Affordable healthy meals…in a flash!

Yesterday I talked about some of the techniques I use (or have used) to eat healthfully and affordably. But what do you do when you have limits on your time and your wallet? I’ll tell you what you don’t do. You don’t rely on the crutch of fast food and super-processed food from the grocery store (if it’s a meal in a box or bag, it’s probably not healthy).
First, fast food isn’t necessarily as economical as it appears to be. Second, fast food comes with hidden costs.
Every time you opt for the crappy processed meal, you are taking a withdrawal against your future good health. Every time you put together a simple, healthy, homemade meal, you are making a deposit toward your future good health. Do you want to be healthy when you get older? Do you want your kids to grow up healthy? Of course you do, so let’s move on.
I know what it is to be time-crunched (I’ve been going to school and working full time for two years). I also place an absolute priority on preparing three healthy meals plus snacks for myself every day. Here are a few things I’ve learned:
  1. Don’t reinvent the wheel. If you are crunched for time, it is not the time to try to cook from an unfamiliar recipe. Nothing is worse than looking back and forth between a recipe and your pots, pans, cutting board, or whatever. If you are a less-than-confident cook, this situation becomes even messier. Either rely on a handful of basic recipes you’ve made so many times you have them memorized, or…
  2. …don’t use a recipe at all. Can you grill, roast or saute a piece of meat (or tofu or tempeh)? Can you grill, roast, saute or steam some veggies? Can you toss a salad? Can you cook rice or pasta? Can you heat up a can of beans? Do you know how to open a spice canister, bottle of soy sauce or jar of salsa? Can you squeeze a lemon or lime? Those are basic techniques, not recipes. If you can do those things, you can make a meal in no time at all with your eyes closed (OK…don’t really try it with your eyes closed). If you don’t know how to do those things, then learn how. It’s not hard. Just take it one skill at a time, nice and slow. You can do it.
  3. Choose flavors you savor. When you dine out, what kind of food do you love? Burgers? Mexican? Italian? Thai? Chinese? Indian? BBQ? Come up with a few ways to recreate those flavors simply and healthfully at home. Grill your own burgers and make oven fries and a tossed salad. Heat up some beans and layer them over cooked rice or heated tortillas, then top with salsa, grated cheese, sour cream and shredded lettuce or cabbage. Make a quick stirfry with meat or tofu and tons of veggies, then season with some dark sesame oil and soy sauce.
  4. Cook ahead. Why just roast or grill enough meat for one meal, when you can make enough for a second meal? I’ve had great luck with baking several boneless, skinless chicken breasts (bought on sale) at a time, then wrapping them tightly and freezing them to be defrosted for a future meal. I simply line a baking sheet with foil, put a wire cooling rack on top, put the chicken breasts on the rack and sprinkle them with whatever seasoning strikes my fancy (Cajun, herbes de Provence, curry). Roast a whole huge pan of veggies…they taste great cold on salads, chopped and scrambled with eggs, or heated up with tomorrow’s dinner. Cooking rice? Cook extra (you can even freeze it). When you have more time (weekends, vacations) make big batches of soup, chili or stew and freeze some in appropriate-sized portions (single, double or family-size).
  5. Shop smart. When you keep a well-stocked pantry (and ideally a free-standing freezer), you can spend less time shopping and use that precious time to quickly cook a meal. When you are using basic, healthy foods (veggies, fruits, beans, grains, pastas, eggs, meat, poultry, fish or meat alternatives) and keep your larder stocked, you always have the makings of a good, quick meal. Always.
  6. Multitask. I often choose to roast meat and veggies instead of sauteing because it makes for a bit less cleanup (no stovetop spatters) and I don’t have to monitor the proceedings quite as closely (no stirring or flipping needed). That means I can do some dishes, toss a salad, cut up veggies for snacks, do advance prep for tomorrow’s breakfast or lunch, etc. (As an added bonus, I find that roasted veggies are way more flavorful than steamed veggies…this could be helpful if you are trying to train yourself, or your kids, to enjoy more veggies without resorting to layers of sauce or cheese.)
Hmmm…that’s it for now. I admit that lately I have been doing a lot of  real, full-fledged cooking from actual recipes, many of them new to me. But I have used my time-saving methods a lot in the last few years, and I will be refining and enhancing them later this summer as I gear up to start grad school (while still continuing to work). So look for many more tips on quick, healthy meals in the not-too-distant future!