8 Smart Strategies for Dinner Tonight

What kind of cook are you?

Do you like to cook all weekend just to stock your freezer? Do you like to prep Tuesday night’s dinner on Monday night? Will you follow a precise shopping and prep plan that yields three great weeknight dinners with a minimum of fuss? Or would you rather do a little prep in the early morning, turn on your slow cooker, and have dinner waiting for you when you hit the door? While most make-ahead cookbooks focus entirely on stocking your freezer with complete meals or meal components, this book takes a new approach. Yes, you will find a chapter devoted to dinners from the freezer, but you will also find seven other creative chapters that show you how a little advance work can reap huge benefits. Here’s a rundown of how we’ve set up the book so you can choose your style of make-ahead cooking depending on your temperament, your schedule, and your family’s needs. You pick the lane. We’ve done all the planning for you, leaving nothing to chance.

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1. Prep Ahead: Ready-to-Cook Meals

Oven-ready entrées that take a minimal amount of work the night before mean a great meal with little effort the next day. With these recipes, you can prep for tomorrow’s meal while tonight’s supper cooks or spend 20 minutes getting dinner ready in the morning, then pop it straight into the oven after work. We include a wide range of recipes, from grilled beef kebabs to tandoori chicken to vegetarian stuffed acorn squash. And we found smart ways to take advantage of the hands-off resting time—marinades and spice rubs infuse many of the dishes with great flavor as they sit. We also use the built-in rest to salt or air-dry larger cuts of meat for more tender, flavorful results.

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2. Reheat and Eat: Make-Ahead Stews and Braises

Stews and braises are some of the most ­time-intensive dishes to make because they require long, gentle cooking to tenderize tough cuts of meat and develop deeply flavored broths and sauces. But making these dishes ahead of time allows you to take advantage of the time the dish spends cooling and resting until you’re ready to reheat it. We put this time to work, using carryover cooking during the cooling process so that we could cut back on the active cooking time. We also used the overnight resting time to develop complex flavor so we could simplify our ingredient lists, saving time and effort.

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3. Bake and Serve: Oven-Ready Casseroles

Casseroles are surefire crowd-pleasers, but between preparing the ingredients, assembling, and baking, they can be difficult to pull off on a busy weeknight. And storing and reheating usually results in dried-out sauces, mushy vegetables and noodles, and tough, dry meat. To make versions of all of our favorite casseroles—from chicken pot pie to classic lasagna—that could be made ahead, we had to reengineer our recipes. Parcooking pasta and vegetables so they’d turn tender as the casserole baked and making loose sauces that wouldn’t overthicken in the oven were a couple of the tricks we used to keep our casseroles tasting just as good as traditional versions. And we also include fresh new classics that focus on whole grains and hearty vegetables, such as Hearty Vegetable and Orzo Casserole and Farro, White Bean, and Broccoli Rabe Gratin.

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4. From Fridge to Table: Ready-to-Serve Entrées

Whether you’re in the mood for a healthy dinner, need something easy to bring to a potluck or picnic, or just want to avoid cranking up the oven on a hot summer night, dinners ready to serve straight from the fridge are great options to save time and energy. And you’d be surprised at the range of food that tastes great served cold—this chapter includes fried chicken, poached salmon, and chilled Asian noodle dishes along with a wide variety of fresh, inventive salads. Because cold dulls flavors, we made sure to season these dishes aggressively, to make bold dressings, and to finish the dishes with a little vinegar or lemon juice to ensure that the flavors were bright.

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5. Shop Smart: One Grocery Bag Makes Three Dinners

It’s the eternal question: What’s for dinner tonight? This chapter has the answer, with easy, thrifty plans that deliver three delicious weeknight dinners. For each three-day menu, we provide you with a shopping list of just 12 fresh ingredients plus a list of pantry staples you’ll need. With such short ingredient lists, these menus required that we come up with clever ways to make ingredients do double duty while still delivering a menu with lots of variety. These easy weeknight meals come together quickly—with impressive results.

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6. The Sunday Cook: Big Roasts Plus Creative Second Meals

Lazy Sundays are perfect for spending a little extra time in the kitchen pulling off a spectacular roast for a big family meal. We wanted to stretch that effort further by developing recipes using the leftovers to make a quick and easy weeknight meal. We include six roasts, each with two options for a creative meal that puts the leftovers to work. Rosy roast beef becomes beef and vegetable fajitas or a flavorful Vietnamese rice noodle soup, and leftover slow-roasted pork makes easy pork fried rice or a quick pork ragu with polenta.

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7. Come Home to Dinner: Easy Slow-Cooker Favorites

The massive popularity of the slow cooker is easy to understand. Thanks to its low, slow, and safe electric heat, many dishes can cook all day, so you can go to work and come home to a great-tasting hot dinner. But some slow-cooker recipes don’t live up to that promise, with dull, washed-out flavors and mushy textures. So we looked for ways to build great flavor, adding lots of aromatics and savory ingredients like soy sauce and tomato paste and finishing our dishes with fresh herbs or a squeeze of lemon juice. And we made sure to keep the prep times short (some as quick as 15 minutes) and the cooking times long (at least 8 hours) so the recipes are easy to get started on a busy morning and ready to eat when you come home.

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8. Stock the Freezer: Big-Batch Suppers

There’s no better antidote to a hectic schedule than a well-stocked freezer full of delicious, homemade, ready-to-heat meals. This chapter includes crowd-pleasing casseroles like shepherd’s pie and macaroni and cheese (and each recipe makes two, so you get a big payoff for your time and effort). We also include big-batch stews, chilis, and pasta sauces plus individual items like burritos and chicken fingers that make it easy to feed any number of people. To ensure great results, we developed these recipes specifically for the freezer: For creamy freezer casseroles, we had to make the sauces looser. And to get crisp toppings for our casseroles, we used a foil shield to separate the topping from the moist filling.

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