dining healthy (BPT) – A fast pace and busy schedule may make you think that frequenting restaurants and fast food spots is faster than cooking at home. But it is possible to reduce the time you spend in the kitchen – and the money you spend from your wallet. Planning meals ahead of time, making one large grocery trip each week and taking a few hours on the weekend to prep your food for the upcoming week can help ensure that you have dinner on the table quickly, no matter how busy your weeknights get.

To make meal-planning easy, keep these time-saving hacks in mind:

Keep low cost, highly versatile ingredients on hand

Beans: Not only are they a great source of protein, but you can use them in a variety of dishes, including salads, soups and chili.

Grains: Easy to buy in bulk for extra savings, grains such as quinoa, brown rice or barley store easily in an air-fresh container and can serve as a foundation to any meal.

Frozen steam-in bag veggies: You’ll need a side for that roast chicken. Frozen vegetables offer the same nutritional value as fresh ones with the convenience of microwave cooking in less than five minutes. What’s more, you can use them to make a variety of meals from pasta dishes to casseroles. Consider new Alexia Parmesan Peas, French Herb green beans or Italian Herb Corn with Sun-Dried Sweet Tomatoes.

Diced tomatoes: The vine-ripened taste of diced tomatoes, like Hunt’s, can easily combine with frozen veggies and beans for a soup. Saute them with onions, or quickly puree them for a homemade pasta sauce.

Flavor your entrees faster

Some say fresh herbs make everything better. But when herbs aren’t in season or you feel too time pressed to go beyond the dried spice bottles, consider these time-saving seasoning tips to elevate your entree. Peel garlic cloves faster by quickly crushing them with your hands and tossing the cloves into a big bowl. Flip another bowl upside down to cover the garlic-filled bowl. Shake the two bowls together vigorously for 10 seconds. The garlic should emerge perfectly peeled.

Want to extend fresh herbs beyond the season? Add herbs such as cilantro or basil to ice cube trays and fill with olive oil before freezing. Simply pop out individual cubes when sauteing vegetables, cooking pasta or roasting meats.

Repurpose leftovers

Don’t stress yourself out making a new meal when you still have some left from the last one. You can also get creative and combine leftovers to prepare new meals. Try throwing yesterday’s chicken into your favorite whole-wheat pasta. Or, use leftover potatoes, like Alexia Smart Classics Tri-cut Potatoes, for a breakfast mix-up that will surprise your family. All you’ll need are a few staples from the refrigerator like ham, onion and green pepper and voila.

Map out your meal

Look for ways to cook once and have enough food for the rest of the week. Making dishes in bulk and freezing them or cooking up a big batch of protein to incorporate into several different meals are all ways you can make a day in the kitchen stretch into meals for the week.