8 Shortcuts for Faster, Healthier Weeknight Dinners
Healthy meals don't get the respect they deserve — at least when it comes to being easy. There is an unfortunate misconception that lighter or healthier food is somehow time consuming and demanding — finicky even. Sure, roasted vegetables may take longer to prepare than a bag of chips, but minute for minute, they're just as easy to make as French fries or Tater Tots from a bag.
And making a light sauce for chicken breasts or fish isn't nearly as complicated as breading and frying chicken fingers. Even prepared ingredients like jarred pasta sauce or frozen pizza can be given a quick and easy lift toward healthier with the addition of chopped veggies, spinach, or a crispy side of salad greens.
In short, cooking healthy, delicious meals for yourself or your family can be easy — and where it's a bit more time consuming (chopping veggies, for example), there are shortcuts or "hacks" that can help you speed things up. There's no shame in using these tricks to get you to a healthy dinner faster. What matters is the end result: a meal that's better for you, easy for you, and a favorite for everyone at the table.
1. Use frozen veggies and quick cooking methods.
Chopping and roasting veggies can take about 30 minutes, and while that might seem time consuming, consider that many frozen pizzas require nearly as long as that. But some veggie prep is even faster and easier. And these should be your go-to options for busy weeknights.
First, frozen veggies are often more nutritious than the fresh kind. This is especially true for out-of-season options. Why is that exactly? Frozen vegetables (and frozen fruit for that matter) are picked at peak ripeness, when their nutrients, texture, and taste are at their best. Fresh produce, on the other hand, is often picked before the food is ripe so it can sustain a trip from the fields to the grocery store. That caps out its nutrition value, and it impacts flavor and texture, too.
So turn to frozen vegetables as often as you like. Look for steam-in-bag options (without butter or cheese sauces would be best). Or steam frozen vegetables yourself with handy microwave steamers like the one from Progressive International. Instead of waiting on water in a saucepan to boil for steaming, you can add just a bit to this silicone cooker, and rapidly heat it in the microwave.
Buy it: Progressive International Fish/Veggie Steamer, $10; amazon.com
For larger batches of veggies, look for a bowl-shaped steamer like this one from Good Cooking. It has enough capacity (1.3 liters) for two to three servings.
Buy it: Microwave Cookware Steamer, $10; amazon.com
2. Make muffin-sized versions of family favorites.
One of the more difficult elements of healthy eating is portion control. No, we're not talking dieting, per se. We're talking healthy sizes. The distinction between a serving of casserole that is just right and one that is too big and will leave you with a stomach ache and heartburn later can be a thin, nearly-transparent line.
Making meals in muffin pans also speeds up the cook time. Meatloaf in an hour — or meatloaf in 25 minutes? Pot pie that requires 50 minutes — or one that needs only 15? The choice is clear when time is tight, and when you're just trying to make every meal you serve one step closer to healthy.
Buy it: Wilton Non-Stick 6-Cup Standard Muffin Pan, $11.49; amazon.com
3. Use a food processor to chop vegetables or whir together high-flavor sauces.
If you don't have the time to chop an onion and carrot, just cut big wedges or pieces, and pop them into a food processor or mini chopper, and give it a few quick pulses. They may not be uniform, but they'll be close enough. You can also use some food processors to chop potatoes (quick home fries or hash browns), grind fish (like salmons for salmon patties), and grate cauliflower (for easy low-carb rice).
And while you have the processor or chopper out, use it to add major flavor to your dinner with fewer calories. No-cook sauces like Romesco, pesto, chimichurri, and even fresh salsa can be brought together with a handful of ingredients in one of these small appliances and add major flavor to fish, chicken, shrimp, beef, and even beans. Bonus: most of these are chockfull of healthful ingredients like fresh herbs, heart-healthy oils, and high-fiber nuts. They also can stay fresh in your fridges for three to four days, so if you want, make a bigger batch and spread them out over meals.
Buy it: Hamilton Beach Food Processor & Vegetable Chopper, $45; amazon.com
Buy it: Cuisinart Mini Prep, $40; amazon.com
4) Use an immersion blender to turn broth, vegetables, and herbs into quick and simple soups.
Making homemade soup is one of the easiest ways to work in vegetables and serve a lot of people in a short amount of time, but there's an even better soup option that might be less obvious: blended vegetable soups.
There's not a real recipe here, though we have plenty of blended soups to inspire you. These naturally creamy soups boil down to this:
- Add chopped vegetables to a stockpot. (Everything from potatoes and carrots to zucchini and squash will work.) Cover with broth. Add salt and any preferred spices or herbs.
- Cook until the vegetables are just soft.
- Remove any large leaves or stems (like bay leaves or rosemary). Use an immersion blender to combine the ingredients until velvety and smooth.
- For extra creaminess, you can add milk or a touch of half-and-half. Bring to a simmer, stirring frequently.
You can use immersion blenders in place of blenders in nearly any soup recipe. Instead of risking the mess of moving lots of food to your blender, your stick blender can make quick work of pureeing your soup pot's ingredients. Just be careful to keep it down in the liquid so it doesn't splash you.
Buy it: Mueller Ultra-Stick 500-Watt 9-Speed Powerful Immersion Hand Blender, $30; amazon.com
5. Make cooking rice and whole grains easy — and hands-free!
Make the small appliances taking up real estate in your kitchen work harder for you. Your Instant Pot, for example, can cook brown rice in 35 minutes, and you don't have to babysit it. You can also use that hard-working pressure cooker to make new-to-you whole grains like farro in a fraction of the time of stovetop methods.
But if you want to be a bit more precise, or if you frequently need your Instant Pot for your main dish and not the rice or grains that accompany it, you can turn to a rice cooker for fast, effortless grains. The Aroma Housewares Digital Rice and Grain Cooker was our pick for most versatile rice cooker because it has settings for white rice, brown rice, sushi rice, oatmeal, quinoa, and one for quick rice. The foolproof guide for measurements make rice and grains easy as can be so they'll be an essential part of every meal for you and your family.
Buy it: Aroma Housewares Digital Rice and Grain Cooker, $70; amazon.com
6. Or look for microwaveable whole grains when you're in a pinch.
If you want grains even faster than your pressure cooker or rice cooker can make, Target's line of Good & Gather microwave grain pouches can make healthy meals don't-blink-or-you'll-miss-it fast. Options like this Whole Grain Blend with Brown Rice, Lentils & Quinoa sell for less than $2 a pouch, and they can be heated and served as a side, or tucked under a bed of leaves for a hearty grain bowl. You could even use them in place of rice for sushi or burrito bowls.
Keep things simple with 90-second Whole Grain Brown Rice, which is just $1.39 per pouch, or amp up the variety with 90-second Brown Rice, Quinoa & Red Rice (also $1.99 per pouch). As shelf-stable options, it's not a bad idea to stock up on a few so there's always a healthy side waiting at the press of a microwave button.
Buy it: Brown Rice, Quinoa & Red Rice, $1.99; target.com
7. Mince and freeze garlic for faster meals later.
Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, and some other grocery stores sell pre-peeled garlic, and honestly, getting that papery skin off each clove is a large part of the dinner prep headache. But the next headache is chopping or mincing that garlic into fine pieces before cooking it, and most recipes, from soups to grilled chicken call for garlic because of its natural ability to enhance flavor without adding calories or sodium.
Speed up that process by mincing lots of garlic at once, and then freezing it. Yes, you can freeze garlic, and it won't take much of a hit in terms of flavor.
To do this, break out that mini chopper you use for your quick no-cook sauces. Add a handful or two of pre-peeled garlic (you can peel this yourself, but the pre-peeled kind is worth the extra cents for this trick). Pour several tablespoons of olive oil or canola oil. Then press chop a few times until the bits are minced, and the oil is combined. You want the final texture to be chunky and like a paste.
Scoop the minced garlic into teaspoon-sized silicone molds, and freeze. Once the garlic is frozen, you can pop out the garlic rounds and store them in a zip-top bag. One garlic tab will be about one clove.
Buy it: Funshowcase Mini Semi Sphere Half Round Silicone Mold, $7; amazon.com
8. Start with salad kits and add ingredients to make a full meal.
Salad kits are the nearly-blank canvas of a healthy dinner. Today's salad kits are fresh, innovative, and ripe for creativity for fast meals. Classic flavors like Caesar and poppy seed are a great option, but newer trends like Greek and taco salad kits are a flavorful change of pace.
And the best part? All you have to do is add a lean protein, like shrimp, tofu, or beans, or a hearty whole grain to turn these salad kits into full and filling meals.