Getting dinner (or lunch, for that matter) on the table with an active and hungry toddler underfoot often feels impossible. Heck, it often is impossible. And even the best laid dinner intentions can quickly go by the wayside when someone is in need of your attention, wants to be held, or just wants to reconnect with you after a long day. So, to make those days a little easier, here's a list of 25 Make-Ahead Dinners for toddlers (and their families). These meals either freeze well, so you can make them weeks (or months ahead) and pull them out when you need them, or they store well in the fridge for a number of days. You can make a double batch of a favorite recipe or cook ahead on the weekend. You can stock the freezer with ready-to-eat meals or simply prep the ingredients. It's up to you. Refer to the specific information under each idea for safe storage and get ready to enjoy happier meals.
1. Veggie-Loaded Marinara Sauce
You can freeze this sauce when fully cooled in a quart-size freezer bag. Remove as much air as you can and freeze flat for up to 3 months. Thaw overnight in the refrigerator or place the bag in a large bowl filled with warm water and let thaw. Serve with pasta, meatballs, or even over couscous.
2. Sausage Meatballs
Make a double batch the next time you make meatballs and tuck a bag full away in the freezer. Meatballs freeze extremely well! To freeze, let cool fully, then place into a zip top freezer bag, removing as much air as possible. Thaw directly in pasta sauce or in short 10-15 second increments in the microwave.
3. Ham and Cheese Corn Muffins
Whether or not you think corn is a vegetable or a carbohydrate, there's no denying the comforting nature of corn muffins. This version has ham and cheese, making it a substantial option for dinner. Make on the weekend and store in the fridge for up to 3 days or in the freezer in a zip top bag with as much air removed as possible for up to 3 months. Serve warm.
4. Red Curry Chicken
Make this meal on the weekend and serve it up to 3 days later (or pack it for lunches). Add a little water or stock when reheating to add moisture if needed.
5. Creamy Spinach Quesadillas
This spinach spread is addictive stuff. It's great in quesadillas, spread on crackers, or tossed with pasta. Steam, drain, and cool one 5 ounce bag of baby spinach. Add to the bowl of a food processor and add 2 tablespoons cream cheese, 2 tablespoons shredded cheddar cheese, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon cumin. Process until smooth. Store in the fridge for up to 3 days. To serve as a quesadilla, spread onto one half of one side of a flour tortilla. Fold in half and warm through in the oven or microwave or in a pan on the stove. (There will be enough of the spinach mixture to make about 4 quesadillas.)
6. Egg and Cheese Mini Muffins
You can freeze a batch of these protein-packed muffins to quickly reheat for any meal of the day. Simply let cool and then place in a zip top freezer bag, removing as much air as possible. Freeze for up to 3 months and either thaw overnight in the fridge or heat in the microwave in short 10 second increments until warmed through. (They get very hot really quick, so be sure it's not too hot before serving.)
7. Peanut Sauce with Kale
This peanut sauce, which boasts a nice dose of greens, can be made up to 5 days ahead of time and stored in the fridge. It can also be frozen in an airtight container for up to 3 months. Serve over noodles or rice and veggies.
8. Brown Rice Baked Risotto
This risotto is super simple to make—you just stir everything together and let it bake—and it tastes great as leftovers. Make it on the weekend and have half for dinner and serve the rest later in the week paired with sliced veggies, salami, and/or fruit.
9. Shortcut Squash Risotto
You can either make the components of this dish—the roasted veggies and the rice—up to 3 days ahead of time and simply assemble it at dinner time, or make the entire dish ahead and store it in the fridge. Add a little milk if needed for moisture before serving. You can freeze roasted veggies as well. Let cool and store in a zip top freezer bag with as much air removed as possible for up to 3 months.
10. White Bean Hummus
Chickpea hummus is great, but white beans make a particularly mellow and creamy hummus. Blend together 1 cup white beans, 2 tablespoons tahini, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon cumin, and the juice of half of a small lemon in the food processor. Add water or plain yogurt to thin to the desired consistency. Make up to 5 days ahead, or make a big pot of beans ahead of time and freeze in 1 or 2 cup portions in either a straight sided jar or a freezer bag for up to 3 months.
11. Mini Spinach and Cheese Pizza Rolls
Tuck half of the batch into the freezer (or make a double batch!) and pull them out for lunches and easy dinners as needed. These are particularly good with marinara dipping sauce (which counts as a veggie in my book).
12. Pesto Chicken Veggie Meatballs
With three kinds of vegetables and ample flavor, these meatballs are a great option for kids. Plus, they freeze well, so you can store some in the freezer if there are leftovers the first go round, or make a double batch. Let cool fully and store in a zip top freezer bag with as much air removed as possible for up to 3 months. Thaw overnight in the fridge or in short increments in the microwave.
13. Broccoli Pea Soup
You can store this veggie-packed soup in the fridge for up to 3 days or in the freezer for up to 3 months. Want to make it more substantial? Stir in quinoa, millet, rice, or pasta to thicken it up into a risotto-like consistency.
14. Cornmeal-Crusted Parmesan Chicken Tenders
These chicken tenders are delicious served cold for leftovers the day after. Which means you can make them on the weekend and serve them for dinner up to 3 nights later. Serve with diced cheese and simple veggies–sliced cucumbers, halved tomatoes, snap peas—for an easy, yet nourishing meal.
15. Toddler Rice and Beans
Make a big batch of rice on the weekend and come dinner time during the week, pair it with canned beans (rinsed and drained to remove some of the sodium) and mild salsa. And cheese! You can also freeze rice (or any cooked grain, really) once fully cooled by placing it in a zip top freezer bag with as much air removed as possible for up to 3 months.
16. Slow Cooker Black Bean Soup with Rice
This vegetarian soup, which has sweet potato for added nutrition and subtle sweetness, tastes even better the next day. It can safely stay in the fridge for up to 5 day (you may need to add a little more stock if it gets too thick) or frozen in a zip top freezer bag with as much air removed as possible, and frozen flat, for up to 3 months. (See above about making a big batch of rice ahead of time.)
Pasta is a total hit with the kids and for good reason. But you can make it even easier on yourself by making a big batch of pasta ahead and just serving as much as you need, when you need it. Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain and toss with a drizzle of olive oil. Let cool fully and store in a zip top freezer bag with as much air removed as possible or a food storage container for up to 5 days. Warm in short increments to serve with your kiddo's favorite sauce. You can also freeze for up to two weeks!
18.Whole Grain Mini Meatballs with Kale
These meatballs are tender and delicious—and they feature a whole grain and some kale. They keep well in the fridge for up to 3 days or in the freezer in a zip top freezer bag with as much air removed as possible for up to 3 months. Thaw directly in marinara sauce or in short increments in the microwave. Serve with pasta or on their own with a side of peas.
19. Soft-Baked Honey Cinnamon Chickpeas
Make a batch (or a double batch) on the weekend and store for up to 5 days in the fridge. Serve warm over rice, alongside crackers and sliced fruit, or inside a pita pocket.
20. Peas and Cheese Pizza Pockets
Bread, some veggies, and a bit of cheese makes these easy-to-hold pockets a hit with toddlers. Divide a batch of whole wheat pizza dough (either homemade or from the store) into golf ball sized portions. Flatten into a disc. Place a scant tablespoon of both frozen peas and shredded cheese on one side. Rub a little water around the edges, then fold up and over and press the edges together to make a half-moon shape. Press edges together with a fork to secure and use the fork to poke venting holes in the top of each. Bake on a parchment-lined baking sheet at 375 degrees F for about 15 minutes. Let cool and either store in the fridge for up to 3 days or in a zip top freezer bag with as much air removed as possible for up to 3 months. Thaw overnight in the fridge or warm through in the oven or microwave. We love these with pizza sauce for dipping!
21. 30-Minute Lentil Soup with Veggies
This easy soup has veggies and protein, making it a complete meal in one. It can stay in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 5 days or in the freezer for up to 3 months. Add stock or water when reheating if it has thickened up more than you like.
22. Sweet Potato Pancakes
Breakfast for dinner is always a hit and if you have these pancakes—which feature an unexpected dose of sweet potato—in the freezer, it's easy too. Simply make a big batch on the weekend and store the leftovers (fully cooled) in zip top freezer bags until ready to serve. Reheat in short increments in the microwave.
23. Edamame Hummus
Swap edamame in for chickpeas in your favorite hummus recipe for a change up to the classic recipe. Make on the weekend and serve up to 5 days later with a simple assortment of crackers or whole grain bread, veggies, cheese, and/or fruit. (You can use 1/4 cup tahini instead of yogurt in that recipe to make this dairy-free. Simply add a little water if needed to make it to the desired consistency.)
24. Salmon Cakes
Salmon cakes are a fun way to offer up healthy fats and protein to the little ones. You can store these for up to 3 days in the fridge or 3 months in the freezer. Either warm through in the oven or heat in short increments in the microwave. Serve with simple veggies or fruit and a dipping sauce.
25. Whole Grain Banana Muffins
Who says you can serve muffins for dinner? This wholesome version is delicious plain, topped with nut butter, or drizzled with honey and they are substantial enough to serve as the base of a filling dinner. Pair with a little yogurt, sliced cheese, sliced fruit, frozen veggies, or smoothie for a winning toddler meal.