Make-Ahead Food: 10 Things to Cook on a Sunday

Photo: Shantell

Making food ahead of time so you can eat well and save money during busy workweeks is a great idea. But often when I read articles about make-ahead food, the focus is on ways to stock your freezer with heat-and-eat casseroles, soups, and other meals. This is wonderful, but sometimes, the most useful, frugal, and healthy make-ahead foods aren't frozen dinners, but ready-to-go meal components sitting in your fridge or pantry. The following 10 items are all easy to make on a Sunday (or whenever you have a day off during the week), and last for about five days (or more) in the pantry or fridge. (See also: The Five-Day Freeze: Batch Cooking for the Rest of Us)

1. Beans

While the merits of canned versus dried beans are hotly debated, there's no doubt that pound-for-pound, dried beans are both cheaper and lower in sodium. The problem with dried beans, though, is that they can take an hour on the stovetop to soften up. Cook a pot of beans on Sunday, and use them throughout the week in salads, Mexican dishes like tacos or burritos, soups, and so on.

2. Bread

With mixing, kneading, rising, and finally baking, most yeast breads require at least three hours to make (although most of that time is hands-off). What better day than Sunday to bake a loaf of bread while you attend to other projects around the house?

3. Granola

Store-bought granola is often expensive and can be surprisingly calorie-packed. Instead, I make a batch of granola every weekend by mixing old-fashioned oats, cinnamon, chopped nuts, and maple syrup, and toasting it at 400°F in the oven until it just starts to brown. Then I eat it with fruit and yogurt for breakfast throughout the week. This stuff will keep for even longer than a week in a sealed container, and granola also makes a great gift.

4. Pancake Batter

Pancakes don't just have to be a weekend breakfast. A batch of pancake batter keeps well in the fridge, and all you have to do in the morning is drop it on the griddle. When I was still working in an office, I took this one step further and brought my just-cooked pumpkin-buckwheat pancakes into work. Enjoying pancakes at my desk while reading my morning emails definitely made the start of the work day much more awesome.

5. Chopped Vegetables

Whether you're using them for snacks or salads, pre-chopping your vegetables is a great way to make sure you have healthy things to eat when you want them. You can even separate them into serving-size-portioned Tupperware so you can just throw them into your lunch bag.

6. Hummus and Dips

Great with pita and vegetables or as a sandwich spread, hummus is super easy to make (this hummus recipe from Zahav in Philadelphia is one of my favorites). Have it on hand — or other dips and spreads such as fresh salsa, olive tapenade, pesto, or balsamic bean dip — to liven up otherwise mediocre snacks and meals.

7. Muffins

A great grab-and-go food, muffins are awesome for a quick breakfast or as afternoon snacks. You can bake a batch on Sunday for the week, or make fridge muffin batter. This stuff keeps in the fridge for around a month, and when you want a muffin, all you need to do spoon a little bit of the batter into a muffin cup and toss it in the oven.

8. Cookies

If you're packing lunches for young ones (or, really, for yourself), it's always nice to include a sweet treat. One of the reasons I love making my own sweets is that I can use ingredients like whole-wheat white flour, lower the sugar content (I find that using 3/4 of the sugar a recipe calls for is rarely noticeable), and make other alterations to provide myself with healthier, but still satisfying desserts.

9. Multi-Purpose Protein

Everybody who's lived in a house where the Sunday pot roast becomes Monday's beef stew, Tuesday's chop suey, and so on knows that having ready-to-go protein makes for quick-and-easy meals. You can marinate and cook some chicken or tofu on Sunday that can be easily tossed in a salad or paired with sides, or follow the classic model and cook a roast, turkey, ham, or seitan dish that will leave you lots of leftovers.

10. Side Salads

Having already prepared side salads can make lunch and dinner oh-so-easy. Whether it's bean salad, pasta salad, potato salad, cole slaw, or just a nice mix of vegetables, pairing a side salad with a bit of quick protein makes for a super-fast and satisfying meal.

Do you prepare food on Sunday for the rest of the week? If so, what? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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Guest's picture

Great article--I'm inspired!

Guest's picture

Since reading a post on The Simple Dollar about making homemade yogurt, that's been a Sunday project every week. It's incredibly simple, but the total time needed is 13 hours. I'm also a big granola making fan. Have a recipe with a lot of dry ingredients, so I take the pre-prep even further and dish out enough dry ingredients for three batches into different bags, so it can also be done more easily on a weeknight. Often may crock a batch of beans overnight as well.

Meg Favreau's picture

Oooh, I've always wanted to try making my own yogurt. I'll have to check out that post.

Guest's picture

While I was in grad school, I realized I was too tired to cook when I got home, so I would prepare three days' worth of protein and side salads at a time. I cut up 2-3 chicken breasts into chunks and cooked them in marinade. I would then divide the chicken and salad greens among three containers each. All I had to do when I got home was reheat the chicken and grab a salad.

Guest's picture

I like making fried rice on the weekend. It's leftover velcro. It's easier to make a big batch (8-10 servings). It reheats well. It can be a meal by itself in a pinch, or paired with a simple meat/veg (like salmon fillets from Costco: 10 minutes in the toaster oven). Great topic!

Meg Favreau's picture

Not only is fried rice a great idea, but I love the description "leftover velcro."

Guest's picture

mm, i love hummus!

#9 is great too. making chicken or fish ahead of time and just heating up is a great time saver.

Guest's picture

Just taking an hour or two on one day can literally save us hours in a week. It's smart to have foods prepared when we know that our future time will be limited.

Guest's picture

Hi Meg, I enjoyed this post very much and am going to try the muffin recipe this weekend. I was wondering if you would share the granola recipe as well. Thanks for the great ideas!

Meg Favreau's picture

Hi TK,

Glad you enjoyed the post! My granola "recipe" is a bit loose. I mix 3-4 cups of old-fashioned rolled oats with a handful of chopped nuts, a bit of salt, and a few shakes of cinnamon. Then I drizzle a couple of spoonfuls of maple syrup over it, mix, and spread on a baking sheet. I toast this in a 375-400 degree oven for about 20 minutes, or until everything starts to get brown and toasty. It doesn't develop lots of big clumps like some people might look for in granola, but I enjoy it. I also love adding it to pancakes -- after you put batter on the griddle, you can sprinkle granola on the batter-up side before you flip it.

In the past I've also made variations on this recipe from Epicurious:

It uses egg whites to help the granola clump instead of oil.

And if anybody else has a great granola recipe, please share!

Guest's picture

I would also add soup. I try to make a batch on the weekends and stock to store in my freezer.

Guest's picture

I usually make a big salad on Sunday so that I can a portion for lunch for a few days. Fresh veggies would go bad around my house if I didn't chop/prepare them for easy access.

I also make my own pancakes. When I say my own- I use the boxed stuff and cook them myself, and freeze them. Much cheaper than buying frozen eggo's for the kids.

Guest's picture

I like the muffin idea except for the waste of energy heating up the oven for one muffin at a time. I try to be both frugal and environmentally conscious. I don't own a toaster oven, so I'd rather make an entire batch of muffins and freeze them to defrost one at a time.

Because I'm also health-conscious, I do use a breadmaker (again, don't heat the entire oven for one loaf of bread) set on a timer to make white whole wheat bread that's molasses sweetened and has ground flaxseed for some extra nutrition. Nothing beats waking up in the morning to the smell of fresh-baked bread and freshly brewed coffee!!

Guest's picture
Lisa B.

I like making a batch of the bread dough from "Artisan Bread in 5 minutes a day". That way I have dough for pizza, rolls, cinnamon rolls, etc. during the week.

I also like making up a big batch of oat waffles at one time; they freeze well and you can take them out and pop them in the toaster for breakfast.

Borscht(beet soup) is also an amazing lunch that I can eat for 2-3 days straight.

Guest's picture

I don't do this, but I need to. Batch cooking would save so much time