Food Preparation

How to Make Dinner in a Minute with Shortcut Cooking

January 11, 2017   /
Anne Danahy, MS RD LDN

With hectic schedules and little free time, home cooks are often challenged to get dinner on the table. Rather than resort to take-out or fast food, make a point to stock up on the wealth of healthy shortcut meal ingredients available at the grocery store, and create quick and easy semi-homemade meals that look and taste like you have been in the kitchen all day.

Semi-homemade or shortcut meals are those created using a mix of both prepared and fresh ingredients, and they are designed to save time, while still offering a home cooked meal. The concept of shortcut meals is hardly new, but where it was once limited to packaged cake mixes and Hamburger Helper®, the options today are endless and significantly healthier. Take advantage of some of these timesaving ingredients, meal ideas, and cooking tips:

Healthy shortcut ingredients


  • Canned beans
  • Eggs
  • Frozen cooked and peeled shrimp
  • Refrigerated seasoned and cooked chicken strips
  • Rotisserie chicken or turkey breast
  • Tuna
  • Veggie burgers or other prepared meat replacements such as Neat Meat®


  • Bagged salad mixes or shredded, precut vegetables
  • Fresh, peeled garlic cloves, minced garlic, and ginger in a jar
  • Frozen chopped onions and sweet peppers for sautéing
  • Frozen mixed vegetables in various flavor profiles
  • Squeezable “tubes” of pureed herbs available in the produce section

Whole grains

  • Couscous
  • Pre-cooked frozen or shelf-stable brown rice or quinoa
  • Whole grain angel hair pasta
  • Whole-wheat naan bread and flour tortillas


  • Canned tomatoes
  • Chicken, beef and/or vegetable broth
  • Pesto sauce
  • Shredded cheese

Putting it together – no recipes needed!

Chicken fajitas: Sauté chopped peppers and onions in olive oil. Add pulled rotisserie chicken and a few spoonfuls of salsa. Top with shredded cheese and serve in flour tortillas.

Vegetable soup: Bring a pot of chicken, beef, or vegetable stock to a boil. Add cooked brown rice, frozen mixed vegetables and shredded chicken or canned beans. Reduce heat and simmer until vegetables are tender.

One-pot pasta with broccoli: Sauté about ½ cup (C) chopped onion in olive oil. Add about 2 teaspoons (tsp) minced garlic from a jar, then add about 2 C fresh or frozen broccoli florets. Sauté the broccoli for about 3 minutes, then add 2-3/4 C chicken or vegetable broth and 8 ounces (oz) of any type of dried pasta (angel hair cooks the fastest). Bring the broth to a boil, and then reduce heat to low. Cover, and let simmer until pasta is tender – up to 10 minutes, depending on the shape, adding additional broth if the sauce seems dry. If desired, finish with a drizzle of cream and a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese.

Grilled pizza: Heat grill (or broiler) to high heat. Spray both sides of a naan bread with cooking spray. Lightly toast both sides of the bread on the grill or broiler. Remove bread and top with pesto, sliced fresh tomatoes, and a sprinkle of mozzarella. Reduce the heat on the grill to very low, and return the naan pizza to the grill (or broiler) to let cheese melt.

Vegetable frittata: Preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly cook any combination of fresh or frozen vegetables in microwave safe bowl that is covered with plastic wrap, for about 2 minutes. In a large ovenproof sauté pan, heat olive oil and sauté about ¼ C chopped onion until light golden. Add the microwaved vegetables to the onion and continue to sauté. Meanwhile, beat together 6 eggs, and season with salt and pepper. If desired, mix in a handful of shredded cheddar or Swiss cheese. Pour the egg mixture over the vegetables, and let cook for about 5 minutes or until the bottom is set. Transfer the sauté pan to the oven, and let bake for another 5 - 10 minutes until the eggs are puffed and golden.

Shortcut cooking tips and tricks

  1. Whenever you cook longer cooking grains such as wild or brown rice, farro, or wheat berries, make a large batch, cool any leftovers on a cookie sheet, and freeze them in freezer bags for another meal. Whole grains can be added to any salad, roasted vegetables, broth-based soups, stews, or chili recipes to turn them into a heartier meal.
  2. Always double soup, stew, or lasagna recipes, and freeze the leftovers in freezer-safe containers. Let a container thaw during the day in the refrigerator so that you can just microwave and eat dinner whenever you are ready. 
  3. Season boneless, skinless chicken breasts with barbecue sauce, pesto, or Italian dressing as soon as you get home from the grocery store. Just portion chicken into freezer bags, and pour a different marinade into each bag. Seal and place them in the freezer. The chicken will marinade as it freezes and later thaws.
  4. Produce and grains are quick cooking, inexpensive, and high in fiber and nutrients. Try to base your semi-homemade meals around these ingredients, with some protein added to make a complete meal.
  5. Dust off the slow cooker; it can be a lifesaver when life gets hectic. Assemble your ingredients in the covered container the night before, plug it in in the morning, and come home to the smells of dinner waiting for you.
  6. New shortcut products appear constantly in the grocery store, but are not all healthy choices. Check the food label to make sure the product is low in fat, sugar, and sodium, and contains simple ingredients you recognize and can pronounce. 

References and recommended reading

Cook it quick. University of Nebraska at Lincoln Extension website. Accessed September 22, 2015.