Cooking School

4 Make-Ahead Tips to Get Dinner on the Table Faster

Preparing nourishing meals for your family doesn’t have to be a daily chore—even on a weeknight.

Published June 10, 2019.

Sarah Wilson

America’s Test Kitchen Cooking School has more than 230 courses that take your skills to the next level. Through our unique instructional approach, you’ll learn the hows and whys behind innovative techniques and classic recipes, all broken down step-by-step. Our classes cover everything from simple skills to advanced recipes, and we are adding more all the time. Start your free trial today and become the best cook you know.


Getting dinner on the table every night of the week is a challenge for most home cooks. How many times have you found yourself prepping ingredients and monitoring a skillet for an hour on a night when you just don’t have the time?

Here we share some of our favorite prep tips and pointers—including how to properly freeze many ingredients and which vegetables you can chop or mince and store ahead of time so you don’t find yourself in the aforementioned situation. There are many ways to approach make-ahead cooking; the following are some highlights. For a more thorough look, be sure to check out the Make-Ahead Essentials class in our Online Cooking School.

Become the Best Cook You Know

America's Test Kitchen Cooking School

Join thousands of home cooks and gain access to more than 200 how-to videos, 5,000 up-close photos, a student photo gallery, and convenient buying guides that you can access on any device.  
Start Free Trial

1. Prep bulk ingredients once, then use them all week long

Many vegetables, including onions, leeks, peppers, cauliflower, broccoli, and carrots, can be prepped in advance and held in an airtight container for up to a week. Instead of chopping one onion, go ahead and chop four and store them in 1-cup portions in zipper-lock baggies. (Our favorite supermarket option is from Ziploc.) Keep a couple bags in the refrigerator and the rest in the freezer. Frozen chopped onions can go directly from freezer to skillet, just be sure to add a couple of minutes of cook time.

2. Cook in advance, then refrigerate or freeze for later

Soups and stews are the obvious choice for cooking in bulk and freezing in portions, but there are many other foods that are just as good the next day or week if prepared and stored properly. Even salads can be prepared in advance as long as they are not dressed until the last minute. Learn more in this video.

Casserole-style and pasta dishes like enchiladas and lasagna are also easy make-ahead options. These dishes will keep in the refrigerator for four to five days, or they can be portioned and frozen for a quick, satisfying meal whenever you need one. Wondering if it makes sense to freeze foods right away or wait a couple of days to let the flavors develop? The quick answer is freeze them right away. Here are some tips on how to do it without compromising quality.

3. Be creative with leftovers

Being creative with leftovers also requires some thinking ahead. Planning a meal with a roasted or rotisserie chicken? Get two, pick the meat of one and pack it in a zipper-lock baggie. It’s all set for a quick pasta or salad later that week. Try cooking off twice as much rice as you need for dinner, then use the leftover later in the week for quick fried rice or a simple side (cooked rice also freezes well).

The Best Plastic Storage Container

Rubbermaid Brilliance Food Storage Container, Large, 9.6 Cup

This container passed every test and looked good doing it. Its clear, lightweight Tritan plastic material stayed as clear and stain-free as glass, and it didn't leak, even when we turned the container upside down and shook it hard.  
Buy on Amazon
The Best Glass Storage Container

Oxo Good Grips 8 Cup Smart Seal Rectangle Container

With a plastic lid that latched easily and securely and an airtight, leakproof seal that didn't drip or let moisture in, this container is our top choice for glass storage.  
Buy on Amazon

4. Keep these 10 items in your freezer

Keep these items in your freezer and have quick, nutritious dinners at your fingertips. Some of these items require advance preparation, but if you prepare in bulk you can freeze portions to streamline meals on nights that you have only a little bit of time to cook. You can learn more about each of these items in our Make-Ahead Favorites class.

  • Vegetables: Peas, pearl onions, and chopped onions are great frozen options.
  • Sliced meat: A pound or two of sliced flank steak, chicken breasts, or pork tenderloin translates into a quick weeknight stir fry.
  • Cooked shredded meat: Cook and shred pork, beef, or chicken for quick pantry-staple burritos, tacos, or enchiladas.
  • Shrimp: Shrimp needs no advanced preparation and thaws quickly under running water.
  • Pasta sauce: Make use of those giant cans of tomatoes in the grocery to bulk up on sauce.
  • Pesto: Not just for pasta! Stir pesto into vegetables or top chicken or fish for a flavor boost.
  • Homemade broth: Saute some vegetables, thaw some shredded chicken, and a comforting soup is minutes away.
  • Dinner rolls, tortillas, and biscuits: On a busy weeknight, biscuits and rolls can turn a simple salad or soup into a proper meal. Frozen tortillas means you can make burritos from your pantry in minutes.
  • Pie dough: It freezes and thaws beautifully; just pop it in the fridge the night before.
  • Cookie dough: If portioned into balls, it goes right from the freezer to the oven for freshly baked cookies.

For more tips on make-ahead cooking, check out our Cooking School classes.

What is your go-to meal when you only have minutes to get dinner on the table? Let us know in the comments!

This is a members' feature.