Busy, busy, busy. It seems to be the theme of our first-world existence. When talking with people about nutrition, exercise, and even reading books, I often hear “oh I just don’t have time to (cook from scratch, fit in exercise, finish a novel…).” I get it. We are busy. But I think it is about priorities. I could blather on about how upside down priorities seem to be in our lives, but I’ll spare you the diatribe. Instead, I’ll just say this… “The key is not to prioritize your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.” Ok, I didn’t say that, Stephen Covey said that. If you make something a priority in your life, boom, suddenly you have time for it. Unfortunately I think we often dole out our time like it’s a super size free-refill tumbler of pop from 7-11, not thinking that ultimately it will run out, and if we fill that tumbler with things that don’t really enrich our life, we will be left at the end of the day with hiccups and a belly ache (did you follow that metaphor? Cause I admit it was kind of a strange one…) Anywho, figure out your priorities, schedule them into your life, and somehow the kids still make it to soccer on time and eventually you’ll still get that kitchen floor cleaned. And if you miss a few facebook posts, you’re not any poorer for it.
There are some ways though to save a little time and still cook healthy. The key is planning. Figure out the best time of week for you to cook ahead–for many of us it is on the weekend, but for some it may be a weekday morning when the house is quiet. Gather your supplies ahead of time–at least for me, doing a big shopping trip and then coming home to cook multiple dishes is a recipe for disaster. Optimally, I like to shop the day before I do a big cooking marathon. You can also take some time to plan around what’s on sale, who’s home for dinner on what nights, and what food is already in the house that you need to use up.
Before you jump in to cooking, line up your meals for the week and figure out what can be prepped ahead of time. Pull out your food processor, knives, and cutting board. Prep veggies for recipes and salads. You can chop up salad fixings and store them in plastic containers for the week to make it easy to reach into the fridge and have a salad on the table quickly. Wash greens for salads and store in zip top bags to have those ready to go. Make a batch of homemade salad dressing–double it if you need to–and have it on hand for the week. Trying out different dressings and having colorful salad ingredients at your fingertips can really make it easier to stick to healthy nutrition.
Beans fill your tummy when you are on a plant-based diet, giving you protein and fiber, and giving a meal “staying power.” You have a couple of options for beans. You can certainly buy canned, in which case I would recommend looking for the low sodium beans. Better yet, you can cook dry beans from scratch. This will save you cash–they are about 1/3 of the price–and you get to control exactly what goes into them. Plus some recipes may call for beans that are a bit firmer, and you really can’t control that from a can. Beans are actually super easy to cook, they just take some time. If you plan ahead, you can make a big batch of them on a day when you have time, then portion them into containers (1.5 cups plus some of the cooking liquid works well, that is about the same as what is in a can and most recipes follow “can” amounts). Those cooked beans will keep several days in the fridge, or can be frozen for use later.
If you’ll be using beans on salad, you may want to mince some onion and pepper, add it to about a can’s worth of any kind of bean, and throw in some vinegar. This will make a nice marinated bean salad to throw on top of greens.
If breakfast means smoothies, plan to have frozen fruit on hand. You can buy frozen fruit, but don’t forget that you can freeze your own when items are in season and on sale. Right now I have 5 pineapples sitting on my counter waiting to be sliced up and frozen. They were a buck a piece. Strawberries, blueberries, and sliced peaches are all easy to freeze flat on a cookie sheet and then throw into a ziplock bag for storage. Prep greens for smoothies ahead of time–wash them and bag them up, and if you don’t have a high power blender take out the center “vein” of kale or other tougher greens. You can even make smoothies the night before and then give them a good shake in the morning–I don’t like to do this as I like to add a lot of ice to mine and the water tends to then separate–but if you don’t ice them down, try it. I know other people who make them ahead, store them in a “drink and pour” type container, and then just grab them on the way out the door in the morning.
Soups? Make them ahead and store them in the fridge–better yet, double or triple the recipe and store servings in the freezer (this works well with everything except cream-based soups, and you’re not eating those anymore, right?). If you are making soup with rice or pasta in it ahead of time and storing in the fridge, keep the grains/pasta to the side, otherwise they tend to soak up too much of the broth. You can cook those and keep them separate, then stir them in before heating and serving. Keep homemade veggie stock in the freezer and you can put together soups in no time flat.
Try to think about other dishes that freeze well. Casseroles, curries, pasta sauces, bean burger patties, nut-based cheeses, and homemade baked goods all freeze and re-heat well. It is often not much more work to double or triple a recipe and put some away in the freezer. Be sure to mark your freezer containers with contents and date (yes, I know we all have some mysterious items lurking in the back of the freezer… that is not a good use of your cooking time!). And most foods are best if eaten in the not-too-distant future, so be sure to plan to rotate your frozen meals into your menu plan.
These are just a few tips and tricks to getting nutritious meals on the table faster with a little advance effort. I’m sure you have your own tips… please share them below!