Cheap, Easy Dinners for When You're Low on Energy
These tips and meals are here to help when cooking is the last thing on your mind or your to-do list.
Welcome to Thrifty. A weekly column where assistant nutrition editor and registered dietitian, Jessica Ball, keeps it real on how to grocery shop on a budget, make healthy meals for one or two, and make earth-friendly choices without overhauling your entire life.
Sometimes, life gets in the way of time in the kitchen. There are more important things to focus on or direct your energy towards and you end up feeling too tired to cook. But you still need to eat. After a long week with a lot on my mind, I have very little energy leftover, let alone the motivation to cook.
Pictured Recipe: Baked Eggs, Tomatoes & Chiles (Shakshuka)
I'm sure many of us are feeling this way or will from time to time, and would rather have something quick, easy and nourishing instead of a big, time-consuming meal. I have pulled together some of my favorite simple, affordable dinners that get me through days when I have very little in the fridge and don't want to spend much time in the kitchen. As a bonus, many of these foods are made with shelf-stable ingredients you may already have on hand.
Related: 7 Foods for Stress Relief
Tips For Having Meals in a Pinch
Aside from specific recipes and dinner ideas, here are a few tips I stick to when I need a meal in a pinch.
Make more than what you will eat when you do cook. This will allow you to save the leftovers in the fridge or freezer for an easy meal another day. This is especially useful for stews, soups and casserole-style dishes but lots of recipes lend themselves to make ahead or meal prep.
Make set-it-and-forget-it meals. Your Crockpot will become your best friend in busy weeks. Also, things like stews can cook or simmer for a long time without requiring your attention (see all our healthy slow-cooker and Crockpot recipes).
Don't do any cooking at all. No, I am not suggesting going hungry when you are busy, but make meals that require no cooking instead. Summer is the best time for easy salads and snack plates. Plenty of delicious meals require no cooking at all, simply prep and enjoy.
4 Easy Meal Ideas for When You're Low on Energy
Here are some of my go-to meals for nights when I don't want to cook or think too hard about dinner.
Shakshuka, or eggs poached in tomato sauce, is a fast, one-pan breakfast staple in Northern Africa and Israel. This is my tried-and-true go-to meal that always leaves me feeling satisfied and full. All you need are a few eggs, a can of tomatoes, onions and garlic—so it's inexpensive—but you can get creative with it too (try our Green Shashuka). Shakshuka is an easy way to use up veggies that have been neglected and will soon go bad. Not to mention, it is super nutritious which can help when you are feeling mentally worn out.
Snack Plate Lunch
I love the snack plate lunch (or dinner), especially in the summer. I try to include a mix of salty, savory and sweet so it feels just as satisfying as a meal. Include things like vegetables, hummus, cheese, nuts, dried or fresh fruit and maybe some chocolate or deli meat if you like. Try this Fruit, Veggie & Cheese Plate for inspiration.
Caesar salad (particularly the dressing) is always craveable to me, and is easy enough I want to throw it together even when I am over the idea of cooking. I usually throw an egg yolk (don't skip the egg yolk; if you are worried about food safety, use pastuerized eggs), olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, salt, pepper and anchovies into a food processor for the dressing. Oh, and a healthy portion of grated Parmesan. Toss with greens, something crunchy, like croutons or nuts, and some protein, like chicken, hard boiled egg or deli meat, and voila! it's like you're out to eat. You can also use pre-made dressing here.
Breakfast for Dinner
No matter the time of day, I usually can muster up the energy to smear some avocado on a piece of toast and fry an egg. Add some flare with feta cheese and a generous amount of fresh herbs. I also try to keep a few smoothies in my freezer for a quick snack or meal substitute in a pinch. Our Really Green Smoothie and Berry-Banana Cauliflower Smoothie are some of my favorites.
Sometimes, cooking can be the last thing on your mind and on your to-do list. That is totally OK. We will all feel overwhelmed and low-energy at times. These simple, quick meals help me stay nourished when dinner sneaks up on me. Not to mention, these recipes rely on affordable, shelf-stable foods you may already have in your kitchen. Taking care of your body is so important, particularly in difficult seasons. For more simple meal inspiration, check out our other quick and easy dinner recipes.