I don't love to admit it, but before I joined the Food52 team, I was not a world-champion meal planner. I spent five years in an office where "lunch hour" meant: "pop out for quick takeaway." And "weeknight dinner" meant: "the fantasy of an alternate universe where people leave work before 8:30 p.m."
Accordingly, I struggled to get my act together when I first crossed the threshold of Food52 HQ. But, it turned out, all I had to do was look around. My new colleagues were like the Olympic Varsity All-Star Meal Planning team. (Is it too clear from that description that I've never watched sports?) They even wrote a book on it.
My first week on the job, come noon, I'd encounter a sudden onslaught of salads composed so beautifully, I'd wonder if there was a farmers' market in the building I hadn't yet noticed. People would wander out of the team kitchen with hunks of perfectly charred meat that looked like Francis Mallmann had spent days roasting and plating them. There were curried chickpea sandwiches. Bowls of pasta. Slices of warm cake.
And the way they talked about weeknight dinners: good god. These people were whipping up two-course meals like nobody's business. (Sheet-pan chicken thighs! Chili! Once, I even heard someone mention a scallion crostata!)
Equal parts impressed and intimidated, I started to to pay close attention. Here are my colleagues' best tips for quick and easy meal planning, for work-from-home lunches and weeknight dinners alike:
Keeping any number of spreads and dips—homemade over the weekend, or otherwise—is a game-changer when it comes to composing dinner in a flash—or adding a dollop of excitement to a pre-packed lunch.
Say you throw together some pesto pasta on a Saturday. Double-down on pesto-batch-size, throw the leftovers in the fridge. And when Monday rolls around, smear it on a plate and top with a 5-minute broiled boneless chicken breast, and a wedge of lemon. Game over. Or dollop it on top of other leftovers, maybe buzz it into a quick salad dressing to make things interesting.
"Since I am an unabashed homemade mayonnaise and aioli lover, I like to make a big-ish batch and keep it in the fridge to use on everything," says Brinda Ayer, our Books & Special Projects Editor. "To spread on toast, thin out to use as a salad dressing, dip sweet-potato wedges into, eat by the spoonful (yep)."
If you're like Senior Editor Eric Kim, then you don't underestimate the value of cooking for six to eight on the weekend—in order to eat for one throughout the workweek.
"Contrary to popular belief, I'm a pretty lazy cook if I'm being 1,000% honest," he tells me. "Even when I'm making a big batch of chicken or beef stroganoff or a simple steak dinner for one, I'll find any excuse to cut corners so that I'm left with gargantuan amounts of leftovers to repurpose into extra meals later, especially lunch."
"Oh, but this?" he chuckles. "Yeah...this is just Papa John's from last night. It's been a long week."
Do yourself a favor and keep a few ingredients you'll want to use over and over at work, like a bottle of olive oil, your vinegar-of-choice, hot sauce, salt, and pepper. Then, you can make like my fellow Recipe Developer & Food Writer Emma Laperruque and very quickly compose beautiful salads on-the-fly, by bringing your leafy greens and any surprise accoutrements day-of. Emma brings in a giant container of chopped veggies on Monday, and uses them in salads all week long.
"My freezer is my best friend," says Assistant Editor Katie Macdonald. "I love making big batches of soup or chili on Sunday nights, then freezing leftovers for my future-self. On days I know I'm swamped, I'll pull my frozen container out in the morning and let it defrost in the fridge all day. It's the best thing to come home to."
Katie, can I come over for dinner?
"Also a freezer fan!" says Marketing Manager Luz Ramirez. "I have a vacuum sealer, so I usually double my meals and freeze half—sometimes uncooked, so I have a fresh meal. P.S. Always have frozen cookie dough on hand."
Don't underestimate the importance of storage vessels.
For pre-prepped lunch and weeknight dinner components, having containers you can see right into that stack well will facilitate super easy grab-and-run-with-it dinner riffs.
"I don't follow a meal plan guide, per se, but I am a fan of overcooking on Sundays to have at least a couple of leftover options for our lunchboxes and dinners through Wednesday (that's the goal, at least)," says Senior Lifestyle Editor Hana Asbrink. "Things like big-batch Bolognese or other meaty mains, lasagna, pans of roasted veg, lots of hard-boiled eggs; they all get put into storage containers and are doled out over the next few days. Having cute and functional lunch boxes and bentos always seems to motivate me, but perhaps I'm alone in that?"
Grab a "lunchbox" that fits in your typical work-bag (or has its own handle!), and is oriented in the way you eat—which is to say, if you bring lots of little components or snacks, pick one with separate compartments.
Meal planning is great and all—and, with my colleagues' A++ intel, pretty easy to tackle—but sometimes, the best plan is no plan at all.
"Dinners are sometimes more of a whimsical affair, often inspired by something I pass at the corner market on Columbus Ave., or an unwanted root vegetable or spice left by a coworker," says Copywriter Maggie Slover. "They function as a sign post for the rest of the meal and give me a chance to be a little more spontaneous and creative without breaking the bank."
Watch: Our Test Kitchen's Best Tips for Making Meal Prep Easier
No matter which root vegetables you have in your kitchen, this foolproof roasting method from our co-founder, Merrill Stubbs, makes sure they come out crisp and tender every time.
A drizzle of nutty tahini and bright lemon juice takes otherwise average roasted broccoli and transforms it into a can't-stop-eating-it dish you'll have to make a concerted effort not to finish off in one go.
This lightly spicy cauliflower dish adds just the right zing to any meal-prepped lunch—we like to pack it with grain bowls, salads, or roasted chicken.
This five-ingredient side matches up sweet and salty flavors, and soft and crunchy textures for a sheet-pan dish you'll want to add to your meal prep rotation ASAP.
If you don't have pomegranate molasses already in your kitchen, you can easily sub in balsamic vinegar for these tangy-sticky roasted carrots (though stocking up on a bottle is highly recommended).
Roasted potatoes are an easy meal prep staple, so you'll probably want plenty of ideas for riffing on them throughout the year. Our contribution: lemony sheet-pan potatoes with smoky spices and tart kalamata olives.
Making hummus from scratch can easily turn into an hours-long affair, so you can thank us later for introducing this five-minute version from Chef Michael Solomonov to your meal prep-ertoire.
Equal parts creamy and perky, this roasted red pepper and cauliflower dip (that just so happens to be Whole30-friendly) welcomes all manner of crunchy pairings, from sliced vegetables to crackers.
This thick, lemony Middle Eastern staple makes a great dip or spread, yes, but it also works nicely under a salad of seasonal vegetables and herbs.
No chickpeas here—cooked beets and walnuts give this hummus its bright-red color and dip-able structure, while tahini, lemon, and cumin bring pops of flavor.
If you're not a cauliflower fan, feel free to swap in any sturdy vegetable, like broccoli, carrots, or fennel, for starters.
A double batch of this sheet-pan shrimp scampi can take you in a few different directions throughout the week, from salads to rice bowls.
If you don't feel like making a bunch of different recipes to eat throughout the week, make just one: this vegetarian-friendly sheet-pan salad starring big, bold flavors you'll want to eat over and over again.
For meal prep in a hurry, whip up these sheet-pan pork chops with roasty potatoes and carrots—the whole thing's ready to portion out and pack in just about an hour.
This sheet-pan chicken dinner (or next day's lunch!) gets five stars pretty much across the board for its speed, ease, and smart use of straightforward ingredients.
Get your dose of Omega3s with this sheet-pan roasted salmon dressed in classic combo of garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, capers, dill, and Dijon mustard.
This punchy sheet-pan chicken makes a crowd-friendly dinner one night, and a totally riff-able salad (mix in more greens, extra feta, fresh avocado slices, and the like) the next day.
You can tell we're into sheet-pan chicken, huh? This fuss-free recipe is ready an under an hour, and a double batch makes an excellent meal to enjoy throughout the week.
This hearty, cozy stew might actually taste better the next day (and lasts about three days in the fridge), which we think makes it an excellent meal-prep candidate.
This creamy turmeric soup can be frozen for up to three months, in case you're planning way ahead.
This batch of Instant Pot polenta can go a long way throughout the week—top it with braised or grilled meats, stewy lentils, or roasted veggies.
If salads are a part of your meal-prep game plan, consider this creamy vegan salad dressing a must.
The limits of this white bean and tuna salad only go so far as your imagination; we're dreaming of using it for sandwiches, salads, or heck, even on its own.
One reviewer said it best: "Super easy recipe that tastes great!"
This hardy, grain-packed salad (we're talking farro, wild rice, quinoa, and barley) won't wilt as it sits in the fridge, waiting for you to take it to work.
Add a bit of grilled chicken to this one-pot pilaf (which just so happens to be one of our most popular recipes of all time) and you've got yourself a very-satisfying lunch.
If you're unsure whether this dish belongs in your meal prep rotation, let this community member's review help you decide: "I've had this recipe on my list for a while and finally made it last night. It was delicious!"
Make this aromatic tomato rice during the colder months when you're bound to be in the mood for something cozy and comforting. Meal prep bonus: it reheats in the microwave well.
Take a hands-off approach to meal prep with this slow-cooker squash you can set and forget on a lazy Sunday afternoon, and enjoy throughout the week.
Quino, like most grains, makes a great base for all types of toppings. In this case, barely-cooked onions and celery, toasted hazelnuts, and dried cranberries.
Don't worry about the kale getting sad and droopy as it hangs out in the fridge—one reviewer said they regularly make it on Sunday nights for lunch throughout the week (and it's always good).
Make this surprisingly delicious salad once and we bet you'll keep broccoli, lentils, and tahini stocked in your kitchen on the regular.
"If you're looking for tuna salad, turn back now."
This completely vegan salad is especially nice over brown rice with sliced avocado or—if you eat meat—under just about any grilled protein.
What are your top tricks for meal planning? Let us know in the comments!
A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).Order now