Semi-Homemade Meals are Just a Smart Idea
Four strategies for quick dinner recipes featuring healthy prepared grocery shortcuts
In the early days of my marriage, before my son was born, I prided myself on my from-scratch cooking. Why buy bread when you can bake it, right? I routinely spent 90 minutes making dinner, often with multiple elements — lasagna with roasted vegetables in the filling and homemade sauce, or a French onion soup recipe with onions that took 45 minutes to caramelize, then simmered in (homemade) beef stock until the aroma drove us crazy.
I haven’t cooked that way for years. Work demands, homework supervision, and well, just life have claimed too much of my time. These days I’m aiming to get dinner on the table in well under an hour, 30 minutes if I can pull it off. And one way I do that is with shortcuts from the grocery store.
Rotisserie chicken is probably the first thing you thought of when I said “shortcuts,” but the options go far beyond that. Think pantry staples like jarred marinara sauce or canned salmon, rolls of prepared polenta or pre-chopped fresh vegetables, frozen tortellini or rice that you cook in big batches and freeze to use later. It’s all real food, it’s all nutritious, and it’s all easy. And most importantly, it’s all fast.
Here are four strategies I use to put together quick meals using the "semi-homemade" style of cooking, made popular by Sandra Lee on her old Food Network shows.
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Strategy #1: Pair healthy prepared food with fresh food
This equation forms the base of all my healthy semi-homemade recipes. I take an element or two that comes ready to use — no chopping or cooking required — and add a handful of fresh ingredients to turn it into something new. When I’m done, I have created a quick family dinner that tastes homemade in a fraction of the time. These easy dinner recipes all use the formula.
This near-miraculous version of a beloved Italian classic takes just 10 minutes to put together because it uses prepared marinara sauce and no-boil noodles. With pre-washed baby spinach and pre-shredded cheese, you’ll have your lasagna assembled before the oven’s finished pre-heating. The result? An ooey-gooey, rich and cheesy baked pasta dish any nonna would be happy to serve.
The Best Salmon Patties recipe livens up canned salmon and dry breadcrumbs with fresh green onions, celery, lemon juice, and eggs. The patties get fried in butter until golden brown, so you wind up with an irresistibly crispy outside and a bright, flavorful inside. Serve them with lemon wedges plus a package of steamed frozen vegetables and pre-cooked wild rice.
Chili on the table in 15 minutes? This 5-Ingredient White Chicken Chili takes advantage of all the flavor in jarred salsa verde, along with prepared chicken broth, canned beans, and rotisserie chicken for the ultimate in semi-homemade. Top it with fresh avocado and cilantro leaves, and nobody will know you weren’t cooking all afternoon.
More ways to pair healthy prepared foods with fresh food
Quick Mediterranean Tuna Salad. Combine a can of tuna and a can of drained and rinsed white beans with chopped red onion and red bell pepper, capers, parsley leaves, olive oil, and fresh lemon juice. Serve this healthy dinner on crusty rolls or a bed of fresh greens.
Cheesy Veggie Polenta. Cut a roll of prepared polenta into slices. In an oven-safe pan, fry them in olive oil until golden brown, then top with garlicky sautéed mushrooms and baby kale and a layer of mozz or Swiss cheese. Run the whole thing under the broiler until the cheese bubbles.
Quick Tortilla Soup. For a Mexican-inspired meal, heat a quart of store-bought chicken broth in a large saucepan. Add a can of diced tomatoes and green chilies (RO*TEL is a good brand here), a can of drained and rinsed black beans, and some frozen corn, and simmer for a few minutes. Serve with crushed tortilla chips, diced avocado, fresh cilantro, and shredded jack cheese to sprinkle on top.
Strategy #2: Buy shortcuts from the produce department
As much as I pride myself on keeping a well-stocked pantry, sometimes I do make a 6 PM trip to the grocery store. Thanks to the worker bees who supply the produce department, I can still find quick dinner ideas using things like packaged slaw, spiralized vegetables, and even the supermarket salad bar. Building a semi-homemade meal around vegetables is a great way to get a low-carb dinner on the table in a flash. These recipes show you what I mean.
Paleo Shrimp Pad Thai replaces noodles with packaged broccoli slaw, and frozen pre-cooked shrimp means you’re barely cooking at all. This comes together in just 20 minutes! The easy recipe might not be a perfect duplicate of your favorite Thai restaurant’s version, but it’s so satisfying — and so quick and healthy — you won’t care.
Talk about fast. This chicken dish turns spiralized zucchini, chicken strips, mustard, and a few other ingredients into a light but filling, keto-friendly weeknight meal in 15 minutes. For the fastest prep, start with pre-spiralized zucchini and pre-sliced chicken breast.
Butternut Squash and Chickpea Curry with Spinach calls for cubed butternut squash — that could take me a good 15 minutes to peel, seed, and chop. A package of pre-cut squash saves the day, along with pre-washed baby spinach, canned chickpeas, and canned vegetable broth. Serve the curry with pre-cooked brown rice, and in 20 minutes your family will sit down to a comforting vegan bowl filled with warm spices and sweet squash.
More meal ideas with pre-prepped vegetables
Mezze Platter. Assemble a spread of store-bought hummus and tabbouleh, olives, feta cheese, pre-cut vegetable sticks, and pita triangles.
Quick Chicken Pot Pie. Load up a refrigerator pie crust with rotisserie chicken; pre-diced onion, carrot, and celery; and canned chicken broth combined with a little cornstarch and then heated. Easiest comfort food ever.
Tofu Thai Curry. Turn prepared Thai curry paste, chopped vegetables from the salad bar, cubes of tofu, canned chicken or vegetable broth, and canned coconut milk into a lightning-fast stew to serve on pre-cooked rice.
Strategy #3: Take a frozen jump-start
No, I’m not advocating for TV dinners (though boy, did I love them when I was growing up). I’m just saying: You can build a mighty fine, kid-friendly meal from a package of frozen something-or-other. Think ravioli or gnocchi, breaded chicken tenders, cooked shrimp, sausages, waffles, fish fillets — you get the idea. On busy weeknights, they can take you two-thirds of the way to dinner with very little effort. For example:
Skillet Ravioli with Spinach turns frozen ravioli and fresh baby spinach into a bubbling, cheesy, one-pan meal that’s ready in 15 minutes. Dollops of mascarpone cheese become a lusciously creamy sauce.
Bang Bang Fish Tacos start with frozen fish sticks, but you’d never guess it. These Asian-inflected tacos look and taste like they came from a hip food truck, but you’ll have them on the table in just 30 minutes, without leaving home.
Think of everything you love about loaded baked potatoes — bacon, cheese, sour cream, scallions, and more — but without waiting for the potatoes to bake. These pups are ready to go in less than half an hour.
More quick dinner ideas that start in the freezer
Quicker-than-Takeout Dumpling Soup. Simmer frozen potstickers in canned chicken broth along with some grated fresh ginger, shredded carrot, chopped scallions, and a splash of soy sauce.
Fresher Frozen Pizza. Top a frozen pizza with thinly sliced fresh vegetables like bell pepper and red onion. Add some pepperoni or ham, or dots of pesto plus a little more cheese before it goes into the oven.
Easiest Chicken Parm Ever. Bake frozen breaded chicken tenders as directed, then top each one with a spoonful of jarred marinara sauce and a slice of fresh mozz. Run them under the broiler. Ta da!
Strategy #4: Semi-homemade your own meals
There’s no rule that says semi-homemade dinners have to start with store-bought food. When I have the fridge or freezer space and some time on the weekend, I like to save money and precious weeknight minutes by pre-cooking big batches of foods I use often. These recipes show you what I mean.
Parmesan Crusted Pork Balls are perfect for a lazy weekend afternoon. Spend less than an hour mixing and shaping a double-batch of these, pop them in the freezer, and you’ll have 48 savory, keto-friendly meatballs. Use them with good quality jarred sauce and zoodles or spaghetti, turn them into a cheesy casserole, add to soup, or serve however you like.
Homemade Barbecue Sauce stays good in the fridge for a month or more, ready when you are to add tangy, spicy flavor to quick-cooking boneless, skinless chicken breasts; to turn rotisserie chicken into pulled chicken sandwiches; or even to dunk some of those freezer meatballs.
Just like the packets, Kalyn's Taco Seasoning Mix stays in a jar in the pantry until you need it, only without the added starches and “natural” flavors. For a quick taco night, add two tablespoons to one pound of browned ground beef or turkey — plus a splash of water if the mixture seems dry. Serve with corn or flour tortillas, chopped tomato and lettuce, salsa, and shredded cheddar.
More homemade semi-homemade ideas
Pre-marinated meats. Freeze boneless, skinless chicken or sliced steak in your favorite marinade. Defrost, and it’s pre-seasoned, ready to cook.
Pre-cooked grains. Cook a large batch of white or brown rice, macaroni, or quinoa and freeze in 2-cup or 4-cup portions.
Pre-cooked meat. Brown several pounds of ground beef and freeze in one-pound portions.
More help for quick dinners
Whether you’re a meal planner or more of the last-minute type, you can search Yummly for semi-homemade foods to turn into dinner. Find recipes that use rotisserie chicken, say, or prepared hummus, and add them to your Yummly Meal Plan. You can also search for recipes using your favorite time-saving tools like a slow-cooker or Instant Pot, and time-saving meals such as stir-fry and sheet pan suppers. Here's additional inspiration in these next articles.