Make Ahead

6 Meal-Planning Secrets for Better Weeknight Dinners—& Lunches

Top tips and tricks from the Food52 team.

October 29, 2018
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.

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. As we've headed into the busy holiday season over here at HQ, they've only gotten better. Here are my colleagues' best tips for quick and easy meal planning, for desk lunches and weeknight dinners alike:


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)."


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."


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

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."


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.


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."

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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