These dietitian-approved staples are exactly what you need to create easy dinners in no time.

Abbey Sharp, R.D.
January 05, 2021
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Pictured Recipe: Easy Salmon Cakes

We hear it all the time—staying on track with healthy eating depends on planning ahead. But for those of us who don't have time for elaborate meal-prep days or massive grocery hauls, having a few simple kitchen workhorses is the key to avoiding ordering in. In addition to the standard staples, here are some of our go-to shortcut ingredients for making easy and healthy dinners with five ingredients or less!

From the Pantry

We don't all have as much pantry space as Martha Stewart, so some of us have to be selective about what ingredients we store. That often means finding a few flavorful and simple canned and boxed goods that take the guesswork (and actual work) out of making dinner. Canned vegetables have come a long way since our parents' days. Today you can find preseasoned and creative combinations to suit anyone's palates and help you get a heathy meal on the table in minutes! And while beans may be the first thing you think of when it comes to pantry protein sources (try this easy recipe for five-ingredient Black-Bean Quesadillas), there are plenty of other options as well—try canned chicken, tuna and salmon!

Grains are another important component of a healthy meal and the panty is home to many. Why make an elaborate grain side dish when there are so many convenient combinations ready to go in the grocery aisles? Whether you're feeling traditional rice or pasta, or looking to double down on the vegetables with a veggie-based "grain," you'll be able to build a balanced meal in a flash. Now comes time for the flavor. Got a base protein with no seasoning? Store-bought sauces deliver big flavor fast and will help you transform a blank slate like chicken, tofu or canned beans into a masterful meal. And spices are how you make real magic in the kitchen—a few good blends and mixes will help you add flavor fast.

Easy Ideas to Try:

  • Use seasoned canned tomatoes to make an easy egg shakshuka, or use canned corn with beans and rice for an easy vegan dinner.
  • Pair a store-bought pesto sauce and pasta to make an easy pesto ravioli (pictured above), or mix that taco seasoning and enchilada sauce with a can of black beans and serve with some preseasoned rice for a veggie taco night.
  • Canned tuna, plus canned beans and a few dried herbs, makes for a satisfying dinner in this recipe and with canned salmon plus a few other ingredients, you can make delicious Easy Salmon Cakes that can be served over a salad or on a bun for a tasty salmon burger.

Vegetables

  • Canned basil, garlic and oregano diced tomatoes
  • Canned peas and carrots
  • Canned black bean & corn salsa
  • Canned corn with Mexican-inspired flavors

Protein

  • Canned tuna & seasoned tuna pouches
  • Canned salmon
  • Canned chili
  • Canned beans
  • Canned no-salt-added premium chicken breast
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Grains and Pasta

  • Whole-wheat pasta
  • Spanish-style rice
  • Southwestern-flavored quinoa
  • Seasoned rice pilaf
  • Chickpea pasta kits

Flavorful Sauces

  • Marinara sauce
  • Curry sauce
  • Teriyaki sauce
  • Basil pesto sauce
  • Enchilada sauce

Spice Blends

  • Taco seasoning
  • Everything but the Bagel Seasoning from Trader Joe's
  • Old Bay Seasoning for seafood, poultry, salads and meats
  • Italian seasoning
  • Garam masala

From the Fridge

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The supermarket's refrigerated aisles are no longer just for milk, eggs, vegetables and meat. Today, there are a lot of innovative new products to help make eating well easier on busy folks. Go with pre-prepped produce options and grab some ready-to-eat proteins to pair with other pantry and freezer staples for easy meals. Let the grocery store do a little of the grunt work to help you get nutritious food on the table.

Easy Ideas to Try:

  • A box of precooked chicken strips, some store-bought sauce and some ready-to-eat vegetables can be instantly transformed into this Basil-Tomato Chicken Skillet.
  • Some precooked tofu can be tossed with a bagged salad kit to make Peanut Tofu Wraps.
  • A rotisserie chicken is always a win, and can be used to create crave-worthy recipes like this five-ingredient Chicken & White Bean Soup.

Vegetables

  • Salad kits
  • Aldi Hot & Spicy Stir-Fry Kit
  • Trader Joe's Jicama Wraps
  • Butternut squash ravioli, spinach-stuffed ravioli, etc.
  • Trader Joe's Grilled Vegetables (from the refrigerator section)

Protein

  • Eggs
  • Target's Good & Gather Grilled Chicken Fajita Strips
  • Flavored tofu cubes
  • Rotisserie chicken
  • Plant-based meat alternatives

From the Freezer

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The freezer is a busy foodie's BFF—it is the place to stock up and store easy meal components for hectic weeknights. Start with an essential staple—frozen veggies. Contrary to popular belief, frozen produce is just as healthy, if not more so, than fresh since it's often packed at the peak of ripeness and flash frozen to lock in nutrition. Keep a few options on hand to add to meals in a pinch. Healthy whole grains can also be found in the freezer aisle. And for the weeks when some fresh meats and alternatives get expensive or hard to find, having a well-stocked freezer with protein staples will make family meals stress free. Whoever said fresh is best didn't know how to stock a freezer like this!

Easy Ideas to Try:

Vegetables

  • Trader Joe's Cauliflower Gnocchi
  • Trader Joe's Riced Cauliflower Stuffing
  • Stir-fry veggie blends

Grains

  • Banza Chickpea Crust Pizza
  • Frozen whole-wheat pizza crust or cauliflower crust
  • Trader Joe's Multigrain Blend with Vegetables
  • Trader Joe's Garlic Naan
  • Ravioli

Protein

  • Dr Praeger's Perfect Plant Based Ground
  • Tai Pei Frozen Chicken Potstickers
  • Target's Good & Gather Italian-Style Chicken Meatballs
  • Frontera Taco Skillet kits
  • Salmon burgers
  • Frozen chicken strips, shredded chicken or diced chicken
  • Veggie burgers

Bottom Line

Repeat after me—mealtimes can be stress-free, delicious and healthy with the right convenient tools in your culinary toolbox. So print this list off for your next shopping trip, and make your groceries work for you.

Abbey Sharp is a registered dietitian (RD), YouTuber, blogger, award-winning author and mom of two busy boys. She debunks nutrition myths and denounces diet culture on her YouTube channel, her acclaimed food blog, Abbey's Kitchen, and in her Taste Canada Awards Gold-winning cookbook, the Mindful Glow Cookbook. With lots of science and a little sass, she makes nourishing your body without dieting easy, delicious and fun.