Near-Instant Cooking

February 15, 2021
| Created by Heather Lieber, MS, RDN, CD

We’ve all been in that spot where we need dinner like….an hour ago. You’re tired, you’re starving, and you’re 100% sure that your elaborate cooking plans have gone out the window.  Whether we admit it or not, and even if nutrition is normally a priority, sometimes we take the path of least resistance and go for the easiest food possible. 

The solution? Make the healthy choice the easy one. This post is all about nearly instant meals we should have in our back pocket. You can create a well-rounded and delicious meal in just a few minutes if you practice a couple simple strategies. 

Why Not Just Hit the Drive-Thru?

You may be thinking, what’s more convenient than the drive thru or a food delivery service? This point is hard to argue, but bringing nutrition and money into the equation help to put this into perspective. Restaurants often use much more fat and salt in preservation and preparation of food. Often, inexpensive fast food options are not nutritionally balanced, and don’t include the ideal amount of fruits and veggies. Restaurants with a more nutritious menu tend to be pricier. Not to mention those sneaky delivery fees and tips if you choose to get your meal dropped off on your porch. Cooking at home can save money, increase nutrition, and provide more variety and excitement to your meals. Plus, the more you choose to cook at home, the more empowered you will feel to keep cooking at home. 

Use Shortcuts Within a Recipe 

If you’re sold on a recipe but not sold on the time commitment, look through the ingredients and find a potential shortcut. Spending a little extra money on pre-prepared ingredients can save a lot of time. Here are a couple of examples: 

Use pre-cooked grains in 

Try rotisserie or canned chicken in 

Replace meat/poultry with a can of beans in 

  • Soup and stews that calls for meat 
  • Stir fries
  • Sheet pan roasted meals

Near Instant Meal Staples: 

Near-instant cooking happens only when you have the right ingredients on hand. A well-stocked freezer and pantry is the key to near-instant meals when you’re desperate for them. 


If you have enough freezer space, stock up on essentials! A long shelf life and no preservatives are great characteristics of frozen foods. Here are a couple of suggestions to get you started: 

  • Frozen veggies with no added salt 
  • Previously cooked shredded chicken 
  • Previously cooked grains (quinoa, rice, farro, wheat berries) 
  • Frozen fruit to add to yogurt, smoothies, or just to snack on 


  • Beans  
  • Canned chicken, tuna, and salmon 
  • Tomatoes 
  • Simmer sauces 
  • Microwaveable grains 
  • Low sodium or no salt added canned veggies 

For a detailed list of what Harmons chefs and dietitians like to have in their pantries, check out this post. 

Near-Instant Cooking Methods 


Scrambling an egg for an egg sandwich, steaming veggies for a pasta, or heating beans for a burrito bowl are just a few tasks that can be completed in the microwave. This can be an insanely speedy tool to cook food, but it’s not meant for every culinary adventure (thawing a turkey, searing a steak, baking a cookie). Experiment with what foods cook well in the microwave and don’t suffer in quality or texture. Also keep in mind sometimes the microwave can heat unevenly. Mixing, flipping, or turning halfway through cooking time is a good rule of thumb.  


Just because you turn on the stove, doesn’t mean you’re committing to a long cooking process. The second you walk in the door from your tiring, busy day, start heating some oil in a skillet over medium heat. Heat veggies, tofu, beans, or canned meat with oil and salt to accentuate existing flavor. Even if you only have a few minutes, this creates deeper flavor more than the microwave ever could.  

Recipe-less Ideas 

Everyone loves a good recipe, but an important skill to have is the confidence to combine ingredients and create delicious meals on your own. Below are a few of Harmons dietitians’ favorite combinations for a near-instant meal. 

  • Bean or lentil-based pasta + steamed veggies + infused olive oil 
  • Cubed, pressed tofu + tikka masala simmer sauce + quick cooking veggie such as greens warmed in pan 
  • Shredded chicken + canned salsa + veggies on hand (peppers, corn, tomatoes) warmed in pan and used in quesadillas, burritos, salads, and nachos 
  • Canned refried beans + whole wheat flour tortilla + cheese heated in microwave with fresh cut fruit and veggies on the side 
  • Canned black beans + tomatoes with diced chiles + taco seasoning + pre-cooked rice heated in microwave 
  • Canned chickpeas + grape tomatoes + cucumbers + red onions + olive oil + feta + salt with toast 
  • Rotisserie chicken + pasta + chicken broth + greens simmered together for soup 
  • Whole grain toast + ricotta + tomatoes + olive oil + herbs 
  • Whole wheat pita + marinara + mozzarella, veggies, other toppings broiled 

When a Snack Can Be a Meal 

As it turns out, the right balance of snack foods can double as a meal.  Include crisp veggies, smooth dips such as hummus or tzatziki, whole grain crackers, fruits, nuts, hard boiled eggs, low-fat cheese, or sliced deli meats. With enough variety and different food groups, a snack plate can quickly turn into a satisfying meal. 

When you reach that point of hunger and dinner desperation, we hope you look to this post instead of the nearest drive thru or restaurant delivery service. You’ve got this! 

Don’t feel like you’ve quite got it down yet? Schedule a one-on-one call with a Harmons dietitian to chat more about healthy nearinstant meals. Email us at