I learned to prep and cook ahead when raising my family. It was done out of sheer necessity due to a very long commute in and out of New York City (two hours each way on a good day…don’t even ask). The only way to continue to eat well, not spend a fortune on takeout and eat together as a family for the evening meal was to prep and cook ahead on the weekend.
The age old question of "what are we having for dinner" rages on. I hear it when I go grocery shopping, on Zoom calls and on line at CVS. I even heard one “meal fatigued” Mom exclaim to another friend, “why are we STILL eating dinner?!” It tells me that people really like dinner and look forward to it.
Looking back, I'm not sure just how I managed to do this for several years. We didn't eat takeout as kids so I wasn't used to just picking something up on my way home, irrespective of the cost. Those were the days before InstaCart, Door Dash and the like. Knowing how to cook and being a good cook is both a blessing and a curse. Your family gets accustomed to your food (saying things like “no one makes macaroni and cheese as good as you”) and, well, you know the rest.
Here's a short list of some of the foods we ate (some of which were inspired by foods I ate and enjoyed in childhood)
Mac and cheese, meat loaf, meat balls, all kinds of soups (chicken noodle, split pea, corn chowder, curried broccoli, vegetable, cream of mushroom, minestrone), baked ham, roast vegetables, collard greens, roast chicken or turkey, stuffing, gravy, pot roast, chicken pot pie, chili, beef stew, overnight oats, chocolate chip cookies, tapioca pudding, lasagna, eggplant parmigiana, quick breads, applesauce, and baked potatoes. These foods sustained my family. I did eventually purchase a small deep freezer and stacked the meals in labeled vacuum sealed bags.
We usually included a large salad which the kids made before dinner. They tried to "fancy it up" like I would do...it didn't matter, honestly. I was grateful for their contribution and they faithfully set the table, cleared the table, did the dishes and swept and mopped the kitchen floor.
My kids were athletes so they came home ravenous, despite packing snacks (granola, fruit, cut up veggies, string cheese and bottled water) for after school practices and meets. They'd often want a snack before dinner and then eat a full meal. Maddening, however, they were burning an enormous number of calories and were hungry.
Photo from a family Thanksgiving dinner.
It wasn’t uncommon for me to make a Thanksgiving dinner several times a year, because we really liked the dishes in that meal and I could work magic with turkey leftovers including croquettes, turkey soup, sandwiches and salads. The meal didn't always include all the sides, but it was one of our favorite meals hands down.
My sister Susan and I talked about ideas for lunch meal prep and here's some of what she shared that worked for her family.
"I made lunch when I came home from school for the next day. This was easiest for me. As you know, I'm not a morning person, so I was able to make my salad, prepare my fruit and pack my lunch bag.
Cut up watermelon and fruit in chunks for easy eating.
Make pancakes and freeze them in layers in freezer bags. Package them so you have several breakfasts ready. Same thing with waffles. Add bacon if you have it.
Leftover rice and chicken. Put in container for a quick lunch.
Pita bread. Spread out in rounds, brush with olive oil Sprinkle with your favorite seasoning, chopped parsley, garlic. Place on cookie sheet in a 350 degree oven and bake until crispy (10-15 minutes). Serve with soup or salad."
My own tips for meal prep and cook ahead are simple:
- Prepare what your family will eat.
- Get decent refrigerator/freezer safe containers (air is the enemy in destroying food).
- Invest in a crock pot, slow cooker or InstaPot.
- If you're chopping onions, carrots, celery, etc. for a meal, chop enough for several meals and freeze the food in ziplock bags or freezer containers.
- meant fresh baked cookies? Make the dough and freeze individual portions on a cookie sheet; remove to a freezer bag. Bake when needed.
- My rule for cooking on the weekend was to have all four burners as well as the oven going at the same time. After all, I had to stand there and tend the food...why not utilize the time and appliances all in one sitting?
Here are a few of my favorite trusted recipes:
And if you're still stuck on what to prep, check these out:
Pat Bennett is the founder and President of Pat's Granola, a Cleveland food and lifestyle company.
Pat's Granola is sold online at www.patsgranola.com and is also available at selected Northeast Ohio businesses including:
Troubadour Coffee Roasters www.troubadourcoffeeroasters.com
Sports and Spine Physical Therapy www.sportspine.com
Local Flavors Shoppe www.localflavors.net
Cleveland Hopkins International Airport www.clevelandairport.com
Locle Box www.loclebox.com
Made Cleveland www.madecleveland.com
Mister Brisket www.misterbrisket.com
Nature's Oasis Lakewood www.naturesoasis.com
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The Corner at The Van Aken District The Corner at The Van Aken District
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