Meal prepping is a go-to practice for so many trying to improve their health and focus on nutrition. In fact, #kitchenrestock has over 460 million views on TikTok. It’s oddly satisfying to watch influencers clear out, prep, organize, and stock their kitchens. Perfectly lined up sparkling waters, clear containers brimming with pre-washed berries, fresh herbs sitting in glasses of water…but who has time for all of that? As a Registered Dietitian, I’ll share a few tips how to eat healthy without meal prepping that will keep your kitchen well-stocked for quick meals without such a time commitment.
I mean, who really wants to spend three hours prepping food on Sunday whilst battling the scaries? Here I’ll go through each of the major food storage areas of the kitchen—the pantry, freezer, and fridge—offering ways to prioritize nutrition, organization, and food waste reduction. I’ll also share some of my favorite foods to have on hand for quick, easy, and downright delicious meals. Let’s jump in.
How to eat healthy without meal prepping
Of all the kitchen storage areas, the panty is by far the most notorious for housing foods years past their “best by” dates. To avoid this, move older foods to the front of the shelf, placing any new additions behind, otherwise known as “first in, first out.” The pantry is a place where clear storage containers can actually be your friend, especially if you shop in bulk—helping you to keep an eye out for freshness or molding. Plus, they can help to stimulate appetite cues, increasing the odds that you’ll opt for the healthy foods you’ve stocked up on. Here are some favorite I like to keep on hand:
- Grains: Whole grain hot and cold cereals, granolas, whole grain breads, pastas, rice, cornmeal, breads, potatoes, rice paper, these complex carbohydrates make for quick and easy breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. Simply add fruit, yogurt, nuts, seeds, your milk of choice, or any other fixings you love to hot or cold cereal for a perfectly balanced breakfast, whip up a quick sandwich for lunch, or spring for a quick pasta, rice dish, polenta, baked potato, or spring roll for dinner. Be sure to look for low or no added sugar options and 100-percent whole grains here to get the most nutritional bang for your buck.
- Fruit: Dried fruit, unsweetened applesauce, and fresh options like bananas, apples, and oranges bump up the fiber, vitamin, and mineral content of your meals by adding fruit to grain-based breakfasts, smoothies, or simply enjoyed as a snack or side.
- Healthy fats: Fats from nut butters, avocado, and oils like avocado, olive, walnut, and safflower, are key to creating a filling and satisfying meal or snack. Nut butters can be added to smoothies, grain bowls, sandwiches, and more. Avocado is also the GOAT when it comes to toast and salad toppings. Meanwhile, healthy oils are an absolute necessity when it comes to cooking—because what’s more tragic than your perfectly seared salmon sticking to the pan?
- Legumes: While dried beans and lentils require some soaking and cooking for use, that’s not an issue if you have an instant pot or remember to soak them the night before. They make for the best grain bowl, soup, stew, and rice dish addition.
- Tinned seafood: Ethically sourced tuna, salmon, anchovies, or sardines, I use these options all the time for a quick salad, sandwich, or speedy puttanesca sauce.
- Broths and canned goods: Beans, soups, sauces, tomatoes, coconut milk, and veggies, choose wisely here as the sodium content of some canned goods can be a concern. But thankfully, most options come in lower sodium varieties. Broths make for the perfect fast soup or curry, canned tomatoes quickly turn into easy tomato sauce, and not much is speedier than a great brand of canned soup.
- Herbs, spices, and condiments: These are key when it comes to quick and flavorful cooking. Herbs and spices can quickly impart flavor in dishes without needing to simmer for hours on end. Condiments can offer the same benefits—just be cautious of the sodium content in go-to’s like soy sauce, barbeque sauce, hot sauce, and mustard, enjoying them in moderation.
- Snacks: Skip restocking chips and cookies and prioritize nutrient dense foods to load up your clear storage containers like dried fruit, unsweetened applesauce products like Gutzy Organic, whole grain products like pita chips, and healthy fruit snacks like Solely products.
The freezer is your friend in the game of quick meal assembly on busy weeknights, but can also be a dark hole of no return for many foods. Utilize the same concept as the pantry in terms of moving older items up front so they’ll be used first to address this. Let’s jump into some great go-to’s:
- Fruit and veggies: I love starting a smoothie recipe with frozen fruit like berries, bananas, pears, or mangos and veggies like frozen spinach, cauliflower, or avocado. Not only do these ingredients add tons of nutrition, but they also eliminate the need for ice in your recipe. Frozen fruit is also perfect with hot cereal, simply pour it directly over the fruit—it’ll thaw instantly. Frozen veggies are clutch for busy weekday meals where they can easily be added to quick soups, fried rice dishes, stir fries, and even roasted. If I see a fresh fruit or veggie in the fridge nearing expiration, I’ll chop it up and freeze it, too.
- Nuts and seeds: Yes, you read that right, I keep all my nuts and seeds in the freezer! These healthy fats contain lots of oils that are super good for our health, but will also go rancid pretty quickly at room temperature. You can keep nuts and seeds in the fridge for this same reason, but you’ll get double the storage time in the freezer—at least six months. These are great in smoothies, hot and cold cereals, snack mixes, and salads.
- Protein options: Whether it’s chicken, turkey, fish, or otherwise, it’s always great to have single servings of protein in the freezer—you can even freeze them in a marinade to make cooking that much quicker. One of my favorite 30-minute meals is to sear a single serving of salmon pulled from the freezer the night before (I love Chilean salmon as it’s especially high in omega-3 fatty acids and low in mercury) and serve it alongside quick-cooking polenta and roasted veggies.
- Leftovers, broths, and sauces: I also always have leftover meals, meal components, homemade broths, and sauces ready to go in the freezer for easy access. These can be defrosted straight from the freezer when it’s time to cook, no need to think too far ahead.
Organization also really pays off when it comes to keeping your fridge tidy and odor-free. While I rarely pre-wash or cut my produce upon returning home from a grocery haul, I will usually wrap perishable greens, including herbs, in biodegradable paper towel and store them in an airtight container. Though I know storing herbs in glasses filled with water will increase their lifespan, that’s one hack I simply can’t be bothered with (nor do I have room in my fridge).
I also go through any berries I’ve purchased—immediately freezing those that look banged up for smoothies, chopping the ones that look “eh” for breakfasts, and placing the ones that look great in an airtight container. This is because I’ve found fresh berries can mold quickly and are one of the most wasted produce items in kitchens.
Here’s some other foods I usually always have:
- Fruit and veggies: No matter which way you slice it, fruit is perfect for smoothies, cereals, puddings, parfaits, and grab-and-go snacks. Meanwhile veggies are key components to basically every quick meal I make—whether that be eggs, salads, sandwiches, pastas, rice dishes, soups, stews, you name it. And while you can purchase these pre-chopped to save time, you’ll save money and food packaging waste if you do it yourself.
- Dairy and dairy Alternatives: Yogurt and kefir (I love Lifeway’s options) are excellent sources of probiotics to support gut health and pair super nicely in smoothies and parfaits. Probiotic cottage or farmer’s cheese are delicious spread on toast and topped with spinach and a runny egg. And, of course, milk (or alt-milk) is a necessity for cold cereal, smoothies, and a whole host of morning beverages—I love cashew milk, as it’s the creamiest of the bunch, IMO. Other cheeses (cow’s or alternative) are perfect for a quick toast, pasta, or nachos.
- Proteins: Tofu, tempeh, eggs, additive-free deli meats, chicken, or fish cook up quickly to be served alongside a starch and veggie or mixed into scrambles, soups, rice dishes, pastas, and salads. Look for lean options here with little or no visible fat to keep your saturated fat intake to a minimum and heart health on point.
- Beverages: Swap the perfect rows of sugary drinks with low-sugar, decaffeinated options that will keep you hydrated and feeling great. I love Rowdy Mermaid kombucha and soda, Wild Tonic jun, Culture Pop’s no-sugar-added probiotic sodas, and all the flavored waters available. Plus, you can’t beat a home-brewed iced tea, cold brew, or low-sugar lemonade.
- Snacks: I always have hummus, guacamole, or yogurt-based dips on hand for a quick snack with cucumbers, carrots, chips, and celery.
So, while that was a lot of information, it just goes to show that when it comes to how to eat healthy without meal prepping, there are so many ways a stocked kitchen can pump out quick meals for you without a TikTok-level restock or extensive planning every week.
Having a mental rolodex of quick-cooking meals is also super helpful here—I have at least six recipes that I can always turn to if I’m exhausted and need to throw something together with foods I already have on hand, no special shopping required. Through learning these tricks of the trade, you can get food on the table fast that is tasty and healthy no matter how tired you are after a long day’s work.