No Time to Cook? Keep It Simple

Most families find it hard to get a healthy, home-cooked dinner on the table at a reasonable hour. Planning ahead for simple and easy meals can save the day! It takes less time and money to fix a simple meal at home than to drive out to your favorite restaurant. 

When you are planning your weekly meals, plan to cook once and eat twice (or more). These “planned-overs” save you time.

For instance:

  • Cook more ground beef or turkey than you need and save or freeze the extra for another meal.
  • Make a bigger meatloaf than you need and chop up the extra (about half-pound) to add to spaghetti sauce the next night
  • Cook extra vegetables and throw leftovers on a salad
  • Cook a pot of beans and use them in several dishes. You can even freeze them
  • Make a big pot of soup or stew (smaller families may want to freeze half or in serving sizes to take for lunch)


Foods that make meal prep quick and easy:

  • Frozen/canned vegetables
  • Canned tuna/salmon and beans
  • Wash and dry lettuce/spinach and chop vegetables for several days’ worth of salads
  • Throw canned or home-cooked beans and nuts/seeds (not too many!) on a salad
  • Jarred pasta sauce
  • Use slow cooker
  • Spread peanut butter or nut butters on bread/toast/English muffins/apple slices, a banana or celery
  • Already-prepared fresh vegetables, if you don’t mind paying a bit more
  • Wrap it up with burrito or tortilla shells. Wrap slices of low-sodium meats and lots of veggies and avocado/guacamole
  • Fresh fruit – keep it handy for a snack or to round out a meal
  • Make breakfast smoothies for two days

  And, packing lunches as you are cleaning up from dinner saves time in the morning!


To get started, use the recipe below to make an easy, healthy sauce. Making your own often costs less and gives you more control over your health and what goes into your sauce.

Marinara Sauce Recipe


1 (28-ounce) can whole, peeled or crushed tomatoes

1 clove garlic, minced

1 shallot, minced

1 tablespoon olive oil

Salt and pepper, to taste

8 ounces dried pasta (any shape)



Marinara Sauce

  • Heat olive oil in non-stick pan over medium heat.
  • Add garlic and shallots and sauté for a minute or so. Do not allow them to brown.
  • Add the canned tomatoes and simmer for about 10 minutes.
  • Using a wooden spoon or fork, mash the tomatoes until the sauce is the desired consistency. Or, for a smooth sauce, puree in a blender or use an immersion blender.
  • Add salt and pepper to taste. Can add herbs like oregano, basil, thyme, if desired.
  • Add a half-pound chopped cooked meatloaf or lean cooked ground beef, if desired.


  • Cook pasta according to package directions.
  • Easily add vegetables:  add fresh or frozen veggies to the pasta pot towards the end of the pasta cooking time – determine the amount of time needed to cook the veggies (think:  chopped broccoli, sliced carrots, chopped kale, peas). Or, place some washed spinach leaves in the strainer before draining the pasta. Mix.
  • Drain but don’t rinse.


Recipe source:  Cook Smart, Eat Smart, NC Cooperative Extension, NC State University