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Manic At Meal Time? Make It Ahead!

September 19th, 2017

{photo by Kathleen Franklin via flickr / CC BY 2.0}

Have you ever tried the “spend one whole day in the kitchen and make a month’s worth of meals” approach to cooking? I must admit that I have never really tried this, and I’m skeptical. It sounds exhausting! (But here’s a big roundup of those if you want to try.)

However, I do love the idea of dinners you can make ahead of time and have ready to go for those evenings when sports and meetings and other commitments leave little time for preparing a home cooked meal. Some dishes, like many soups and stews, actually improve when left in the fridge for a day or so and cooked later. I’m thrilled when I find a good freezer meal that truly goes from freezer to oven and turns out well. And as much as I love and use my crock pot, I’m also always looking for ideas other than the usual slow cooker fare.

Below are a few recipes that fit the bill and sound delicious! I’ll be trying these in the coming weeks – how about you?

(To find “printer-friendly” versions, click on the links to go to the source websites.)

Baked Farro and Butternut Squash

Recipe by Ina Garden at Food Network, from Make It Ahead: A Barefoot Contessa Cookbook
{photo by Johnny Miller}
Serves 6 to 8

Cook’s Note: To make it ahead, assemble the dish, including the bacon and parmesan, and refrigerate for up to 2 days. Bake before serving.


  • 6 thick-cut slices applewood-smoked bacon
  • 2 tablespoons good olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1 1/2 cups chopped yellow onion (1 large)
  • 2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme leaves
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1-1/2 cups pearled farro
  • 3 cups good chicken stock, preferably homemade
  • 3 cups (3/4-to-1-inch-diced) peeled butternut squash
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese


Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Place the bacon on a baking rack set on a sheet pan and bake it for 20 to 30 minutes, until browned (it won't be crisp). Cut the bacon in very large dice.

Meanwhile, in a small (9-inch) Dutch oven, such as Le Creuset, heat the olive oil and butter over medium heat. Add the onion and cook for 6 to 8 minutes, until tender and starting to brown. Add the thyme, 2 teaspoons salt and 1 teaspoon pepper and cook for 1 minute. Add the farro and chicken stock and bring to a simmer. Place the squash on top of the farro mixture, cover, and bake in the same oven with the bacon for 30 minutes, until the squash and farro are tender. Check once during cooking and add a little chicken stock if it's dry.

Sprinkle the bacon and parmesan on the squash and farro and bake uncovered for 15 to 20 minutes, until most of the liquid evaporates, the farro and butternut squash are tender, and the cheese has melted. Serve hot directly from the pot.

Ziti and Meatballs

Recipe by Melissa Gaman at Real Simple
{photo by Marcus Nilsson}
Serves 8

Note: The meatballs and sauce can be frozen together in freezer-safe containers for up to 3 months. To reheat, run the containers under warm water until the mixture slides out. Transfer to a saucepan and cook, covered, over low heat, stirring occasionally, until heated through. Cook the pasta and serve with the meatballs and sauce.


  • 2 carrots
  • 1 medium onion
  • 1 medium zucchini
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 4 cloves garlic, chopped
  • kosher salt and black pepper
  • 1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
  • 1 28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 2 pounds ground beef
  • 1/3 cup bread crumbs
  • 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1/4 cup grated pecorino (about 1 ounce), plus more for serving
  • 1 pound ziti


In a food processor fitted with the coarse grating disk, grate the carrots, onion, and zucchini. Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the grated vegetables, 2 cloves of the garlic, 1 teaspoon salt, and ½ teaspoon pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until beginning to brown, 12 to 15 minutes.

Add the crushed and whole tomatoes (with their juices) and oregano to the pot and simmer, stirring occasionally and breaking up the tomatoes with a spoon, until the sauce has thickened, 35 to 40 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat broiler. In a large bowl, gently combine the beef, bread crumbs, eggs, pecorino, the remaining garlic, and ½ teaspoon each salt and pepper. Form into 32 meatballs (about 2 tablespoons each) and place on a foil-lined large broiler proof baking sheet. Broil, turning once, until cooked through, 8 to 10 minutes. Add to the sauce and simmer for 5 minutes.

Cook the pasta according to the package directions. Top with the meatballs, sauce, and additional pecorino and serve with a salad.

Freezer to Oven Enchilada Stuffed Sweet Potatoes

Recipe and photo by Denise at Sweet Peas and Saffron
Serves 4


  • 2 medium sweet potatoes
  • 1 /2cup enchilada sauce
  • 1 /4tsp salt
  • 1 /4teaspoon chili powder
  • 1 /8teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 cup black beans
  • 1 cup corn
  • 1.5 cups shredded cheese (3/4 mixed in)
  • Serve with avocado, salsa and/or sour cream


  1. Heat oven to 400°F.
  2. Scrub the sweet potatoes and pat to dry. Using a fork, poke holes in the sweet potato and arrange on a baking sheet.
  3. Bake at for 45-90 minutes.
  4. Sweet potatoes are done when a knife inserted into the center goes in with no resistance. You can also use a oven gloved hand to gently squeeze the sweet potato all the way along.
  5. Allow sweet potatoes to cool slightly (10 or so minutes) before slicing them in half lengthwise.
  6. Gently scoop out filling, leaving a small border along the inside of the sweet potato skins.
  7. Mash together the sweet potato filling with enchilada sauce, salt, chili powder and cumin. Stir in the beans, corn and ¾ cup cheese, and spoon gently back into the skins.
  8. Sprinkle with the remaining ¾ cup cheese.

To bake immediately:

  1. Bake at 400°F for 10-15 minutes, until cheese is bubbly and melted.

To freeze:

  1. Cool completely, then wrap in plastic cling wrap. Store in a sealed container for up to 3 months.

To re-heat:

  1. Thawed: Unwrap, and place in a baking dish. Bake uncovered at 425°F for 15-20 minutes until cheese bubbles and potatoes are heated through.
  2. To bake from frozen: Unwrap, and place in a baking dish. Cover with foil and bake at 425°F for 40 minutes, then remove foil and bake for another 15-20 minutes until cheese bubbles and potatoes are heated through.

Chicken, Lemon and Olive Stew 

Recipe by Heidi Johannsen Stewart at Fine Cooking
{photo by Scott Phillips}
Serves 10 to 12

Make Ahead Tips: This stew can be prepared and refrigerated up to 3 days ahead or frozen up to 1 month in advance. Reheat gently over medium-low heat, adding 1/2 cup water if the stew seems too thick.


  • 6 lb. boneless, skinless chicken thighs (about 25 thighs), trimmed of excess fat
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3 large yellow onions, thinly sliced
  • 8 cloves garlic, crushed and peeled
  • 1 Tbs. ground turmeric
  • 2 tsp. ground cumin
  • 2 tsp. ground coriander
  • 3 small dried red chiles, preferably chile de Arbol, stemmed and crumbled (or use just a pinch of cayenne pepper, more if you like it spicy)
  • Two 3-inch cinnamon sticks (or 1 tsp ground cinnamon)
  • 2 fresh bay leaves or 1 dried
  • 1 quart chicken broth
  • Finely grated zest and juice of 4 lemons
  • 2 cups canned chickpeas, rinsed and drained
  • 2 cups small pitted green olives, such as picholine or manzanilla
  • Saffron Couscous (optional, or use regular couscous)
  • 3 Tbs. chopped fresh cilantro or mint


Season the chicken all over with 2 tsp. salt and 2 tsp. pepper. Heat the oil in an 8-quart Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Working in batches so as not to crowd the pan, brown the chicken well all over, about 3 minutes per side, transferring each batch to a plate or bowl—it’ll take about 4 batches and 24 minutes total to brown all the chicken. The bottom of the pan will be brown, but that’s OK.

Reduce the heat to medium, add the onions and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally until the onions are softened and golden brown, 5 to 6 minutes. Add the turmeric, cumin, coriander, chiles, cinnamon sticks, and bay leaves and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 1 minute more. Add the chicken broth, lemon zest, and 1/2 cup of the lemon juice. Cover and simmer over medium-low heat for 30 minutes.

Return the chicken and any accumulated juices to the pot. Carefully stir in the chickpeas and olives. Increase the heat to medium high and simmer uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the sauce has thickened somewhat and the chicken is cooked through, 6 to 8 minutes more. Stir in 1 Tbs. of the remaining lemon juice and season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve over the Saffron Couscous, sprinkled with the cilantro or mint.

Two Bonuses:

  1. Here are some great tips on Make Ahead Smoothies!
  2. If you like freezer meals, try these 10 Awesome Recipes That Freeze Well.


And finally, looking for make-ahead meals led me to a cookbook that I’m tempted to get: The Complete Make-Ahead Cookbook by America’s Test Kitchen.

Sometimes I’m just a sucker for a pretty cookbook, but this one looks promising!

Readers, do you have a favorite make-ahead meal that you rely on for busy nights? Or strategies for having prepared food on hand? Cookbooks you recommend? Please share in the comments below!


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