I got this email the other day: “I'm a mama to a toddler, with one more en route, and my husband travels one week a month for work. I'm always looking for something healthy and truly delicious, that I can make ahead, or at least prep ahead for those weeks when I'm solo. I'm someone who thinks that everything from the crock-pot tastes one-note, so those recipes are out. What would your three top choices be? Bonus points for being toddler friendly - we feed her the same food we feed ourselves, but you know, super spicy or sour foods are not her thing. Thanks!”
My daughter is also a mama to a toddler (my grandson), and I cooked religiously for my kids when they were young, so this is something I’ve thought a lot about. Unless you’ve got lots of free time (or help), angelic children who will eat anything, or totally have your shit together, at least some degree of make-ahead cooking is pretty much essential if you have kids. But I’d also argue that it’s almost as necessary even if you don’t. It’s a convenience (not the kind that relies on junk food) that helps us cook and eat homemade meals more regularly, which is important no matter what.
As requested, three of my favorite make-ahead recipes are below, and I’ll get to those in a sec. But first let me say (as I’ve been doing for decades) that the best thing you can do to make cooking easy and repeatable is to make big batches of staple ingredients and store them in your fridge and/or freezer to use throughout the week. If you have a giant tray of lasagna in the freezer (an admirable situation), then your dinner options are to cook from scratch or to eat…lasagna. But if you have component parts cooked, simply seasoned (salt and pepper, or nothing) and ready to mix and match, then you can throw together quick meals with endless variations with minimal effort.
I’m not saying this doesn’t take some work and planning on the front end, but man is it worth it. Here’s what I usually keep around:
Stock: You can refrigerate it for several days or freeze in airtight containers, ice cube trays, or resealable plastic bags.
Cooked Grains: Freeze in resealable bags with all the air squeezed out. Thaw in the fridge, microwave, or during cooking.
Cooked Beans: Freeze beans (in containers covered with their cooking liquid) for up to a few months. Thaw in the fridge, microwave, or during cooking.
Tomato Sauce: Refrigerate for days or cook a big batch, divide it among freezer containers in sizes you’ll use, and freeze for months—or longer. Thaw in the microwave.
Roasted Vegetables: Let them cool, then store them in airtight containers in the refrigerator for up to a week.
Cooked Meats: Stored in an airtight container or wrapped tightly with plastic wrap, these will keep in the fridge for several days.
Salad Greens: If you have a salad spinner, put the torn leaves or loose-leaf greens in the insert, fill the bowl with water, swirl the leaves around, discard the water, and repeat until you don’t see dirt in the water. If you don’t have a spinner, set a colander inside a stockpot. To dry the leaves either give them a spin or gently shake and toss them with a clean kitchen towel. Do a big batch and store what you don’t use: Put the dried greens in the fridge in the covered salad spinner or loosely wrap them in paper towels, set them inside a plastic bag, and seal it loosely. They’ll keep for 2 to 4 days.
But I digress. Our toddler-mom friend asked for three of my favorite healthy, delicious, kid-friendly, make-ahead recipes, so here’s what I’ve got:
1) Brown Rice and Lamb Burgers with Spinach. Consider this recipe a template: cooked rice, ground meat, and seasonings formed into patties, browned in a skillet, and served over sautéed greens (I understand that the greens part might be wishful thinking, at least when it comes to toddlers). The rice adds wonderful texture and means you don’t have to use that much meat (which can be lamb, beef, turkey, chicken, whatever). This version is flavored with feta, cumin, onion, garlic, and oregano, but you can take it in any direction you want. To make these ahead, I form the patties, individually wrap them in plastic, and freeze them (I make a big batch, because why not?). Let them come to room temperature before cooking in the skillet, then just sauté the spinach (or whatever greens you’re using) at the last minute. Kids love these (they’re burgers, after all); adults too.
2) Minestrone. I couldn’t not include a soup (the ultimate make-ahead dish), and this one, which I learned from an Italian grandma, is something that I make constantly. It’s a master recipe that’s written to be flexible for whatever vegetables you like or have handy. And since you finish it with tender vegetables and greens just before serving, the soup always tastes fresh even though it came from the freezer. It’s also a great way to load your kid (or yourself) with veggies, and comes with a few nice variations for when you want to mix things up. To make it even heartier, stir in any leftover cooked meat, or poach a few eggs in the liquid as it simmers.
3) Chicken-and-Biscuit Pot Pie. I think I love this version (with a biscuit topping instead of the traditional pie crust) even more than the original, and not just because it’s WAY easier. To turn this into a make-ahead recipe, cook the filling (steps 3 and 4), let it cool, transfer it to a storage container or bag and refrigerate or freeze it. When you’re ready for pot pie, heat the oven to 450 degrees. While you’re waiting, reheat the filling in an ovenproof skillet, and stir together the biscuit batter ingredients. Then you just spoon the batter over the filling, pop the whole thing in the oven, and 15 minutes later it’s crusty, bubbling, and ready to go. Have a wonderful week.
The Holy Grail of projects—which is probably why frozen pot pies remain so popular. But this recipe busts that myth into flaky bits and puts homemade pot pie on the table in an hour with very little effort.
I’ve probably made minestrone once a month for years, never the same way twice. Tomatoes of some kind are the only constant; everything else is up for grabs. To facilitate this use-what-you-have approach, the ingredient list groups the vegetable options as “hard” and “soft” and gives a few suggestions, but soon you’ll be making this without a recipe. Trust me.
The rice gives these burgers an amazingly crisp crust and moist interior. Use ground turkey or beef instead of lamb if you like, and try topping the burgers with a little yogurt and lemon juice—it’s a nice touch.
Talk To Me, Goose!
Questions, comments, brilliant suggestions? Just want to share the recipe for your grandma's potato salad, or your mom's meatloaf, or your uncle Drew's three-day 100-percent rye loaf (yes, please)? Don't hesitate to reach out anytime.