The Best Ingredients to Help Save You Time in the Kitchen, According to a Dietitian

Having these budget-friendly foods on hand can help you easily make a nutritious and tasty meal any night of the week.

Welcome to Thrifty. A weekly column where 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.

Trying to cook more at home can be intimidating. Plus, it might also seem like it takes a lot of time. But that doesn't have to be the case, and a little planning ahead can help you save some serious time. As a registered dietitian, these are some of my favorite budget-friendly foods that make healthy cooking quicker and easier.

1. Canned Beans

While I love cooking dried beans, I don't always have the time required for beans to be fully cooked and ready to eat—that's where canned beans, or any type of canned legumes, come in. I simply drain and rinse them, and they're ready to use or eat. Canned beans are also incredibly versatile and can be eaten at any time of the day. You can add them to a breakfast bowl for a fiber- and protein-packed way to start the day. Or you can marinate them with herbs, citrus, spices and oil to use as a salad topper for the week. You can even crisp up canned legumes, like chickpeas, in the oven for a crispy and delicious snack. Beyond the dinner applications like pasta, tacos, soups or curries, you can also use beans to make our fan-favorite Sweet Potato-Black Bean Burgers that take just 15 minutes of active time.

2. Canned Fish

I find several canned foods really helpful for saving money and time to make meals, but canned fish has a special place in my heart. It can be hard to find good-quality fresh or frozen fish that's reasonably priced when living in an inland state. Canned fish lasts way longer than its fresh or frozen counterparts and helps me eat more seafood in a way that matches my budget. Plus, seafood like salmon, sardines and tuna are packed with omega-3 fats, protein and nutrients our bodies need to thrive. Even more so, the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggests enjoying two 4-ounce servings of seafood each week to reap the benefits. Enjoy canned fish in spicy fish cakes, pastas, casseroles, salad and more.

3. Pre-Chopped Vegetables

Lots of good things can happen when you eat enough fruits and vegetables: you may lower your risk of heart disease and stroke, your mental health might improve, you may have better brain health and you could have added protection against certain kinds of cancers, to name a few. But sometimes that's easier said than done. If you find it challenging to eat a variety of produce throughout the day, consider buying pre-chopped vegetables, pre-cut greens or salad kits from the produce section. They can make it faster and easier to add vegetables to your cooking and help you quickly create a simple, tasty side to add to your meal.

4. Frozen Fruits and Vegetables

Other ingredients that can help you save time while also eating more produce are frozen fruits and vegetables. They last way longer than fresh produce and are picked at peak ripeness, so you'll get great flavor and nutrients in every bite. Besides, they typically cook much faster since they are often blanched or boiled before being flash-frozen. Just keep an eye on the added sodium and added sugar on the nutrition labels and try to opt for products that just contain fruit or veg without other flavorings.

5. Precooked Grains

Whole grains are super-healthy foods that we all could probably stand to eat more of. They're packed with fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals that are hard to find anywhere else. However, whole grains can take a long time to cook. I always try to keep a few packages of precooked quinoa or brown rice that I can quickly heat up in the microwave when I'm crunched for time. When paired with pre-cut or frozen vegetables, canned beans or fish and a sauce or seasoning blend, you can have a balanced and flavorful meal in minutes.

Coconut Curried Chickpeas
Dera Burreson

6. Frozen Mains to Build On

As a dietitian on a budget, I pride myself in being able to zhuzh up frozen meals to add nutrition and flavor while saving time and money. I'm notorious for adding vegetables, herbs and leftover proteins to frozen pizza. Also, you can use frozen mains like ravioli, dumplings or wontons and pair them with more vegetables for a complete meal that tastes homemade but is made in a fraction of the time. Pro tip: You can use chicken tenders or fish sticks as crispy, delicious salad toppers in a pinch, too. Just take note of the sodium, saturated fat and added sugar content on the Nutrition Facts label to choose the best time-saving products that help you meet your health goals.

7. Prepared Sauces

When I have time, I love making sauces from scratch because it's fun and allows me to tailor the flavors to my liking. But unfortunately, I don't always have the time or mental stamina to cook one every day (or to do the resulting dishes). So, that's why I keep my fridge and pantry well-stocked with prepared sauces to easily add flavor to my meals. For instance, you can use curry paste mixed with canned coconut milk as a sauce for beans and veggies—and you can even pair it with a precooked rice packet for some extra filling carbohydrates (our Chickpea Coconut Curry is a standby in my house). I also love having jarred pasta sauce and pesto on hand for when I run out of my homemade stuff or need to get a meal on the table fast. Like other foods above, it's important to check the sodium, saturated fat and added sugar content of the products you choose, to see how they fit into your eating day.

8. Minced Garlic

Anyone who cooks with garlic often knows the downside of getting the smell all over their hands and under their fingernails—and probably also knows how long it lingers. Plus, no matter how skilled you are in the kitchen or how many cloves you've been through, peeling and mincing garlic by hand is never easy. If you use garlic regularly or find the prep to be a barrier to using it, consider buying pre-minced garlic. All the hard work is already done for you, so just scoop or squeeze as much as you want to add to your dish. Even saving the 5 or 10 minutes it takes to peel and chop can add up in the long run, making it easier to have more flavorful food without too much added salt.

The Bottom Line

There are lots of reasons to try to cook more at home, whether for your physical and mental health, or to add in more family time. And contrary to what you might think, it doesn't have to be time-consuming or expensive. Building out your pantry and fridge with these budget-friendly ingredients can help make it quicker and easier to make nutritious and tasty meals any night of the week. For more budget- and beginner-friendly cooking tips, check out Thrifty.

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