Easy Healthy Cooking for Busy People
I used to think that healthy cooking was too much trouble. And that there was no such thing as easy healthy cooking for busy people.
Back when my wife and I were working on our careers, spending hours commuting, raising five children, and everything else, we did not put as much thought into how we ate as we should have.
The food industry does not help either. They promote easy, convenient food products for people on the run. The focus is on fast, not fresh. Back in my project management days, I learned the product constraints formula as shown below.
The idea is that you can pick any two sides of the triangle. And the third side won’t happen. You can develop a good and cheap product, but it won’t be fast. Or you could pick a good and fast product, but it won’t be cheap. And, finally, you could pick a cheap and fast one, but it won’t be good.
In other words, we were sacrificing our health by eating fast and cheap food. Our food choices were based more on convenience than quality.
Introduction – Healthy Cooking Does NOT Need To Be Complicated
One of the biggest reasons we gave for not eating healthy is that we are too busy. I thought eating healthy is complicated. It takes a lot of time to shop for and prepare. It’s expensive too. …at least that’s what the food industry wants you to think.
I found that eating healthy is just as easy, and maybe easier, than eating unhealthy food. And depending on how you shop, eating healthy can save you some money. It doesn’t have to be complicated.
Think about this…
You can waste 10-15 minutes in drive through or take out line to pay upwards of $7 for a burger, fries and a drink. You can wait 30 minutes to an hour for a $15-20 pizza. The next time you are hungry, you spend that same amount of time and money to eat out again. Alternately, you could cook one healthy dish for about the same cost as that pizza and you can get up to 4 meals from it.
Here is something else to think about the next time you order a Papa John’s pizza. Pizza Hut sued Papa John’s almost 20 years ago for the “better ingredients, better pizza” slogan Papa John’s was using. Pizza Hut claimed there was no proof that the ingredients were better. Thus, it was false advertising. Papa John’s version is that the slogan is just an opinion not to be taken as literal fact. After all the litigation and appeals, Papa John’s won. You’ve seen commercials where a company claims to have the “best” whatever. “Best” can be used without having to backup their statement. However, when companies use “better,” they “better” have proof to substantiate their claim, or risk getting into another heated lawsuit.
The point I am making is if you want to eat healthy, then cook healthy. It sounds impossible but it’s true. Hopefully, I will show you easy healthy cooking.
So let’s start with the 3 P’s which are the foundation of simple healthy eating. And yes, it tastes great too.
Part One: The 3 P’s What They Are and Why They Are Important
The 3 P’s are the foundation of quick and easy meals that are healthy and uncomplicated. By uncomplicated, I mean that you won’t be spending hours in the kitchen each night preparing dinner. You also won’t be spending hundreds of additional dollars at the supermarket on your new shopping list.
In fact, consider taking a look at your last few grocery bills and add up the time it took you each day to get food on the table. When you’re done with this first week of healthy cooking, compare the time and money spent. I think you’ll be surprised. I was! So let’s take a closer look at what the 3 P’s mean and why they’re so important to your healthy cooking success.
Planning, Preparation, and Patience/Persistence
I hate to be “preachy.”
But it took me awhile to understand how important this is to saving time and money. And, more importantly, for improving our eating and heath.
The 3 P’s of healthy cooking are planning, preparation, and patience or persistence. They each play an important role in your healthy cooking lifestyle change. Planning is exactly what it sounds like. You’ll want to plan your meals each week. Planning helps you stay focused on your goals. It also makes healthy eating a no-brainer.
Planning includes choosing recipes, making a list, and shopping for your meals. And when all of that is taken care of in a systematic and organized way, then eating healthy is super easy. And no, you won’t be eating only salads this week. Though, those are easy to prepare and healthy. You’ll be enjoying things like enchiladas and meatloaf and pork roast. And it’ll be easy. Promise.
Without planning for your meals in advance, it’s easy to fall back on take out and cereal or french toast for dinner. I have been there and done that! Planning your meals means that you have food ready when you are hungry and the vending machine, delivery guys and drive through windows are easier to avoid.
So what is the “preparation” part of the 3 P’s?
Preparation (“prepping”) means that you do some of the meal work in advance and I will talk in a bit more detail about what that means. Prepping can be anything from making your meals on the weekend to using a crock pot, to chopping, dicing, and slicing in advance so that when you get home from a long day, you just have to toss it all in a pan. And there are many fun tricks and appliances to help you get the job done.
Now let’s talk about the patience and persistence factor. Because making any change to your lifestyle and your habits, good or bad, is difficult. There will be days where you will probably have a fully prepared meal ready at home and you’ll swing through the drive through anyway. It took me a little while to get this down. But it got easier over time. (Hint: I learned to make extra portions. Because some days, schedules or plans change. Or one of the kids decides he wants to eat a leftover that is planned for the next day.)
There will be days when you just don’t feel like making lists or shopping. Forgive yourself for those days. You’re not perfect. And get back to your healthy cooking plan. Experts say it takes a few weeks to create a new habit. Give yourself the time to adapt to your new routine. You will have bumps in the road and that’s okay. Just get back to it. We’ll talk about how to make the patience and persistence component of your healthy cooking plan easier in a little while.
So let’s get started with the first P, Planning.
Part Two: Planning
As you might suspect, planning plays an important role in cooking healthy meals. You need to choose recipes, make lists, buy the ingredients and more. Rather than tell you how to do all of these steps, we’re going to offer a nice list of planning tips. You can then take what feels right for your family and situation and apply them to your new routine. I found that a little up front planning saved time later.
Choosing Your Recipes
- Find Your Favorite Resources. There are many blogs, cookbooks, and recipe resources available. Find a few resources and bookmark them. These will become your go to recipe sources. You might want to bookmark some recipes to try each week. One of my favorites is Michelle Tam’s Nom Nom Paleo.
- Keep it Simple. Great recipes don’t have to take hours to prepare. Sure Julia Child’s boeuf bourguignon is amazing but it’s not practice for a weekday dinner because it takes several hours to prepare. Our my wife’s Vietnamese Pho which takes a couple of days. (Overnight to make the broth.) Look for recipes that you can prepare in advance or that take less than 20 minutes to cook. We’re talking about one pot meals, crockpot meals and more. We’ll cover this concept in a bit more detail in the “Preparation” section.
- Add One New Recipe Each Week. After a few weeks of making lists and preparing your meals, you may get into a rut. When you do, your new healthy cooking habit may begin to feel less fun. To combat this, try adding at least one new recipe each week. later, I have some tips for doing this.
- Choose recipes that are well rounded. Look for recipes that have a good amount of protein, vegetables, and whole grains. These will provide you with better nutrition with less work.
- Choose Recipes for Meals and Snacks. Yes, there are three meals a day. There are also snacks. Snack time is the time when many people get too busy to eat healthy. If you include snacks into your healthy cooking plan then you’ll avoid this trap.
- Use the Store’s Flyer. Your local markets have weekly flyers. They showcase the items that are on sale each week. These sales often reflect seasonal produce. For example, in the fall apples will be on sale. In the springtime, citrus will be on sale and so on.
You can choose some of your recipes based on what’s on sale and what’s seasonal. This can be a significant money saver when you’re looking at things like meat and dairy.
Organizing Your Recipes
There are many different ways to organize your recipes. There is the good old fashioned recipe box full of index cards. You can also print off your recipes and keep them in three ring binders. However, technology offers you a few options too.
- Create Your Own Private Recipe Blog. Blogs don’t have to be public. You can create a blog for your family recipes and make it private. You can then cut and paste your favorite recipes into new posts, categorize them, add links and pictures. You can customize the site however it works best for you.
- Use Pinterest for Storing Recipes. Did you know you can create private boards on Pinterest? If you enjoy that social networking site, you can create private boards with your favorite recipes. There are gazillions of recipes on Pinterest.
- Leverage Recipe Software. There are recipe organization software systems that you can purchase. They also often come with mobile applications so you can access recipes whenever and wherever you are. Some software to consider include:
- Master Cook
- Cook’n Recipe Organizer (available from Amazon)
- Big Oven
- Chef Tap
- Paprika Recipe Manager
- Real Plans (I am currently using Real Plans as it helps me plan, schedule, and shop for food products on a weekly basis.)
(You can also create your own recipe file with online applications like Evernote and Penzu. They can be used to take notes, capture text, pictures, and then share with mobile and desktop systems. I use Penzu and created a Recipes journal to capture recipes I like or want to try.)
Here is an example of a recipe I copied and pasted into my Penzu recipe journal.
Make a List
From your selected recipes, you’ll want to make a shopping list. The list will ensure you have everything you need which, of course, makes it easier to follow through with your healthy cooking plans. It also makes it easier to save money, shop smartly, and save time.
- Cut and Paste. If you’re using online recipe resources like blogs, then making a list is quick and easy. Simply cut and paste the ingredients you need into a word processing document. You can then edit as you like.
For example, if you have a recipe on Monday that needs carrots and you have a recipe on Thursday that needs carrots, well you don’t need to buy carrots twice. Just delete one of the list items and make sure that you buy enough for both recipes.
- Organize by Department. Your supermarket is organized by department so why not organize your list by department too? For example, group all of your produce together, your dairy and bulk items and so on. It makes your shopping much more efficient.
- Stick to Your List. One of the benefits of making a list is that it holds you accountable. You don’t have to think about what you’re buying, and not buying. It helps you avoid placing junk into your cart on an impulse.
Shopping is part of the process of planning your meals and it makes good sense to plan your shopping too. After all, if you can make this part of your healthy cooking plan easy, then the rest may fall into place.
- Weekly or Biweekly? Sometimes it feels too overwhelming to buy an entire week’s worth of groceries in one trip. And to be fair, sometimes produce that you buy on Sunday doesn’t last until Saturday. You’ll have to decide if you shop for groceries weekly or twice a week.
Keep in mind that some stores release their sale prices on specific days and the sale prices overlap that day. Wednesdays are often a good day for sticking to your grocery budget. Also, you may find that shopping on the weekend works for you because you’re busy during the week and just don’t have time to shop. You may want to try a few different approaches to find what shopping schedule works best for you.
- Local Markets or Big Box Chains. There are different reasons to shop at different stores. When it comes to food and produce, you may find that you get better prices and better produce at your local market. And during the summertime you may enjoy your local farmer’s market. My wife and her best friend will make a day trip to an Amish farm to buy fresh whole chickens and cartons of eggs by the box load. Eggs stored in the refrigerator at a temperature under 40 degF will last 4-5 weeks. Eggs purchased in a grocery store will last up to 3 weeks given transportation and handling involved.
Of course big box grocery stores have their benefits too. You might find that you hit two or three different stores each week. And if it’s easier, you might consider having the supermarket deliver your groceries to you. They often do it for a very small fee, some around $5.
Okay, we’ve covered a myriad of tips for planning. So now that you have a refrigerator full of produce and a week’s worth of recipes what’s next?
Part Three: Preparation
Preparation is a key component to your success. A great plan in place is the start. However, if you don’t take the time to prepare your meals with some strategy, then you may be right back where you started, no time to cook. The following tips will help you succeed.
Make Ahead/Prep Ahead
There are different ways that you can get prepared for the week. One of the steps you can take is to chop and do your prep work in advance. For example, if you’re making a stir fry or a curry you can prepare the veggies on the weekend and store them in airtight containers. This works well for a variety of recipes.
Buy prepared. You can buy some of your ingredients prepared. For example, you can buy sliced mushrooms instead of whole ones. You can buy herbs in paste or tube. So you don’t have to hunt for fresh and your herbs are always ready to use. No mortar and pestle required. Here’s an example of what we’re talking about. http://www.gourmetgarden.com/en-us
Make Ahead and Freeze
Some meals can be made in advance and frozen. For example, casseroles work really well as make ahead meals. You can freeze them and then when you’re ready to have them for dinner, just pop them in the refrigerator in the morning to thaw out. When you get home, reheat and you’re good to go.
And think beyond tuna noodle casserole. For example, there are great, and healthy, recipes to consider like veggie lasagna and chicken enchiladas. Broccoli, beef, and potato casserole is one example of how you can get a whole meal in one dish. And curry casseroles with rice are fun to try too. Our kids like the chicken tikka masala I make in our Instant Pot. So I have learned to make extra!
You might be surprised to learn that you can also make ahead and prepare your breakfast. You can refrigerate or freeze them depending on the recipe. One example is to make a large batch of breakfast burritos or hash brown muffins on the weekend and then wrap them individually with parchment paper and freeze them. In the morning, you just thaw them in the microwave, reheat and enjoy with the family or on the go. Whole grain waffles can be made ahead and frozen and then popped in the toaster in the morning.
Muffins, egg cups, and steel cut oats can all be made in advance and stored in single servings. You can then simply reheat in the morning. It’s a healthy breakfast in less than five minutes.
If you prefer a smoothie, then why not prepare your smoothie ingredients on the weekends. Place each smoothie’s diced fruit and/or veggies into a baggie and freeze. I usually have a bag or two of cut bananas in the freezer to add to my smoothie. In the morning, add your fruit to your milk of choice in the blender; blend and enjoy. You can take it with you on your way out the door.
There are a number of different ways to start the day off right with a healthy breakfast and do it in just a few quick minutes. There really isn’t any reason not to. And of course other meals can be made ahead and refrigerated or frozen until you need them.
For example, you can roast two chickens on the weekend. One is for Sunday dinner and the other can be diced up and used for chicken salad, stir fry, curry or a chicken casserole during the week. It’s all about planning in advance and setting aside a little time to prepare. Of course, some handy appliances can really help too.
Time Saving Kitchen Appliances
Let’s talk about the different time saving healthy cooking appliances that can make your life a whole lot easier. You’re probably already familiar with the crockpot or slow cooker. A crockpot is excellent for making things like chili and stew. But you can also use a crockpot to make a roast, enchiladas and all sorts of dishes. This is a healthy cooking appliance that can literally change how you eat.
Another quick cooking appliance you might want to consider adding to your kitchen is a pressure cooker. Did you know you can cook chicken fricassee in the pressure cooker? You can also use it to make beans, whole grains, soups, and broths. Many people think pressure cookers are a bit old-fashioned. However, you can use them to make a number of very trendy meals like bone broths. Our Instant Pot is easy to use!
And the pressure cooker can prepare a meal in a tenth of the time that it might take to prepare in the oven. Today’s pressure cookers are digital too so you don’t have to worry about pressure building up or having any accidents. They’re much safer than they used to be.
Another appliance you might not have considered is the handy-dandy rice steamer or cooker. We have two! Did you know you can make an entire meal in a rice cooker? In a rice cooker all you have to do is dump your ingredients in and push a button. Twenty minutes later the meal is done.
It’s the same for pressure cookers, crock pots and other handy kitchen appliances. You can have healthy food waiting for you when you get home. It just doesn’t get any easier than that.
Part Four: Patience and Persistence
Any new habit takes time to integrate into your life. And healthy cooking requires you to adopt a few new habits. Steps like making a meal plan, going shopping, and preparing the meals are all new habits and they take a little bit of time to build. Any tip or tactic you can use to help you stick with your plan is a good one. Let’s take a look at a few to consider.
- Maximize your time. Find time in your day to make your meal plan and your lists. You might be able to fit it in as you eat your lunch on Monday or you can dictate your shopping list as you commute. There are little bits of time during the week to take care of the planning portion of your healthy cooking lifestyle.
- Get the family involved. If you live with roommates, have children or a significant other then get them involved in the process. Ask them to choose meals, to create lists, and to help with the meal prep. You can assign each family member a meal that they’re responsible for. You can swap weeks or nights with your roommate or significant other. There are many different ways to get everyone involved. This way it’s more fun and you don’t have to do it all yourself.
- Have fun with it. Try new foods. Enjoy foods from other cultures. There are so many different grains, fruits, and vegetables that you could easily try something new each week. You can make a game of it. Eating should be fun and healthy food should taste great. Sure, you may choose some recipes that don’t work out. However, that’s part of the process. You’ll learn what works best for you.
- Create systems that support you. We’ve talked about technology and tools to help you plan and prepare your meals. Find the best technology and system for you. It might be pencil and paper and your grandmother’s cookbook or it might be an online note taking system and a subscription to a dozen healthy eating recipe resources. The approach doesn’t matter as long as it’s one that supports you and that you will follow through on.
Okay, we’ve covered the 3 P’s and you now have a solid framework to begin cooking healthy meals at home, eating better, and feeling better. In the last section of this book we’ll talk about getting started. This is where you’ll find your meal plan, recipes and your shopping list. It’s exactly what you need to kick off your new healthy cooking lifestyle.
Part Five: Getting Started
Sometimes, easy healthy cooking for busy people is the hardest step.
But you can do it!
If you look at your weekly schedule, when do you think you will plan your meals for the upcoming week? When do you think you’ll go shopping and how often? And what will you do to prepare your meals in advance or to make meal preparation easier at meal time?
It makes sense to start thinking about those things now. Consider how you’ll organize your recipes; make your lists and what tools and technologies you will leverage.
If you have comments, any questions or wish to share your experience with cooking healthy, please share by leaving a comment below. I would love to see it! Thanks!