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Make-ahead back-to-school meals

September is here, kids are back in school and the new challenge is to get a good healthy dinner on the table, prepared quickly sometime between soccer, ballet practice and homework. It is a tough job, but really can you eat pizza every night? When my kids were growing up my freezer was my saviour. Here are my best tips for make-ahead dinners that will keep you semi-sane and your kids' diet healthy and nutritious.

Make Ahead - Cook Once Eat Twice, or Better Yet, Eat Three or Four Times

The best thing you can do to get ahead of the weekday dinner time crunch is to do some of your cooking on the weekend. Double and triple your recipes and throw most of it in the freezer. There is nothing more glorious than being able to come home and put together a healthy home-cooked meal out of the stash in your freezer. For that matter, a stash of frozen home cooked meals is a glorious thing whether you are single, DINKs, empty-nesters, retired or in the thick of raising a family. Your freezer is your friend.

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My Favorite Make-Ahead Freezer Dinners

Mom's Chili

I have been making this chili for years. Occasionally I tweak it and my family revolts. As my daughter Margo said, "Why mess with perfection?" This chili is loaded with vegetables, three kinds of beans and two kinds of meat. I make an enormous batch and stuff the freezer with individual portions.

 

Recently, my husband JP has begun making the chili. (Mostly because I am too busy coming up with new recipes.) He dehydrates it and takes it on camping trips. Why? Because it is a hearty, delicious, one-dish meal that provides great nutrition.

Chicken Tortilla Soup

I make a huge cauldron of this nutritious, veggie-dense soup and freeze bags of it. When friends are ill I take them a bag. If I've got a case of the sniffles, it is my go-to meal. When I'm too tired to think about dinner, I pull a bag from the freezer. Now that my kids are living on their own they will ransack the freezer when they are visiting and heist a bag or two for their apartment freezers. It is good stuff and we never get tired of it.

Spaghetti  Sauce with Veggies

Forget commercial spaghetti sauce, because great homemade sauce is easy to make and sooo much better. Again, I make a huge quantity of this spaghetti sauce, package it in freezer bags and hoard it in my freezer. When dinner time comes rolling around faster than you expected, all you need to do is boil some noodles, defrost the sauce and toss them together. If you want to get fancy make some garlic bread and you will be a hero.

Lasagna 

My mom taught me how to make this simplified lasagna when I was a kid. It is as easy to make two pans of lasagna as one, so buy double ingredients and make two dinners at once. If one pan of lasagna is more than your family can eat in a sitting, make two smaller pans, or put the leftover lasagna in the fridge long enough for it to solidify, cut it into individual portions and wrap each portion for the freezer. One pan of lasagna can go a long way...unless your 20-something sons are home; then it only lasts a few hours.

Barbecue Meatloaf 

Meatloaf can be assembled any time during the day, stored in the fridge and then popped in the oven an hour before dinner. My meatloaf is stuffed with spinach and a layer of cheddar cheese and is coated with barbecue sauce. I have yet to meet a kid that doesn't like it, especially if you scatter some oven-roasted potatoes around the pan to cook alongside the meatloaf. If you have leftovers use it to make meatloaf sandwiches for lunch. Unfortunately, we rarely have leftovers.  

Pulled Pork

There is nothing easier than making this pulled pork in the slow-cooker in the morning or even the night before. It takes 5 minutes to prepare, cooks while you are gone and will have your family begging for more. I make as much as my slow-cooker will hold and then package individual servings and put them in the freezer for future meals and snacks. One caveat, this recipe uses a bottle of root beer. I know, it makes me cringe. I never thought I would use soda in a recipe, but I did, it is amazing, and I warned you in advance. I have also made this pulled pork with a bottle of beer and it works pretty much the same. So choose your poison -- root beer or regular beer. Either way, you and your family will be glad you did.

 

Slow Cooked Carnitas

These slow cooked carnitas are amazingly healthy. Slow-cooked in the oven with olive oil, oranges, limes and spices, you will be surprised at how authentic they taste. Cook them a day or two in advance or freeze them and run them under a broiler for a few minutes to crisp the edges. Serve with a simple, but delicious minted tomatillo sauce.

Black Bean Soup

In 2015 we sponsored a college scholarship contest and this recipe was inspired by a recipe sent to us by our scholarship winner, Rikesh Raichura, a thoughtful young man whose goal was to study nutrition and health. We have made some changes to Rikesh's original recipe, but the inspiration was all his. This healthy, easy, economical and nutritionally dense recipe is one of our favorites.

 

Homemade Applesauce

My family loves homemade applesauce. It is delicious and so incredibly versatile. We eat it for breakfast with a little oatmeal or yogurt; we eat if for lunch and for snacks; we eat is as a side to savory pork chops for dinner; or save it for dessert. We eat homemade applesauce warm out of the pan or cold out of the fridge. My only tip is to make a huge batch. I promise you it will not go to waste.

What are your favorite make-ahead weeknight recipes?

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