By Lori Meszaros, Former ASU Nutrition Communications student
We’ve all been there, wanting to cook a healthy meal but home too late to even think about it. Who wants to spend hours in the kitchen preparing, cooking and then cleaning up after a long day? We often turn to unhealthy takeout or prepared meals at the local grocery store. These meals are loaded with extra calories, fat, and salt which makes it hard to stay on track and stick to eating healthy. However, if you follow these simple tips, you too can cook a healthy meal in less time than it takes to steam rice or boil pasta.
If you’re anything like me, meal planning isn’t something you like to do. I’m more of a cook- on-a-whim kind of person, making whatever I’m in the mood for that day. This can pose a bit of a problem sometimes, but a little bit of planning on the weekend can help keep you on track with healthy eating.
Pre-cut your veggies
After your weekend trip to your local farmer’s market or grocery store, bring home your bountiful veggie harvest, rinse and pre-cut the veggies to store for use through the week. Buying veggies and spending a little time getting them ready on the weekend will not only save you time in the kitchen during the week but also save you money. Pre-cut veggies can be expensive and you’re never sure how old they really are. Home-cut veggies can be stored in plastic zip bags, plastic or glass container and kept fresh through the week. Just place a dry paper towel in the bottom of the container to trap any extra moisture or gently pat dry if storing in a zip bag.
The USDA recommends eating at least 3 servings of vegetables a day as part of an overall healthy diet, and that eating more vegetables may also help reduce the amount of calories you eat in a meal. Vegetables are a good source of fiber, low in fat and calories, and an important source of many vitamins and minerals.
Having pre-cut veggies on hand makes it easy to throw some into a quick stir-fry, have as a quick healthy snack or toss with some olive oil to roast. Roasting vegetables brings out the sweetness in them by what is called dextrinization- browning of the starch that gives foods a sweet taste. Try tossing veggies with a little olive oil, some seasoning then roast on a lined baking sheet at 400F for about 10-15 minutes or until tender. Roasted veggies make a great addition to a salad or as a side dish.
Batch cook rice, quinoa or pasta
Cooking rice, quinoa or pasta can be time-consuming and after a long day who has wants to spend hours in the kitchen cooking? Batch cooking over the weekend will have you cooking up healthy 15-minute meals to impress your family just like those celebrity chefs Racheal Ray and Jamie Oliver.
Cook rice, quinoa or pasta over the weekend and store in containers for up to one week. If you find yourself not using all of the food you batch cooked, you can store them in the freezer for up to 6 months. Just defrost in the refrigerator the day before you plan to use them again.
- Rice and quinoa can be stored in a glass container right after cooking.
- Toss pasta with a little olive oil before storing in a container to prevent from sticking.
Rice and quinoa can be tossed into a simple stir-fry with some chopped veggies and pasta can be reheated in a little boiling water in only 1-2 minutes.
The USDA recommends eating 1 ½-2 cups of grains per day as part of a healthy diet. Eating whole grains like brown rice, whole wheat pasta or quinoa provides your body with many beneficial nutrients that are stripped away from refined wheat products. Whole grains are an excellent source of fiber, several B vitamins and minerals. B vitamins are an essential for energy, a healthy nervous system and play a role in metabolizing your food by helping your body release the energy from protein, fat, and carbohydrates in the foods you eat.
Legumes, like beans and chickpeas can take hours to cook. Presoaking the legume can help cut cooking time in half, and batch cooking on the weekend can eliminate the need to even turn on the stove.
Over the weekend, prepare the beans first by soaking overnight. The next day, begin cooking the beans you plan to use for the week. If you plan right, you can have a few things cooking at the same time. Just make sure to cool the legumes to room temperature before you store them, otherwise they may turn bad in a few days. If cooled properly and stored in an air-tight container, legumes will keep for up to one week in the refrigerator and up to 3 months in the freezer.
Legumes are a unique food because they can be counted as both a protein and a vegetable in your diet. Legumes are packed with nutrients and have many benefits to your health such as reducing your risk of heart disease, stroke, and certain cancers. Adding legumes to your diet is a great way to get in plant-based proteins that are loaded with fiber.
Freezing vegetables is one way to be sure to always have produce on hand when you’re short on time and are the next best thing to fresh. They’re usually picked at the peak and then quickly flash frozen, preserving most of the nutrients. Just like store-bought pre-cut veggies, frozen veggies can be a bit more expensive, so why not put a little time aside on a weekend to make your own.
Next time you’re buying veggies at the farmer’s market, buy a little extra of whatever is in season, and instead of storing the pre-cut veggies in the refrigerator, blanch some (that is dropping veggies into boiling water for 30 seconds- 1 minute). After blanching the veggies, remove them from boiling water and drop them into ice water to stop the cooking process. Pat dry, then spread on a baking sheet to freeze for at least 2 hours before storing in a plastic bag.
Arizona grows some of the best sweet corn in the country and you can find it in season at your local farmer’s market or grocery stores from June to October. But what about the rest of the year? Stocking up on AZ finest sweet corn when it’s in season and freezing it for those recipes you can’t live without in the winter is the best way to enjoy those tasty kernels year round. Just cut kernels off the cob raw, or either after grilling on the BBQ or blanching, then spread them on a lined baking sheet in the freezer for at least 2 hours before storing in a plastic bag.
Frozen corn can be added to many dishes; I’ve even added one of my favorites below or you can check out Fill Your Plate for more yummy Arizona sweet corn recipes.
Sweet corn is another one of those amazing foods that can be considered a vegetable, a grain and a fruit. Usually, corn is eaten as a vegetable and has many of the health benefits of vegetables. Sweet corn is a rich source of B vitamins, vitamin C, phosphorus, manganese, folate and dietary fiber. One serving of sweet corn contains 3 grams of your daily fiber needs.
Eating healthy is much easier when you have a well-stocked refrigerator. By taking an hour or two over the weekend to prepare, you too can be cooking healthy meals in as little as 15 minutes. Here’s one of my personal favorite go to recipes that take less than 15 minutes to prepare.
Black Bean and Quinoa Salad
1 cup frozen corn (fresh is always better, but who has the time tonight!)
1 small red onion, diced
1-2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 red sweet pepper, diced
1 zucchini, chopped (optional)
1 can black beans, rinsed and drained
1 cup cooked quinoa (you can use rice if you prefer)
1 lime, juiced
Handful of cilantro, chopped
How to prepare
- Heat a skillet over medium-high heat and dry sauté (no oil) the corn with chili powder, cumin and coriander until it begins to brown, tossing to prevent sticking, about 2-4 mins.
- Add in the onion, garlic, and red pepper and sauté another 1-2 mins.
- Add the black beans and toss to heat. (Note- do not cook black beans, just toss them in the mixture and turn off heat.)
- Remove from heat and add the cooked quinoa (or rice), lime juice and coriander and mix until all ingredients are combined.
- Garnish with fresh avocado, tomato, cilantro and a lime wedge.
This can be served warm or cold. I served mine with organic blue corn chips and avocado. This salad also makes a great filling for other dishes you can find on my recipe blog, like my Taco Omelet or Black Bean Quinoa Stuffed Portabella’s.
Remember to go to Fill Your Plate for recipes from Arizona Farmers and Ranchers.