The holidays are perfect times for families to gather around the dinner table and enjoy a sumptuous meal together with hearty comfort foods and all the family favorites. But other than holidays, who has time for all the advance dinner prep?

After a long day at work, school or wherever, just deciding what to have for dinner is challenging. The last thing you want to do when you get home is to spend time slicing, dicing and waiting for a meal to cook. So what are your options? Grabbing takeout on your way home is expensive. Popping a frozen dinner in the microwave is convenient, but not very healthy. Here are 10 tips to help you toss together a quick, healthy meal and take the stress out of dinnertime.

  1. Keep it simple. Soups and salads are great dinner options.
  2. Use frozen or canned foods. Protein-rich items such as seafood make prep time faster and easier.
  3. Do breakfast for dinner. No matter what time of day, scrambled eggs, pancakes or hot cereal make a tasty, satisfying meal.
  4. Make a “two-fer,” a double batch of soup or a casserole over the weekend. Freeze half of it for a quick weekday meal.
  5. Buy pre-cut veggies and pre-made pizza dough for easy to assemble meals.
  6. Ask your family what they like to eat. This may seem obvious, but we can get so caught up in our own busy schedule that we forget to ask.
  7. Involve your kids. Chances are they’ll eat what they helped prepare.
  8. Keep a well-stocked pantry. Nothing is more frustrating than running out of cooking oil when you really need it. Have spices ready to dress up your beans or chicken.
  9. Go with theme nights—maybe Monday it’s tacos, Tuesday it’s fish and Wednesday it’s pasta. Keeping a narrow focus can help you make quick recipe decisions.
  10. Check the weather. Yes, seriously. The weather is changeable this time of the year, so look at the forecast. Think about what food you might be in the mood for when it’s sleeting on Friday. Be prepared to have it on hand.

For me, wintry weather brings to mind foods that promise solace as well as great taste. Recently, I replaced my old, worn out recipe box with a brand, new one. While going through my recipes, organizing and discarding, I thought about the foods that my family and I enjoy the most—simple, basic comfort foods.

The term “comfort food” has been around since at least 1966 when the Palm Beach Post used it in a story. When under emotional stress, adults turn to foods often associated with the nostalgic security of childhood. They think back to foods like mac-and-cheese or chicken soup served in Mom’s warm kitchen. But can these foods really deliver on their soul-soothing promise?  They can, and they don’t have to be calorie-laden and time-consuming to prepare.

Healthy meals don’t have to be boring either. Here are four superfast, comfort-food recipes for you to try.

This classic chicken noodle soup is just like Mom’s and can be on your table in 20 minutes or less.

Quick Chicken Noodle Soup

Serves: 6 (1 cup servings)

Calories: 237

Ingredients

2 cups water

1 (32-ounce) carton fat-free, lower-sodium chicken broth

1 tablespoon olive oil

1/2 cup pre-chopped onion

1/2 cup pre-chopped celery

1 medium carrot, chopped

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

6 ounces fusilli pasta

2 1/2 cups shredded skinless, boneless rotisserie chicken breast (or left-over chicken)

2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Preparation

  1. Combine 2 cups water and chicken broth in a microwave-safe dish. Microwave on high for 5 minutes.
  2. While broth mixture is heating, heat a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add oil to the pan and swirl to coat. Add onion, celery, carrot, salt, and pepper. Sauté 3 minutes or until almost tender, stirring frequently. Add hot broth mixture and pasta. Bring to a boil. Cook 7 minutes or until pasta is almost al dente. Add chicken and cook 1 minute or until thoroughly heated. Stir in parsley.

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This one pot meal is sure to get rave reviews from your family.

Bacon Mac

Serves: 6 (1 cup servings)

Calories: 399

Ingredients

3 1/4 teaspoons salt, divided

12 ounces penne pasta

4 teaspoons all-purpose flour

1 1/2 cups skim milk, divided

2 cups finely shredded sharp cheddar cheese, divided

1/4 cup sliced green onions

1 teaspoon hot sauce

1/4 teaspoon pepper

2 slices center-cut bacon, cooked and crumbled

Cooking spray

Preparation

  1. Preheat broiler.
  2. Bring 6 quarts water and 1 tablespoon salt to a boil. Add pasta and cook 8 minutes or until al dente. Drain.
  3. Combine flour and 1/2 cup milk in a saucepan over medium heat. Gradually add 1 cup milk and bring to a boil. Cook 1 minute, stirring constantly. Remove from heat. Let stand 4 minutes or until it cools to 155°. Stir in 1 1/2 cups cheese. Add 1/4 teaspoon salt, onions, hot sauce, pepper, bacon, and stir. Add pasta and toss. Spoon into a 2-quart broiler-safe dish coated with cooking spray. Top with 1/2 cup cheese. Broil 7 minutes.

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These warm and savory sandwiches are not for just breakfast anymore.

Ham and Swiss Egg Sandwiches

Serves: 4

Calories: 344

Ingredients

Cooking spray

4 ounces thinly sliced lower-sodium deli ham

4 large eggs

4 English muffins, split and toasted

4 (1-ounce) slices Swiss cheese

Preparation

  1. Preheat broiler to high.
  2. Heat a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Coat the pan with cooking spray. Add ham to the pan and sauté 2 minutes or until lightly browned. Remove from the pan.
  3. Recoat the pan with cooking spray. Crack eggs into the pan. Cover and cook for 4 minutes or until desired degree of doneness. Remove from heat.
  4. Place 4 muffin halves, cut sides up, on a baking sheet. Top each half with 1 cheese slice. Broil for 2 minutes or until cheese melts. Divide ham among cheese-topped muffin halves. Top each with 1 egg and 1 muffin half.

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You can have this family favorite on the table in a hurry by using precut veggies and prepared mashed potatoes.

Speedy Shepherd’s Pie

Serves: 4 (2 cup servings)

Calories: 419

Ingredients

1 pound lean ground beef

1 cup matchstick-cut carrots, finely chopped

1 cup pre-chopped onion

4 garlic cloves, minced

2 tablespoons unsalted tomato paste

1 cup unsalted beef stock, divided

2 teaspoons cornstarch

2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

3/8 teaspoon kosher salt

1 1/2 cups frozen green peas

1 (24-ounce) package prepared mashed potatoes (or leftover mashed potatoes)

2 tablespoons freeze-dried onion

1/2 teaspoon Hungarian sweet paprika

Preparation

  1. Preheat oven to 500°.
  2. Place beef in a large skillet over high heat. Cook 5 minutes or until browned, stirring to crumble. Add carrot, onion and garlic to the pan and cook 2 minutes. Stir in tomato paste and cook 30 seconds. Combine 1/4 cup stock and cornstarch in a small bowl, stirring with a whisk. Add cornstarch mixture, remaining 3/4 cup stock, Worcestershire, pepper and salt to the pan. Stir in peas. Cook 2 minutes or until slightly thickened.
  3. Place beef mixture in a 2-quart glass or ceramic baking dish. Top evenly with mashed potatoes. Sprinkle freeze-dried onions and paprika over potatoes. Bake at 500° for 5 minutes.

by Judy Kallestad