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Food shortcuts for busy nights

With a little searching, you can find foods that are both easy to prepare and nutritious.

Short on time? Tired of cooking? Looking for a way out of making dinner tonight?

At the end of a long day, it may be tempting to order takeout. But it’s far less expensive and healthier to eat at home. To make the job easier, try out some quick-prep, fast-cooking options from your local super­market, says Kathy McManus, director of the Department of Nutrition at ­Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital. The trick is to know where to look and what to look for.

Below are some ideas to get you started.

Try precooked protein. When it comes to a stress-free dinner, your first thought may be to grab a rotisserie chicken off the shelf and head home, ready to slice and eat. But those grocery store favorites are often loaded with excess salt and saturated fat, says ­McManus. A better option is to check the refrigerator or freezer section for pre-cooked chicken breasts or chicken pieces. (See “How to spot the best quick options in the super­market.”) They’re quick to heat and perfect tossed into a salad (pick up a bagged salad mix to make it faster), folded into fajitas, or simply served alongside a side dish.

How to spot the best quick options in the supermarket

Shopping for foods that are convenient and also nutritious requires some label reading, says Kathy McManus, director of the Department of Nutrition at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Always check for the following:

Excess sodium. You don’t want foods with a lot of added sodium. Look for entree items that have less than 400 milligrams per serving.

Sugar. Added sugar can be hiding in places that you wouldn’t expect it, such as sauces. Be certain to look at the label and steer clear of overly sweet options.

Other unhealthy additions. Frozen vegetables, fish, and chicken are great, but skip those that are topped with sauces or dressings that jack up the calories, sodium, and saturated fat. Look for unseasoned foods, such as plain shrimp or chicken, and then add your own spices for flavor.

Go fish. The seafood section is another place to stop for fuss-free dinner options. Buy a bag of frozen shrimp and toss a handful into a pan with some veggies and a few spices, and you’ve got a meal in minutes, says McManus. Frozen or fresh fish fillets are another fast-cooking option. Just season the fish with your favorite spices.

Consider vegetarian alternatives. Instead of a fast-food burger, try a meatless patty from your freezer case. They only take a few minutes to grill up on a busy night. Putting your burger on a bun? Find one that’s 100% whole wheat. Or put your patty on a whole-wheat pita or on a couple of slices of whole-grain bread. Another great option is vegetarian “chicken” strips, says McManus. They’re quick and can be paired with a salad or some veggies for an uncomplicated meal.

Crack open a can. While nutrition experts generally advise you to avoid shopping in the center of the store, where the processed foods live, there are some healthy options in the canned food aisle. Canned tuna or salmon is a nutritious addition to a hearty dinner salad. And low-sodium canned beans can be spooned into soup, a salad, or your favorite taco recipe. Taco salads are also easy to make at home. Add black beans, some low-fat Monterey Jack cheese, and chopped tomatoes to a package of mixed salad greens, says McManus. Top it with some seasoning, salsa, and plain Greek yogurt (a great substitute for sour cream).

Tip: Don’t have time to make salsa? Many grocery stores have fresh options that are lower in sodium than most jarred varieties.

Grab some grains. Round out your meals with prepackaged pouches or frozen bags of plain, precooked grains, such as brown rice. Simply heat and use them to accompany your favorite stir-fry, or add them to your plate as a side dish.

Also consider a whole-wheat or bean-based pasta as another undemanding dinner option, says McManus. For a healthy pasta sauce, cook up some chopped vegetables in a pan with some olive oil and add a can of low-sodium diced tomatoes.

Tips for fast cooking

Laid-back cooking is easier if you plan ahead and have the right tools. Here are some strategies for whipping up an easy dinner.

Invest in appliances. Indoor countertop grills, slow cookers, and pressure cookers can speed cooking or eliminate some of the work involved. A piece of fish or chicken cooks on the grill in a matter of minutes, says Kathy McManus, a nutritionist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Or toss some ingredients into the slow cooker in the morning and it will make dinner for you by the evening. “I like to use carrots, broccoli, onions, cauliflower, and chunks of sweet potato along with ground turkey or chicken to make a simple stew,” says McManus. Work ahead. Making a big batch of soup or chili on the weekend can give you something to heat up and eat all week. To save time, buy pre-chopped vegetables. Also mix up your favorite dressings or homemade sauces in batches so they are ready to go on busy nights.

Augment prepared meals. If you can find a prepackaged meal in the freezer section that is low in sodium and saturated fat, you can use it as a base for an easy dinner when you are in a pinch. Very often these meals skimp on vegetables. Add your own to improve the nutritional value, says McManus.

Here are some other nutritious options that McManus suggests:

Make your own pizza. Grab a premade, whole-wheat pizza crust and top it with fresh tomato sauce or fresh tomatoes, low-fat shredded cheese, and your favorite veggies.

Have breakfast for dinner. A vegetable omelet is a nutritious dinner. Simply cook some spinach, chopped onions, and red bell peppers (or any of your favorite veggies) in a pan with eggs. Serve with fresh salsa on top.

Dig up a potato. Check your produce aisle for a fresh sweet potato you can cook in the microwave. Add some broccoli or other vegetables to fill out your plate. Instead of chopping your own vegetables, look for frozen options, which include everything from broccoli or peas to stir-fry mixes. “I like frozen, shelled edamame,” says McManus. Or try precut vegetables from the produce aisle. Prepackaged coleslaw is an easy side dish, but add the mayonnaise at home so you can control the amount, says McManus.

Eating out?

There are some nights when you just want to order takeout and forget the kitchen altogether. When you do, look for a restaurant that prints nutrition information so you can make a more informed choice about what you’re ordering, says Kathy McManus, director of the Department of Nutrition at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Places that allow you to build your own meal or have an array of salad options are good choices, provided you know what the ingredients are.

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