A Make Ahead Meal that Shows You Care
It’s hard to believe, but the lazy, hazy days of summer are a not-so-distant memory. The grind of the school year is now upon us. Boy, my memory is short. I forgot what the hustle and bustle of fall is like. How about you? I know I’m not alone in this.
You’d think things would slow down as the kids get older, but in fact, they’ve gotten even more hectic. Everyone is in a different place at a different time. Family dinners feel like a distant memory, but even though it’s a bit aspirational, that 30 minutes gathered around our kitchen table is not something I’m willing to give up on. It’s because I know that they may not appreciate command performances now, but they’ll remember them later.
Taking the time to do the little things and working as a team to get things done around the house: these everyday tasks are ways that we can show how we care for each other. I know that I’ve carried the small things my mother did for me into my own sense of motherhood: fresh laundry folded in the basket, a tidy and welcoming home, delicious dinners on the table… I want my children to have those memories too. And more importantly, to bring that care to their own homes.
Which is why I’m happy to do so many things for my people. Every day, care. It’s not a chore. It’s my way of showing love. It doesn’t matter how small the action is, whether it’s a glass loaded into the dishwasher, a sock picked up, a casserole placed in the oven — when it’s done with love it teaches them to love too.
Which brings me back to hectic. And fall. And dinner. Sometimes there’s just no time to make a fancy meal. The key is to have an arsenal of fast and easy dishes, including ones you can make ahead of time and then throw in the oven at the end of a busy work or school day.
Be proactive. After your weekly grocery shop, do a little prep such as washing and cutting up veggies before putting them away.
Plan. Know what you’re going to make throughout the week. Being able to anticipate what needs to get done is half the battle.
Farm it out. Get the kids involved. Ask them to make salad or if they’re old enough, to cut things up. If you’re out, they can get things out of the fridge or freezer, turn on the oven or even put the final touches on the make-ahead meal you’ve prepared.
Use short-cuts. There’s no shame in keeping bags of pre-shredded cheese in the fridge. While homemade tomato sauce is delicious, a good quality jarred sauce will do. Pre-marinated chicken will save at least one step.
Make and freeze items like homemade chicken fingers, lasagna, casseroles, stuffed shells, meatballs, stews, and chili. Keep frozen pizza handy for quick dinners in a pinch. With Whirlpool’s Frozen Bake technology, you can eliminate the need to preheat the oven for these family favourites. They’ll cook faster and leave you free to prep the rest of the meal or spend time with your family.
One of my top make-ahead meals is baked pasta shells. A bit lighter (and less expensive to make) than lasagna, this dish comes together in a flash. I make it ahead of time and then the teenagers can just throw it in the oven 30 minutes before it’s time to eat. I serve it with a side of sautéed vegetables or a green salad.
Could it get any better?
Giant Shells Stuffed with Ricotta and Spinach
1 box giant pasta shells
1 pkg frozen spinach, defrosted, with all the water squeezed out
1 454 g tub light ricotta
1/2 cup parmesan cheese
1/2 tsp nutmeg
salt & pepper to taste
2-3 cups homemade tomato sauce* or good quality jarred sauce
1 cup shredded Italian blend cheese
Cook shells according to package directions.
In the meantime, mix the ricotta, spinach, parmesan, nutmeg, and salt and pepper in a bowl.
When shells are cooked, drain, and let cool until you can handle them.
Cover the bottom of a casserole dish with a layer of tomato sauce (about one cup). Using a teaspoon, stuff each shell with some of the ricotta mixture (about a heaping tablespoon). Place in the casserole dish. Continue filling shells until all of the ricotta is gone and your casserole dish is full. You’ll probably have shells left over.
Top with more tomato sauce and sprinkle shredded cheese over top.
Place in fridge or freezer*. When ready, bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes (fridge) or 1 hour to 1.5 hours (frozen) when ready to eat. Due to Whirlpool’s frozen bake technology, there’s no need to preheat the oven.
*If freezing, I recommend a tinfoil pan. Just makes life easier. Make sure to cover well to avoid freezer burn.
Quick Homemade Tomato Sauce
Why buy it when it’s this easy to make your own. Place extra in the fridge for later in the week, or freeze it for whenever.
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 large cloves of garlic, minced
2 tbsp olive oil
3 cans good quality italian tomatoes
1/4 cup fresh basil, chopped
3 tbsp balsamic vinegar
1/2 tsp red chili flakes
salt and pepper to taste
Heat olive oil in large saucepan or dutch oven with lid. Add onions and cook on medium high heat, stirring often, until translucent. Add garlic and stir, cooking until fragrant. Don’t let garlic burn. Add the tomatoes and break them up with your fingers or a potato masher. Lower heat to medium. Stir. Add balsamic vinegar, chili flakes, basil, and salt and pepper. Stir again and let come to a slow boil. Lower heat to low and let simmer, covered, for 20 minutes, stirring frequently. Partially uncover and let cook 10-15 minutes more until sauce has thickened.