fast weeknight meals

Me + A Bunch of Other Dietitians Share Our Go-To Convenience Foods

Is it just me, or do processed (aka packaged or "convenience") foods get a bad rap? As someone with a goal to make cooking more practical, one of my favorite things to talk about is how to incorporate kitchen shortcuts as a way to make the whole routine faster, more manageable, and more doable. 

I always tell my coaching clients that sure, it's a good idea to make whole foods the foundation of your diet where you can, but the nature of being busy means that convenience foods can make cooking and eating less stressful, faster, and more enjoyable. And I think we can all agree that those are important factors in good health too! Finding a balance that works for your lifestyle is what really matters. 

A piece of well-meaning advice that misses the mark: "shop the perimeter of the grocery store and avoid the aisles".

The problem with this is that there are so many things tucked away in the aisles worthy of being weekly staples in your shopping cart: think canned beans, whole grains (rice, oats, farro, etc.), and flavor bombs like sriracha, fish sauce and canned coconut milk. Basically it's where all the fun stuff is that allows you to prepare fresh food in a delicious and satisfying way. 

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The List

As a testament to some of the things that you might want to consider grabbing from the aisles, today I'm sharing a few of my favorite convenience foods that make feeding myself way easier.  I also put a call out to some of my fellow Colorado-local dietitians for their favorites and I got some great responses (along with the why and how behind each) so read on for more!

"I am a rice cake fanatic"

-Monica Salafia (Mind on Nutrition).

"They're the perfect vehicle for other nutritious food and they're crunchy, light, won't go bad and are easily found at any grocery store". 

Rice cakes are notorious for being boring or flavorless but that's only if you eat them plain (btw who does that?). Take Monica's suggestion to bulk them up with other nutrient-dense foods to make it a satisfying snack. These are a great option for the gluten-free folks out there too and I like that they can be savory or sweet depending on your craving. 

Just Say No to Being Hangry

I recently mentioned these Nugo Bars on Instagram because I love stashing stuff like this in my purse when I need something to hold me over between meals and am out of the house. Bars aren't always the most fun choice when it comes to snacks but that's the compromise that I make to keep myself energized on the go. Just say no to being hangry in the middle of running errands on a Saturday. Your significant other will thank you!

Nugo nutrition bars with egg whites

Cereal (aka breakfast in a hurry) 

Cereal is a favorite "breakfast in a hurry" for me. I use it as a pre-workout snack on my way out the door because it gives me the fuel I need without weighing me down and is quick to assemble (and requires little brain power for those 6am classes). As a bonus, many options are high in fiber and several essential nutrients too. Some are more dessert-like, so just be selective if your goal is sustained energy as the higher sugar/lower fiber choices probably won't meet that need. 

Some of my favorite varieties are honey nut cheerios, peanut butter puffins, and Kashi cinnamon harvest. When I want to make it more substantial, I bulk it up with things like fresh fruit, nuts and seeds, and more milk for protein. This can also be helpful for those of you who feel out of control around cereal (super common). Make it more filling to avoid feeling like you need to keep going back for refills. 

"Bagged Salad Kits"

-Laura Young (@LiveWellByLaura

"One of my favorite new-ish products in the grocery store is the bagged salad mixes.  They're perfect for a quick evening meal - all you have to do is add a protein like beans, edamame, or some chopped deli meat and you have a complete meal in 2 minutes! And I love the variety they offer from sweet to savory to southwest."

While these are usually pricier than buying all of the individual components - you really can't beat how easy it is to cut open the bag, dump it in a bowl and mix it all together. These are a frequent purchase in my house too!

bagged salad kit with beans

"Frozen Vegetables"

-Haley Hughes of RDRX Nutrition 

She especially loves riced cauliflower and zucchini noodles since they are a "quick and easy way to fit in some extra veggies while offering some versatility and fun to any recipe". 

It's a common misconception that frozen fruits and vegetables are inferior to fresh - this is absolutely not the case (in regards to nutrition at least). And if this hack is helping you to include produce more often then it's definitely a win.

"Minute brown rice"

-Jamie Magdic of

Rice is a dinner staple in most households and the whole grain version is a nutrient powerhouse. Unfortunately it takes forever to cook, which can be a huge barrier to including it regularly. Jamie likes to keep Minute brown rice on hand so she can make it in literally one minute. 

"My favorite go-to convenience food meal is Minute brown rice topped with a bag of veggie Steamers - both items that can you can pop in the microwave for 5 minutes and wallah! All you need to do to prepare this meal after microwaving the items is add some olive oil or butter, a little bit of salt and pepper, and/or a sprinkle of your favorite cheese. This is a delicious meal that leaves me super satisfied on those days when I want something quick and easy.  I love to have this meal in my back pocket on those busy days."

"Chicken Sausage"

-Hannah Turnbull of Nourished with Hannah

The protein component of the meal can often be the most time-intensive. Especially if you buy meat frozen and then constantly forget to thaw it out in time for dinner.  

"One of my go-to convenience foods is pre-cooked protein; some examples being chicken sausage and pepperoni." "I love to throw chicken sausage in a skillet to heat it up, then add some some zucchini, cherry tomatoes, onions, garlic, salt and pepper. Plate it up with salad and 90 minute microwavable rice or mac and cheese for a tasty, satisfying meal. Pepperoni goes nicely on a flat bread with tomato sauce, cheese, bell peppers and mushrooms for an easy personal pizza."

Weeknight pizza anyone?

Canned Fish

Last on the list but certainly not least; you will almost always find some sort of canned fish like tuna, sardines and anchovies in my pantry. A friend recently introduced me to smoked oysters and those are fun too - plus a great source of iron. When it comes to protein, small fish are incredibly convenient and versatile. For instance, anchovies (my favorite) can be used to top pizza, tossed with pasta or blended into a sauce for a great salty and umami flavor. Most of us also fall short on meeting the recommendations of eating fish 2-3x per week and keeping some of these options on hand is a great way to help you fill that gap too. 

Do you have favorites that weren't mentioned? Leave us a comment below! 

Tips for Getting Dinner on the Table Fast

One of the most common (if not the most common) barrier to folks cooking more meals at home is a lack of time, am I right? Many of us work long hours, try to squeeze in some exercise, then have to brave traffic and by the time we get home, cooking can be the least appealing thing to do.

I look forward to it because I'm a total cooking nerd (at least most nights), but I know not everyone feels the same way so I wanted to give some practical tips that might be helpful for getting dinner on the table FAST on a week night, and a healthyish dinner at that. 

Go Semi-Homemade

Does anyone else remember that show on The Food Network, Semi-Homemade with Sandra Lee? I haven't seen it in years (I actually don't even know if it's on anymore) but I used to love it. Sandra Lee made all sorts of fun stuff using shortcuts like boxed baking mixes to make cooking quicker and easier. As much as I love cooking, I know there is a time and a place for convenience items and I definitely take advantage of them when necessary. My favorites:

  • Rotisserie chicken

  • Pre-chopped butternut squash (it's pretty much the worst thing ever to chop)

  • Angel hair slaw (versus buying the whole cabbage and shaving it myself)

  • Shredded cheese

  • Pizza dough

The trade-off is, these are usually a bit pricier than their "made-from-scratch" counterparts. Think about your week and what you'll have the time and energy to do.

Think Ahead & Be More Efficient  

Something that has dramatically helped me with week-night cooking is planning. I don't just mean weekend prep because while I realize that's helpful, I also appreciate that not everyone has the time or desire to do it. What I mean is, if you have to chop an onion on Monday and know you'll need another one on Wednesday, do both at the same time. Similarly, if you need a small amount of rice, double the batch because it won't take that much longer but saves you time later and rice is super versatile for other on-the-fly dishes later. If you take the time to rinse and chop some cilantro, chop the whole bunch even if you don't need it all in that moment. I know I'm a lot more likely to use it throughout the week if it's already chopped any way, which means less waste too so this one's a double win. 


Try Breakfast for Dinner

If there's ever a night when Jacob and I just aren't feeling what was on our menu, or really just can't imagine spending more than 15 minutes getting something cooked, breakfast for dinner it is. Some of our favorites are breakfast burritos with avocado, hot sauce and whatever else we have on hand, or Kodiak Cakes with nut butter and fruit. 

Nutrition Tip: Keep things balanced by including a source of carbohydrates/fiber, protein and heart-healthy fat. This way you won't be raiding the kitchen for something else an hour later.

Here are some other quick ideas:

  • Open-face, whole grain English muffin topped with cream cheese, fried eggs, sautéed spinach or kale and tomato slices (don't forget to season with salt + pepper)

  • Savory oatmeal: make per the usual directions but instead of adding fruit and sweetener, add shredded cheese, a poached egg and some chives/cilantro/green onions

  • Scrambled eggs with green chili, avocado and Sriracha + sides (pictured above)


Snack Boards for the Win

Like I mentioned before, I'm a huge fan of snack boards at any time of the day. They make great appetizers or party food, but you can also use them as a way to clean out the fridge on Friday night and make a super quick dinner that's perfect for movie-watching. Add whatever you like, but think about a variety of textures, temperatures and food groups to make it great. Click the link above to grab a snack board shopping list and how-to guide that I put together if you don't want to spend time coming up with your own (just scroll to the end!). 

Stock Some Helpful Tools

If you follow me on Instagram, you might already know that I recently bought an Instant Pot (<-- this is the one I have, and this is an affiliate link just fyi) and so far I am really impressed with how magical this thing is. You can cook things in minutes that typically take hours. For example, on Halloween I cooked a whole chicken in just 14 minutes! Now I will say that cook times are a little bit misleading because you also have to account for the time it takes for the IP to come up to pressure and then come back down before you can open the lid (15-20 minute each). However even with this time included, certain items that are usually only doable on weekends can easily turn into week night meals. This weekend I made black beans from scratch in an hour from start to finish (no soaking necessary). Not too bad considering that it's entirely hands-off once you get it going. 

In addition to the instant pot, I'm a fan of stocking some basic, inexpensive tools that save a lot of time, like a garlic press, and a few good quality knives (I say this a lot but... so important!). They make chopping quicker and easier and I promise, it's worth the investment. You might also grab some small sauce dishes to make getting your mise en place simple. 


Did you find these tips to be helpful?

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