Tricks and Recipes for Make-Ahead Meals

Make-ahead meals let you serve home-cooked dishes even on the most hectic day.

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD

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 dinnertime 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 to toss together at the last minute or assembling the full meal for reheating can make the dinner hour more relaxed and manageable," Bissex tells WebMD in an email interview.

There are several ways to make your meals ahead of time. You can assemble them early and keep in the refrigerator until you're ready to pop 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.

"All soups often benefit from being made ahead because standing time allows the flavors to blend," she says. Further, she says, most homemade salad dressings taste better when they are made a day in advance.

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 get all the ingredients prepped and even partially cooked, in most cases for up to two days ahead," she says.

Many slow-cooker recipes are suited to being prepared ahead of time, she says. Slow-cooker dishes like stews and chili also 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," she says. "Eat a portion on the day it is cooked, and freeze the rest for future meals."

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 entree by design. You're supposed to let it sit in the refrigerator, then bake in the morning. Thus 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.
  • 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 entree recipes to get you started!

Ragu Bolognese

This sauce tastes even better the day after you make it. Just keep it in a covered container in the refrigerator and warm it up to serve over hot noodles. You can even make the noodles ahead of time and warm both up together when the time is right.

1 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3/4 cup minced onion
1/2 cup minced celery
1/3 cup minced carrot
1 pound extra-lean ground beef
2 ounces pancetta bacon, finely chopped
1/2 cup fat-free half-and-half or whole or low-fat milk
1 1/2 cups tomato sauce (or bottled marinara sauce)
1 1/2 cups beef broth
5 cups cooked and drained whole-grain blend spaghetti noodles

  • Heat olive oil in a large, nonstick saucepan over medium-high heat. Add onion, celery, and carrots and saute until soft. Add beef and pancetta, stir, and cook the vegetable-meat mixture until meat is nicely brown (about 15 minutes). While it's cooking, break the beef up into smaller pieces with spatula or spoon.
  • Pour in the half-and-half or milk, and cook until most of the milk has evaporated (about 5 minutes).
  • Add to slow cooker and stir in tomato sauce and beef broth. Cook on LOW for at least 3 hours (but will be fine for 8-10 hours). Or, stir the tomato sauce and broth into the large saucepan with the meat and vegetable mixture, cover, and simmer for 30 minutes.
  • Meanwhile, start boiling water for the pasta. Add noodles and boil until al dente (just barely tender) and drain well. Serve meat sauce over cooked and drained noodles.

Yield: 5 servings
Per serving: 399 calories, 27 g protein, 47 g carbohydrate, 12 g fat, 3.5 g saturated fat, 33 mg cholesterol, 7 g fiber, 930 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 28%.

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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
3/4 teaspoon parsley flakes or 2 teaspoons 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 (i.e. from frozen section), OPTIONAL

  • If baking right away, preheat oven to 400 degrees. Coat a 9-inch deep-dish pie plate with canola cooking spray.
  • Add shredded chicken, brown rice, herbs, onion, spinach, ricotta cheese, pepper, and Parmesan to large mixing bowl and gently mix together well with spoon.
  • 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
Per serving (without pesto): 260 calories, 26 g protein, 21 g carbohydrate, 7.8 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 61 mg cholesterol, 3 g fiber, 175 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 27%. (With pesto): 299 calories, 27 g protein, 22 g carbohydrate, 11 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 63 mg cholesterol, 3 g fiber, 227 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 34%.

Alfredo Potato Lasagna

If you want to make eight servings of this dish, double the ingredients and use a 9 x 13-inch baking pan. To make it ahead of time, just prepare the dish up to Step 5. I used Classico Roasted Garlic Alfredo (in 16-ounce jar) for the recipe and it worked very well. If you don't want to use tuna, you can substitute 1 1/2-cups of any shredded meat, such as roasted chicken or grilled salmon.

3/4 cup (6 ounces) bottled Alfredo sauce (choose a brand with no more than 6 grams fat per 1/4 cup serving)
1/2 cup fat-free half-and-half or low-fat milk
1 1/2 pounds potatoes, cut widthwise into 1/8-inch thick slices
3 tablespoons shredded Parmesan cheese
1/4 teaspoon black pepper (or more if you like)
12-ounce can albacore tuna (in water), drained
1 cup frozen peas or edamame, lightly thawed
1 cup shredded part-skim Jarlsberg or reduced-fat Swiss cheese (or use gruyere, smoked gouda, or white cheddar)

  • Preheat oven to 400 degrees if you're baking the dish right away. Coat a 9 x 9-inch baking dish with canola cooking spray.
  • Add Alfredo sauce and milk to a medium bowl and whisk together until smooth. Spread a heaping 1/4 cup of the sauce in the bottom of the baking dish. Layer one-third of the potatoes over the sauce and sprinkle with a dash or two of pepper.
  • Add Parmesan cheese, tuna, peas or edamame, and shredded cheese to a large bowl and toss to mix well. Spread half the tuna mixture over the potatoes in the dish. Top with a heaping 1/4 cup of sauce, then half the remaining potato slices. Top with more black pepper and the remaining tuna mixture.
  • Finish by spreading a heaping 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, and bake about 20 minutes more or until potatoes are tender. Let stand about 10 minutes before serving.

Yield: 6 servings
Per serving (using Classico Roasted Garlic Alfredo): 342 calories, 26 g protein, 36.5 g carbohydrate, 10.8 g fat, 4.8 g saturated fat, 41 mg cholesterol, 5.5 g fiber, 534 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 28%.

Published September 7, 2007.


Recipes provided by Elaine Magee; © 2007 Elaine Magee

SOURCES: Judith Finlayson, author, The Healthy Slow Cooker. Paulette Mitchell, author, A Beautiful Bowl of Soup. Janice Bissex, MS, RD, author, The Mom's Guide to Meal Makeovers.

©2007 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.

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Last Editorial Review: 9/7/2007