Struggling to get easy healthy dinners on the table at night? These are our top 5 desperation dinners, those last minute dinners we make when we just can’t think of anything else. They save us lots of money from going through drive-thrus and help us stick to our health goals!
Update: This post was originally published with 3 recipes. I’ve added 2 more family-favorites to help you get dinner on the table quickly!
Why does making dinner always feel so hard?
I have a problem with meal prepping…If I do not intentionally plan for dinner, I completely forget how to make dinner at night. Does this happen to you?
I’ll be like…I know we need to eat, but somehow I can only remember how to make popcorn. Or eat graham crackers. Or order a pizza.
It’s not a great thing for a blogger that focuses on healthy, homecooked meals to admit, but it is TRUE!
I’ve spent summers existing off nachos and watermelon before. It gets really bad at the start of the school year when I am already exhausted and stressed…I’m sure this has never happened to you because you are never exhausted and stressed, right?
We’ve tried a variety of strategies, including a professional meal planning service that require us to prep everything on Sundays. That didn’t work, but in the process, we developed a meal planning strategy that works well for us.
Our basic meal planning strategy
- Spend 5-10 minutes outlining simple, healthy recipes on our meal plan
- Keep a well-stocked pantry so we have basic ingredients in one easy place
- Pick up groceries we need either Friday night or Saturday morning
- Store a short-list of our favorite easy recipes on the fridge or by our meal plan (just in case)
If meal planning feels frustrating or intimidating to you, read these posts:
Why You Need a Well-Stocked Pantry (and Freezer)
First of all…if you keep some solid essentials in your pantry and freezer, you’ll have food on hand to throw together quick healthy meals all of the time!
This helps you eat healthier foods, spend less time shopping, and stick to your food commitments. Being thoughtful with your food purchases means you can save money, waste less food, and eat healthier!
Get your pantry staples list now!
Cooking from scratch is a gift you can give yourself and your family! It’s way easier than you think and my free pantry staples list & meal planner will help you get started right away.
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What are some last minute dinners that are actually good for you?
For my own healing journey, I really try to focus on unprocessed, lower-carb meals. This doesn’t mean keto necessarily, but closer to paleo.
We try to focus on high-quality meats and lots of vegetables. We eat either a whole grain or a lower GI starchy vegetable with each meal.
Although we try to cook exclusively from scratch, sometimes life calls for premade items. We often buy salsa, marinara sauce, and enchilada sauce from the store to help us put together these recipes faster than it’d take to get pizza delivered!
Kitchen appliances that make cooking easier
Of course, quick healthy meals are easier to make when your kitchen is prepared! These are our most common kitchen tools for making quick healthy dinners.
A note on buying new products…Personally, we recommend looking for used products first. Check thrift stores, Buy Nothing groups, community Facebook pages, etc. If you cannot find the product locally, buy the best you can afford! We try not to use Amazon, but these are Amazon links. Sometimes we use Amazon just to see reviews and then shop elsewhere.
Perfect for chicken wings & roasting vegetables lickety-split!
Great for one pot dinners as you can sautee and cook in one place! We use ours for cooking roasts and chickens all the time. Also great for cooking dried beans!
These are our workhorses. We have 2 aluminum sheet trays and we use silicone liners to reduce the parchment paper. Use these for roasting vegetables, making sheet pan dinners, baking cookies, etc. We use them all. the. time.
My cooking from scratch BFF. Slice, shred, chop, and pulverize whatever you want. It’s so fast, so easy, and it’s one of our favorite ways to make eating LOTS of vegetables super fast.
We use ours almost daily for brown rice! So easy and no babying a pot that might bubble over.
5 Last Minute Dinners From Your Pantry You’ll Actually Want to Eat
Our favorite recipes all rely on ground beef because it is a convenient and affordable for many people. We use local grass-fed beef as we believe it is a more sustainable alternative than factory-farmed meat.
Feel free to substitute
- ground turkey
- ground pork
- ground turkey
- vegan crumbles
Or, consider stretching your meat by adding lentils or beans. Lentils can cook quickly whereas other beans will need to be soaked or cooked first. Consider using canned or jarred beans if you’re in a time crunch!
You’re also going to notice a theme here: meat + sauce + vegetables + starch. Let it be that simple, friend!
1. Taco anything
Tacos are one of the fastest meals to assemble and you don’t have to eat them one certain way.
Keep it super simple.
- Thaw the ground beef. As that’s going, add some rice to a rice cooker or your Instant Pot.
- Heat your skillet over medium heat. Start browning the beef once it’s thawed.
- When it’s browned, mix in the spice mix following the container instructions (or use some homemade taco seasoning!). Feel free to add a can of beans (drained and rinsed) to stretch the meat and get some extra fiber.
- While that’s cooking, shred some cheese, dice some onion, and get out the jar of salsa
How to serve:
- Make nachos (add toppings to tortilla chips and broil until cheese melts)
- Make burrito bowls (serve over brown rice or cauliflower rice – our favorite)
- Slice lettuce and make a taco salad
- Serve in crunchy or flour tortillas
Pro tip: Make twice as much taco meat as you need and have leftovers tomorrow (try a different serving method like taco salads!)
Bonus: Quick Microwave Cauliflower Rice Recipe
Although we love brown rice, we relied on cauliflower rice for years and still enjoy it often. Simply break apart the cauliflower head with your hands or with a knife. The pieces just need to be small enough to fit in your food processor. Pulse until rice-sized in the processor. Add to a bowl with a couple of tablespoons of water & a sprinkle of salt, and cover with a plate. Microwave for about 4-5 minutes and let sit with the plate on for a minute.
How long do you microwave cauliflower rice?
About 4-5 minutes. Be sure to place a plate over the bowl so it can steam.
Make it even easier with frozen cauliflower
Not interested in washing out a food processor tonight? I totally hear that! You can grab a bag of frozen cauliflower or cauliflower rice and steam that instead.
2. Veggie-Packed Marinara Bowl
Okay, so I’ve talked to my husband about sharing this recipe in the past and I always think it seems a bit…too simple? Like people would never really make it? But I have to say that we make it often…typically once every week or two! It is SO EASY and we load it up with vegetables.
How to make Veggie-Packaged Marinara Bowls
- Thaw and brown ground beef or Italian sausage (you can make this whole thing in your Instant Pot or a large skillet!). Be sure to sprinkle with a little salt.
- While the meat is browning, slice an onion in whatever size cut people in your family will eat. Feel free to blitz it up in the food processor if you’re in a rush!
- Quick chop a whole cauliflower head into small bites or rough chop it in the food processor. If you have zucchini on hand, shred it with a grater or use the shredding blade for your food processor.
- Once the meat is browned, add the onion and let soften for a few minutes. Then add the cauliflower and zucchini. Season with salt to draw out moisture. Let those cook down a bit to release moisture so the sauce isn’t too wet.
- After about 5 minutes, add two jars of marinara sauce. If you only have one on hand, you can add an extra can of diced tomatoes and a heaping spoonful of tomato paste. Diced tomatoes have less sugar but need to cook down longer to get that tinned flavor to go away.
- Let the mix simmer for about 10-15 minutes to let the flavors develop.
Add even more vegetables
This is a great way to use up aging produce that could otherwise go bad. Shreded up some limp carrots or wrinkly bell peppers. We also like to add leftover olives, mushrooms, or wilted kale. Minimize food waste, maximize nutrition, and save money!
How to Serve:
- Serve it by itself in a bowl or with cheese on top (lower carb)
- Place it over cauliflower rice
- Serve over pasta (regular, whole wheat, gluten-free, etc)
- Make zucchini noodles (zoodles)
- Serve over rice
This is SUPER simple, but warm, comforting, and filling! We always eat seconds.
3. Air fryer chicken wings
So, I would not call us a chicken wing family. We truly never made them before we got an air fryer and before we started ordering from Crowd Cow. Their wings are so flavorful and fun to eat! We stock up anytime we order and were even doing wing nights every Friday night during the summer!
They take a little time in the air fryer, but you can cook them from frozen!
How to make air fryer chicken wings:
- Turn your oven to 350 degrees to start heating up.
- Break apart the chicken wings in the freezer pack.
- Cook for 20 minutes at 350 degrees to cook through. Then, bump up to 400 degrees for 15-20 minutes (15 if they are small, 20 if they are large). Check the internal temperature to make sure you reached 165 degrees.
How to serve:
- Toss in a bowl with your favorite sauce (BBQ, hot sauce, buffalo sauce, or add a little bit of oil and your favorite seasoning mix)
- Serve with steamed broccoli, quick homemade coleslaw, or sliced carrots and celery
- Add homemade or store-bought ranch or blue cheese dressing for dipping
4. Enchilada Bowls
These are quite similar to my taco recipe above, but you rely on either homemade or storebought enchilada sauce!
How to make enchilada bowls
- Thaw ground beef. As it’s in the microwave, add rice to a rice cooker or Instant Pot or grab your food processor for cauliflower rice.
- Brown the ground beeef and break it into crumbles.
- Rough cut your onion into bite-sized pieces or cut it in quarters and pulse it in your food processor.
- When the meat is browned, add the onion and allow it to cook down.
- Feel free to rough chop or process some cauliflower or zucchini or grab some frozen or canned corn. Addd those to the mixture and let the moisture cook down.
- Then, drain and rinse a can of beans (black, kidney, etc) or add pre-cooked beans to the mixture.
- Add a large jar of salsa verde or a can of green or red enchilada sauce (we love green).
- Cook down for 10-15 minutes.
How to serve:
- Over brown rice with cheese (and maybe a sprinkle of tortilla chips)
- Serve over cauliflower rice or zoodles
5. Korean Beef Bowls
My husband started whipping this up one night and now we go back to it again and again! It hits the spot for take out and comes together quickly!
- Thaw ground beef in the microwave. Brown in a skillet over medium heat.
- While the beef is thawing or browning, start rice in your rice cooker.
- Choose a vegetable.
- If you want to steam broccoli, start heating up a small pot with water and prep your broccoli. Add the broccoli and steam it until fork soft. Be sure to salt the water or season when you’re done.
- For a quick cabbage slaw, either thinly slice one small or half a medium-sized cabbage or push it through the slice setting on your food processor insert. Add to a bowl. Consider shredding a carrot or two with your food processor since you have it out! Not required. Add 1 tsp of apple cider or rice wine vinegar & 1/2 cup of mayonaisse. Add a teaspoon of sugar and dash of black pepper. Pour over your vegetables and mix until coated.
- Prepare the sauce: 1/3 cup of soy sauce or liquid aminos, 1/3 cup of water, 2 tablespoons brown sugar, 1 tablespoon corn starch, 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar, 1-2 tablespoon of chili paste, and 1/2 tsp of ginger powder. Add directly to the beef when fully cooked and allow it to simmer for about 10 minutes.
How to serve:
- Add a scoop of the meat over the a scoop of rice and a hearty helping of the vegetables.
Adapt your last minute dinners to the seasons
You’re probably noticing that we come back to the same vegetables again and again. That’s on purpose. Although we love to eat seasonally, it makes much more sense focus to prioritize the same vegetables and adjust them as needed.
Spring – Try adding fresh salad greens as your vegetable side or sautee some kale or chard. Add radishes and salad turnips to your plate of chicken wings. Sautee some asparagus, snap peas, or raab instead of steaming broccoli.
Summer – Make quick slaws out of cucumbers instead of cabbage. Put zucchini in everything (shredded or diced). Cook down some fresh tomatoes into sauce for your marinara bowl! Add some fresh peppers into your sauces or even make your own salsa verde with tomatillos. Make green beans instead of broccoli.
Fall – Dice some winter squashes, like delicata, or sweet potatoes for your enchilada bowls. Roast root vegetables for a starch instead of serving rice. Add thinly sliced kale to your sauces for extra greens.
Winter – Prioritize storage crops like roots (carrots, beets, potatoes) and bulbs (onion, garlic). Stock up on winter squashes and consider roasting those to make mashed squash instead of cauliflower rice. Play with winter greens like radicchio, escarole, and kale.
If you’re loving these simple recipes and want more tips on setting up a real food zero waste kitchen, keep reading! (Remember: imperfect zero waste is better than nothing!)
What are your favorite last minute dinners?
We are always looking for new favorites! Share yours below in the comments.