We all have those nights when the last thing we want to do is search the fridge for some dinner inspiration. Even busting out the Instant Pot can feel like a chore.
Fortunately, there are plenty of meal-prep hacks, non-perishable staples and convenience food options to help make a half-scratch meal feel comforting.
In fact, many healthy frozen foods, meal delivery services and pantry items out there make it incredibly easy to set full plates out by dinnertime. And there's no shame in combining some packaged foods to make a meal feel whole if you make nutritious choices.
To help make dinner less of a struggle, dietitians offer up tips on what they do when they just don't have the time, energy and motivation to put together a balanced and tasty meal.
1. Batch-Cook Side Dishes
Sometimes all you need to have dinner ready in minutes is to cobble up a bunch of side dishes together.
Sarika Shah, RD, a dietitian based in San Ramon, California, who's passionate about making Indian cuisine a staple in American diets, meal preps sides, like brown rice and quinoa, for the week and stores them in the fridge so they're ready to be reheated.
"I also have lentils soaked and ready to cook. In the evening, I cook them in a pan with masala (spices) and it's ready to eat in 10 minutes," Shah says.
But if you don't have those sides at the ready, one of her favorite quick, Indian-style meals is combining a microwaveable packet of Seeds of Change brown basmati rice with Tasty Bites Indian Madras Lentils.
"In a bowl, add a couple of handfuls of spinach from the refrigerator and top with the brown rice and madras lentils. Lastly, add some Greek yogurt for more protein and satisfaction. Mix it all up and enjoy a meal that's cooked and ready in under 5 minutes," she says.
Amy Shapiro, RD, CDN, chops veggies and cook a pot of grains and a batch of protein, like chicken in the slow cooker, to cut down on meal prep during the week. "This lives in the fridge for up to 4 to 5 days and makes for a quick meal without daily prep," she says.
2. Make Breakfast for Dinner
There's no harm in having the same meal twice a day, or having breakfast for supper, especially if you only have a few ingredients on hand.
"Eggs are fast and healthy. Scramble two eggs and add some veggies, and there you have a one-pan dinner! Add a piece of toast and some fruit, and you are good to go," Shapiro says.
"Yogurt parfaits made with Greek yogurt are also balanced meals because they pack protein, fiber and healthy fats from nuts and seeds."
And yes, you can even have waffles for dinner. Shah likes Van's multi-grain waffles and combines them with scrambled eggs and fruit. "If you're feeling fancy, add frozen vegetables with the scrambled eggs and nut butter on the waffles. This meal is packed with fiber and protein, which will keep everyone satisfied," she says.
3. Enjoy Snacks as a Meal
You can combine snacks and enjoy them as a meal instead of mindlessly grazing all night long, but it's important that your meal has protein, healthy fats and complex carbs to ensure you're getting enough nutrients and stay satisfied, Shapiro says.
Some of her favorite snack combos are whole-grain crackers with cottage cheese and chia seeds, and Greek yogurt with berries and nuts.
"For a plant-based snack-plate meal, combine roasted chickpeas or edamame with a quarter avocado, multi-grain or seed crackers, walnuts and any veggies you have on hand," Shah says.
4. Use Salad Kits
Have leftover protein but too tired to roast veggies on the side? In the mixed greens section of your grocery store, you'll often find salad kits, which include a bag of greens, other diced veggies and toppings, such as nuts and seeds, dried fruit, grated cheese and a dressing or vinaigrette.
Many salad kits are themed and vary in ingredients and tastes, such as Southwestern, Asian-inspired and Mediterranean.
"Top them off with items in your pantry, like canned beans, lentils and nuts and seeds. If you have any other vegetables, throw them in, too. Instead of adding the full dressing packet, use only half, or replace the dressing with salsa," Shah says.
"Pair the salad with a slice of whole-grain toast or tortilla. The fiber and protein will keep you satisfied for hours."
5. Fall Back on Healthy Frozen Foods
When you're crunched for time and aren't stocked up with enough fresh ingredients to prep a meal, look no further than your freezer. Frozen meals used to get a bad rap for being sneaky sources of sodium, unhealthy fats and processed ingredients, but a new wave of freezer-friendly dishes actually use high-quality, nutritious foods.
"I love already prepared frozen meals that are a one-and-done kind of thing," says Shapiro, who's Daily Harvest's nutrition partner. "Daily Harvest is my go-to favorite because their harvest bowls and soups take the prep work out of healthy eating. Full of vegetables, grains, beans, nuts and seeds and flavor, they satisfy my hunger and meet my nutrition needs."
To make it a heartier meal, Shapiro will add a fried egg, can of tuna, leftover grilled chicken or half an avocado to her Daily Harvest dish. If you're craving pizza, she recommends Daily Harvest's flatbreads. Low-carb and gluten-free, these plant-based pies pack antioxidant-rich veggies, such as arugula, sweet potato and mushrooms. Plus, they cook up fast and bake in the oven for 20 to 25 minutes.
On the meatier side, Shapiro suggests Applegate Farms' Well Carved line of organic beef and turkey burgers and meatballs. Their burgers, for instance, are made with 100 percent grass-fed beef that's mixed with cauliflower, spinach, lentils and butternut squash.
"I defrost them and serve with a salad if I have fresh produce. What I love about frozen food is if your plans change, nothing goes bad. It's there waiting for you the next time you are in a crunch or just hungry," Shapiro says.
6. Use Non-Perishables and Canned Goods
In times of stress and chaos, canned goods are your friend. Shapiro recommends stocking up on canned tuna, beans, boxed soups and lentil pasta, which you can quickly put together for a nutritious meal. Crushed tomatoes and tomato sauce, as well as masala spice packets, are also handy, Shah says.
"My personal favorites are chana masala (chickpeas and spices), palak paneer (spinach with Indian cottage cheese) and dal makhani (a creamy lentil and red kidney bean dish)," she says.
Shah also suggests keeping tetra-packed tofu in your pantry because it's shelf-stable. "Add it to pasta dishes in place of ricotta cheese, or throw it into a quick stir-fry with frozen veggies. It is also a great substitute for paneer (Indian cottage cheese) in Indian dishes," Shah says.
A good option for a quick weeknight dinner is burritos that use up pantry items, Shah says. All you need is whole-grain tortillas, canned black beans, frozen bell peppers and cheese. "And if you have them, add some avocado and salsa. It's a complete meal made with whole-grain carbs, protein and veggies."
7. Don't Be Afraid of Food Delivery
If all else fails, you can always start using a meal delivery service or order healthy take-out for nights you're in a serious pinch. Diana Rodriguez, RD, CDN, says many of her colleagues have used Freshly's microwaveable meals for their families.
Shah also recommends Sunbasket, which offers microwavable and oven-baked meals as well as meal kits that have pre-portioned ingredients. And you can order meals for breakfast, lunch, dinner and even snacks. Plus, they accommodate a variety of diets, such as gluten-free, vegetarian, pescatarian, diabetes-friendly and Paleo.
"The company strives for fresh organic, hormone-free products and a variety of cultural items with a lot of flavor. Most meals can be made in under 30 minutes and are low in added sugars," Shah says.
A great take-out option is Noodles & Company, which has a variety of healthy customizable and made-to-order pasta dishes, says Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, nutrition expert and author of Smoothies & Juices: Prevention Healing Kitchen.
"They offer bowls that fit your lifestyle, whether you're looking to boost your veggie intake, get more protein or watch your sodium. You can also customize your dish, adding roasted zucchini, snap peas or carrots, among other vegetables. And you can choose from an array of proteins, from sauteed shrimp to marinated steak to seasoned tofu," Largeman-Roth says.
The MyMenu feature also allows you to further design your bowl by selecting specific dietary needs, such as dairy-free, shellfish-free, nut-free and soy-free. For example, if you're low-carb or keto, you can substitute regular noodles with zoodles and add extra veggies.