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Cooking Ahead - Make Dinner in Advance with Make Ahead Meals or  Freezer Meals

Many parents struggle to balance their wish to provide wholesome, home cooked meals for their families with the reality of their demanding workweek.

Some compromise by cooking wonderful family meals on weekends, and relying on take-out, and fast food dinners for the rest of the week. 

But, with a little planning, and a small shift in how you do things, you can use your weekend cooking time to better advantage, preparing main dishes and side dishes for meals to enjoy during the busiest parts of your week. 


Cooking ahead should not be burdensome. After all, you donít want to spend your entire weekend in the kitchen! 

The goal is to spend just a little extra time while preparing your normal weekend meals. 


To make this work you must think ahead and develop strategies to produce food that can be served again in a different way. For example, if you were to prepare two dinners that both feature chicken, which method would be most efficient? Would it be quicker to shop twice, and then prepare and cook chicken on two separate occasions, or to buy twice the amount of chicken on one trip to the store, and to cook it all at once, putting half away for later use? The time spent dealing with a few additional pieces of chicken wonít come close to the time spent doing the entire task twice. The second method saves time which you can gift to yourself on your busiest nights.

Develop the habit of cooking larger portions. Double, or even triple your recipes.

Remember, cooking ahead is meant to make life easier, so donít get overwhelmed. Instead, start very simply. For example, this weekend, when preparing Sunday morning blueberry pancakes, why not make double the batter, refrigerating the rest in a tightly sealed container? One morning later this week your kids will get an unaccustomed treat. Itís as easy as that. 

Next, try cooking twice as much of whatever youíre making for Sunday dinner,  refrigerate the rest until midweek and prepare a completely different meal. Gradually, it will become a habit to prepare larger portions of food and set half aside for later use. 

This doesnít mean that your family has to eat identical dinners twice per week. With careful planning, you can create two very different meals from the same main ingredient. Take Sunday's Beef Roast for example. If you cook a roast in the crockpot all day to serve with mashed potatoes, gravy, and gingered carrots on Sunday night, then you can create an entirely different meal with the remaining beef to be served mid-week.



1 boneless beef chuck, about 4 pounds 
1 Tbsp. canola oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 can Campbell's Beef Consommť
1 can beef broth
1 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
3-4 large garlic cloves, cut in half 
1-1/2 teaspoons dried oregano
salt and pepper to taste 
3-4 large potatoes - peeled and cut in half lengthwise 
(each potato should be in two pieces.)

Rub roast with oil and sprinkle roast with salt & pepper and place on the bottom of crockpot along with the onions.  Add remaining ingredients and cook on low 8-9 hours or medium 4-5 hours.  Remove potato halves and mash with milk and butter. 

Easy Gravy:  Mix 3 tablespoons of flour with 1/2 cup water and stir until smooth.   Pour 2 cups of the broth from the roast into a small saucepan.  Bring broth to a light boil and stir in the flour mixture. Let simmer until gravy thickens.


3/4 cup sour cream
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1/3 cup prepared horseradish
2 tsp. minced garlic
1/2 tsp. salt

Mix all of the above in a small bowl.  Chill until ready to use.  Serve over roast beef.



** How to store leftover roast for burritos: 

** Shred 3-1/2 cups of leftover beef and put in a medium-sized bowl.  Blend the beef seasonings in a small cup and sprinkle over beef.  Add 1/2 cup to 1 cup of reserved leftover broth from the roast and stir well until combined.  Place in an airtight container and refrigerator for 2-3 days.  You can also make a double batch of shredded beef and freeze one batch. 


3-1/2 cups of leftover shredded beef 
1 package 8" flour tortillas
1 (8 oz.) package shredded Cheddar Jack cheese

Beef Seasoning:
1-1/2 tsp. chili powder
1/2 tsp. onion powder
1/2 tsp. garlic powder
1/2 tsp. dried cumin
1/2 tsp. oregano 

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Wrap (8) 8" flour tortillas in a damp paper towel and microwave for 30 seconds.  Heat leftover beef in microwave for about 2 minutes. (*See above note on how to store leftover beef for enchiladas.) Spray a 13 x 9" casserole dish with nonstick spray. Pour 1/2 the can of enchilada sauce on the bottom of the dish and spread in an even layer.

Roll the burritos: Place a line of beef topped with cheese in the center of each flour tortilla, leaving a little room at the top and bottom.  Roll each burrito tightly and place seam side down in casserole dish until all eight are finished.  

Pour remaining sauce evenly over top of burritos and sprinkle with leftover cheese.  Bake covered for 30 minutes, uncover and bake an additional 10 minutes.  Serve with sour cream.

** This recipe is delicious and easy.  If you don't want to make both meals simply simmer a 1-1/2 lb. roast with a can of Campbell's French Onion soup in the crockpot all day and then shred using 2 forks.


Make a Double Batch and Freeze One for Later Use

Certain foods are well suited to serve two or more times. Casseroles are a good example, perfect for making in large batches. No matter which casseroles are your favorites, nearly all of them do well with refrigeration and reheating. Whether baked macaroni and cheese; shepherdís pie; tuna casserole, stuffed peppers, or a baked lasagna, almost any casserole you enjoy can easily be refrigerated for another meal. Many casseroles also freeze well, saving you even more time.



2 lbs. lean ground beef
1 cup breadcrumbs
2 eggs
1 medium onion, diced fine
3 tsp. minced garlic
2 tsp. canola oil
1/2 cup ketchup, plus extra
2 Tbsp. brown sugar, plus extra
1 Tbsp. soy sauce
1 tsp. vinegar
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. pepper

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Using a small saucepan, sautť onion in oil until translucent. Add garlic to the onion and sautť for an additional minute. Add ketchup, brown sugar, soy sauce, vinegar, salt, and pepper to the pan. Stir well and simmer for 2 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool.†

Place ground beef, bread crumbs, and eggs in that order into a large mixing bowl. Add sauce from the pan to the mixing bowl. (see below)


Using your hands, mix ingredients quickly. Don't over mix or you'll get a compact loaf.††

Evenly divide the meat mixture into two loaves and place each loaf sideways in a 9" x 13" casserole dish. Using your hands again, form meat into two pretty loaves.

Sprinkle brown sugar on top of each loaf and gently press into the meat. Bake for 45 minutes and remove from oven. Spread a little extra ketchup on top of loaves. Bake again for 5-10 minutes.   Freeze the extra meatloaf!


1 pound ground chicken (or turkey)
1 (12-ounce) box jumbo pasta shells 
1-2 tablespoons olive oil 
1 medium onion, chopped fine 
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper 
1 pound ground turkey 
1 (10 oz.) box frozen chopped spinach, thawed and drained well 
1 (15-ounce) container ricotta cheese 
1 cup grated Parmesan 
2 eggs, lightly beaten 
2 (24 oz.) jars pasta sauce
2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese

Cook pasta shells according to package directions. While shells are cooking, in a large skillet, sautť ground chicken, onions, garlic, and 1/2 teaspoon salt in olive oil over medium-high heat until chicken is well browned. Add the spinach and stir well to combine. Cool mixture in the refrigerator.

In a large bowl combine the cooled chicken mixture with the ricotta cheese, Parmesan cheese, eggs, basil, parsley, and the remaining salt and the pepper. Stir well to combine. 

Cover the bottom of (2) 9 X 13 casserole dishes with 1 cup of sauce. Stuff each shell with a large spoonful of chicken mixture. Place the stuffed shells in the baking dishes. Continue filling the shells until the baking dishes are full. Pour the remaining sauce over the shells, top with the grated mozzarella. 

Cover one tightly with foil and then plastic wrap and place in the freezer for up to 2 months. 

To eat immediately: Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Cover with foil and bake for 20 minutes or until hot and bubbly. Remove foil and bake uncovered for 10 more minutes.

To bake the frozen shells: preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Unwrap the casserole dish. Cover with foil and bake for 1 hour or until the shells are warmed through. Uncover and bake an additional 10 minutes. 


A pot of chili can be slow cooked on Saturday and served again midweek over rice. Simmer stew in a crock pot on Sunday night. Let it slow cook overnight and during the day Monday. Youíll have a wonderful savory Monday night dinner, that tastes like you spent all day in the kitchen! 

Many soups freeze beautifully. This is particularly true of broth based soups. While cream soups and chowders can be frozen, there is a possibility that they will break. Even so, cream soups can be refrigerated for a few days. So if you take the time to prepare homemade soup, always prepare extra to put aside. The first time one of your kids comes down with a cold, and you have homemade chicken noodle soup in your freezer, you will feel like an absolute champion. 

Plan to barbecue one night? Itís easy if you make your marinade in advance. While youíre at it, make double the marinade. The extra stores fine in an airtight container. The night before you want to grill, throw your spare ribs, London broil, or tuna steaks into the marinade, and enjoy grilling out on a weeknight!

Plenty of side dishes can be prepared on the weekend to serve up during the week. Potato salad, coleslaw, bean salad, rice, mashed potatoes, and boiled potatoes to use for roasting or frying, are just some of the foods that are fine to cook ahead and refrigerate until you are ready to use them.

Tired of plain old sandwiches at lunch during the week, but donít have time to make anything else on a workday morning? Slice leftover steak, chicken, ham, or pork and refrigerate for sandwich fillings. Set aside marinades, sauces, or special dressings that are left from dinners. Whip up your familyís favorite toppings to have on hand. Make a quick pesto mayonnaise, a homemade tarter sauce, a roasted red pepper spread, or a honey BBQ dressing to top your weekday sandwiches and give lunches an unaccustomed pizzazz.


1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/4 prepared pesto

6 chopped sundried tomatoes in oil

Mix all together and refrigerate until ready to use


Note that there are foods that donít lend themselves to advance preparation. If you think about your experience with leftovers, youíll recognize many of these foods yourself. Lettuce begins to wilt once it has been removed from the head and grows soggy once dressed. It can be shredded or chopped, left undressed, and sealed tightly overnight, but donít prepare it any further ahead than that. Breaded and fried foods are best served hot right from the skillet. Once cold, they lose appeal. The exception to this is cold fried chicken. Anything with dressing, especially mayonnaise, does better if eaten quickly. That said, it is easy to prepare tuna or chicken salad in advance, leaving only mayonnaise to add at the last minute.

Also, many vegetables and fruits do not fare well if prepared ahead of time, especially if they are to be used raw, or quickly cooked to retain crunch. If you want a fruit or vegetable to retain a crisp texture, peel and slice at peak ripeness, and use immediately. While there are exceptions, like potatoes and carrots, most veggies and fruit, such as apples, tomatoes, lettuce, and onions, should not be prepped ahead.

That said, many dishes not only store well, but noticeably improve their flavors after a day or so in the refrigerator. This is true for almost any soup or stew. The ingredients benefit from extra time to meld together, and you have a richer, more flavorful dish than the one you enjoyed on the weekend.

Keep a few things in mind when refrigerating and freezing foods.

  • Plan carefully what you will use. 

  • If you put leftovers in the refrigerator, do use them when planned.

  • If you have a change of plans to use a stored item, move it into the freezer so you donít lose it. 

  • Throwing away food is to be avoided at all cost. It wastes ingredients, money, and the time you spent preparing it, which defeats the purpose of cooking ahead. 

  • Donít keep food in the refrigerator longer than is safe to do so. For cooked poultry or meat that means 3 to 4 days, and up to 4 months in the freezer. Any casserole, soup, red sauce, or chili containing meat can also be refrigerated for 3 to 4 days. Broth based soups can be refrigerated up to 4 days, and cream based soups up to 2 days. If youíre not sure when you will eat it, freeze it! 

Storing food in your refrigerator and freezer requires organization. You should develop a system that works for you. Use air tight containers, preferably the stackable kind. Use tape and magic marker to label items so you can easily see what is there. For the freezer use containers or freezer quality bags. Always label and date everything. It takes seconds to label, versus minutes opening up individual mystery containers. Consider putting two dates on your label, the date it goes into the refrigerator, and a ďfreeze byĒ date.

Of course, it is not always possible to serve home cooked meals. However, if you begin to view your weekend cooking a little differently, and if you organize yourself to prepare and store larger amounts of food, you will find that you can streamline your meal preparation. With a little extra time and effort on weekends, you can serve your favorite home cooked dishes all week long.




Cooking Ahead - Make Dinner in Advance with Make Ahead Meals or Freezer Meals