Saturday, August 14, 2010

A Quickie in the Kitchen

I love to cook, but lately I haven't had much time for cooking. This bothers me to no end because food and healthy eating are my profession. Apparently, I need to listen to some of my own advice. We can all benefit from some quick suggestions for getting a healthy meal on the table. Here are some tips that help me to prepare healthy meals for my family in a hurry.

1. Plan Ahead: This means actually thinking about what you can make for the week.
  • Find Recipes: I usually go to my favorite healthy eating website, Eating Well. There are many wonderful recipes here that can be made in less than an hour. This can be necessary if you're coming home after a long day. You can search for new, quick, healthy and delicious recipes to add to your grocery list or you can search for recipes with ingredients that you have on hand. I recently found a recipe for Spiced Eggplant-Lentil Salad when I searched for recipes using eggplant. Yes, I still have to go to the store for some fresh ingredients, but I'll be using up the eggplant that has been sitting in my refrigerator for the past week.
  • Three Meal Rule: I usually plan to cook three new meals a week. This way I'm not overwhelmed by planning a whole week of meals. I make extra to have as another meal or to take leftovers for lunch. You can recycle leftover food and create new meals. Leftover meats and vegetables can be used to make casseroles, stir-fries, salads, stews and soups.
  • Make a Grocery List: Part of the planning process is making a list. This helps you get through the store faster and can minimize less healthy impulse purchases.
2. Stock Your Pantry and Refrigerator/Freezer: Buy healthy staple foods that make it easy to prepare a quick meal. These are foods that you may eat more regularly and that you can use in recipes such as:
  • Healthy breakfast cereals
  • Low fat dairy and dairy substitutes (fortified soy, rice and almond milk and cheeses)
  • Low fat and low sodium lunch meats
  • Lean meats and meat substitutes
  • 100% whole wheat bread
  • Fresh and frozen fruits
  • Fresh and frozen vegetables
  • Canned tomato products
  • Canned beans (legumes)
  • Brown rice (quick cooking varieties are available)
  • Whole wheat pasta
  • Herbs and spices
  • Olive and canola oil
  • Vinegars
  • Sauces (Many of these are high in sugar and sodium and should be used sparingly to enhance the flavor of meals. Some of my all time favorite sauces come from the Texas-based company D.L. Jardine's)
  • Broths (chicken, beef, vegetable and no-chicken broth, which is a vegetarian broth that has a chicken broth flavor)
3. Shop: To make quick and healthy meals you need to have healthy foods on hand. This means that you have to go to the food market. I'm not as well organized as one of my nutrition mentors who only needs to shop once a month (now that's a well stocked kitchen!). I usually plan one large shopping trip a week (usually on a weekend or in the evening when the number of shoppers is less) and another smaller trip mid-week. A good rule to follow for mid-week shopping is to get only the things that you really need such as some fresh produce and milk. If I have to shop for more items after work, typically we'll be eating grilled cheese sandwiches for dinner. I don't have time to shop and cook after work.

4. Learn How to Use a Knife/Food Processor: One of my jobs in my family as a kid was making salads. I dutifully cut vegetables using a paring knife as my mother instructed me. This was a chore and took longer than I wanted. I hated being asked to make a salad. It wasn't until I worked for a caterer in college that I learned how to correctly use a knife. What a difference choosing and using the correct knife makes! Cutting vegetables quickly and efficiently can actually be fun! This is probably the most important skill for cooking (remember to keep your knives sharp!). Food processors are also available for quickly cutting up vegetables. I tend to only use mine if I have a lot to chop as cleaning it is sometimes a bigger chore than chopping. And if you are really in a rush, you can use bagged chopped vegetables. It's always good to have options!

5. Utilize Your Kitchen Helpers: My mother was clearly doing this when she would ask me to make salads. Your kitchen helpers can set the table, wash dishes, and stir the pot for you. A great principle to follow is anyone who eats should help with meal preparation and clean up (thanks goes to one of my dietitian colleagues for suggesting this).

6. Clean as You Cook: My husband actually helped me learn this. His job in his family was clean up. Clean up is so much easier when you clean as you go. While I'm waiting for something to cook, I'll wash a few dishes. I'm a much happier cook when my cooking space is uncluttered and clean.

7. Minimize Distractions: When you're tired after a long day, distractions can make you lose your momentum and the next thing you know you'll be ordering out for pizza. Don't sit down at the computer, don't turn on the television and don't pour yourself a drink until you have a head start on your meal. You may need to delegate other household tasks to the denizens who share the house with you.

8. Experiment: Try making up your own recipes. With practice you will figure out flavor combinations that you enjoy. You'll be surprised at some of the great meals you come up with. You'll also make a few duds, but don't worry, you won't poison anyone. I've had the experience of not liking some of my own creations, but my family seems to eat them anyway, and sometimes they like them even when I don't. I've probably instilled enough guilt in them to simply appreciate the fact that I am cooking for them. I think I'd appreciate an underwhelming meal if someone prepared it for me too.

9. Lighten Up: Sometimes it's OK to eat grilled cheese. You can make a healthy meal using all kinds of shortcuts as long as you balance it with fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

10. Enjoy: Sometimes we need little reminders about how to make quick work of meal preparation so that we can have more time to enjoy other things in life. Who knows, maybe you'll even be able to enjoy the process of meal preparation more, which will make you a happier person overall. Hopefully, you'll free up time to enjoy the other rooms of your house too.


  1. Your title cracks me up! My husband perked when he saw it--ha ha! ;o) Great article!

  2. Thanks WJ! I was hoping to turn a few heads with this one. I sat on this title a long time before I decided what I would write about. I was hoping to do a whole series. Maybe I still will.

  3. Great tips ! I loved the learn to use a knife many people boast that they cannot cook but that is not something to be proud of. My favourite quote from Paula Deen is "Honey, once you can read you could cook"