By: JESSICA MIGALA of Health.com
We’ve all been there: You come home from a long day at work and you’re exhausted. You’re so hungry, you could start gnawing on your arm at any moment. Nothing sounds good, and at the same time everything sounds good—so you start munching on the bag of chips as you plan your meal, and before long you’re not even hungry for dinner.
Luckily, learning a few smart kitchen hacks can help you throw together fast, simple, and healthy meals on even the busiest nights. And tapping into your inner chef is good for your health, too: A recent study in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine found that home-cooked meals help you stick to the dietary guidelines (more fruit, veggies, beans, whole grains, dairy, and seafood; less sodium and refined grains) and save money while you’re at it.
We asked registered dietitians to share their strategies that make planning, prepping, and cooking easier, so you can get right to eating. Pretty soon, using them will become second nature and the “What should I make?” dinnertime crisis will become a thing of the past. Now, all you have to do is decide what you’re going to do with your extra free time. Self-care, anyone?
Go for freezer fish
The American Heart Association recommends eating two servings of fish per week, especially fatty fish like salmon or mackerel. To make that happen, pick up fish that can go from your freezer straight to your oven, suggests Vicki Shanta Retelny, RD, a nutritionist based in the Chicago area. Typically, frozen fish should be thawed before cooking, but “some brands are marinated, individually wrapped, and can be cooked from frozen, like Morey’s or No Name,” she says. (Look for phrases like “no need to thaw” or “from freezer to oven” on the package.) Also smart: Pick up a bag of pre-cooked, peeled, and deveined frozen shrimp (a great source of low-cal protein) to quickly heat up and add to pasta dishes, stir-fries, and salads.
Don’t go crazy with Sunday prep
If you love getting all your veggies, proteins, and grains cooked for the week ahead, more power to you. But if it’s become something you dread, feel free to skip it. “It’s easy to get overwhelmed with meal prep,” says Amy Gorin, MS, RDN, owner of Amy Gorin Nutrition in the New York City area. Instead, she recommends taking the prep down a few notches by just chopping a couple ingredients that you can incorporate into easy, healthy meals. For example, Gorin keeps sliced mushrooms and onions on hand for stir-fries or omelets; it removes some of the prep-cook burden, and you don’t have to start dinner from scratch every night.
Pick out fun store-bought short cuts
No one actually likes to peel and cube a butternut squash. Or mince garlic, or chop Brussel’s sprouts. That’s why store-bought prepped produce can be a lifesaver. “They may be a little pricier, but they can save time and help you eat healthier at home in the long run,” says Lindsay Livingston, RD, a nutritionist in Columbus, Ohio. Look for creatively prepped veggies to jazz up meals, like spiralized carrots and zucchini (found in many grocery stores, including Trader Joe’s), shredded Brussel’s sprouts, or bagged cauliflower rice.
Make smoothie cups
What’s better than a blend-and-go smoothie when you’re running out the door? Pre-pack an individual container with fruit, nut butter, and any other additions (think coconut, greens, cocoa powder, chia seeds, or cashews). The next morning, dump the bowl into your blender and add your liquid of choice (milk, nut milk, kefir). Gorin always keeps frozen wild blueberries in her freezer (“they pack more than twice the antioxidants of regular blueberries,” she says), and combines them with plain Greek yogurt, milk, peanut butter, banana, and a tiny bit of maple syrup.
Keep these go-to foods on hand
There are days when you come home and think, What am I going to eat? Always have quick-cooking 10-minute grains on hand, like bulgur or barley, says Retelny. Toss with ready-to-eat bagged salad greens, and throw on a pre-seasoned package of tuna or salmon. This meal comes together superfast, so you can eat well even on the busiest weeknights.
More staples to keep in the house, according to Holley Grainger, RD, a nutritionist in Birmingham, Alabama: eggs, canned vegetables and beans, cooked chicken in the freezer, jarred spaghetti sauce, hummus, veggies, noodles, and frozen pizza. Yep, frozen pizza can fit into your healthy eating plan: You can jazz it up by adding more veggies on top.
Stock up on sauces
Even though Pinterest may tell you otherwise, “every night doesn’t have to be an elaborate dinner with specific recipes,” says Livingston. To make dinner new and interesting, change up the flavors with sauce. Livingston recommends keeping a running list of simple sauces (tahini dressing, Thai peanut) that you can quickly throw together to top your favorite protein, whole grain, and veggies.
Get yourself a fast cooker
Pressure cookers are all the rage right now, and for good reason: This genius device truly puts dinner on the table in a flash by allowing you to cook foods faster so you can have a full meal ready in less than 30 minutes. These pots can even handle frozen meats (a slow cooker cannot). You can’t go wrong with the Instant Pot 6-Quart ($75; amazon.com), an Amazon bestseller with over 23,000 reviews.
If whipping up a complicated grocery list is too overwhelming (or you don’t even want to bother with meal planning), ditch it completely. Instead, Grainger recommends this simple, winning formula to make getting your grocery haul less of a hassle. Two or three proteins, one or two bags of lettuce, two to three fruits, two to three veggies, one to two grains, milk (or milk alternative), and sauces as needed. “You’ll have the components you need to throw together a last-minute dish,” she says. Bonus: Doing it this way allows you to choose items you see on sale, which helps keep your weeknight meals new and fresh.
Don’t be afraid to make too much
Whenever you can, double a recipe and freeze half. Freezer meals can save you after a busy day, since all you have to do is pop it into the microwave or a pot on the stove. “It’s usually not much more work than cooking a single recipe, and it gives you a well-stocked freezer for busy weeks when you don’t have a lot of time to plan or cook,” says Livingston. Freezing homemade leftovers also saves you a significant amount of money per serving compared to brand name, ready-to-eat freezer meals—plus, you don’t have to worry about extra sodium, sugar, or preservatives in the mix. Now get cooking!