Smiling parents holding young children at beach

Appetizing make-ahead meals

September 24, 2020 | Kristina Lindgren
Make-ahead taco salad in a jar

This is what eating from the rainbow looks like, says UCI Health dietitian Katie Rankell.

Juggling a busy work-from-home schedule while supervising your children's online classes makes for a hectic day.

Here are a few appetizing and nutritious meals you can make ahead that can keep you and your family satisfied as well as healthy.

These easy meals do not stint on flavor even as they pack in essential vitamins and minerals in high-fiber, low-carb style, says Katie Rankell, director of the UCI Health Weight Management Program.

These recipes were created by Chef Jessica Van Roo, assistant director of Culinary Recreation & Experiential Programs at UC Irvine, who teaches students and others how to cook healthy, low-cost meals with fresh ingredients. 


Scrambled Egg or Tofu Breakfast Burrito

Serves 4 (Total cost: $5.83/$1.46 per serving)

Tofu or egg breakfast burritoUsing tofu in place of eggs or other animal protein (sausage, bacon, ham, etc.) greatly reduces the fat without sacrificing flavor in this breakfast scramble.

The plant-based protein is also great for promoting kidney health, reducing heart disease and the risk of osteoporosis, a debilitating bone disorder common in women after menopause, Rankell says.

And then there's spinach. This leafy green is packed with important nutrients (vitamins K, C and A, not to mention folic acid, iron and calcium) and it's also high in fiber. There's definitely some truth behind Popeye getting his strength from spinach!


  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • ½ cup diced onion, about ½ onion
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 6 button mushrooms roughly chopped
  • 1 medium Roma tomato, diced
  • 6 eggs whisked together or 1 package firm tofu (12-14 ounces),
    drained and pressed between paper towels to dry
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • ¼ teaspoon smoked paprika
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • ½ teaspoon chili powder, more as desired 
  • 2 cups roughly chopped baby spinach, about 4 oz 
  • 1/3 cup shredded cheese or ¼ cup nutritional yeast
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 4 large whole wheat flour tortillas, or 8 whole wheat regular size


  • Heat a pan over medium-high heat, once hot, coat the pan with oil.
  • When the oil is hot, add the onion, garlic and mushrooms, cook until mushrooms are soft, about 3 to 4 minutes.
  • Add tomato and continuing cooking until soft
  • Crumble tofu to resemble scrambled eggs into the pan, add turmeric, paprika, oregano and chilli powder and mix well., cook for 1 to 2 minutes to make sure tofu is heated
  • Cook for 1 to 2 minutes, making sure the tofu is heated. If you are using eggs, whisk them into the pan and cook for 1 to 2 minutes.
  • Add spinach and cook for 1 to 2 minutes more, until spinach is wilted.
  • Turn off heat and sprinkle with cheese or nutritional yeast, taste and season with salt and pepper as desired.
  • Fill regular tortillas with about 1 cup of filling, 1 ½ cups for large tortillas. Roll and wrap in foil, refrigerate for at least 2 hours, preferably overnight.
  • Burritos may be refrigerated for up to 3 days and frozen for 1 month, reheat before serving.
  • If frozen, defrost burritos in refrigerator overnight, reheat in microwave at 50% power for 2 minutes then at regular power for 1 minute or until heated through.

Calories per serving: 348

Taco Salad in a Jar

Serves 4 (Total cost: $13.49/ $3.37 per serving)

Taco salad in a jarThe best part of this recipe may be how colorful and appetizing the layered ingredients look in Mason jars. This is what eating from the rainbow looks like! All the colors means you're getting a variety of important vitamins and minerals.

Add corn and beans and you have rich sources of fiber that improve digestion and bowel health, says Rankell.

And when you choose lean ground turkey or beef, you're making this a heart healthy, low-fat and even lower calorie dish.

Plus you have four meals prepped and ready to grab! They'll only keep two days in the fridge, though, before the avocado turns brown.



  • 1 lb ground meat or protein of choice
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons taco seasoning or 3 tablespoons of homemade seasoning blend
  • 1 large avocado, cut into ½-inch pieces
  • ½ teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 large lime juiced   
  • ¾ cup salsa of choice or homemade
  • 1 cup whole kernel corn (rinsed, drained if canned, defrosted if frozen)
  • 1 ½ cups black beans, rinsed and drained (15 oz can)
  • 1 cup tomato, finely diced (1 Roma tomato)
  • 1 cup diced cucumber (1 large or 2 small Persian cucumbers)
  • ½ cup chopped cilantro
  • 1 cup diced scallions or green onions (about 6-8)
  • 4 cups mixed greens
  • 4 quart-size Mason jars
  • 20 corn tortilla chips crushed (optional)

Taco seasoning mix

  • 1 tablespoon cumin
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder
  • ¾ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon black pepper
  • ⅛ teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • ½ teaspoon oregano
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder


  • Heat oil in a pan and cook meat or protein of choice, sprinkling taco seasoning on as you cook.
  • Taste and adjust seasoning as needed.
  • When protein is cooked completely or heated through, remove from heat and set aside to cool.
  • In a small bowl, mash avocado with the cumin and lime juice set aside.
  • Layer ingredients in the jars, starting with beans, corn, protein, salsa, cucumbers, tomatoes, mashed avocado, topped with cilantro, scallion and mixed greens.
  • Refrigerate. Eat within 2 days to maintain the avocado color!
  • Serve with crushed tortilla chips (optional).

Calories per serving: 371

Sweet Potato-Lentil Shepherd's Pie

Serves 6-8 (Total cost: $14.61/ $2.44 per serving)
6-ounce or 8-ounce ramekins can be used for individual servings

Lentil and sweet potato Shepherd's pieSweet potatoes are rich in vitamin A and antioxidants, which means they're not only great for improving eye health, they also are important in supporting gut functioning. The antioxidants are vital in helping our bodies fight cancer-causing free radicals.

Lentils are a great plant-based protein that is high in fiber and low in calories. These legumes are also loaded with iron, magnesium, potassium, zinc and B vitamins, which help strengthen hair and nails. And come in a several appealing colors to choose from: red, yellow, green and brown. 

Layer the ingredients Shepherd's pie style with zesty seasonings and you have a nutritious, filling meal that tastes great yet is extremely low in calories.


Sweet potato topping

  • 1 ½ lbs red or orange sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
  • 3 tablespoons milk of choice
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 tablespoon maple syrup (optional)


  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 cup diced onion (about 1 medium onion)
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic (about 3 cloves)
  • 2 portobello mushrooms, diced, or 10-12 cremini mushroom, diced
  • 1 ½ cups brown or green lentils, rinsed and drained
  • 1 ½ tablespoons Italian seasoning)
  • 4 cups vegetable stock or water
  • 10 oz bag of frozen mixed vegetables



  • Place potatoes in a pot, cover with water and cook until tender, about 20 minutes.
  • Drain well, return potatoes to the pot.
  • Add milk, seasoning and maple syrup, if desired.
  • Mash mixture well, taste and adjust seasoning as needed. 


  • Heat a pan over medium-high heat, add oil. When oil is hot, add onion and garlic, cook for 2 to 3 minutes or until onions soften.
  • Add mushrooms and cook until mushrooms have released their liquid and evaporated.
  • Add lentils and Italian seasoning, mix well.
  • Pour in the stock and bring mixture to a boil, reduce to a simmer, cover pot and cook 20 to 30 minutes or until lentils are tender.
  • Turn off heat, stir in vegetables, taste and adjust seasoning as needed.
  • Preheat oven to 400 degrees and lightly coat ramekins or baking dish with nonstick cooking spray or oil.
  • Pour lentil and vegetable mixture into dish or ramekins and top with sweet potato mix.
  • Place ramekins on a baking sheet and bake for 15 minutes or until heated through.
  • If using a baking dish, cook for 20 to 25 minutes.
  • Remove from oven and allow to rest for 10 minutes before serving.

Calories per serving: 182