10 Tips to Simplify Healthy Cooking

photo of quick and healthy food

Do you find yourself with limited time and energy at the end of the day to make a healthy meal? Americans are busier than ever, and lack of time is one of the most common barriers to healthy cooking and eating.

In many cases, eating healthfully takes more planning and effort than ordering takeout. But don’t forget - your health is worth it. What’s more, the perception that healthy cooking is more time-consuming does not always hold true. Eating out and ordering food takes time too. Consider the driving time to a restaurant, the time it takes to choose what you’ll order, and any waiting time involved. It can start to add up!

There are ways you can make healthy choices more convenient for you. You don’t have to cook a gourmet meal from scratch every night. Use our 10 quick tips and easy recipes, which will allow you to have a nutritious meal on the table in a matter of minutes.

1. Make a plan and a grocery list.

At the beginning of each week, take 10 minutes to write down a plan for the week ahead. Consider what you’ll eat for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks if necessary. From that plan, you can make a grocery list and shop for exactly what you’ll need.

Having a plan will cut down on the time you would usually spend contemplating what to have for each meal, maximizing your efficiency.  Shopping according to a list ensures that you’ll have exactly what you need, enabling you to make those healthy meals. It also ensures you’ll only need to visit the grocery store once that week. Planning ahead is the key to making healthy choices fit into our busy lives.

2. Keep the kitchen stocked.

Not able to get to the grocery store before the start of the week? No problem. This is where keeping a few “emergency” items in your pantry and freezer can be extremely helpful. Some foods with a longer shelf-life include frozen veggies, frozen fish, frozen chicken breasts, canned vegetables, canned fruit, canned fish, tomato sauce, whole grain noodles, oatmeal, other dry whole grains, and beans.

It’s easy to put together quick well-balanced meals from these ingredients. For some ideas, check out our Quick Meals section on diabetes.org.

3. Think ahead in terms of prep.

When you get home from the grocery store, think about any chopping or prep that will make it easier to cook and eat healthy during your week. For example, cutting the celery into snack-size pieces or cubing a melon when you get home from the store makes these foods more convenient choices for later. Now they are just as convenient to snack on as chips or store-bought cookies. Another idea is to keep a bag of fresh-cut veggies in the refrigerator for snacking or to be used as additions to salads, sandwiches, and other dishes.

Buying pre-chopped fresh veggies will save you the most time. Think sliced mushrooms, sliced bell peppers, broccoli florets, matchstick carrots, and pre-cut butternut squash. Sometimes you can even find ready-to-cook vegetable medleys in the fresh produce section. Another place to check is the salad bar, where you can buy fresh pre-chopped veggies in the exact amounts that you need.

4. Cook in large batches.

You only have to cook once, but you end up with multiple meals. Recipes for soups, chili, and casseroles usually make 6 or more servings. Depending on your plan for the week, you may want to double a recipe so you’ll have plenty of meals on hand. Leftovers will keep for several days in the refrigerator, but you can also freeze them to use at a later date. Find tips for making your own frozen meals in our On-the-Go Article: Freezable Meals.

5. Canned = Convenient.

Not only do canned foods have a long shelf-life, they are also budget-friendly and can be a huge time-saver. Canned vegetables, beans, fish, and chicken are already cooked, so all you need to do is open the can, drain any liquid, and it’s ready to use. Note that you should rinse any beans or vegetables thoroughly to remove up to 40% of the sodium. Use canned tuna to top a salad, heat up a medley of canned veggies for a side dish, or add beans to your tacos or chili. The options are endless!

Canned fruit is also a good option. You can keep small cans of fruit at your desk or at home for a quick and convenient snack. Try to buy fruit canned in juice, or drain and rinse it if canned in syrup to remove some of the added sugar.

6. Use frozen frequently.

Keep some frozen foods on hand too. Vegetables, fruit, fish, and chicken breasts are all great options.  The key here is to buy frozen foods without added sugar, fat, or salt. For example, if you are buying frozen broccoli, the only thing on the ingredient list should be broccoli.

7. Try rotisserie chicken.

One quick and easy way to get dinner on the table is to pick up a rotisserie chicken. Just remove the skin and your lean protein is already cooked and seasoned for you. Pair the chicken with a vegetable side and some brown rice or a whole wheat roll, and you’ve got a balanced plate.

There are also plenty of other ways to use rotisserie chicken. Depending on how many you are feeding, you may have leftovers. You can use extras to make to make chicken salad for lunch the rest of the week. Or, try combining the rotisserie chicken with some low-sodium broth and vegetables to make a hearty soup. Toss it with some beans and peppers and use it to make chicken tacos. There are many creative ways to use pre-cooked chicken!

8. Try a "one-pot" or "one-dish" meal.

One-pot meals include the major food groups in one dish. This means you don’t have to make 2-3 different dishes to get a well-balanced meal on the table, saving you time.

When you think about our diabetes plate method, there are three major sections of the plate: ½ nonstarchy vegetables, ¼ grains and starchy foods, and ¼ protein foods. Choose healthy one-dish recipes that cover each of those sections, with plenty of nonstarchy vegetables included. We have plenty of nutritious one-dish options to choose from right here on Recipes for Healthy Living. Try our Turkey and Veggie Chili, Veggie and Chicken Pasta Salad, Sweet Potato Burrito Bowl, or our Kale and Sausage Sauté

9. Slow cook it.

A slow cooker is a great time-saving tool. It cooks ingredients at a low, steady temperature, and helps free up time you’d usually spend over the stove. Simply toss together your ingredients and let your meal cook during the day while you’re out. You’ll have a ready-to-eat meal when you get home. Plus, slow-cooker recipes are often one-pot dishes – a nice bonus!

Check out our list of Slow-Cooker Recipes for some healthy meal ideas.

10. Keep it simple.

Most important, remember that healthy cooking doesn’t have to be elaborate or complicated. Use the quick tips above, and browse the variety of recipes on our website, including those designed for the quick cook. You’ll find that with a little planning healthy cooking can be simple, quick, and fun!

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