Tips and Recipes for Make-Ahead Meals
Make-ahead meals let you serve home-cooked dishes even on the most hectic days. Action-packed weeknights, overscheduled weekends, days when you have too much to do before guests come over or before you go to someone else’s house with a dish in hand — there are plenty of times when “make-ahead” meals can come to the rescue. Make-ahead meals put you in control of your schedule. You do the preparation when you have some extra time, then you’re rewarded with a quick, home-cooked meal when things get hectic later in the day, week, or month.
“Since dinner time is often a hectic time for families,” Janice Bissex, RD, author of The Mom’s Guide to Meal Makeovers, says, “it can really help for moms or dads to make all or part of the meal in advance. Prepping ingredients for a recipe 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 them early in the day and place the dishes in the refrigerator until you’re ready to bake them in the oven. Or you can completely cook your meal, freeze or refrigerate it, then just warm it up at mealtime. Some make-ahead meals don’t even require baking — like main-dish green salads or pasta salads.”
Paulette Mitchell, author of 13 cookbooks including A Beautiful Bowl of Soup, says her favorite strategy for make-ahead meals is to plan a soup and salad menu. “Soups often benefit from being made ahead because standing time allows the flavors to blend. Most homemade salad dressings taste better when they are made a day in advance,” she adds.
If you’ve got a slow cooker, you’ve got a leg up on make-ahead meals. Judith Finlayson, author of The Healthy Slow Cooker, calls the slow cooker the most effective time manager a cook can have. “You can have all the ingredients 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 and slow-cooker dishes, like stews and chili, lend themselves to being frozen or refrigerated and reheated. You can do “big batch” cooking and have dinner for a second night during the week. Eat a portion on the day it is cooked, and freeze the rest for future meals,” she says.
Make-Ahead Meals for Breakfast or Brunch
Here are four make-ahead breakfast or brunch options for the next time you have to feed a crowd fast first thing in the morning:
1. Crepes. Just cook the crepes the day before and keep them in a sealed bag — or wrapped well in foil — in the refrigerator. Fill them with a mixture of fruits or assorted jams the next morning. Or add a ham and cheese filling, then heat them up. You can have the filling ingredients chopped and shredded and ready to go the night before, too.
2. Strata. Strata is an overnight breakfast entrée by design. You’re supposed to let it sit in the refrigerator, then bake in the morning. It’s a perfect make-ahead option.
3. Quiche. Quiche can be served warm or cold. Just bake it the day before, and, if you want to serve it warm, heat it up in the microwave.
4. Breakfast Breads, Coffee Cakes, and Muffins. You can always make bakery items ahead and serve them cold or warmed up in the microwave. To round out the breakfast or brunch, have fresh fruit ready to serve with it. You might also want to cook up a plate of light breakfast sausage, grilled Canadian bacon, or lean ham — all of which can be warmed up in the microwave in two minutes.
Make-Ahead Meals for Dinner
Here are a few dinner dishes that are well suited to making ahead of time:
- Most casserole-type dishes lend themselves to being made ahead, like tuna noodle casserole, au gratin style potatoes, chicken enchiladas, or a creamy chicken and rice dish.
- Double up the ingredients for a casserole and use one for dinner and freeze the second casserole for a month later.
- Stew-type dishes, cooked and kept in the refrigerator, are ideal for warming up on demand — a serving or two (or more) at a time.
- If the ingredients are already cooked, cut, and ready, you can toss main-dish green salad together in less than 5 minutes.
- Chilled pasta and rice salads (and salads made with other whole grains) are perfect when you need a cool dish to serve with virtually no time to spare.
- Some mostly meat (or fish) dishes, like meatloaf, chicken Parmesan, and crab cakes, can also be made ahead and then cooked or reheated.
Recipes for Make-Ahead Meals
To get you thinking of all the dishes that you can make now and eat later, here are a few entrée recipes to get you started:
Chicken Florentine Pie
- 2 cups shredded, skinless roasted chicken breast (you can use a roasted chicken from the store)
- 2 cups cooked brown rice (you could also use 1 pouch of microwavable frozen brown rice, or instant brown rice)
- 1/2 teaspoon dried sage
- 1 teaspoon dried basil
- 1 teaspoon dried parsley flakes or 2 tablespoons fresh, finely chopped parsley
- 1/2 cup chopped sweet or white onion (or chopped green onion)
- 10-ounce package frozen chopped spinach, thawed in microwave and drained well
- 1 1/2 cups part-skim ricotta
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- 1/3 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
- 3 tablespoons prepared pesto
- If baking right away, preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Coat a 9-inch deep-dish pie plate with cooking spray.
- Combine shredded chicken, brown rice, herbs, onion, spinach, ricotta cheese, pepper, and Parmesan cheese in a large mixing bowl and gently mix together.
- Spoon the mixture into the prepared baking dish and cover with foil. Keep the covered dish in the refrigerator until ready to bake.
- When ready to bake, place covered dish in preheated oven and bake for 30 minutes. Remove the foil; spread pesto over the top of the dish, and bake about 10 minutes longer.
Yield: 6 servings
Eggplant Squash Bake
- 1/2 cup chopped onion
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 2 teaspoons olive oil
- 1 cup part-skim ricotta cheese
- 1 jar (4 ounces) diced pimientos, drained
- 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 2 tablespoons fat-free (skim) milk
- 1 1/2 teaspoon dried marjoram
- 3/4 teaspoon dried tarragon
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 cup marinara sauce, divided
- 1/2 pound eggplant, peeled and cut into thin crosswise slices
- 2 medium zucchini, cut in half then lengthwise into thin slices
- 2 medium yellow summer squash, cut in half then lengthwise into thin slices
- 1/4 cup shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese
- Saute together the oil, onion and the garlic in a small skillet until soft. Remove from heat and let cool. Combine ricotta, pimientos, Parmesan cheese, milk, marjoram, tarragon, salt, nutmeg and pepper and mix well. Add onion and garlic mixture.
- Spray a 9 or 10 inch baking dish with cooking spray then spread 1/3 cup of the marinara sauce on the bottom of the dish.
- Layer half of the eggplant, zucchini and summer squash in the baking dish then top the layers with the ricotta mixture. Layer the remaining eggplant, zucchini and summer squash over the ricotta mixture and then top the layers with the remaining 2/3 cup of sauce. Sprinkle mozzarella on top. Dish can be covered and refrigerated until ready to bake.
- Bake in a 375 degree F oven for 25-30 minutes.
If you don’t want to use ham, you can substitute 1 1/2-cups of any finely diced meat, such as roasted chicken or fish, such as cooked salmon or a vegetable, such as diced fennel or squash.
- Low-Fat Fettuccine Alfredo, see recipe below
- 1 1/2 pounds potatoes, cut on the longer side into 1/8-inch thick slices
- 1 1/2-cups of any finely diced baked ham
- 3 tablespoons shredded Parmesan cheese
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper (or more if you like)
- 1 cup frozen peas, thawed
- 1 cup shredded reduced-fat Swiss cheese (or use gruyere, smoked gouda, or white cheddar)
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. if you’re baking the dish right away. Coat a 9 x 9-inch baking dish with cooking spray.
- Spread 1/4 cup of the Alfredo sauce in the bottom of the baking dish. Layer 1/3 of the potatoes over the sauce and sprinkle with a dash or two of pepper.
- Combine Parmesan cheese, ham, peas and shredded cheese to a large bowl and toss to mix well. Spread half the ham mixture over the potatoes in the dish. Top with 1/4 cup of sauce, then another layer of potato slices. Top with more black pepper and the remaining ham mixture.
- Finish by spreading 1/4 cup of the sauce on top, then the remaining potato slices. Pour the remaining Alfredo sauce over the top. If you aren’t baking right away, cover with foil and keep in refrigerator until ready to bake.
- When ready to bake, keep the dish covered with foil and bake in preheated oven for 45 minutes. Then uncover the dish, reduce heat to 350 degrees F, and bake about 20 minutes more or until potatoes are tender. Let stand about 10 minutes before serving.
Yield: 6 servings
Low-Fat Fettuccine Alfredo
- 1 teaspoon unsalted butter
- 2 teaspoons all-purpose flour
- 3/4 cup whole milk
- 1/4 cup half-and-half
- 1 garlic clove, peeled and lightly crushed but keep whole
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 pinch nutmeg
- 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
In a small saucepan, heat the butter over medium heat until foaming. Whisk in the flour until mixture is smooth and golden, 1 to 2 minutes. Whisk in the milk, half-and-half, garlic, 1/2 teaspoon salt, pepper and nutmeg. Bring to a simmer.
Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until sauce is slightly thickened, 1 to 2 minutes. Discard garlic, stir in Parmesan and remove from heat. Makes 1 cup.
Lemony Tuna and Pasta
Makes: 4 to 6 servings
- 2 cups dried rigatoni or penne pasta (6 oz.)
- 1 cup coarsely chopped celery
- 1/4 cup chopped onion
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 2 tablespoons Dijon-style mustard
- 1 teaspoon dried marjoram
- 1 teaspoon finely shredded lemon peel
- Juice from half a lemon and the other half reserved for garnish
- 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 2 cups reduced-sodium chicken broth
- 2 -5 to 6 ounce cans chunk tuna (packed in olive oil), drained
- 1/2 cup Italian seasoned bread crumbs
- 1 tablespoon capers
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Grease 1-1/2-quart baking dish with cooking spray; set aside.
- Cook pasta according to package directions; drain.
- In medium saucepan cook celery, onion, and garlic in 1 tablespoon hot oil until tender. Whisk in flour, mustard, marjoram, lemon peel, and pepper. Add broth all at once. Cook and stir until thickened and bubbly, whisking to remove any lumps. Fold in tuna and pasta. Transfer to prepared baking dish.
- In small bowl stir together bread crumbs and the remaining tablespoon of olive oil. Sprinkle on tuna mixture. Bake, covered, for 15 minutes. Uncover and bake 5 minutes more or until bubbly and brown. Let stand 5 minutes. Sprinkle with capers and garnish with lemon.
Serves 4 to 6.
Italian Beef Stew
Yield: 8 servings (serving size: 1 cup)
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 2 pounds boneless chuck roast, trimmed and cut into cubes
- 3/4 teaspoon salt, divided
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 1/2 cups chopped onion
- 1/2 cup chopped carrot
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- 1 cup dry red wine
- 1-28 oz. containers Pomi chopped tomatoes
- 1 1/2 cups fat-free, lower-sodium beef broth
- 1/2 cup water
- 2 teaspoons chopped fresh oregano
- 2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 (8-ounce) package cremini mushrooms, quartered
- 3/4 cup (1/4-inch-thick) slices carrot
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
- 1 tablespoon chopped parsley
- Heat a Dutch oven over medium-high heat and add oil to pan.
- Place the 1/4 cup flour in a shallow dish. Sprinkle beef with 1/2 teaspoon each salt and pepper; dredge in flour. Add half of beef to pan; sauté 6 minutes, browning on all sides. Remove from pan to a bowl. Repeat procedure.
- Add wine to pan, and bring to a boil, scraping pan. Cook 5 minutes. Return meat to pan. Add tomato and next 6 ingredients; bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Uncover, and stir in sliced carrot. Simmer, uncovered, for 1 hour or until meat is very tender, stirring occasionally. Discard bay leaf. Stir in remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt, basil, and parsley.
- Refrigerate tightly covered until serving. Reheat on low heat.
- 15 Phenomenally Frugal, Single-Serving Freezer Meals (wisebread.com)
- Meal Time Tips From a Big Family – “How Do You Do It?” Series (momswhoblog.com)
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- Meal Plan 7/31 (frugalupstate.com)
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- Master the Art of the Slow Cooker (202/365) (thesimpledollar.com)