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Cooking dinner night after night can be overwhelming. For those of us with late work days or busy evening schedules, it can seem impossible to get homemade food on the table for our families.
With my children’s various commitments, I often find myself on a sports field instead of at my dinner table when 6:00 rolls around. On other evenings, we get home right at dinnertime and there’s no time to prep the food. I used to settle for ordering out or opening a package on these evenings. I didn’t think I had a choice.
But we always have a choice.
If homemade food is a priority, you can always find a way.
Five Make-Ahead Meals in 90 Minutes
I’ve been hearing over and over from busy working parents about how difficult it is to make homemade food for their families after a long day’s work. I hear you, and I share your struggle.
That’s why I decided to put together this resource. You can prepare five healthy, make-ahead meals for dinner in 90 minutes on a Sunday afternoon. If you have a helper, it will take even less time. By following these steps to prepare your weeknight dinners ahead of time, you won’t need more than 15 minutes of active time each night to pull the details together. That’s about how long it takes to get a box of mac and cheese on the table. And these meals are so much better than a box of mac and cheese.
These five make-ahead meals are family-friendly recipes that you can adapt to your tastes. For a vegetarian meal plan, simply omit the beef from the American Chop Suey and the chicken from the stir-fry. The American Chop Suey and the chili are prepared completely in this 90-minute session, so those are ideal for a night when you have no time for more than heating up your dinner. The other meals have different timing requirements on the nights they’ll be eaten, so check your schedule and plug them in accordingly. (Scroll to the bottom of this post to see what’s needed each night.)
Before you get started, I recommend printing out all five recipes so you can bounce back and forth as needed. Each recipe can be easily printed by clicking “Print” at the top of the boxed recipe in each post.
To prepare these make-ahead meals, you’ll need lots of storage containers in various sizes. If you start running out of containers, zipper bags and mason jars can be used. You’ll also be using pots in different sizes, and lots of measuring cups and measuring spoons. I tend to make one big mess and clean it up at the end, but you could also clean as you go to avoid getting so many dishes dirty. (Note: The clean up does add extra time beyond the 90 minutes.)
It’s important to label everything before you place containers in the refrigerator or freezer. I use freezer tape, but regular masking tape and a Sharpie can do the job too.
Here are the ingredients you’ll need to prepare these five meals. Check your fridge and cabinets first, and cross off anything you already have on hand.
- 3 small red peppers
- 1 small onion
- 3 cloves garlic
- 1½ lb. butternut squash (or other winter squash)
- 3 stalks celery
- 1 large sweet potato
- 1 cup green beans
- Fresh or dried ginger
- 1 cup corn
- 2 bunches of scallions
- 1 avocado
- 1½ lbs. broccoli
- 2 cups bok choy (or similar veggie)
- 1/2 cup raisins
- 28 oz. can pineapple chunks
- 1 lb. ground beef
- 3 chicken breasts (1½ to 2 pounds total)
- 28 oz. can tomato sauce
- 28 oz. can diced tomatoes
- 15 oz. can diced tomatoes
- Chili powder
- Curry powder
- Onion powder
- 1½ tsp. active dry yeast
- Olive oil
- Soy sauce
- 5 cups cooked pinto beans (used canned beans or make your own ahead of time)
- 12 oz. box whole wheat macaroni
- 3 cups chicken or vegetable broth
- Dried lentils
- White whole wheat flour
- 4 oz. cheddar cheese
- Brown rice noodles
Preparing the Five Meals
- Fill one large pot and two medium pots with water. Put them all on the stove to boil. The large pot will boil the macaroni for the American Chop Suey. One small pot will cook the lentils for the Lentil Sweet Potato Casserole, and the other small pot will blanch the broccoli and greens for the Chicken Pineapple Stir-Fry. (If they boil before you’re ready for them, lower to a simmer.)
- On your fourth burner, place a large Dutch oven (or other large pot) to use for cooking the Squash Chili.
- While the pots of water are heating, follow the instructions to make the chili. It will simmer on the stove while you continue with the other recipes. When it’s done cooking, transfer the chili to the refrigerator in an airtight storage container.
- When one of the medium pots comes to a boil, add the lentils and cook according to the package directions (usually about 20 minutes). Drain and set aside.
- Meanwhile, boil the macaroni in the large pot of water. Proceed to the American Chop Suey recipe. While the pasta is cooking, make the sauce by combining the tomatoes, tomato sauce, and seasonings. Dice the red peppers. (Note: Red peppers will be used in three of the recipes. Dice them all at once and set aside what you don’t need for the American Chop Suey.)
- Once the macaroni is cooked, drain it and return the empty pot to the stove. Use this pot to brown the ground beef, then add the diced pepper. Saute until the pepper is soft. Add the sauce and macaroni to the pot. Heat briefly, then remove the pot from the stove. Once it’s cool, transfer the American Chop Suey to an airtight container and refrigerate.
- Prepare the Lentil Sweet Potato Casserole next. Chop the vegetables and place them in a large casserole dish. Mix together the ingredients for the sauce, and add the sauce to the dish. Finally, add in the raisins and cooked lentils and stir everything together. Cover the casserole dish and refrigerate.
- Make the pizza dough for the Mexican Pizza and refrigerate the four balls of dough in an airtight container. You can skip the rise time for now because the dough will rise on cooking day. Stir together the ingredients for the pizza’s taco sauce, and refrigerate it in a small container. Place the chopped red pepper, corn, and pinto beans in a container, and place the grated cheese in a separate container. These should all be refrigerated. The remaining few pizza ingredients will be prepared on cooking day.
- Deep breath! You’re almost done. The stir-fry ingredients will be frozen since they won’t be cooked until the end of the week. Mix together the sauce ingredients and place the sauce in a container. Trim the raw chicken and cut it into bite-sized pieces. Place the chicken in a container.
- Chop the bok choy and the broccoli. Set aside half the broccoli in a container in the fridge to go with the American Chop Suey.
- Place the remaining broccoli and the bok choy in the final pot of boiling water for a minute. While it’s boiling, prepare a bowl of ice water. After these vegetables are blanched for a minute, transfer them to the ice water to stop the cooking. Leave them in the ice water for a minute, then drain them and transfer them to a storage container. Add the pineapple to this container. Place the three containers that hold the stir-fry sauce, chicken, and vegetables/pineapples in the freezer.
What to Do Each Day
Heat the American Chop Suey on the stove in a large pot. If it seems dry, you can add ½ cup of water so it doesn’t stick to the pan.
Steam the broccoli and serve it on the side.
Warm the Squash Chili in a large pot on the stove.
If you want to serve it with rice, cook that too.
Bake the Lentil Sweet Potato Casserole at 400 degrees for 30 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender.
Transfer the Chicken Pineapple Stir-Fry ingredients from the freezer to the refrigerator so they’ll be defrosted on Friday.
In the morning, take the pizza dough out of the refrigerator and leave it on the counter to come to room temperature.
When you’re ready to cook, preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Chop the scallions and avocado. Roll out the dough, top the pizza, and bake as directed in the recipe.
Boil the rice noodles according to the package instructions and chop the scallions.
Follow the recipe instructions to stir-fry the ingredients. Serve over the noodles.
Most of these recipes will generate leftovers, so enjoy them for lunch throughout the week or freeze them for another time.
Are make-ahead meals part of your routine? Please share in the comments to let us know how you do it!