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Question from a Teen Who Cooks: How Far In Advance Can I Make Dinner?

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Cooking Meals Ahead

Sydney (doing something else she enjoys when she’s not cooking)

Dear Jessica, My name is Sydney, I am 13 years old. I love to cook, and I have been following your recipes to make dinner for my family using your weekly meal plans, and we all love it!

I have recently attempted cooking meals ahead of time (on Sunday). It has worked really well for my family so far, but I’m concerned about how far in advance you can make certain foods. I have been following your “Do Ahead or Delegate” section, but sometimes it does not specify how long you can make it in advance.

I am interested in prepping food ahead of time because I really like to eat the food from your recipes, but I don’t always have time to make things when I have homework or after school activities. If I prep the food ahead of time, I can make food that I like very quickly without changing my schedule very much. I am wondering how far in advance can I make dinner? And if you have any tips on food prep, or “rules” to make sure the food is good when it is time to eat it, that would be awesome.  Sincerely, Sydney

Dear Sydney, First, I love to hear from a teen who cooks! Lately I have been meeting so many kids who cook for their family and I am so heartened by all the young people who are embracing cooking and meal planning. Your family is very lucky to have you cooking for them, and I hope you enjoy it and find these skills serve you well throughout your life.

Cooking meals ahead of time is a great solution for many families who have more time on the weekends than they do on harried weekdays.  But many, like you, wonder, “How far in advance can I cook?”

I have to admit that I am not an expert on this topic because, while I like to plan and shop in advance, I also like to cook each night, so I don’t have a ton of experience with preparing or even prepping food in advance. However, I have a wonderful online community who were happy to share their advice. Below I combine their advice with my own.

Here are some guidelines and tips for cooking food in advance for your family:

Prep and Bag Up the Veggies and Grains: “I chop and clean vegetables on the weekends. I fill up resealable bags with greens, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, mushrooms, fennel, etc. And I’ll throw a bunch of cloves in the mini Cuisinart to have chopped garlic ready to go. I store the garlic and chopped/sliced onions in glass containers. And I generally make a pot of brown rice/quinoa and soak and cook a pot of beans for the week. If I make chickpeas, then I’ll make hummus later in the week.” – Becky Levin, Washington, DC

“I like to chop all the onions I need for the week in the Cuisinart on Sunday.” – Laura Trivers, Bethesda, MD

Double or Triple Recipes and Freeze: “Before I started med school, I cooked 6 months worth of food and put it in the freezer, knowing I would have no time for anything! I use glass containers that can be heated or microwaved to store them. I find it is just as easy to make 6 servings of something as it is to make 2. Prep time and clean up is the same.” – Mary Ann Block, Ft. Worth, TX

Baked Pesto Penne with Italian SausageMake Sauce and Soup in Advance: “In the winter I love making a red sauce on a Saturday and letting the flavors blend for 24 hours or more. I can use the sauce for a quick pasta dinner or chicken Parmesan.” –  Kristen Pywell Bray, Winchester, MA

“I make soups and baked beans on the weekend and serve them during the week. Anything with beans or lentils works great.” – Diane Bartz

Note: Meatless soups, stews, chili and stir-fries can last in the refrigerator for up to a week.

Roast Vegetables for the Week: “Roast your root veggies for the week (beets, cauliflower, potatoes). Chop and store onions, carrots, and celery. Cook and freeze your brown rice or other grains.” – Rebecca Layton Gunter, Washington, DC

farmersmarketLet a Slow Cooker Do the Work: “During the week, use the crock pot when you expect to arrive home late.” – Rebecca Layton Gunter

Prep and Freeze Meat: “If you plan to stir fry chicken or another protein, chop it while it’s raw and freeze it in a freezer bag. Thaw it in the fridge the night before you need it. Toss it with some cornstarch right before adding to the pan. This is great if you buy the meat in bulk. – Ann-Marie Martin Ward

Cook Meat in Advance: Cooked meats usually last longer than raw meats—depending on the meat, they can last up to 5 days, where raw meats can last 2 – 4 days. More guidelines for storing meat here.

Package Your Meals: “We don’t like to eat frozen or leftover food in our family so on Sunday with my plan for the week, I prep all the ingredients and package and label them in the fridge so when I get home they are ready to go. – Debra Elias Schwartz, Silver Spring, MD

Eat Perishables First: Cook and eat the most perishable foods first, like fish, cooked pasta and delicate greens.

Don’t Neglect Your Freezer; Pull something that you made in the past out of the freezer mid-week for your family to eat at the end of the week.

Trust your nose: As much as I despise wasting food, if something smells “off”, you should toss it rather than eating it.

Cut Some Fruit In Advance: Whole fruit generally stays fresh tasting for longer than cut fruit, but if you cover it tightly and store it in the fridge, cut fruit can last 3 – 7 days, especially heartier fruits like melon and pineapple. However, to extend their life, make sure and wait to wash delicate fruits like berries and stone fruit until the day you plan to use it, and of course, apples will brown if cut in advance.

Ambrosia Fruit SaladStore Food Properly for Longer Life: Make sure and use your refrigerator’s crisper and fruit drawers to extend the longevity of your produce, and store fruits separately from vegetables.

More food storage guidelines here and here.

You also might want to use your slow cooker to cook meals in advance. Follow these slow cooker tips and tricks and double recipes and freeze half to make weeknight dinners go more smoothly.

Scramblers, any other advice for Sydney about how to make weekend cooking work well for her and her family? Please share in the comments below!

Sydney, it is so great to hear from you.  Keep on cooking and let me know if there is anything else I can do to help.



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