Forget Fast Food: Quick, Healthy Meals at Home

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on March 07, 2022

It's 6 p.m., you just left the office, and you've got nothing to fix for supper. When you’re rushing to pick up kids, run errands, and get dinner on the table, fast food may seem like the way to go.

But in the 20 or 30 minutes it takes to grab a bag of burgers or wait for a pizza delivery, you can put a healthier meal together in your own kitchen. When you cook meals at home, no matter how basic and simple, you send a message to your family that mealtime is important.

Kids in the Kitchen

Everyone can help get dinner ready -- even little ones, with supervision. Ask your kids to help with tasks they can handle:

  • Younger children can wipe and set the table, rinse and tear salad greens, and put toppings on pizza dough.
  • School-aged kids can open cans, gather and measure ingredients, spray baking pans, wash fruits and veggies, toss salads, and grate cheese.
  • Tweens can slice and chop, stir pots and sauté foods, and read and follow recipes and package directions.
  • Teens can do it all: Plan, shop, and prepare meals, and help younger kids with kitchen tasks.

Use Healthy Packaged Foods

You don't have to prepare an entire meal from scratch every time. Some pantry basics give you a back-up plan for the days when you're strapped for time.

Spaghetti with marinara sauce and veggies:

Simmer the pasta and sauce for 15 minutes, then top it with frozen broccoli or green beans that you've defrosted.

Quick trick: Use angel hair pasta instead of spaghetti -- it cooks faster.

Personal pizza:

Top store-made refrigerated pizza dough, pita bread, or a prepared pizza crust with canned or bottled pizza sauce, barbeque sauce, salsa, or pesto and your favorite toppings and low-fat cheese. Try these combos:

  • Sliced tomatoes, zucchini, olives, turkey sausage, and shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese.
  • Bottled barbecue sauce, shredded cooked chicken, sliced green pepper, and low-fat Colby cheese.
  • Tomato salsa, black beans (canned, rinsed), frozen corn, sliced olives, and shredded low-fat Monterey Jack cheese.

Quick trick: Buy grated cheese and sliced vegetables from a supermarket salad bar.

Asian stir-fry:

Heat a package of frozen stir-fry vegetables. Add cooked frozen shrimp, chunks of leftover cooked chicken, or cubes of tofu, and heat through. Sprinkle with chopped peanuts and serve with quick-cooking brown rice and low-sodium soy sauce.

Quick trick: Use frozen or heat-sealed microwavable brown rice, or try couscous, a grain that's ready in 5 minutes.

Take Supermarket Shortcuts

Although many packaged food items may not be the healthiest choices, you can shop wisely if you read the nutrition labels. Compare the amount of salt and saturated fat in similar items, and pick the one with the lowest numbers. Most large supermarkets have a variety of heat-and-eat items. All you have to do is assemble the final dish in your kitchen.

  • Grab a rotisserie chicken. You can eat it as-is, add it to soups and salads, or use it in tacos and casseroles.
  • In the meat case you'll find prepared and boil-in-the-bag dishes such as pot roast and chicken that can be ready in minutes.
  • Buy bagged salad. Let kids add their own protein (chicken, shrimp, cheese, or hard-boiled eggs) and serve with whole-grain rolls.

Let Supper Sandwiches Rule

Just can't face standing over the stove? Let supper sandwiches come to the rescue. To each of these meals, add a dish or two like a salad, fresh fruit, a steamed fresh or frozen vegetable, or heat up a can of beans. You'll add fiber, vitamins, and minerals to your family's meal.

  • Top whole-grain buns with lean beef, turkey, or vegetarian patties. Add your favorite trimmings: lettuce, tomato, sliced cucumbers, and low-fat spreads.
  • Stuff warm pita-bread pockets with scrambled eggs and cheese, leftover chicken, meatballs, or hummus. Add your family's favorite shredded or diced veggies.
  • Top whole wheat toast with tuna and shredded cheese, then broil until the cheese bubbles.
  • Fill a folded corn or whole wheat tortilla with shredded cooked chicken, diced tomato, and cheese, and warm it in a pan.

Have Breakfast for Dinner

Lots of healthy, kid-favorite breakfast foods work in a pinch for dinner, too.

  • Toast whole-grain bagels and top with peanut butter. Add low-fat yogurt or milk, and fresh fruit. Buy fruit already sliced at the grocery store to save yourself a step.
  • Make a turkey- or ham-and-cheese omelet with low-fat cheese. Add chopped veggies to it, or top it with salsa. Serve with whole-grain toast and fruit.
  • Top whole-grain pancakes or waffles with nuts and strawberries, or bananas and peanut or almond butter.

Show Sources


Todd, J. Amber Waves, June 2010; vol 8.

South Carolina Cooperative Extension, Clemson University: "Kids in the kitchen," "Quick meals."

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