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The Art of Advance Meal Planning

September signals a return to a more formal schedule than your laid-back days of summer. And with all of its activity, September allows for less time in the kitchen.

If you love cooking meals from scratch, there are ways to keep doing it even when your family's schedule amps up. This month, we’re talking about the skill of menu and pantry planning, and getting multiple meals from recipes that do double duty. Whether you follow one tip or all of them, these ideas will help you minimize your kitchen time so you can also enjoy all the season brings with your family.

Recipe Inspiration

A little planning stretches your meals and your dollars. Designate time each weekend for reading your favorite food magazine, your newspaper's food section, or food blogs and recipe sites for ideas for the upcoming week's meals. Then, use your chosen recipes as a base for your grocery list. Even if you don't make the meals on the night you intended, you'll have the ingredients in your kitchen for when you're ready.

Save for Soups and Stews

Designate a day early in the week for roasting a chicken or lamb. Use leftovers in a soup or stew in the days that follow. A good choice: Lamb Stew with Spaghetti Squash, featuring Bertolli® Vineyard Premium Collections Portobello Mushroom with Merlot Sauce.

Single-Serving Solutions

After serving soup or stew, ladle leftovers into 1-quart freezer bags and lay flat on a shelf in your freezer. Once frozen, label what and how much is in each bag (½-cup and 1-cup servings usually work well), and you'll have instant single-serve lunches or suppers.

Utilize your Refrigerator

Remember: Your refrigerator and freezer are extensions of your pantry. Keeping fresh lemons and limes, onions, garlic, celery, carrots, and apples in your refrigerator will help you build and flavor any number of dishes on a moment's notice. Butter, nuts, and tightly wrapped cheeses keep well in the freezer for a few months. By keeping these staples regularly stocked, they will become items you'll know to replace whenever you grocery shop.

Tender Loving Care

If you like working with skinless, boneless chicken breasts, cut off the tenders (the long flap of meat attached to the side of a half of a breast) before cooking them, and save the tenders for a future meal. Each breast half has one tender attached. Cut them and place in a zipper freezer bag and label with a date. For enhanced ease, add Bertolli® Olive Oil, minced garlic, and salt and pepper right into the bag to have them already seasoned and ready to use. When you need a quick meal, these tenders thaw easily and can be browned and added to a salad or served with a starch and a vegetable.

Freeze to Perfection

The weekend and your freezer are like trusted friends just waiting to be leaned on, so use them wisely: When you have the time, bake dishes like casseroles or lasagna, wrap them tightly in cling wrap and freeze. Leave out to thaw during the day, and they'll be ready to heat that night.

Double Up

When it comes to prepping, it's just as easy to make two of anything as it is one. If there is room in your freezer, instead of making one baked rigatoni, make two–one for that night, and one to eat at a later date. The same goes for making soup, tomato sauce, or stock. By making extra of whatever you're cooking at the moment, you'll always have something wholesome to defrost for another night's meal.