cooking quick, healthy meals at home

by Milton Stokes, RD on Oct 01, 2004


Fast food can be good for your health.

Does your car practically steer itself to the nearest fast-food joint when you’re driving home from work? Are you on a first-name basis with the counter staff at your local hamburger haven? If so, take comfort in the fact that you’re not alone in the fast-food lane. These days, we’re all short on time and suckers for a quick meal—your clients included.

Try as you might, it’s hard to quit eating out at fast-food restaurants. There is a lot to be said for avoiding crowded supermarket lines and not having to clean up the kitchen when you are exhausted from the rigors of your day. But take heart: You don’t have to sacrifice healthy food for convenience. It is possible—and easy—to prepare quick, nutritious meals at home in the blink of a tired eye!

Cook Up a Plan

Like everything else in life, fast meals at home take some advance thought. “Many people don’t cook because of lack of planning,” says Heather Reseck, RD, author of the Fix-It-Fast Vegetarian Cookbook (see “Resources” on page 78). “A willingness to climb out of food ruts provides a start, but planning ahead makes all the difference.”

If you are someone who has trouble boiling water, you need to take fast-food preparation slowly! Experts warn against getting too ambitious and advise novices to aim instead for cooking just 1 or 2 nights a week.

Once you have decided which nights you plan to cook at home, record those dates using your personal organization system, be it a yellow sticky note on your kitchen calendar or a reminder in your PDA (personal digital assistant). This step is important because most people don’t commit to doing something that is not on their weekly to-do list, especially if they are tired and hungry. It’s far easier to follow the road to the nearest drive-in window!

Involve the Whole Family

It also helps to make your cooking plans known to others in your household, such as your partner, roommates or children. Not only does this help you stick to your commitment; it also gets others involved in the food selection process and maybe even the actual cooking and cleanup.

In the book The Moms’ Guide to Meal Makeovers, authors Janice Newell Bissex, MS, RD, and Liz Weiss, MS, RD, urge parents to involve their kids in meal planning whenever possible. As working moms themselves, Bissex and Weiss warn that this team effort may result in a bigger mess come cleanup time, but they stress that the experience can bring a family closer and also foster healthy eating choices. That’s because the dietary habits parents teach youngsters in childhood are known to engender a lifetime of healthy lifestyle choices.

Keep It Simple

One of the biggest barriers to preparing a healthy meal at home is the perception that the effort must be complex and exhausting. The trick is not to get overwhelmed, which can prove self-defeating. “We need to keep it simple,” explains Bissex. “Busy people need easy recipes that aren’t intimidating.”

Nutrition experts recommend arming yourself with a few cookbooks that showcase recipes for healthy, tasty, nutrient-dense meals requiring 30 minutes or less to prepare and cook. According to Holly Clegg, author of Meals on the Move: Rush Hour Recipes, easy, everyday recipes that use readily available ingredients are crucial to home meal preparation. For a look at some cookbooks that feature quick, healthy meals, see “Resources,” right.

Cook Smart

Many cookbooks designed for people on the run also contain helpful lists of ingredients so cooks have everything they need to follow through on their good intentions. “The secret is to have a well-stocked pantry so [that] when you [come] home tired, you have the ingredients on hand to prepare a meal,” says Clegg.

Another key ingredient for cooking healthy, fast food is to find smart ways to cut preparation and cooking time without surrendering taste or nutrition. “To cook smart,” says Bissex, “look for any opportunity to boost the nutrition of your recipes.” One way to do that is to make small but meaningful ingredient additions. “If you’re making macaroni and cheese, transform it into a salmon noodle casserole by adding a can of salmon and some frozen peas.” Don’t like salmon? Try adding canned tuna to this casserole or replace the fish ingredient with any vegetable you have on hand, such as shredded carrots, halved grape tomatoes or sliced fresh mushrooms.

Another time-saving measure is to buy precut, packaged veggies, such as bags of prewashed lettuce or carrot sticks. Even accomplished cooks can be put off at the prospect of coming home to wash, peel, slice, dice and cook fresh vegetables. Occasionally relying on frozen, canned or dried vegetables can simplify meal preparation, especially when these ingredients are added to stir-fried dishes or soups. Frozen veggies cook up in a snap or can be placed in the fridge to thaw the night before. Try tossing some frozen broccoli or spinach on that otherwise plain cheese pizza before you pop it into the oven. Canned tomatoes and beans are other good options for busy cooks; just remember to drain the salty liquid they’re packed in and rinse them with fresh water before adding them to the dish you’re making.

Eileen Faughey, MA, RD, author of QuickFlip to Delicious Dinners, is always seeking new ways to boost the nutritional benefit of quick meals. “I like to add sun-dried tomatoes to salads, sautéed vegetable dishes and ethnic dishes,” she says.

Faughey recommends that clients stock up on food staples designed to save time in the kitchen. “Pick up preformed whole-wheat pizza dough to make your own pizza at home,” she says. She also advises clients to keep on hand healthy ingredients like whole-grain couscous, which can be added to canned soups. “Adding a couple of tablespoons of flax meal, wheat germ or some finely chopped nuts to baked goods will pump up the nutrition,” states Bissex.

A final way to save time in the kitchen is to double your recipes when cooking and then refrigerate or freeze unused portions for dinner later in the week. “Cook once but eat twice,” suggests Faughey. “If you cook extra amounts of a vegetarian Mexican recipe on Sunday, you can add sliced chicken or fish the next day to make burritos.” Another tip is to divide leftovers into single-serving containers that can be frozen and reheated individually when needed.

Ladies & Gentlemen, Start Your Ovens

Whether you’re a novice cook or a seasoned pro, time can be a huge barrier to cooking nutritious meals at home. The bottom line is to use your time wisely.

“Health and nutrition need to be incorporated into our lives in enjoyable ways, instead of being an extra project,” says Faughey. “If we look at our priorities, we may view a home-cooked meal as being a good use of time.”

With careful planning, the right tools and some creativity, healthy fast food can be your recipe for your family’s good health! n


American Institute of Cancer Research (AICR). Homemade for Health. (To order, contact the AICR at 800- 843-8114 or

Bissex, J.N., & Weiss, L. 2004. The Moms’ Guide to Meal Makeovers. New York: Broadway Books.

Clark, N. 2003. Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook (3rd ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Clegg, H. 2000. Meals on the Move: Rush Hour Recipes. Memphis: Wimmer.

Clegg, H. 2002. The Holly Clegg Trim & TerrificCookbook: More Than 500 Fast, Easy, and Healthy Recipes. Philadelphia: Running Press.

Faughey, E. 1999. QuickFlip to Delicious Dinners. Boulder, CO: Nutrition Connections.

Foco, Z. 1998. Lickety-Split Meals for Health Conscious People on the Go. Walled Lake, MI: ZHI Publishing.

Ponichtera, B.J. 1994. Quick & Healthy Recipes and Ideas. The Dalles, OR: ScaleDown Publishing Inc.

Reseck, H.H. 2002. Fix-It-Fast Vegetarian Cookbook, Hagerstown, MD: Review & Herald Publishing Association.

IDEA Fitness Journal, Volume 1, Issue 3

© 2004 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

About the Author

Milton Stokes, RD IDEA Author/Presenter

D. Milton Stokes, MPH, RD, is chief dietitian at St. Barnabas Hospital in New York City. He’s also a spokesman for the American Dietetic Association and managing partner of Culinary Nutrition Co...