10 Fast, Easy & Healthy Late-Night Dinner Ideas When You’re in a Rush

Make a quick, healthy dinner that tastes great, even if it’s late, you’re in a rush and you don’t have much time to cook. You had to stay late the office. It’s happened AGAIN. Now, dinner is looming ahead – with no one but you to make it. You can still have a tasty and healthy dinner, even if you’re running late or in a rush. Instead of takeout again, eat something good and good for you!

Man working late yawning in front of a computer
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Cooking your meals at home is healthier for the waistline (not to mention easier on the wallet). But cooking at home can be a chore if you’re not prepared. It’s also tempting to reach for high-calorie processed foods, or fill up on unhealthy snacks. You’re working so hard to burn calories by walking, and what you eat should support your walking routine.

How do you take the pressure off and make it easier on yourself? Here are 10 ideas to prepare healthier, home-cooked dinners quickly when you’re running late.

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1) Make-ahead for quicker meal prep!

Chopped vegetables ready to cook with
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Set aside time on a rest day to take care of much of your food prep all at one time. If you’re using chopped up veggies in more than one dinner this week, do all the cutting once and store each item separately so you can quickly cook when you need to. If you’re making a stir-fried or sauteed dish, the prep time is often the most time consuming (and tiresome) part of cooking. Taking care of it ahead of time means you can whip up a healthy dinner much faster when you’re running late.

Other items can be prepped ahead of time as well. If you’re making a pasta dish, you can cook your pasta ahead of time and store it in a Ziploc bag or container to heat and use whenever you need it.

Of course, there’s a limit on how long you can keep pre-cooked foods before they start to spoil. Here’s a guide from Foodsafety.gov on how long various food items will keep in your refrigerator.

2) Freeze for later!

Refrigerated food in containers ready to cook and eat
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On nights you have extra time, make double batches of your recipes and freeze part the food for later. You can then pop out the frozen meals when needed, cutting minutes of precious time on food preparation. You’ll cook once but eat twice.

Make sure to choose meals that freeze and reheat well when doing this kind of prep. Chicken pot pie or stuffed peppers are two examples of meals that freeze well. A medium-rare steak is not going to be medium rare after freezing and properly reheating it, on the other hand. Consider if you’ll be reheating your dishes in the microwave (which can lead to uneven heating for certain foods) or heating on the stovetop or another method. You’ll get a sense of which foods make the most sense for you to freeze and grab for later.

When freezing your dishes, consider portioning them out using freezer boxes or smaller bags so you can reheat one serving at a time. Foods tend to stick together after freezing, which makes dividing up your portions difficult. If you can just grab a bag or box and reheat it, you’ll save time and effort.

3) Keep it simple!

Healthy chicken vegetable and rice dinner with a lemon
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Not every dinner has to be a gourmet feast! Try to find recipes with five ingredients or less. Pair a protein with a bed of lettuce or steamed or raw veggies. Or mix up some pasta with broccoli and your favorite protein. Fewer ingredients means less prep time (and less mess to clean up). You can often make quick and simple meals around poached, sauteed, or baked chicken breasts or fish filets. All you need is some lemon and spices and you have yourself a main course. You can always poach chicken breasts ahead of time, throw them in the fridge or freezer, and reheat them when you need them. Pre-wash salad or veggies or wilt some spinach in a pan of water for quick veggie side dishes.

4) Fast-cooking proteins are your friend!

Healthy sauteed shrimp with lemon and spices
Oksana Mizina / Shutterstock

The faster your food cooks, the faster you can eat! Shrimp and fish cook faster than beef or chicken, for example. Try using a protein that cooks quickly when you’re pressed for time. Thin cuts of meat also cook quicker when you’re in a time crunch.

Consider practicing reheating techniques for various proteins so that you can make better use of pre-cooked proteins. Food safety is important, and you will want to ensure that your meats reach a safe internal temperature before serving. With a little practice, you’ll be able to quickly sautee some shrimp or reheat a pre-cooked chicken breast quickly and safely for a healthy dinner.

5) Use a “garbage” bowl!

Father and son cooking breakfast together
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Ever watched Rachel Ray? She uses what she calls a garbage bowl to collect scraps and trash that she plans to throw out during cooking. Instead of tossing every scrap one by one, she collects them and throws them all out towards the end of your cooking session. This saves you trips to the trash can, which can shave off a few extra minutes of cooking time. It can also keep drippings and trash off the kitchen floor, which saves the time you would have spent cleaning later.

6) Make it family time!

Family cooking dinner together in kitchen
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Cooking can be a fun family activity! If you give everyone a job, it will reduce the prep (and clean up) time considerably. Not only does cooking dinner together make preparation faster, but it also fosters cooperation and a sense of responsibility. Make sure to give children kid-friendly tasks like measuring ingredients that don’t require sharp knives or tools.

You can also work together during your food prep day if you’re rushed when actually eating your dinner. Kids can help you collect vegetables and box them up once they’re already cut. One family member can start cleaning dishes and bowls as the other chops as well.

7) Try steaming!

Freshly steamed potatoes with steam rising off
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A microwave steaming bag can help cut cook time for potatoes and other vegetables. Many foods like potatoes are just as good steamed in a microwave, and the cooking time is much faster. You can achieve the same effect as a steaming bag by wrapping your potatoes in a wet paper towel. Eggs are also easy to prepare in the microwave, but keep an eye on the cooking time as eggs can burst if you microwave them too long. Many people add a bit of milk to microwaved eggs so that they don’t dry out too long.

8) Try breakfast for dinner!

Vegetable omelette with tomatoes and garnishes
Plateresca / Shutterstock

Egg dishes like omelets are fast and easy to cook, and eggs are a healthy source of protein as well. You can also throw in leftover pre-cut veggies, meat or cheese to accomplish two tasks at once—you get dinner AND avoid wasting leftover food.

Try making double your egg recipe and putting one in the fridge for a time-saving breakfast that’s ready to heat and eat! A protein-packed breakfast meal can make a quick, healthy dinner for a change of pace.

9) Use convenience foods strategically!

Microwaving a cold rice dish with vegetables
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Packaged food usually isn’t the healthiest option, but if you can save time and eat healthier overall by strategically using pre-cooked or pre-packaged foods. For example, you can buy instant rice that cooks in just a few minutes in a microwave-ready pouch. While it may not taste as great as rice you make yourself, it’s nutritionally the same. Be aware that many convenience foods are loaded with sugar, salt and other added ingredients. Read the labels carefully and consider not just serving sizes but how many servings are in a package.

Leverage packaged food items to cut prep time when needed. While ready-made, frozen meals are usually more expensive and less healthy than dishes that you’d make yourself, they’re usually cheaper and often healthier than what you’d get at a restaurant. Choose healthier versions when possible, and eat ready-made meals sparingly when you really don’t have the time to make something for yourself.

10) Have a weekly sandwich night!

Family making healthy sandwiches together
Darren Baker / Shutterstock

Lay out bread, meat, toppings, and condiments and let everyone make their own sandwiches. Serve with fruit, veggies, and another healthy side dishes. You can make dinner fun, fast and easy to clean up. Sandwiches aren’t always the healthiest option, but most foods are fine in moderation.

Final thoughts

Looking for recipes? Here are some ideas for meals with just a few ingredients that are fast and easy to make in this piece from The Greatist: 52 Healthy Meals in 12 Minutes or Less

Incorporate even a few of these tips, and your wallet—and your waistline—will thank you. Build on the health gains and weight loss from walking with healthier eating. Happy dining!

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