If you’re like me, when you get home, the last thing you want to do is start a meal from scratch. Whether I’m being questioned about what’s for dinner, answering a phone call or trying to remember the time and location of an evening meeting, the swirl of activity seems to crescendo just as I need to begin cooking.
Advance preparation keeps me sane and allows us to eat dinners that are healthier and nicer than what I could throw together if I started just as dinnertime approaches. Of course, the key is shopping smart, with a plan and ingredient list for all the dinners you’ll make in the coming week or the next few days.
Some of my favorite advance preparation meals are the homemade equivalents of the TV dinners I loved as a kid – casseroles that freeze well, defrost in the refrigerator and easily reheat just before dinner. But you can also make meals in stages, allowing you to put together a fresh dinner at the last minute. A few tips to set you down the do-ahead path. In general, these tips are meant for preparation 1 day (or night) in advance.
- Stir-fry dishes work well – Cut up “dry” vegetables such as carrots, broccoli, onions, celery and cabbage the night before and refrigerate them in airtight containers or plastic bags. In this Chinese Burmese Chili Chicken, you could also cube the chicken the night before, leaving it in a covered and refrigerated container until just before cooking.
- Tossed salad is another great do-ahead dish. Wash, dry and tear the lettuce into bite-size pieces, storing it in a plastic bag or container with a paper towel to absorb excess moisture. Cut up dry vegetables and toss them into a container in the refrigerator. When you get home, mix the two packages, add a few cherry or grape tomatoes, and you’re done – dressing or oil and vinegar on the side for those who use them.
- Keep track of multiple prepared items in the refrigerator by grouping them together, maybe even stashed in a loose plastic bag. Nothing slows you down more, or is more frustrating, than knowing you cut up the carrots last night but not being able to find them in a hurry.
- Meat dishes that need to marinate or “sit” to develop flavor are ideal do-ahead main dishes, especially if their cooking time is minimal. These spicy lamb merguez patties need time to “sit”, then take less than 15 minutes to cook: make the spice mixture anytime you want (days or weeks ahead), form the patties the night before, and pop them on the grill the next day.
- I often make noodle pudding (known as kugel in my neck of the woods) or homemade macaroni and cheese casseroles the night before, cover them tightly with plastic wrap or foil, and refrigerate them uncooked until the next day. Taken directly from refrigerator to oven, they take a bit longer to cook, but if I put the casserole into the oven just after getting home, it is ready by the time everyone gathers for dinner.
- Noodles and grains absorb sauce over time, so don’t add all the sauce ahead of time. E.g. for Dan Dan or peanut noodles made hours or a day in advance, reserve most of the sauce to add just before serving, or if you like a lot of sauce, make extra to add at the last minute.
- Don’t cut up tomatoes, strawberries, and other juicy fruits and vegetables many hours ahead of time, as their juices run out and they lose their shape.
- Avocados, potatoes, bananas, and apples discolor if left open to air. Don’t cut them until just before cooking unless you mix them into a dish with citrus or sprinkle citrus juice on them.
- Baking soda and powder activate once they are in dough. Unless recipe directions specifically say otherwise, dishes with crusts or topping (e.g. pot pies with biscuit-type topping) should not sit fully pre-made for extended periods before baking.
On this hot, summer day, I'll be out at meetings until just before dinner. Although my head says prepare dinner, my heart – and the thermometer - say “no way.” And for just such days, my plans go straight to salads (both fruit and vegetable-based), good cheese and bread and cold sliced meat. Which goes back to my weekday dinner tip #1 – be realistic, not just about what you’ll shop for and make, but also about what your family will want to eat in this weather.
I contribute a bi-monthly column, It's Just Dinner, to the Whole Foods Market Cooking site. This post is a modified version of one of those columns.