5 Real Food Meals for Real Busy People

Italian Vegetable and Gnocchi Soup | A Couple Cooks

Real Food Meals for Real Busy People is part of our Healthy & Whole series, where we strive to provide resources and inspiration for home cooking and healthy living. 

We say it often, but it bears repeating: contrary to what you might think, we don’t eat perfectly prepared meals from a recipe every night. We’re real people with real jobs, and weeknight eating can be rough. Many times, you’ll find us what we call “scrounging” (making up our own meals from what we have on hand). But we’ve also found that it’s not so hard to make real food meals on the reg if we just do one little thing: think ahead.

Eating real food meals…the tradeoffs

Eating real food takes some sacrifice. To eat real food on a regular basis, you’ll have to give up a few things, including:

  • Spontaneityjust a little bit. You’ll have to plan in advance to have the right ingredients on hand when you want to cook. But you can still be spontaneous, on scrounging nights (!).
  • Procrastination — it’s easy to get busy with the week and use the excuse that we were “just too busy to plan our meals. (We do it all the time.) In these cases, it’s easy to fall back on less clean quick meals instead of real food options.
  • 30 to 60 minutes. With a 30-minute cook time, eating, and cleanup, cooking a real food weeknight meal takes about 60 minutes of your day.

But what you’ll gain from these sacrifices is so much more: nourishing food, physical health, and time spend with loved ones.

Here’s how to do it!

Ready to start making real food? As noted above, the biggest challenges for us are weeknights. It’s hard for us to want to spend more than 30 minutes on actual cooking time. Below are 5 Real Food Meals for Real Busy People: relatively recipes that are tasty and can be made in around 30 minutes. Timing does depend on your savvy-ness in the kitchen, of course, but the recipes below are straightforward and use fairly typical ingredients that should be easy to find.

And remember, there’s no need to cook every night. Plan to make recipes a few nights a week, and then go for leftovers or “scrounge” the remainder of the nights. Try to have cooked grains, tortillas or bread, eggs, and/or fresh greens on hand, which result in a myriad of combinations with your leftovers. Rice bowls, tacos, main dish salads, frittatas, sandwiches, and other creative dishes can be dreamed up with a few of those staples on hand.

We’d love to know your thoughts! If you try one of the recipes below, do you find it suitable for weeknight cooking in a busy lifestyle? And, what are your go-to weeknight meals (we’d love to see links)?

And now…our top real food meals!

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About the Authors

Sonja Overhiser

Cookbook Author and writer

Sonja Overhiser is author of Pretty Simple Cooking, named one of the best healthy cookbooks of 2018. She’s host of the food podcast Small Bites and founder of the food blog A Couple Cooks. Featured from the TODAY Show to Bon Appetit, Sonja seeks to inspire adventurous eating to make the world a better place one bite at a time.

Alex Overhiser

Cookbook Author and photographer

Alex Overhiser is an acclaimed food photographer and author based in Indianapolis. He’s host of the food podcast Small Bites and founder of the recipe website A Couple Cooks. Featured from the TODAY Show to Bon Appetit, Alex is author of Pretty Simple Cooking, named one of the best vegetarian cookbooks by Epicurious.


  • Reply
    Ksenia @ At the Immigrant's Table
    May 18, 2016 at 7:25 am

    When we are harried and actually home on a weeknight, my partner immediately wants to reach out for frozen pizza, while my initial instinct is always salad… Thanks for offering us a middle way!

  • Reply
    May 18, 2016 at 11:58 am

    I like to keep pasta, beans (both canned and cooked), eggs, cheese, and leafy vegetables on hand at all times. There’s a handful of heathy dishes that I can throw together from those ingredients in 15 minutes, and while that sometimes means we eat beans and pasta once a week, we’re still eating well. And I like beans and pasta.

  • Reply
    May 18, 2016 at 12:21 pm

    Such a great post, Sonja! I recently wrapped up a crazy busy month, and I found myself leaning on meals exactly like these ones: wholesome and tasty, but no frills and no fuss. Really good tips and ideas here :)

  • Reply
    Nina at FocusedonFit.com
    May 18, 2016 at 12:39 pm

    These are great ideas! And we do the same, keep brown rice and sautéed tofu cooked in the fridge and we always have a can of beans or chickpeas on hand. This week, when we were out of ideas, I made a burrito bowl salad, romaine topped with our Mexican Black Beans, brown rice, tofu, cheddar cheese and our 5-minute Fire-Roasted Salsa. Turned out to be delish!

  • Reply
    Alison @ Alison's Allspice
    May 18, 2016 at 6:46 pm

    The timing of this post if perfect for me! This spring has gotten so busy and I have been able to spend less and less time in the kitchen. My favorite recipe from your list is the curry. Thanks!

  • Reply
    May 21, 2016 at 11:11 am

    My partner and I also find weeknights challenging, especially if we don’t plan ahead. When we do plan ahead, we often make a simple niçoise salad or this zucchini and hazelnut salad with halloumi: https://taplatt.wordpress.com/2013/05/17/recipe-zucchini-hazelnut-salad-with-grilled-haloumi/

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