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How to Make Quick, Healthy Meals at Home

How many times have you found yourself driving home from work with no idea what to make for dinner—or not even a clue as to what’s in the fridge? These are the times that test our resolve to eat well, and they often leave us making a beeline for the nearest fast-food joint.

If you are the chief cook and bottle washer in your family, take heart: here are some simple but effective tips that will have you whipping up healthy fare at home in the time it would take to have a pizza delivered to your door.

Make a Meal Plan

We all know how important it is to shop armed with a list, but first you need to decide on the specific meals you intend to serve over the next week. Once you have come up with a meal plan, you can determine the particular ingredients and quantities you’ll need to buy for each breakfast, lunch or dinner.

According to Jennie McCary, MS, RD, LD, a weekly meal plan is the key to putting a healthy, balanced dinner on the table night after night. “Knowing what’s for dinner and all that is involved in preparing it means there is one less thing I have to worry about when I walk in the door,” says McCary, a working mom who serves as the wellness manager for the Albuquerque Public School District in New Mexico.

The best time to make a meal plan is right before you go grocery shopping, says Natalie Digate Muth, RD, MD, a nutrition expert for the American Council on Exercise and a pediatrics resident at the University of California Mattel Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles. As a busy mother of two young children, Muth says the 20 minutes it takes her to create a weekly meal plan and shopping list is time well spent. “If you don’t plan ahead, the mental effort to figure out what to make each night and then ensure you have what you need to cook can be a drag—and all the more reason why you end up calling out for pizza again.”

When deciding which meals to cook on what nights, assign the simpler meals to the evenings you know will be most hectic or when activities are likely to run later than your regular dinner hour. Always plan one extra meal each week to serve as a backup in case an essential ingredient is not available at the grocery store. For ideas on what to prepare, the Internet is a great source for quick-dinner recipes; just search for “30-minute meals” or “simple meals.”

Invest in the Right Equipment

One way to take some of the drudgery out of cooking when you are tired is to have the right kitchen tools and keep them in functioning order. “Having up-to-date pots and pans and keeping your knives sharpened make cooking more time-efficient and fun,” says Nicki Anderson, a mother of four grown kids and owner of Reality Fitness Personal Training Studio in Naperville, Illinois. “If your cooking tools are not in top form, you’re less likely to enjoy the process. It’s much like exercise: when you have the best shoes, your experience is that much better!”

You needn’t splurge on expensive gadgets, cautions Jenna A. Bell, PhD, RD, CSSD, a Chicago-based nutrition communications consultant who runs the blog Eat Right Around Chicago (www.chicago.now/eatright). “Keep it simple, and invest in a good skillet, a sharp knife and a pot large enough to boil water for pasta or rice.”

Before you buy any kitchen equipment, consider the types of foods you prepare most often and what tools could make the job easier. “At my house we use a lot of garlic, and having a garlic press makes it a thousand times easier than taking the time to mince each clove of the herb,” says Muth. “We also use our veggie steamer and food processor all the time, so both were well worth the cost.”

Prepare Food Ahead

Experts say you can save considerable time and effort if you wash and dice certain foods as soon as you get home from the grocery store. This simple practice ensures that healthy ingredients are ready when you need them, a process that Anderson and others dub “shop-’n’-chop.”

“If a meal planned for midweek requires a cup of diced butternut squash or carrots, chopping these veggies as soon as you get home from shopping or when you have a free moment during the weekend will make dinner preparation a lot less daunting after a long day at work,” says McCary.

The best vegetables to prep ahead are the heartier varieties, such as squash, carrots, broccoli, peppers, zucchini and beets. To avoid spoilage, McCary advises against washing or cutting more delicate vegetables (like spinach) or herbs (like basil) until right before using them. After you have washed and cut up your produce, save and bag a handful from each pile of veggies to use later in the week for a quick stir-fry meal.

For those who prefer convenience over cutting, Bell recommends buying some veggies, like celery or carrots, pre-cut. “Grocery shopping is enough work, so if you are challenged by that huge head of broccoli, buy it already sliced or diced.”

“Identify what part of the prep process you don’t like,” recommends Sarah Kruse, a certified natural chef, freelance writer and mom based in Mountain View, California. “If you hate grocery shopping, order your staples online or join a co-op that offers home deliveries. If you don’t like the actual prep work, invest in a food processor that chops and dices. If you dislike cleaning up, stick to one-dish meals, like casseroles, or cook several meals at the same time so you only clean up once.”

Meals to Make Ahead

When it comes to deciding which meals to make ahead of time, Bell says, “Think stews, sauces and casseroles, like a veggie-based lasagna, which can be tasty even when cold!” Anderson is a firm believer in cooking meals in batches; she uses any spare time during the weekend to boil or grill a whole chicken, which she uses multiple times later in the week to make a quick chicken Caesar salad; chicken and rice casserole; and chicken and bean burritos. Any leftover side dishes, like boiled potatoes or broccoli, later get tossed into a big pot of soup or stew, which saves both time and money.

Cathy Leman, MA, RD, LD, is a personal trainer and the owner and president of Nutrifit Inc., in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. She suggests that clients make at least one healthy meal each weekend and cook extra portions of the main ingredients, which can then be used as the basis for other meals later that week. “For example, a client might prepare a Sunday dinner that includes a hearty bean chili; a whole grain–based side dish, such as quinoa; and a big pan of roasted vegetables. Any leftover chili can accompany a green salad for lunch on Monday, while the quinoa can be used for a cold quinoa and veggie salad the following night. And the roasted veggies can be warmed up for side dishes all week long or folded into pita bread or a tortilla with hummus for a quick lunch.”

Other Time-Saving Tips

“Appliances like rice cookers, veggie steamers and crock pots are essential when cooking after a busy day, especially when hungry kids are underfoot,” says Kruse. “You can get the rice going quickly, throw some veggies in the steamer and not have to worry if you get called away.” Kruse uses her rice cooker to cook most grains and certain legumes, such as red and brown lentils, and also relies on her crock pot to slow-cook one-dish casseroles and beans while she is out during the day; she even cooks steel-cut oatmeal overnight in her crock pot so that breakfast is ready when her family gets up each morning. Anderson constantly uses her crock pot to cook “everything, from turkey and wild rice soup to pot roast or a hearty chili.”

Cooking healthy meals needn’t be a solitary task. Invite a few friends over to cook this coming weekend and then share in the bounty. McCary gets together with friends each month for an internationally themed dinner; they rotate hosts and everyone brings one or two dishes that yield sufficient leftovers for all of the guests. “Cooking with friends is a fun way to expand our cooking skills and repertoire while we get to taste traditional foods from all over the world,” says McCary. Because the goal is to make enough so that everyone can take home leftovers, remind your guests to bring containers for their share of the loot.

For future planning, Kruse recommends taking notes when a particular dish meets or exceeds your expectations. “If the kids don’t complain about the taste or if something is easier to make than anticipated, write down what worked and why, so you can replicate it.”

The good news is that once you adopt one or more of these tips, you won’t be sorry. “People don’t realize how much easier it really is to cook at home,” promises Anderson. “You just have to shift your priorities a little. Once you get into the groove, you’ll wonder how you ever spent so much time and money eating out.”

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