drained pasta mixture. Stir in the lemon peel, lemon juice, salt, Italian seasoning and enough of the reserved cooking liquid to moisten. Serve topped with cheese and the tomato salad on the side.

Wednesday

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Panko-Topped Fish with Greek Vegetable Salad

Makes 4 servings

Ingredients

Fish

  • 1 pound tilapia or other thin white fillets, cut into 4 portions, if necessary
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 cup panko Italian flavored bread crumbs
  • 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • Lemon wedges

Salad

  • 1/2 English cucumber, halved lengthwise, seeded and sliced (1 cup)
  • 1 cup grape tomatoes, halved lengthwise
  • 1/4 cup sliced green onions
  • 1/4 cup chopped pitted kalamata olives
  • 1/2 cup feta cheese
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Directions

Preheat oven to 400 degree F.

Place frozen fish with the parchment paper from the freezer on a baking sheet. Sprinkle fish with salt and pepper.

In a small bowl stir together the panko and 2 teaspoons olive oil. Sprinkle evenly over fish. Bake for 18-20 minutes or until fish flakes when tested with a fork and crumbs are golden.

While the fish bakes, mix together in a medium bowl cucumber (save the other half for Friday’s salad), tomatoes, green onions, olives, 1 tablespoon oil, vinegar, oregano and pepper. Gently stir in feta cheese.

Serve fish with lemon wedges and Greek Salad.

Thursday

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Vegetarian Spinach Rice Casserole and Carrots

While the casserole is baking or reheating, Cook the carrot chips in a microwave safe bowl.

6-8 servings

Ingredients:

Casserole

  • 3 cups cooked brown rice
  • 16 oz pkg frozen chopped spinach, thawed and drained
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup evaporated milk
  • 1/2 cup finely sliced green onions
  • 1 teaspoon dried Italian seasoning
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese (6 oz.)
  • 1/2 cup + 1/4 cup coarsely grated Parmesan

Carrots

  • 16 oz pkg fresh sliced carrot chips
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

Directions

Heat rice in the microwave.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Put thawed spinach into a colander, then use your hands to squeeze out as much of the water as you can.

In a medium bowl, beat the eggs with the milk. Add the sliced green onions, dried Italian seasoning, salt and garlic powder. When ingredients are combined, mix in the drained spinach. Then mix in the mozzarella cheese and the 1/2 cup coarsely grated Parmesan, followed by the warmed brown rice. Use a fork to mix until the ingredients are well-distributed into the rice.

Put the mixture into a round casserole dish that you’ve sprayed with oil or nonstick spray. Cover the dish and bake about 35 minutes, or until the mixture is heated through and the cheese is melted. Uncover and sprinkle with the remaining 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, then bake 10-15 minutes more.

Carrots

While the casserole is baking, combine carrot ships, honey and salt in a microwave safe bowl. Cover and microwave on high for 5 minutes. Remove bowl from the microwave and stir the ingredients. Return the bowl to the microwave and cook 5 minutes more.

Friday

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Cheeseburgers with Pineapple-Mango Salad

4 servings

Ingredients

Burgers

  • 1 pound lean ground beef
  • 2 scallions, finely chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 4 English muffins, split and toasted
  • 4 slices American or Swiss cheese
  • Burger condiments

Salad

  • 3 cups cubed peeled and cored fresh pineapple
  • 1 mango, seeded, peeled and cubed
  • 1/2 medium cucumber, peeled and diced
  • 1 tablespoon lime juice
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 1/4 cup chopped mint

Directions

In a large bowl mix together the beef, scallions, garlic, Worcestershire sauce, salt and pepper.  Shape mixture into four 1/2-inch thick patties.

Heat a stove top grill pan or a large skillet over medium-high heat. Cook the patties about 5 minutes per side or until done to your liking (150-160 degrees F).

Top burgers with a slice of cheese about a minute before they are completely cooked.

For the salad: in a medium bowl mix together the pineapple, mango, cucumber, lime juice and honey. Stir in mint.

Serve burgers on English muffins with condiments of choice.

Additional Recipe For Your Slow Cooker

Make this recipe ahead and refrigerate for reheating during the week or freeze for a future meal.

Italian Braised Chicken

Ingredients

  • 2 pounds chicken thighs, skinned (If you like drumsticks, use half drumsticks and half thighs)
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 15 1/2 oz can cannellini (white kidney) beans, rinsed and drained
  • 1 medium fennel bulb, cored and cut into thin wedges
  • 1 medium yellow sweet pepper, seeded and cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 1 medium onion, cut into thin wedges
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon snipped fresh rosemary
  • 1 teaspoon snipped fresh oregano
  • 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • 1 ounce diced tomatoes, undrained
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine or reduced-sodium chicken broth
  • 1/4 cup tomato paste
  • 1/4 cup shaved Parmesan cheese (1 ounce)
  • 1 tablespoon of snipped fresh Italian (flat-leaf) parsley

Directions

Sprinkle chicken with 1/4 teaspoon of the salt and the black pepper. Place chicken in a 3 1/2- or 4-quart slow cooker. Top with drained beans, fennel, sweet pepper, onion, garlic, rosemary, oregano and crushed red pepper. In a medium bowl, combine undrained tomatoes, wine, tomato paste and the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt; pour over mixture in cooker.

Cover and cook on low-heat setting for 5 to 6 hours or on high-heat setting for 2 1/2 to 3 hours.

Sprinkle each serving with cheese and parsley.

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