Your busy family needs nourishing food to keep you healthy and energetic for all your activities! But sometimes a full schedule gets in the way of cooking every meal from scratch. Making the transition away from convenience foods can be the hardest part of healthier eating, but Kitchen Stewardship is all about finding practical alternatives to help healthy habits stick!
The secret to making real food convenient and affordable boils down to one crucial main idea:
Cook Once…Eat Twice…or More!
Whenever you can find time to cook, make more than enough food for that meal. Pack your leftovers in a way that’s useful to you: right-sized portions ready to grab and go.
The specifics depend on what you’re making and what you’ll need. Sometimes you’ll make a complete meal and pack single servings in containers you’ll eat from. Other times you’ll put each part of the meal in its own storage container and combine them when serving. Sometimes you’ll just chop or pre-cook one ingredient and set aside portions that will be easy to add to future meals.
Creamy lentil coconut curry with roasted vegetables is a delicious meal that takes at least an hour to prepare–so I roast all the vegetables I have, cook plenty of yummy hidden-lentil sauce, and boil a big pot of rice. When my 4-year-old Lydia was obsessed with eating salted raw eggplant, I set aside some of that, too.
One Sunday afternoon in the kitchen creates 5 types of food: an appealing dinner for the family, some leftovers for my partner’s lunches while working at home, some eggplant he can portion out for Lydia’s school lunches, some lunches I can take to work and microwave, and some extra roasted veggies for the freezer. (When I decided to make my next batch of curry, I thawed those veggies and simply dumped them into the sauce–no chopping, no bending over a hot oven!)
This simple strategy combines beautifully with another convenience: the slow cooker! You’re chopping vegetables and measuring ingredients late at night or first thing in the morning so that you can have a hot dinner at the end of a busy day.
Doubling the recipe won’t double the time or effort–it takes only a little extra because you’ve already got all the stuff out and you’re already going to have to wash your kitchen tools.
This is a great way to eat more high-fiber, inexpensive, gentle on the Earth, veggie-packed meals like split pea curry soup or ginger black bean soup or lentil sloppy joes. You can divide that food lots of ways:
- Serve some for dinner tonight.
- Pack some portions to take for lunch at work or school.
- Put aside another family dinner’s worth in the refrigerator. (Cooked bean dishes without meat or dairy generally stay fresh for a whole week in the refrigerator, so you can avoid complaints of, “We just had that!”)
- Freeze some for later. To thaw a bean dish on short notice, place the closed container in warm water for a few minutes, then push the beans out into a pot and place over low heat. Scrape off the outer surface as it softens. Dinner will be ready in 20 minutes or less!
Get more variety by serving the food a different way next time. Sloppy Joe in a bowl topped with cheese is a different meal from Sloppy Joe on a bun! Lentils cooked with garam masala and butter can be served with kale, onions, curried roasted tomatoes, and coconut milk today–and taste totally different with broccoli and yogurt tomorrow.
Even a solo eater with a tight schedule can use this strategy. Cut up enough veggies to fill your biggest cast-iron skillet, enjoy a hummus and vegetable flatbread sandwich, and put away a jar of veggies for later. The next night, make marinara sauce and cook extra whole-wheat pasta from GFS, and put away jars of each. On the third night, combine the veggies and the pasta in a totally different meal, sunflower pasta salad!
All three meals are quick and easy, with the last one requiring no cooking or chopping–just heat and eat! (And you’ll still have more homemade marinara sauce–refrigerate or freeze it until you have time to try one of Katie’s pizza crust recipes!)
Save Money on Workday Lunches!
For most of the past two decades, I worked in city neighborhoods packed with appealing restaurants where I could get a tasty lunch (often pretty healthy, too!) for not too much money. I used to go out to lunch at least once a week.
But a few months ago, I started a new job in an area that just doesn’t have good lunch spots nearby. It’s close to a supermarket that offers hot foods, salad bar, and sushi…but any of those comes in a big plastic box that will be garbage forever, and it costs as much as a restaurant, without even having a nice place to sit! I’ve been motivated to up my game, making sure I have food that I can bring for my lunch nearly every day.
One of my surprise favorites was a humble container of leftovers that I threw together just before our Thanksgiving trip: From three different dinners, we had small amounts of leftover baked ziti, steamed broccoli, and sautéed mushrooms. Knowing that any of these might get moldy in the fridge while we were away, I threw them together in a plastic bucket and stuck it in the freezer. That was my lunch the Monday after Thanksgiving, and it’s a combination I’m going to start making on purpose!
Another option, for foods that aren’t too wet and will be transported upright, is a glass bowl with a lid like I used for my stuffed shells. I have Pyrex bowls in 1-, 2-, and 4-cup sizes, and we use them constantly at home for serving foods that might not get finished in one meal–just pop the lid on and refrigerate! They’re ideal for setting out a meal with lots of components, like tacos or a baked potato bar.
But you don’t need special borosilicate glass for containers you’re going to reheat in a microwave. Regular glass jars work fine! (Just remember that any container can get hot in the microwave, and use a pot holder or napkin to pick it up.) I wash out jars from foods like salsa and nut butter, and each one can be used hundreds of times for storing and reheating leftovers.
Pack a Snack!
Katie has a zillion tips on bringing healthy food wherever you go! I’ll just share one example of how easy this can be.
My family has a membership in Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh. Each museum has at least one place where you can buy food (expensive, and not tasty or healthy enough for the price) or you can sit at a table to eat food you brought. Recently, we ate lunch just before leaving for Carnegie Science Center–but Lydia didn’t eat much. I knew she was going to get very hungry before we got home, and the rest of us probably would feel a bit snackish, too.
I made a sandwich of pure peanut butter from the bulk section at the food co-op and juice-sweetened organic strawberry jam on whole-wheat bread. I grabbed a bag of grapes left over from church coffee hour and two clementines. I put everything into a cloth tote bag, and it was so lightweight that I barely noticed I was carrying it around the Science Center. It all got eaten except for one clementine.
What I forgot to bring were cups for water–next time I will! We drink more water when we can fill a cup than when we’re bending over the drinking fountain, and staying hydrated helps us stay cheerful and energetic!
If taking real food on the go is a challenge for you, you’re not alone.
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The Store-Bought Convenience Food You Don’t Have to Give Up
Save time without sacrificing nutrition or spending a lot of money: Use frozen vegetables sometimes! Having clean, pre-cut veggies ready to use at a moment’s notice can help you waste less food and eat more veggies.
Frozen vegetables are at least as nutritious as fresh ones, sometimes better. The environmental impact of frozen veggies is similar to canned, especially if you store your veggies for less than 3 months and choose a bag that can be recycled in a plastic film recycling bin (don’t put it in your curbside recycling!). Buying frozen veggies is a convenience you don’t need to feel guilty about!
When you can spare a little time, though, it’s great for the environment and your budget to make your own frozen veggies (for your convenience later) using locally-grown vegetables when they’re in season and cheap! Freezing is easier than you might think. I love being able to decide what size bags to make!
One of my favorite vegetables to freeze is zucchini, which is ridiculously abundant in the summer, whereas in winter it’s imported long distances and sprayed with chemicals and just doesn’t taste as good. I freeze 4-cup bags and then bake whole-wheat zucchini bread 4 loaves at a time because that’s how many loaf pans I have and the oven can bake 4 loaves at once with the same energy it uses to bake just one.
Six zucchini from a local organic farm turned into 4 loaves of zucchini bread that day and 12 more loaves in the future, plus 2 cups of zucchini that I tossed into my next pan of sautéed vegetables.
Zucchini bread or any quick bread is great with soup–like one of those bean soups you froze! You don’t have to do the baking and the soup-making on the same day when you make wise use of your freezer!