Always scrambling for time in the kitchen? Or swapping your meal plan for take-out menus, when time runs tight? We feel you. Yet evidence suggests that people who frequently cook meals at home consume less sugar and fat than those who don’t cook as often. And there’s no doubt that dining in makes it easier to control exactly how each meal is prepped.
It is possible to make your cooking goals and time-strapped reality align, says Cambridge, Massachusetts-based nutritionist Sarah Patten, RD. “If you want to eat more home-cooked meals, taking shortcuts and doing some prep ahead of time will set you up for success.”
You can add herbs (and flavor!) to pasta or roast veggies in a matter of minutes, if you have pesto handy. Making it is easier than you think, and standard basil can be swapped for any sort of tender herb or greens (parsley, arugula, kale, cilantro, spinach, you name it). Once you’ve made a batch, pour it into ice cube trays to freeze, then store in an airtight freezer bag, says LeeAnn Weintraub, RD, an LA-based dietitian. When you’re ready to cook, just thaw the pesto in the microwave and slather on anything from chicken breasts to cubed sweet potatoes before cooking.
“Getting home starving at the end of the day can be extra frustrating when you have to wait for your rice or other grain to finally be done cooking!” says Patten. “One thing I like to do to avoid getting hangry from a long wait time is to make large batches of rice, quinoa, barley, and farro every few weeks, and then freeze them in 1- to 2- cup portions.” Cook the grain like usual, allow it to cool, and then place each portion in a freezer bag. “If you flatten the bag, you can stack a bunch in your freezer without taking up a ton of space,” she says.
When you want to dine in a hurry, grab a bag from the freezer and either thaw in the microwave or in a saucepan filled with water over low heat for a few minutes. The grains provide a fiber-rich base for a nutritious and filling meal. Add some poppable pesto with your favorite veggie or protein and dinner’s done.
If time is what’s standing between you and a proper breakfast, Weintraub has a no-cook solution: overnight oats. “A batch of one cup of plain oats with one cup of dairy or non-dairy milk will make three to four portions,” she says—enough to feed the whole family or stretch across multiple days. Prep the oats in individual containers before storing them in the fridge overnight, and you won’t even have to spend time dishing up breakfast when you’re in a rush. Top with nuts and fruit for a healthy and filling breakfast.
Make-Ahead Smoothie Kits
Smoothies aren’t just quick and portable—they can also be a way to get more fruits and veggies into your diet. Just keep in mind that you want to pack in the produce, while being mindful of add-ins like nut butters, milk, and yogurt, says Beth Reardon, RD, a Boston-based nutritionist. None of those ingredients is off-limits, but the calories can quickly add up.
When time is tight, most people are loathe to break out the blender and start chopping up multiple types of produce. So, Reardon does that work on Sunday night. “I measure and prep a week’s worth of smoothie ingredients—anything from kale, spinach, and cucumber to flax seeds and chia seeds to strawberries and melon—and then portion them into bags in the freezer,” she says. When she wants a smoothie for breakfast or a light lunch, prepping is as easy as dumping the contents and some water into the blender and hitting puree.
DIY Spice Mix
If the thought of pulling out six spice bottles and a set of measuring spoons for tonight’s soup recipe is enough to make you head to the nearest drive-thru, try this: Over the weekend, take a few minutes to measure out spices for each of the meals you’re planning to make this week into individual bags or small containers, suggests Reardon. (Just be sure to label each DIY mix!). When you’re ready to cook, adding the spices will be as easy as dumping—no bottle-hunting or clean-up required.
As soon as you get home from the grocery store, wash and chop your veggies for the week, suggests Boston-based nutritionist Lexy Penney, RD. Onions, peppers, broccoli, zucchini, cauliflower (and most other vegetables) can be chopped and stored in a container in the refrigerator for five days or more. Then, making a meal-worthy salad or wrap is as easy as pilfering the fridge, rather than dragging out the peeler and cutting board.
You can also roast vegetables days in advance (a drizzle of olive oil and 30 to 40 minutes at 375 degrees should do the trick), and then reheat—or enjoy at room temperature—throughout the week, says Reardon. “You can add them to burritos and chicken pot pies, or eat them as a side dish, and a roasted vegetable mix is a great way to use up that one extra carrot or handle of mushrooms you didn’t need for another recipe.”
Double Up Dinners
One often-overlooked way to cook less frequently while still enjoying just as many home-cooked meals is to double up your recipe when you do hit the stove, says Weintraub. Whether it’s bean soup or lasagna, veggie burgers or a spinach tart—make two meals’ worth of the freezer-friendly recipe and store one for another night. (You might be able to freeze more than you think—and the meal isn’t any less nutritious just because it spent some time on ice.) A family fave that you can reheat and repeat? Yes, please!
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