Shortcuts to Dinner: What to Buy to Streamline Weeknight Meal Prep
We have practical advice for those nights when time is tight.
There are some evenings when you have the luxury of time on your side—on those days, you can take your time cooking, making everything from scratch. On the other hand, there are those nights when time is incredibly tight, and spending hours in the kitchen preparing a meal for the family isn't possible. More often than not, that is how it goes, and the priority becomes getting a meal on the table quickly. But fast doesn't mean ordering in or microwaving frozen food. With a few shortcuts on hand, you can reduce prep time and get right to the cooking homemade meals fast. Here, we're sharing our best tips for getting a healthy, family-friendly meal on the table fast. While we're assuming you have essentials like canned tomatoes and tuna in your pantry, we're also recommending some useful ingredients that have a shorter shelf life that are worth bringing home from the grocery store each week.
Most of the food editors who work in our test kitchen are going to tell you to cut your own vegetables, but not everyone can chop as fast as a professional cook. Rather than skip the vegetables, which are a wholesome and fibrous part of a balanced diet, when you're pressed for time, we suggest buying high-quality (and affordable) precut ones at stores like Trader Joes or Whole Foods. To ensure you're bringing home the freshest options—and not ones that have been sitting on the shelf for days—check to make sure there is no extra moisture in the bag or container; you should also avoid any with signs of browning or rotting
What are the best vegetables to buy precut? Our picks are pre-shredded Brussels sprouts and peeled, sliced winter squash. Buying Brussels already prepped saves the time spent on trimming and shredding each individual sprout. Grab a bag and add a quick vegetable side or salad to dinner. For the main course, use this shortcut to make this delicious dinner a pasta featuring the iconic pairing of Brussels and bacon.
Peeling and slicing winter squash, like acorn, butternut, or kabocha, not only takes time, but it's also hard to do. Pre-cut squash plus an Instant Pot equals a super easy and flavorful Thai Red Curry that's on the table in under an hour. You could also use your squash to make this vegetable-filled breakfast for dinner hash. The recipe calls for butternut squash with kale and eggs and is prepared in one skillet. Roast your preferred squash until golden and tender, then add it to stews, soups, pasta dishes, salads, casseroles, and more.
Precooked Vegetables and Lentils
Typically right alongside the precut vegetables in the grocery store produce aisle is where you'll another excellent source of dinner shortcuts: pre-cooked beets and lentils that have been cryovac sealed and are ready to eat. The flavor is fresh just like you cooked them, unlike their canned counterparts. Cryovac vegetables last much longer than fresh, making the beets and lentils good ingredients to keep on hand in the fridge.
Beets take an especially long time to cook, so it's nice to have that part of the prep work done for you. With the beets already cooked, it's possible to make a beet salad on a weeknight schedule. Try making dips like this Beet Muhamara which is also great served as a sauce alongside meats, quick to put on toast, or blend into soup.
Save 20 minutes or so on cooking time for favorite dinner recipes by adding cooked lentils to soups and stews. Another protein-rich option for dinner is a lentil salad—just add a poached or fried egg on top for a hearty meal. You could also put together a kitchen-sink salad with whatever greens and vegetables you have on hand, then add lentils for protein—bonus points if you add precooked beets as well!
A must for every pantry, jarred marinara sauce can do so much more than just make a tasty bowl of pasta. Go Italian and spread it over chicken parm, layer into lasagnas, or turn it into a pasta bake. Try using marinara instead of canned tomatoes to really layer on flavor in unexpected dishes—as in our recipe for tomato-based curry—and to cut down on cooking time. Chilis tend to benefit from long simmers to meld flavors; you can shorten that timeline by using a jar of marinara.
It's hard to walk past the rotisserie chicken section in the supermarket without craving one—that juicy cooked meat and that flavorful skin make them simply irresistible. For those nights when you need protein for dinner but cooking a whole chicken is out of the question, grab a rotisserie chicken. Use it for chicken salads, atop a hearty burrito bowl, as added protein in a casserole, or stirred into a pasta. Really, what doesn't go well with chicken?
Everyone's favorite dip can do more: Use hummus as a healthy sandwich spread, as in this dinner of tasty open-faced Mediterranean Chopped-Chicken Pitas. Thin out hummus with a bit of pasta water, then toss it with the cooked noodles, canned chickpeas, and Parmesan for a delicious vegetarian pasta. Make a Greek Mezze Salad or just serve the hummus as a dip with vegetables to curb appetites while you finish making dinner. There are so many delicious options.