Easy, Last Minute Dinners: Balancing Convenience with Nutrition

A bowl of quinoa, chicken, and avocado slices for easy, last minute dinners main header image.

Meal planning can be exhausting, but it is widely known that cooking meals at home is much healthier than eating out. When you don’t have a plan, these are some easy, last minute dinners you can cook instead of opting to order in.

Striving for a healthy diet that isn’t always perfect is part of the moderately messy lifestyle. I am often making up meals on the fly by using what I have on hand. It’s all about balancing convenience with nutrition.

With that being said, the basis of this post is to provide stress-free, tasty meals that can be made in 20 minutes or less.

Are you tired of always having to come up with dinners every night? With these tips and ideas, you can become a pro at winging it at the last minute – providing a quick but healthy meal for your entire family.

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Stocking Your Pantry and Fridge

Having certain staples in your pantry and fridge is essential in making easy, last minute dinners. This might mean a more expensive grocery list one week, but it will all balance out in the end.

Essentials for Easy, Last Minute Dinner Prep

Having a few staple ingredients in your pantry make it simple to throw together a variety of different meals at the last minute. Here are a few ideas for foods you could keep on hand at all times for those nights where you just don’t have a clue what you’re going to cook for dinner.

  • Canned or frozen vegetables: For example, canned tomatoes are nice to have on hand for chili or soups. Frozen corn is another vegetable that can be easily added to meals, like fajitas or a taco bowl.
  • Beans: Canned beans are easy add-ons and provide a source of protein and fiber.
  • Chicken broth or bouillon: I recommend Better Than Bouillon chicken base for easy flavoring. Chicken broth is essential for soups, or even to give the dish moisture or thin out sauces (to add flavor but less calories).
  • A variety of shelf-stable grains: rice (microwaveable packets are great for convenience), quinoa, orzo, pasta, rice noodles
  • Your family’s favorite sauces: Try to have a variety of sauces, including pasta sauce. Whether you’re in the mood for Mexican, Asian, or Italian – the more sauces you have on hand, the easier it will be for these last minute dinners. Experiment with different ones to figure out your family’s favorites.
  • Cheese
  • Spice or seasoning packets: Elevate any dish with the right spice combination. Make it easy on yourself, and have some already put together spice packets like taco or ranch seasoning available.
  • Tortillas: Have a package of low carb or low calorie wraps on-hand for easy meals like tacos, quesadillas, or wraps.
  • Chopped Nuts: Chopped nuts can make a boring salad or stir-fry more exciting.

Grocery list

When buying groceries for the week, aim to select at least 5 different vegetables and protein sources. Then, you can spend the other 2 days of the week eating out or at a friend’s house.

You could even go one step further and buy cooked, frozen meat that doesn’t have to be thawed in the fridge.

Replenish your staples as needed!

15 Easy, Last Minute Dinners

15 easy, last minute dinners ideas that you can customize however you like. Evaluate which vegetables you have on hand, and prioritize what needs to be used. Which vegetables are going to spoil the fastest? What protein source do you have in your pantry or thawing in the fridge?

A lot of the ingredients in these examples can be easily switched out for others, depending on what you have available as well as your family’s preferences!

Pasta

1. Pasta with Meat Sauce and Broccoli: Bake seasoned broccoli in the oven for 15-20 minutes. While it’s baking, prepare some salted water and cook pasta according to package directions. In another pan, cook up some ground beef. Then, add your favorite pasta sauce. Combine the pasta to the meat sauce, and serve with a side of broccoli.

2. Chicken Vegetable Orzo: Bake some seasoned chicken in the oven. While it’s baking, cook some orzo and chicken broth in a pan on medium heat. Add in some frozen vegetables. Season with garlic powder, salt, and pepper. Dice the chicken when it’s done cooking and add some parmesan cheese as a finishing touch.

easy last minute dinners

3. Italian Sausage and Spinach Pasta: Prepare farfalle noodles (or any pasta you have on hand) according to package directions. Break apart some Italian sausage in a separate pan. Once no longer pink, add some frozen spinach, garlic, Italian seasoning, salt and pepper. Add the pasta to the pan with a little chicken bouillon. Top with parmesan cheese.

Vegetable Stir-Fry

4. Asian Stir-Fry: Dice up some chicken, season it, and cook it in a pan with red peppers and onions. Add a couple of tablespoons of your favorite Asian sauce (I used a combination of teriyaki, chili sauce, and soy sauce), and a splash or two of chicken broth. Let it cook down for 2-3 minutes. Serve it over rice noodles and top it with chopped walnuts.

easy last minute dinners

5. Buffalo Wild Wings Parmesan Garlic Stir-Fry: Dice up some chicken and saute in a pan with vegetables of your choice. Add 2 Tbsp. Buffalo Wild Wings Parmesan Garlic sauce with 1/4 chicken broth and simmer until chicken is cooked through and sauce is at desired consistency. Serve with grain of choice.

Power Bowls

6. Quinoa Mediterranean Bowl: Cook some quinoa per package directions. Dice some cucumbers, tomatoes and olives. Assemble the bowl: quinoa, then garbanzo beans, diced cucumbers and tomatoes, feta, and a drizzle of Greek dressing. Add crushed pita chips or hummus for even more depth.

7. Taco Bowl: One of my favorite throw together meals! Cook some chicken or beef with red peppers, onions and taco seasoning. Serve with rice. Top with chopped tomatoes, guacamole, hot sauce, shredded cheese, olives – there are a lot of possibilities here. Throw together whatever you have.

8. Buffalo Chicken Power Bowl: Roast seasoned cauliflower in the oven. Using diced chicken again, sauté it in a pan with onions until cooked through. Add some buffalo sauce and 1/4 cup cream cheese (could also use cottage cheese, greek yogurt, or sour cream). Serve with microwaveable rice or cauliflower rice packets. Top with shredded cheese.

For more power bowl recipe inspiration, read my post on Power Bowl Recipes: Easy Throw Together Meals.

Sandwiches and Wraps

9. Refried Bean Quesadilla: Heat up a can of refried beans. Make quesadillas using low-carb wraps, shredded cheese, with a side of sour cream, salsa and guacomole.

10. Turkey Avocado Wraps: For the nights where you don’t have any meat thawing in the fridge. Take some turkey deli meat, avocado slices, lettuce, diced tomato, and Italian dressing for a quick and easy wrap. Serve with chips.

Salads

11. Taco Salad: Throwing together a big salad can be a quick and filling meal. You could use leftover taco meat, some lettuce, tomatoes, red onions, shredded cheese, and olives with dressing of your choice (or salsa, sour cream). Top with black beans as a substitute if no meat is available.

12. Italian Salad: Keep it simple with chicken or diced deli meats, cucumbers, olives, mozzarella cheese, with olive oil and vinegar or Italian dressing.

Soup or Chili

13. Throw Everything in a Pot Chili: Add ground beef, diced onions and peppers to a pan and saute until beef is no longer pink. Add canned tomatoes, black beans, and corn. Season with chili powder, garlic powder, salt and pepper. Top with shredded cheese and avocado slices.

3 bowls of Mexican chili topped with avocado slices and shredded cheese on a wood cutting board.

14. Super Simple Dot Soup: A delicious comfort food and a staple in our house. Boil some water or chicken broth with bouillon, butter and  Acini de Pepe “dot” noodles or orzo. To make it a more balanced meal, add in some celery, frozen carrots and diced chicken. Top with parmesan cheese!

Sheet Pan Dinners

15. Easy Sheet Pan Dinner:  Dice chicken thighs, potatoes, and broccoli and place on a sheet pan. Season with olive oil and spices of your choosing. A ranch seasoning packet could come in handy here. Roast at 400 degrees F for 25 minutes!

Sheet pan dinners are so convenient, just make sure that whatever you choose to put on the pan has equal(ish) cooking times.

For More Resources:

Tips for Efficient Cooking

Useful Kitchen Gadgets and Appliances

The air fryer is a highly-rated kitchen appliance that can help you cut down on dishes. Use the Cosori Air Fryer to bake chicken or roast vegetables, and line it with parchment paper to prevent sticking.

Another great tool is the FullStar Vegetable Chopper, which is both affordable and a real time-saver. You can easily “slap chop” vegetables like peppers and cucumbers using the chopper and store them in air-tight containers in the fridge. This will save you time when preparing meals for the rest of the week.

Lastly, the 10-in-1 Instant Pot Pro is not just a pressure cooker, but a versatile appliance that can sear, brown, or sauté foods. It provides fast cooking times and easy clean-up. I don’t own one yet, but people swear by them!

Prepping Ingredients in Advance

Batch Cooking: Batch cooking large quantities of food all at once can significantly cut down on cooking time for future dinners. For example, if you’re grilling chicken breasts – it would be helpful to make more than you need for that night. That way, you can refrigerate the extra for a dinner within three days.

Freeze Any Leftovers: Individually bag certain ingredients and freeze them for future use. Frozen foods can be good in the freezer for up to six months! If you’re not going to use that grilled chicken you made in three days, another option is to freeze it!

That way, it’s very easy to pull frozen chicken or beef from the fridge for these last minute meals!

Meal Prep Sundays: This might sound redundant, but using the vegetable chopper to cut up all the vegetables you bought on your grocery list will save you time during your busy week. That way, it eliminates a step for a future dinner – even if you don’t know how you’re going to use them just yet.

Summary

It might not work for everyone, but I find that cooking at home helps with weight maintenance and loss. Research has shown that frequently eating home-cooked meals is associated with higher nutrient density and a lower risk of being overweight (1).

As a busy mom, I know that making elaborate meals isn’t always going to be feasible. That’s why I enjoy an easy, last minute dinner at least once a week.

One benefit of takeout over these easy, last minute dinners? Dishes. If only we could eliminate those.

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