The Best Healthy Shortcuts for Quicker, Easier Dinners

By: Lauren Grant

These healthy shortcuts—including prep-ahead tips, time-saving hacks and the best no-fuss ingredients to always have on hand—ensure you'll eat well on even the busiest nights.

Sponsored by EatingWell Frozen Entrees

Chickpea Curry

Pictured recipe: Chickpea Curry

Ignoring the siren call of the drive-thru can be hard when you know you're facing an empty fridge at home, hunger can't wait and time seems short. Armed with these healthy shortcuts—including prep-ahead tips, time-saving hacks and the best no-fuss ingredients to always have on hand—there's no doubt you can eat well when nights get busy. The investment of time up front will help make cooking dinner easier, cut down on the minutes you spend in the kitchen and result in healthy and delicious weeknight meals.

Related: 20 Healthy Meals You Can Make in 20 Minutes

1. Cook with Rotisserie Chicken

Chicken, Arugula & Butternut Squash Salad with Brussels Sprouts

Pictured recipe: Chicken, Arugula & Butternut Squash Salad with Brussels Sprouts

When you're in need of a short-order dinner, turn to rotisserie chicken. Not only is chicken an incredibly versatile protein, but having a food that's already prepared and cooked for you? That's a win-win on harried weeknights.

For the easiest prep, pick up a rotisserie chicken from the grocery store, and remove the meat from the bones while still it's warm. (Trying to remove the meat from a chilled bird is much harder than doing it while oven-fresh.) Store the meat in a zip-top bag or container and use it for chicken salad sandwiches, soups, quick Caesar salads, tacos and even pizzas. Save the bones and make homemade stock later.

Related: 57 Delicious & Healthy Ways to Use Leftover Chicken

2. Keep Eggs on Hand

Avocado Egg Chilaquiles

Pictured recipe: Avocado Egg Chilaquiles

Eggs are a must when stocking a kitchen for quick and healthy meals. Although they have the reputation for being a breakfast staple, eggs also make for well-rounded, protein-packed dinners. Put them to use in a quick veggie scramble when you're in a pinch and need dinner fast. Or use them in an empty-out-the-fridge frittata with some cheese and herbs—anything goes.

Hard-boil a few eggs at the beginning of the week for on-the-go snacks, as a no-fuss protein for salads or for the base of a healthy egg salad made with Greek yogurt and avocado. Just be sure to keep them in their shell until ready to use so they last throughout the week.

Related: The Right Way to Boil an Egg

3. Cook with Leftovers in Mind

Cream of Turkey & Wild Rice Soup

Pictured recipe: Cream of Turkey & Wild Rice Soup

When you find yourself with a bit of extra time to devote to making a meal, take advantage of it. Cook a meal with the intention of having leftovers, whether that's doubling, or even tripling, a recipe. Since you're already acquiring and prepping the ingredients, the extra prep work will be well worth the investment. Refrigerate, or even freeze, the leftovers for nights when you just want to quickly reheat a meal and be done—think soups, stews, chilies, curries, pasta dishes and casseroles. Fried rice and fajita and taco makings also make for delicious reheated dinners.

Related: A Beginner's Guide to Meal Prep

4. Prep Veggies Ahead

Colorful Roasted Sheet-Pan Veggies

Pictured recipe: Colorful Roasted Sheet-Pan Veggies

Oftentimes it's the prep of a recipe that takes the most time. Washing, chopping and mincing sucks up valuable minutes. To make your weeknights a bit easier, and to ensure well-balanced meals, organize and prepare vegetables at the beginning of the week.

Wash and store leafy greens between damp paper towels in a container fitted with a lid. Dice onions, carrots and celery for a jump-start on cooking throughout the week. Parcook vegetables like green beans, broccoli and cauliflower for quick side dishes. Roast a big batch of root vegetables such as sweet potatoes, butternut squash, celery root, Brussels sprouts and onions for Buddha bowls, side dishes and additions to salads all week long.

Related: The 1 Veggie Base You Need for 5 Easy Meals This Week

5. Prepare Whole Grains in Batches

Basic Quinoa

Pictured recipe: Basic Quinoa

You've heard it a thousand times, batch-cooking­—grains in particular—makes for healthy meals throughout the week. But what does that really look like?

First off, choose a grain or two for the week's meals, like quinoa, freekeh, bulgur, sorghum, brown rice or farro. Second, instead of letting cooked grains sit in the refrigerator until dinner inspiration hits, figure out how you'll use them before the week starts.

Related: How to Cook Perfect Quinoa

Portion grains into containers with various additions for side dishes all week, like edamame, cauliflower, scallions and cilantro. Or, toss cucumber, parsley, mint, cilantro, tomatoes and a simple vinaigrette with cooked grains for a quick tabbouleh, then top with an egg or cooked chicken for a perfect weeknight meal. Want breakfast for dinner? Combine cooked grains with fresh berries, dried fruit, nuts, cinnamon and a drizzle of maple syrup.

Related: 7-Day Meal Plan for Healthy Whole-Grain Dinners

6. Cut It Down

Sheet-Pan Chicken Fajitas

Pictured recipe: Sheet-Pan Chicken Fajitas

When time is of the essence, and dinner needs to be done fast, change how you prep ingredients. Vegetables and meat can take quite a bit of time to cook if they're left in large pieces. To save on cooking time, cut your ingredients smaller. Instead of cubing vegetables, finely dice them, and instead of cooking a whole chicken breast or steak, thinly slice it for almost-instant cooking. Get creative with quick-cooking spiralized veggies or minced cauliflower. Not only does it save on carbs, you'll cut down on cooking time, too.

7. Stock the Pantry with Versatile Protein

Black Bean & Salmon Tostadas

Pictured recipe: Black Bean & Salmon Tostadas

To ensure fast dinners throughout the week, keep your freezer, fridge and pantry stocked with quick, easy-to-make protein. Proteins to keep in the pantry include canned tuna (think salads and sandwiches) and canned beans (great for soups, dips and salads). Stock your freezer with frozen edamame and shrimp, both great for stir-fries, fried rice and noodle bowls.

Related: Top Vegetarian Protein Sources

Opt for chicken and tofu to keep in the refrigerator. Tofu and chicken are both great for tacos, sandwiches, pastas and noodle bowls. Tofu lasts for a while, so this is a protein you can keep for a few weeks at a time. As for chicken, keep this on hand when you know you'll use it within the week, Otherwise, toss it in the freezer until you're ready to cook it.

8. Spice Things Up

Za'atar-Roasted Chicken Tenders

Pictured recipe: Za'atar-Roasted Chicken Tenders & Vegetables with Couscous

Add more flavor without adding extra work or additional ingredients with spices like garlic powder and onion powder. And keep a few spice blends on hand such as za'atar, Italian seasoning, dukkah, lemon pepper and everything-bagel spice for a dose of flavor in no time. Although some of these may have added salt, look for varieties without MSG or too much added salt.

9. Stock Your Freezer with Healthy Dinners

Healthy dinners

For busy nights when all you want is dinner on the table fast, turn to your freezer. If you like to prep-ahead, keep the freezer stocked with leftovers or almost-ready meals like soups, casseroles and make-ahead freezer packs. For an even easier dinner with no prep, stock some healthy frozen entrees, like EatingWell Chicken & Wild Rice Stroganoff. All you have to do is heat and eat with these easy meals. Plus you can keep a variety of types of entrees on hand so everyone in the family can have what they want.

Related: What to Keep on Hand for 3-Ingredient Fast Dinners from Your Freezer

FrozenFind this EatingWell frozen dinner and more in the freezer aisle of your local grocery store. Find store locations.