Food Simple Weekend Meal-Prep Routines for Easy Weeknight Dinners

by Jenny Rosenstrach | May 02, 2020

For better or worse, food and the routines that surround food are the things that keep me grounded.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that I need to whip up a big family dinner from scratch every night to feel a sense of normalcy. In fact, I take as much pleasure in routine in the kitchen when it saves time — having a few ingredients and strategies that streamline the work and I can deploy on a week-to-week basis. And that starts with a little upfront prep work on the weekend to set me up for success in the week ahead of family dinners.  

Here are four things I do (and a few recipes to keep on hand) when I want to help make weeknight dinner more of a joy than a chore — not to mention more economical.

Shop the building blocks

What’s in your refrigerator every week is probably different than what’s in mine, but the goal here is to figure out the most versatile ingredients that you are comfortable spinning into easy meals. For me, that shopping list always includes: avocados, kale, eggs, mushrooms, extra-firm tofu, miso, broccoli, pasta, and either chicken or fish.

The key here is not to overcomplicate things — you want basic building blocks that add up to foods your family enjoys. No one is handing out awards here, the goal is a simple, healthy dinner.

The key here is not to overcomplicate things.
End Quote

Prep a few flavor ‘elevators’

The best way I know to give a boost of flavor to most any dish is with salad dressing. Which is why I make a homemade one at the start of every week.

Sure, it’s easy to go for bottled salad dressing — there are a lot of fresh, solid options out there, albeit pricey — but if I take a few minutes on Sunday to shake up the simplest vinaigrette, I know it’s going to elevate any salad that graces the table. Not just lettuce kind of salads, but bean salads and chicken salads, too. A drizzle of vinaigrette over a simple broiled fish is maybe my favorite thing to eat. 

My other go-to? Quick-pickle onions. I know, this one seems random, but stay with me. Like many people, I’ve been shifting my eating and cooking in the plant-based direction, which means I’ve been making a lot of multi-component bowl dinners (think: rice + tofu + vegetables + sauce).

When I have pickled red onions ready to go, it’s one less component to think about, and their bracing tang really truly elevates everything else in the bowl surrounding them. You can also use pickled onions to easily upgrade tacos, burritos, salads, omelets and beans.

Homemade salad dressing in mixing bowl, sitting on cutting board

Roast a chicken

Again, it’s easy to settle for one of those rotisserie chickens spinning under neon lights, but it’s so much more economical (and, dare I say, more comforting) to roast your own split chicken breasts. It takes three minutes of hands-on time and 45 minutes of cooking time, you’ll have chicken to shred and add to soups, salads, grain bowls and sandwiches. 

I like relying on chicken because it’s cheap, healthy and versatile, but your choice of protein might be shredded pork shoulder or baked tofu. The key here is to have something to build on, instead of starting from absolute scratch.

Bank a freezer meal (or two)

When I’m my best self, I carve out an hour on a Saturday or Sunday to please my (more harried) future self later in the week. You know how good it feels when you decide you can just relax and order in? It’s that feeling times a thousand when you have a healthy butternut squash soup or veggie chili waiting for you in the freezer.

Sure, the prep work of dicing, chopping and simmering on the upfront is more involved, but double a batch and it’s well worth the effort. You’ll be rewarded with something homemade on a night you really need that pick-me-up and at a fraction of the cost of takeout.

Homemade Butternut Squash Soup

Recipes at the ready

Following are recipes for tried-and-true staples and favorite freezer meals.

1. All-purpose salad dressing

In a small bowl or jar, whisk or shake together the following: 1/4 cup lemon juice (from about 1 1/2 lemons), 1 1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard, 1 1/2 teaspoon honey, kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, and 1/3 cup olive oil.

2. Quick-pickled onions

In a small bowl, whisk together the following: 1/2 cups apple cider vinegar, 1 tablespoon sugar, 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, 1 cup water until sugar and salt dissolve. Place 1 red onion (thinly sliced) in a jar; pour vinegar mixture over. Let sit at room temperature for 1 hour. Cover the jar and refrigerate.

Pickled red onions in a glass jar

3. Roast chicken

Roast 2 to 3 split chicken breasts or boneless chicken breasts at 375°F on a rimmed baking sheet along with 1/4 cup of water and tent with foil for 40 minutes. The bone-in split breasts are good for shredding, the breasts are good for slicing on the bias. Keeps in the fridge for up to a week.

4. Butternut squash soup

This recipe for butternut squash soup gives this classic dish a twist thanks to the addition of coconut milk. Serve hot with a squeeze of lime and suggested toppings or let cool and freeze.

5. Vegetarian chili

The ultimate in prep-ahead dinners to make in a giant batch for now (with plenty left over to freeze) is vegetarian chili

Jenny Rosenstrach

is the New York Times bestselling author of Dinner: A Love Story, which is also the name of her blog. You can find her on Instagram at @dinneralovestory.