Our best meal-prep ideas for better weeknight lunches and dinners

Top tips, tricks and recipes from the Food52 team

Published November 28, 2021 4:29PM (EST)

 (Ty Mecham / Food52)
(Ty Mecham / Food52)

This story first appeared on Food52, an online community that gives you everything you need for a happier kitchen and home – that means tested recipes, a shop full of beautiful products, a cooking hotline, and everything in between!

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 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 thighsChili! Once, I even heard someone mention a scallion crostata!)

Equal parts impressed and intimidated, I started to to pay close attention. I realized that their secret was creating a weekly meal plan so that they could have ready to eat meals for lunch and dinner. And by bringing colorful, wholesome, photo studio-ready meals to the office, they were also saving money from buying lunch at the cafeteria or one of the chain quick-service spots on the block. Here are my colleagues' best tips for quick and easy meal planning, for work-from-home lunches and weeknight dinners alike:

1. Spreads and 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.

Recipe: Homemade Hummus Is the Gift That Keeps on Giving

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 Director of Content. "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 former 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."

"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 and 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.

4. Make the feezer your sous-chef

"My freezer is my best friend," says former 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 intothat 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 former Senior Lifestyle Editor Hana Asbrink. "Things like big-batch Bolognese or other meaty mainslasagna, 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."

7. Snacks are a key

Meal prepping implies planning breakfast, lunch, and dinner in advance, but Staff Writer Kelly Vaughan also likes to prepare a big batch of snacks. On Sunday night, she slices multiple bell peppers, cucumbers, carrots, and other crisp, crunchy snackable vegetables. "I am much more likely to eat a proper serving of vegetables throughout the day if they're pre-cut and ready to grab by the handful. It's an easy answer to when I say to myself 'I want a snack, but I'm not actually hungry,'" she said. Plus, chopped veggies can double as an accoutrement to a pre-dinner grazing board or get tossed into a salad for lunch or dinner.

8. Shop intentionally

Instead of going to the grocery store and shopping aimlessly, just picking up the same produce, snacks, protein, and dairy products that you always reach for, make a list ahead of time. Sit down and think about your meals for the week, choose a few recipes, and only buy the ingredients you need. While this isn't exactly meal planning, it will help eliminate food waste because you're only buying what you plan to cook with immediately. And, come Tuesday or Wednesday night, cooking dinner will be a breeze. You will have already thought about what you're going to cook and will have everything on hand so you can dive right in.

34 meal prep ideas and recipes

1. Crisp and 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 and 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 and 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, and 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 and 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, and 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 and 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, and 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 and Fennel

Get your dose of Omega-3s with this sheet-pan roasted salmon dressed in a classic combo of garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, capers, dill, and Dijon mustard.

17. Sheet-Pan Za'atar Chicken with Carrot and 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, and 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 and 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 and 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, and Ricotta Salata

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

25. Radish and 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 and 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, and 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 and 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, and 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 and 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.

By Ella Quittner

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