I can't even tell you the number of times I see Instagram posts humble(-ish) bragging about meal planning. Whether it's a week's worth of lunches or enough dinner to cover Monday through Thursday nights, these folks are prepared. I get the concept, of course. Spend several hours on a Sunday so your weeknights are that much less insane. But the reality is that I'm more likely to roll my eyes at all of that efficiency than I am to actually, well, plan anything.
Part of that reason is timing; I'd rather spend my Sundays outdoors or exploring a new brewery or restaurant. Weekends are for fun, not work. Another reason? I tend to get really bored if I'm eating the same dish for multiple meals in a row. Especially because I live in a two-person household, leftovers and make-ahead meals can, and often do, last for days upon days. That's fine for the next day's work lunch, but not so much three more meals.
All too often, the result of my disdain for making dinners ahead is, however, stressful weeknights and very late dinners scarfed down in front of Parks and Rec reruns. So I set myself an assignment to figure out how to meal prep without getting bored and without taking up all of my time on the weekends.
The trick? Along with those long-cooked, easy to heat up dishes, mix in quick-cooking meals that also don't take a second thought. Cooking one extra dish on a Sunday isn't too much of a struggle, even if I've had a couple of beermosas earlier that afternoon, and the variety added by mixing in those fast dinners keeps things interesting. Another key learning point? This one is probably obvious, but I've really stepped up my pantry game for those nights when even vegetable tacos are too much work. If you've always got the ingredients for your favorite 15 minute pasta on hand, you can always have dinner.
Here are some ideas to get you started, plus my list of pantry must-haves:
Dishes to make ahead
Chili is always a big hit in my house, and when you pull it out of the fridge to serve during the week, you can always add ultra-quick cornbread (these are our favorite mixes) for an easy-to-make and still fresh from the oven side. Relatedly, rich soups and stews are also excellent make-ahead meals, and they often even improve with some rest time in the fridge. I particularly like chicken and dumplings, and Anne Byrn's new tomato-veggie soup is also a great healthy option.
Casseroles and pot pies work great as make-ahead dishes, and they often don't take as long to prep as soups and stews do. Our brand-new King Ranch casserole is family-friendly and full of shortcuts, and our squash souffle would be perfect served with an ultra-quick green salad. Everyone at Southern Kitchen also loves this chicken pot pie, which even freezes well if you're really, really into planning ahead.
Certain salads, such as coleslaw and its many variants, can also be made in advance by a day or two; keep these at the top of your weekly rotation so that they still maintain their crunch. Use them to top grain bowls — cook the grains ahead and then make use of over leftovers and pantry veggies for toppings — or serve alongside a store-bought rotisserie chicken.
Need more ideas? Here are eight of our favorite new make-ahead meals.
Dishes to make at the last minute
When it comes to quick dinners, I like to stick to a list of tried-and-true household favorites. Vegetarian tacos show up on my weeknight table at least once a week (and not only on Tuesdays). For those, I simply enhance the flavor of a can of black beans with cumin, dried oregano and bay leaves, and I pair it with sauteed onions, carrots and peppers. Corn tortillas, jarred salsa and your cheese of choice will finish these healthy tacos off. And you can mix and match any vegetables or canned beans you have sitting around — there's no need to worry about authenticity here.
Another obvious and easy weeknight meal is pasta. I make everything from spaghetti with a quick tomato sauce to sausage, vegetables and penne mixtures. The key is to always keep a good block of Parmesan and a few tins of anchovies (don't hate) on hand. Even the barest garlic and olive oil pasta dish will get a big boost of flavor from these two umami bombs.
If you want to get more Southern with it, try pairing quick-cooking grits with whatever leftovers you've got in your fridge for a below-the-Mason-Dixon twist on Italian polenta. Or go in the entire opposite direction and lean into stir-fries. Add in a spoonful of Schezuan chili-bean paste or Korean gochujang for serious flavor.
Or try these 6 ultra-quick recipes already curated for you.
Ready to go shopping?
Here's what you should add to your next shopping list and make sure you always have on hand. Mix in fresh produce, meat and good bread, and you'll be living like a queen (or king) all week long.
- Onions and garlic
- Dried pasta
- White rice
- Quick grits
- Cornbread mix or cornmeal
- Good extra-virgin olive oil
- White or red wine vinegar
- Soy and fish sauce
- Canned beans
- Canned tomatoes
- Jarred sun-dried tomatoes
- Canned pesto
- Dijon mustard
- Chili and/or curry paste
- Red pepper flakes
- Large eggs
- Unsalted butter
- Good Parmesan cheese
- Frozen peas and corn
- Frozen spinach