Meal planning for simple, quick, healthy cooking

AndieM.Ed., RD, LDN, CLC, RYT-200

And believe it or not, cooking family meals at home can be convenient. By making one meal that everyone eats together, you avoid becoming a short order cook which can add up to a lot more work (and stress!).

Cooking when you’re tired or limited to the use of one hand (because you’re holding that sweet baby), does have its challenges, but having a system in place for healthy eating will ensure you and your family are getting the good nutrition you need. Read below in the What to Do section for tips to build your confidence, save time and get a healthy meal on the table.

What to Do

Plan ahead for food shopping and preparation

Maintain a list of groceries you’ll need for meals each week, including highly perishables and other foods that need replenishing. Don’t wait until you’ve run out of something – when you begin to run low, add it to the list so you don’t find yourself in a bind. Think about whether keeping a list on your cell phone, a notepad or a white board in your kitchen will work best for you.

And remember that a meal doesn’t need to be prepared all at one time! If you are able, wash and chop veggies or measure items in advance. Store these pre-prepared items properly until you are ready to finish cooking the meal. Or better yet, inquire whether your grocer has a ‘produce butcher’ who will cut the fruits and vegetables you buy to your specifications while you finish up the rest of your shopping. Pre-chopped foods like sliced mushrooms, cubed butternut squash, pre-washed and chopped lettuce, and peeled garlic may cost slightly more than their whole counterparts, but the time-savings could make it worth your while. Many grocery stores even have fresh-chopped veggie medleys, or spiralized vegetables, that you can easily add to a meal.

Keep track of recipes that sound good to you as well as ones you’ve had success cooking and serving

Consider a grocery delivery service to save you a trip to the store

In addition to farmer’s markets, supermarkets and specialty stores, try one of the following grocery delivery services to help you get healthy foods into the house:

  • Community supported agriculture (more commonly known as a CSA), provides a weekly or bi-weekly delivery of seasonal, fresh produce direct from a farm or a group of farms.
  • Websites that enable you to shop from the comfort of your home, cell phone or office and choose a delivery window that works for you.
  • “Meal Kit” delivery services that provide all of the ingredients, in the required amounts, needed to put together a complete, healthy meal, which you cook at home following the instructions they provide.

Keep your kitchen stocked with healthy foods

Purchase these highly perishable foods weekly, if not more frequently:

  • Fresh produce, including herbs
  • Fresh and pre-cooked meat, poultry and chicken

Purchase these moderately perishable foods every few weeks, or more often if needed:

  • Eggs
  • Whole grain bread
  • Plain non-fat or low-fat yogurt and cottage cheese (or their dairy alternatives)
  • Cheese
  • Hummus
  • Tofu and tempeh
  • Pre-peeled whole garlic cloves
  • Miso
  • Other meats, such as deli cuts (but stick with low-sodium, nitrate-free varieties)

Purchase these non-perishable, frozen and refrigerated foods with longer shelf-lives as needed and keep them on hand at all times. Remember to read the packages to ensure proper storage and to determine when and whether items need to be refrigerated:

  • Shelf-stable milk and milk-alternatives like almond or soy milk in tetra-paks
  • Nuts and nut butters like peanut, almond, sunflower, or cashew
  • Dried beans (remember that lentils don’t need to be soaked before cooking)
  • Ready-to-eat canned beans – look for BPA-free cans or tetra-paks and “no salt added” on the label
  • Dried fruit – stick with varieties without added sugar
  • Frozen fruits, vegetables and grains
  • Refrigerated fermented foods such as kimchee and sauerkraut
  • Dried whole grains like quinoa, brown rice, buckwheat and millet
  • Whole grain pastas (and look for pastas made with legumes instead of grains, they’re high in protein and fiber!)
  • Whole grain flours, including corn meal
  • Hot cereals – choose varieties without added sugar
  • Cold cereals – look for varieties with at least 5 grams of fiber and less than 4 grams of sugar
  • Canned fish like tuna, salmon and sardines
  • Canned tomatoes, tomato paste, tomato sauce (low-sodium, low or no sugar varieties)
  • Olive oil and any other oils you enjoy
  • Dried herbs and spices, sun-dried tomatoes and seaweeds
  • Condiments like mustard, sriracha, hot sauce and vinegars
  • Jars of minced or chopped garlic and ginger
  • Olives in the can for your pantry, or marinated varieties for your fridge

Mix things up to encourage varied eating and avoid getting stuck in a cooking rut

Remember that babies and children often try new foods when paired with foods they already accept. So when you’re meal planning, make sure to include at least one food each family member enjoys (this can be as simple as placing whole grain bread on the table alongside your entrée). However, avoid offering alternatives for the main dish as this may send the message that you don’t expect your child to learn to like new foods.

Mixing things up can be as simple as swapping out one main ingredient for another. Your family loves roasted zucchini? Next time try roasted eggplant. Everyone loves potatoes? Try sweet potatoes, orange, white, purple or all three!

Also, re-think traditional mealtime favorites. Try making vegetable omelets or frittatas for dinner or avocado toast for lunch.

Have the right tools on hand to maximize efficiency

Consider purchasing a crockpot, which does most of the work for you by simmering healthy ingredients together over the course of the day.

Glass or BPA-free plastic storage containers will help you prepare ingredients in advance and tackle the leftovers.

And while certain foods like meat, fish and poultry should always be prepared by pan, oven, crockpot or grill, consider the microwave for potatoes, corn and defrosting frozen vegetables.

Cook one large portion and enjoy multiple homemade meals

Cooking large portions to have leftovers for the next day (or two!), or freezing for a later date, is a great trick for cutting down on the number of days you need to cook each week. Think of it as homemade convenience food!

You could even reuse the leftovers in a new way. For example, on the first day you could cook a whole chicken, on the second day you could use the leftovers to make chicken soup packed with veggies!

Try these quick and simple meal ideas

Home cooking through the ages is simple cooking, putting together whole ingredients with seasoning rather than creating a fancy feast. By saving the complicated or time-consuming recipes for special occasions (unless of course you’re an experienced cook), you’ll not only be helping family meals become a reality, you’ll be supporting good health and healthy taste development. There’s nothing wrong with seasoning foods with some good old extra virgin olive oil, lemon, a dash of salt, pepper, spices and dried or coarsely chopped fresh herbs and tossing them in the pot, the oven or on the grill to cook.

Here are some recipe ideas to try:

Quesadillas: whole wheat or corn tortillas with a sprinkling of melted cheese (like Monterrey Jack, Colby or cheddar), black beans, chopped tomatoes, sliced avocado and your favorite veggies like sautéed mushrooms or spinach (frozen spinach will work just fine!)

Spaghetti Squash: serve with pesto, cannellini beans and shaved parmesan (makes great leftovers!)

Fish Tacos: pan-sear any white, flaky fish and serve with soft or hard tacos, black beans, lettuce, tomato, avocado or guacamole and roasted vegetables like peppers, onions or zucchini (for added fun, serve as a do-it-yourself buffet and let your family build their own!)

Black bean burritos: Rinse and drain canned no-salt-added black beans, place in a pot and cover with water. Add spices of choice, such as garlic powder, oregano, salt, and pepper; bring to a boil then down to a simmer until water is almost all gone, stirring occasionally. Place in a whole wheat wrap and top with salsa, fresh cut tomatoes, cilantro, low fat plain Greek yogurt in place of sour cream (or low fat sour cream), cheese, and any other vegetables you like! Serve with fresh baby spinach or side salad and “dipping sauce” (oil-based salad dressing).

Salmon Burgers: use canned salmon with a small amount of mayonnaise or beaten egg to form patties, then pan-sear and serve on whole grain hamburger buns or bread. Serve with your favorite cooked vegetable or side salad.

Miso-Marinated Fish: marinate fish for 30 minutes (or up to 24 hours) in equal parts mixed mirin and miso with honey to taste and then broil. Serve with brown rice and sautéed spinach or roasted broccoli.

Quinoa Salad: toss quinoa with your favorite roasted vegetables (zucchini, summer squash, eggplant, tomatoes, mushrooms), green onions, dried cranberries, feta cheese and season with olive oil, lemon, salt and pepper. Serve hot or cold and make in bulk to enjoy as leftovers. For added protein, top with grilled chicken.

Korean Tofu: dry tofu, cut into pieces of desired size and pan-sear until golden brown. Serve with roasted eggplant and sweet potatoes and top with sauce (3 parts low sodium soy sauce to 1 part sesame oil, seasoned with garlic, cayenne pepper, ginger powder and honey to your liking).