Meal planning doesn’t have to be difficult. If you spend a little time on Sunday doing some light cooking, you’ll have the elements for dinners (and leftovers for lunch!) all week long.
If you want to make your week as easy as possible, spend some time on Sunday making a few batches of simple weeknight staples that can serve as building blocks for meals in the coming days.
You’ll spend the rest of the week looking back and thanking yourself for these well-spent couple of hours.
Think of the following foods as the edible version of wardrobe basics—it’s like having a great pair of jeans, a classic black skirt, the perfect white button down shirt . . . you get the picture. With the basics all set up, you can play with different combinations all week long, and effortlessly put together meals with dozens of possible combinations.
Again, these are just suggestions. I’ve suggested the grain farro, for example, but if it isn’t your thing, maybe brown rice or barley will be more useful to you.
Use the ideas below to get you thinking about what kinds of foods you use regularly—what your “kitchen basics wardrobe” might look like. Keep in mind: It can and should vary from week to week, which will keep things interesting.
1. Cooked Grains
Whether you use quinoa, farro, or rice, cooked grains can be put to use in so many ways all week long. Use them as a bed for anything from a piece of chicken with a pan sauce to a beef stew, or mix them with chopped fresh vegetables into a salad.
Another idea: Mix them up with an egg and some grated Parmesan (and possibly with some shredded vegetables), and fry it up for an unusual savory pancake.
One more idea?! Add a cup or two of your favorite grain into a casserole to provide bulk and chewy texture without meat!
Try cooked grains in some these recipes this week!
2. Roasted Vegetables
You can make a different batch of roasted vegetables every week, and also change things up with the seasons. One week it might be asparagus, potatoes, and onions; another it might be butternut squash, sweet potatoes, and rutabagas. In the heart of summer, maybe it’s zucchini, tomatoes, and shallots.
Once you have some roasted vegetables in the fridge, all you have to do is reheat and serve them. Or bring them to room temperature for lunch at the office and mix them with one of the grains you’ve already prepped. Chop them and use them in a frittata, a casserole, or a simple weeknight pasta.
Here are some recipes to try using roasted vegetables!
3. Cooked Chicken
Brush a few chicken breasts or thighs with olive oil, season them with salt and pepper, and roast them in the oven, poach them, or grill them up. Once you do that, this versatile protein is ready to go.
Making extra when you are cooking a dish with chicken is a good habit to get into. If the seasoning of your recipe is simple, the chicken will have more possibilities—chicken salad, enchiladas, casseroles, pastas, on and on.
But don’t feel limited if you have something more flavorful on hand. A few pieces of leftover tikka masala can make an interesting addition to an Indian-inspired soup.
And yes, you can also buy a rotisserie chicken!
Here are some other ways to use leftover chicken:
4. Cooked Beans
If you’ve never cooked dried beans, you might think they are a whole lot more complicated than they actually are.
The best way to cook most beans is to soak them overnight, then simmer them in water until they are tender. If you missed the boat on the overnight soak, try the quick-cook method, which involves bringing them to a boil in water for 1 minute, turning off the heat, and letting them soak for about an hour at room temperature before cooking. You can also prep them super quickly in a pressure cooker.
Different beans have different cooking times, so read the packaging or follow the recipe directions.
And don’t forget lentils! They come in a variety of different colors, usually require no soaking time, and have a relatively short cooking time. Brown or green lentils hold their shape the best and are therefore the most flexible players—use them in soups, stews, salads, side dishes, and casseroles.
Check out these ways to use cooked beans!
5. Roasted Garlic
This one is a little specific, but roasted garlic can be a very fun building block—think of it like the scarf that pulls all of your outfits together with style. It only takes about a half an hour to make, and all week long, you will be able to use these soft, mellow little pillows to flavor pasta sauces, soups, mashed potatoes, garlic bread, and whatever else you can think of!
Use roasted garlic in place of the fresh garlic in any of these recipes!
6. Pesto or Herb-Infused Oils
Making a pesto or infusing your own olive oils are both fantastic ways to use up herbs leftover from other recipes or those that spring from a bountiful garden. (We all just hate wasting those precious extra herbs!)
My go-to easy method for infusing olive oils involves pureeing some herbs in extra virgin olive oil, then straining the oil through a fine mesh sieve. You might blanch the herbs first to preserve the brightest green color, but that’s an extra step I find annoying.
Pesto and herb oils are a fresh and delicious and beautiful way to finish off so many dishes. You can stir them into a risotto, drizzle them over bowls of soup or grilled chicken, or brush them onto slices of bread and toast them for a side dish.
Here are some ideas to get you started!
What make-ahead pantry staples do you make every week?