Make Ahead Meals

Our dietitian offers these simple meal planning and freezing tips.
A bowl of minestrone soup

When it comes to preparing healthy family meals, the winter season can be tough on weeknight schedules. The days are shorter, and the list of activities is often longer – from basketball games, to dance and gymnastics practices, to late-night ice times for hockey players and figure skaters.

But winter doesn’t have to be a lost cause when it comes to nutrition. Mary Rubiano, a dietitian at UVM Health Network – Central Vermont Medical Center, offers these tips to simplify meal planning and help busy families keep healthy make-ahead meals at the ready.

Pick Favorites

Snowy weekends offer a great opportunity to prepare freezer meals like soups and casseroles. But before you get out the slow cooker or start doubling recipes, Rubiano reminds meal-preppers to consider: How much do family members like it?

Pick a Freezer Friendly Meal

According to Rubiano, anything that’s primarily liquid – such as a soup, stew or creamy casserole – will freeze well. Also keep in mind that you’ll want something that’s “defrost and go,” without your having to do something else to it, like cut it or divide it. You might need to invest in portion-sized containers.

Keep Noodles Separate

If your recipe includes noodles, don’t add them to the entrée before it goes into the freezer, Rubiano says, or the noodles will soak up all the liquid. Instead, keep the noodles separate from your soup or sauce, or prepare and add them right before serving.

Freeze the Cheese

“I always keep shredded cheese in my freezer,” Rubiano says. While many people don’t think about freezing cheese, it’s a great idea as long as it’s pre-shredded. This lets you take advantage of sales or buy in bulk without the cheese spoiling before you can use it.

Choose Containers Wisely

Speaking of spoilage: Anything you put in cold-storage now will last all winter.

However, beyond three or four months, the taste or quality might start to decline. “It all depends on what you’re packaging it in,” she says noting that if she's freezing leftovers in a container, she will usually choose glass over plastic. Unlike plastic, glass won't absorb the odor of the leftovers, and freezer-safe glass is safe for the oven as well - meaning that the food can go straight from the freezer into the oven to defrost.

“If I'm tight on freezer space, though, I'll use a gallon freezer bag instead. Just make sure to remove as much excess air as possible when sealing. The more air that’s exposed to the food when it goes in the freezer, the more opportunity you have for freezer burn.”

Get Creative with Leftovers

Rubiano suggests dedicating one day a week to using up all of your leftovers, perhaps turning them into something new. “You might put leftovers into a casserole. Or, in our house, we often use our leftovers as pizza toppings at the end of the week.” She keeps frozen pizza dough on hand and defrosts it on Thursday nights. “Think of leftovers as something to start with, and let it spark some creativity.”

Keep Meal Planning Simple

The essence of meal planning, Rubiano says, is just having a plan; it doesn’t have to be complicated. “Our Pizza Fridays are meal planning. It doesn’t have to be a big deal, where you make all the meals for the week in one night,” she says. “The goal is just to have a plan for when you get home from work, school or activities,” so you don’t resort to takeout.

She also suggests having themes for different nights of the week. “The more consistent we can be with our planning, the better off we are.”

Try Out These Healthy Family Meals

Hearty Minestrone Soup

Yield: 8 servings


  • 28 ounces diced tomatoes 
  • 32 ounces vegetable stock
  • ¼ cup classic basil or sun-dried tomato pesto
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 16 ounces water
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 2 stalks celery, diced
  • 2 medium carrots, diced
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 teaspoons Italian seasoning
  • 15 ounce dark red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
  • 15 ounce white cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 cup frozen green beans
  • 2 medium zucchini, diced
  • 1 cup frozen (thawed and drained) or 2 cups fresh spinach
  • 1 cup dry ditalini pasta (or other pasta of choice)
  • Parmesan cheese and parsley for serving


  1. Combine first 11 ingredients (through Italian seasoning) in crockpot and cook on low for 6-8 hours or high for 3-4 hours.
  2. Add kidney beans, cannellini beans, green beans and zucchini in the last hour of cooking to avoid them becoming too soft. Add spinach in the last 10-15 minutes.
  3. Once all items have been added to the crockpot, cook the pasta to al dente (about 2 minutes less than package instructions). Drain pasta and place ¼ cup in a serving bowl. Top with the minestrone soup and desired garnishes.

*Remember to keep pasta separate from soup when storing.
*This soup can be put in a freezer safe container and stored for up to 3 months.

Baked Feta and Chicken Pasta

Yield: 6 servings


For the Chicken:

  • 1 lb thin-sliced chicken breast (use a meat mallet to pound the chicken into thinner pieces if using regular cut)
  • 2 teaspoons Italian seasoning
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • Salt and pepper to taste

For the Baked Feta:

  • 1 block of feta (8 ounces)
  • 2 pints cherry tomatoes
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon pepper
  • Pinch of red pepper flakes (optional)
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 ½ tablespoons dried basil (can also use ¼ cup fresh)
  • 1 cup rigatoni or pasta of choice


For the Chicken:

  1. Mix seasoning, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper in medium bowl. Add chicken and marinate in the refrigerator for at least two hours, or overnight.
  2. Preheat oven to 425 F. Place chicken in a lightly oiled baking dish or baking sheet. Cook in preheated oven for 18-20 minutes, until chicken reaches internal temperature of 165 F.

For the Baked Feta:

  1. Preheat oven to 425 F.
  2. Place feta block in center of baking dish (suggest 9x13, 3-quart capacity dish). In a separate bowl, toss the tomatoes with olive oil, salt, pepper and red pepper flakes and pour into baking dish to surround the feta. Cook in preheated oven for about 25 minutes. The tomato skin should burst and the feta should be softened.
  3. Remove baked feta from the oven and stir to combine feta and tomatoes into a creamy sauce. Use the back of a wooden spoon to mash the tomatoes as needed. Stir in the garlic, basil and cooked chopped chicken.
  4. If eating fresh, proceed to step 6. If freezing, at this point the dish should be cooled and then stored in an airtight freezer-safe container for up to three months.
  5. When ready to use the frozen feta dish, remove the mixture from the freezer and defrost overnight in the refrigerator. After defrosted, transfer to a baking dish and heat in a 350 F oven for 15-30 minutes.
  6. Bring a large pot of water to boil. Add rigatoni and cook al dente. Drain the pasta (reserving ½ cup pasta water).
  7. Add pasta and pasta water to the reheated-feta bake. Stir to combine and serve.

* To make vegetarian, substitute chicken with a can of chickpeas or cannellini beans (rinsed and drained).
* Chicken and baked feta can be cooked simultaneously in the same oven. Separate baking dishes are recommended given variability in cooking times.
* Cooked pasta and rice do not freeze well. Boiling fresh is recommended.

Leftover Hamburger Pizza

A fun alternative to hamburgers when you may not want to stand outside to grill! Try making this pizza when you have one or more of the ingredients as leftovers from a meal earlier in the week.


  • 1 pizza dough
  • 3/4 cup tomato sauce, marinara or pizza sauce
  • 1 cup ground beef or ground turkey (cooked and drained)
  • Any cooked vegetables you have on hand (onions, peppers, mushrooms etc.)
  • Shredded Mozzarella, Swiss or cheddar cheese
  • Toppings after baking: olives, pickles, shredded iceberg or romaine lettuce, arugula, diced tomatoes, sliced avocado, salad dressing


(Cooking times dependent on dough and other ingredients used.)

  1. Preheat oven to 425 F.
  2. Prepare pizza dough and transfer to preheated pizza stone or pan.
  3. Top dough with sauce, ground meat, veggies and cheese and bake for 20 minutes.
  4. Once pizza is removed from oven, add additional desired toppings. Cut and serve.

*Leftover Sloppy Joes, Bolognese or other meat sauces can be used for this pizza. Just omit the additional pizza sauce.

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