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40 Meal Prep Recipe Ideas & Tips for Better Weeknight Dinners—& Lunches

Top tips, tricks, and recipes from the Food52 team.

March 31, 2020
Photo by Ty Mecham

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.

An old photo of my colleague Emma's weekly salad mix-in line-up, which she keeps in the fridge. (See what I mean?) Photo by Ella Quittner

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:


1. Spreads & Dips Are Your Best Friends

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)."


2. Tonight's Dinner Should Absolutely Be Tomorrow's Lunch

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."

Last night's dinner looks pretty good in the light of day. Photo by Eric Kim

"Oh, but this?" he chuckles. "Yeah...this is just Papa John's from last night. It's been a long week."


3. Keep a Few Lunch Essentials At Work

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.

Remember those chopped veggies from before? Emma turned them into this! Photo by Ella Quittner

4. Make The Freezer Your Sous-Chef

"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."


5. Storage Is Key

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.


6. Embrace the Whimsy

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


34 Meal Prep Ideas & Recipes

1. Crisp & Tender Roasted Root Vegetables

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.

2. Tahini Roasted Broccoli

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.

3. Roasted Cauliflower with Cumin & Cilantro

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.

4. Roasted Brussels Sprouts With Pears & Pistachios

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.

5. Pomegranate Roasted Carrots

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).

6. Lemon-Roasted Potatoes with Kalamatas

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.

7. 5-Minute Hummus From Zahav Restaurant

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.

8. Roasted Red Pepper & Cauliflower Dip

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.

9. Labneh bi Toum

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.

10. Bright Red Beet Hummus

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.

11. Sheet-Pan Chicken & Cauliflower Bake

If you're not a cauliflower fan, feel free to swap in any sturdy vegetable, like broccoli, carrots, or fennel, for starters.

12. Sheet-Pan Shrimp Scampi for One

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.

13. Roasted Sweet Potato, Chickpea & Kale Sheet-Pan Salad

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.

14. Sheet-Pan Pork Chops & Vegetables With Parsley Vinaigrette

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.

15. Sheet-Pan Chicken With Broccoli, Chickpeas & Parmesan

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.

16. Sheet-Pan Roasted Salmon with Tomatoes & Fennel

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.

17. Sheet-Pan Za’atar Chicken With Carrot & Avocado Salad

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.

18. Sheet-Pan Chicken With Potatoes, Olives & Herbs

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.

19. Coconut & Red Curry Lentil Stew With Sweet Potatoes

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.

20. Turmeric Chickpea Soup With Charred Brussels Sprouts

This creamy turmeric soup can be frozen for up to three months, in case you're planning way ahead.

21. Instant Pot Polenta

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.

22. Easy, Creamy Vegan Salad Dressing

If salads are a part of your meal-prep game plan, consider this creamy vegan salad dressing a must.

23. White Bean & Tuna Salad with Hard Boiled Eggs and Dukkah

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.

24. Couscous Salad with Zucchini, Lemon & Ricotta Salata

One reviewer said it best: "Super easy recipe that tastes great!"

25. Radish & Pecan Grain Salad

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.

26. One-Pot Kale & Quinoa Pilaf

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.

27. Farro with Roasted Sweet Potato, Kale & Pomegranate Seeds

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!"

28. Tomato Rice (Tamatar Biryani)

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.

29. Slow-Cooker Whole Squash With Spelt & Feta

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.

30. Quinoa Salad with Hazelnuts, Apple & Dried Cranberries

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.

31. Northern Spy's Kale Salad

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).

32. Charred Broccoli & Lentil Salad

Make this surprisingly delicious salad once and we bet you'll keep broccoli, lentils, and tahini stocked in your kitchen on the regular.

33. Chickpea "Tuna" Salad

"If you're looking for tuna salad, turn back now."

34. Crunchy Cabbage Salad with Miso-Ginger Dressing

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!

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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).

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Ella Quittner

Written by: Ella Quittner

Ella Quittner is a contributing writer and the Absolute Best Tests columnist at Food52. She covers food, travel, wellness, lifestyle, home, novelty snacks, and internet-famous sandwiches. You can follow her on Instagram @equittner, or Twitter at @ellaquittner. She also develops recipes for Food52, and has a soft spot for all pasta, anything spicy, and salty chocolate things.

3 Comments

declined February 8, 2019
Sooo annoying that this tries - unsuccessfully, I might add - to prevent people for Fair Use copying images.
 
Deedledum March 8, 2019
Copy and paste?
 
Lazyretirementgirl January 27, 2019
About the biggish batch of homemade mayonnaise- how long will it last in the fridge?