This post is from contributing writer Becca Stallings of The Earthling’s Handbook, with photography assistance from her son Nicholas Efran.
You’ve got a million things to do this week! How can you find time to cook?
Without easy real food shortcuts it’s tempting to just fix some nachos, order pizza, or grab take-out as you race from one errand to the next.
But it’s when you’re at your most busy and stressed that you most need healthy food. Putting in a little time in the kitchen will pay off.
Like Katie’s tips for busy moms who want a real food breakfast, here are a few simple meal prep shortcuts to make that time stretch and give you more healthy food with less total effort.
Cooking Shortcuts – Make a Double Batch
When you’re bringing water to a boil, cutting up ingredients, measuring, stirring, and getting pots dirty to make a meal . . . why not make twice as much? Now you can have two meals of the same food, and it isn’t anywhere near twice as much work!
My family is just 4 people, so it’s easy to make more food than we’ll eat in one meal. We store leftovers in reused glass jars in the refrigerator. A two-cup jar is perfect for my lunch at work; I can microwave it right in the jar (lid off).
In our normal routine, leftovers are mostly for lunches and snacks. When life gets busy, I plan double batches and re-run each dinner on a busy night!
Cooking extra food is key to making myself healthy breakfasts when I have to get to work on time. One breakfast I like is fruit, plain yogurt, and granola. Another is scrambled eggs, sauteed vegetables, and toast.
Some fruits are good to eat raw, but just cutting up fruit takes time; cooking takes even longer. On a weekend or a morning when I don’t need a shower, I chop and cook enough fruit or veggies for 3 or 4 breakfasts. Keep leftovers in a jar in the fridge, and just scoop out some fruit or veg and warm it up!
Struggling with fresh breakfast ideas? Katie’s The Healthy Breakfast Book has 50 family friendly, very do-able real-food recipes.
Double batches are an especially great strategy to pre-set at times when you’re not so busy. Freeze extra food, and thaw it when the stressful spell hits. It’s like a present from your past self! I only have a small freezer, but I typically have at least one quart of soup in there.
Even at busy times, a slow cooker is an easy way to make a hearty meal. Our 6-quart slow cooker can hold almost a double batch of Ginger Black Bean Soup. To be cautious, put in 2 cups less water than the recipe says. Add that water midway through cooking, after the beans have absorbed some water.
A double batch of that soup is about 5 meals for us, more than we feel like eating in a week. So we freeze 2 quarts for later. Soup is easy to reheat even if you didn’t plan ahead and set it out to thaw. Just plunk the frozen soup into a pot, put it on medium-low heat, and every few minutes turn it over and scrape off the softened part with a big spoon.
Whenever I make bread, I bake 4 loaves, because that’s how many loaf pans I have, and my largest mixing bowl easily holds a quadruple batch of batter. Baking with the oven full saves energy, as well as time and effort, compared to baking the same amount of food in multiple sessions.
A fruity, quick-rising bread like Raisin Bran Bread takes about 30 minutes to mix and an hour to bake (during which you can be busy with other things). I typically bake it while a soup’s in the slow cooker or simmering on the stove, or I reheat a soup to go with the fresh bread.
My family will consume an entire loaf of fresh baked bread in the first 24 hours, and two more loaves give us easy-to-grab breakfasts and snacks for a week or so. The fourth loaf can be served at church coffee hour, given to a friend, or frozen for a busy time in the future.
My standard office snack is DIY Instant Oatmeal. In 10 minutes, I can mix up enough for 30 servings, and it’s shelf-stable for months! Sometimes I make it for breakfasts at home, too.
Food Prep Shortcuts – Prepare an Ingredient All at Once for Different Uses
Boiling rice for a side dish on Monday? Cook extra rice and plan for Broccoli Casserole on Wednesday and Fried Rice on Friday! You’ll only have to wash the rice pot once, and you’ll reduce prep time on Wednesday and Friday.
Nobody will complain of “too much rice” when it’s served in such different meals. You could even spend an extra couple of minutes rolling up the rice in seaweed, like sushi!
Boiling pasta and steaming broccoli for tonight’s Italian-style dinner with Marinara Sauce? Cook double pasta and broccoli. Two days later, make an Herby Olive Oil Sauce in a big skillet, throw in your leftover pasta and broccoli, stir until warmed, and top with nutritional yeast flakes and sunflower seeds for a quick High-Protein Pasta Salad!
Baking sweet potatoes or winter squash alongside your Honey Baked Lentils? Bake extra, and make Sweet Potato Burritos, Squash Burritos or New England Yam Bake later in the week. A baked sweet potato also makes a great breakfast, with plenty of butter and maple syrup.
Cooking dry beans? Plan two or more meals using that type of bean, and cook them all at once, plus some to freeze for the future.
Planning several meals that begin with diced onion browned in olive oil? Chop and cook all those onions at once and store the extras in the fridge. Once you have a jar of delicious browned onions, you’re going to want to add them to everything!
Serving salad two nights in a row? Wash and prep all your salad at once on the first night. Refrigerate the extra salad immediately: Pack the lettuce loosely into a bowl and cover with a dish towel. Salad that’s made more than 24 hours in advance and/or crammed tightly into storage will be noticeably less fresh.
Clean-up Shortcuts – Using your Food Processor? Cut Everything!
All the parts of my food processor except the base can be cleaned in the dishwasher. However, by the time I have a full dishwasher to run, shreds of food have dried and stuck firmly to the food processor parts. If I use the food processor when the dishwasher is almost full, there isn’t room to fit in all the parts.
It’s best to hand-wash the food processor immediately after use. Those few minutes of effort seem more worthwhile when the food processor has done more work for me. When I plan to cut or mix something in my food processor, I also think about what else I might need to cut in uniform shreds or slices…
- Vegetables from my CSA farm share that will need to be cut before we use or freeze them. Get those veggies in the freezer quickly (minimizing nutrient loss) or use them in tomorrow’s cooking.
- Bread heels that I can make into breadcrumbs if I simply toast and process them now. Breadcrumbs freeze very well.
- A two-pound block of cheese. I can grate 3/4 of the block for two meals this week plus a bag of grated cheese in the freezer, leaving a half-pound of cheese in the fridge for snacking.
Cut any dry foods first, followed by wet foods that leave little to no residue, followed by the most gooey food. For example, you might make breadcrumbs first, then grate zucchini, then grate carrots, and finally grate cheese.
Don’t forget to take allergies into consideration!! If you are using your zucchini in a meal for someone who eats gluten-free, you can’t make breadcrumbs first. Though it’s easy to shake crumbs out of a dry food processor, that’s not removing every trace of gluten . You’d better skip the bread or else wash the food processor very thoroughly before you move on to zucchini. (And even that isn’t safe for a true Celiac, please note.)
Meal Prep Shortcuts – Grated Vegetables are Great!
Save time and money by making your own frozen vegetables from veggies that are in season or on sale. Package in quantities that are the right size for your favorite recipes!
When I pulled out my current stash of homemade frozen veggies, all except the tomatoes (which were diced) were in thin shreds.
I’ve found that veggies grated or thinly sliced are best for freezing, for several reasons.
- Grated veggies thaw faster. You can spread them into a thin layer when freezing, or immediately after removal from the freezer (mash the bag against the counter with the heels of your hands). Depending upon the vegetable and the cooking technique, you may not even have to thaw. Simply grab bags of veggies from the freezer and empty them into the pot
- Grated veggies cook faster because of their high ratio of surface area to volume. Frozen vegetables often seem more watery than fresh ones. With thin shreds, rather than chunks, it’s easier to turn that excess water into steam when you saute the veggies. You’ll finish with a flavorful dish that isn’t soggy in the least.
- Grated veggies are easy to sneak into meals! Easily work more vegetables into soup or spaghetti sauce with thin shreds that blend right in, softening to an almost unnoticeable consistency. No more chunks that picky people will scrutinize while demanding, “What’s this thing?!”
- Grated veggies work well in baked goods! Zucchini bread, carrot cake, etc. They can even be used in place of oil or applesauce in most muffin recipes.
- Grated veggies don’t need to be blanched before freezing. That saves time, effort, and energy.
- Grated veggies are less prone to freezer burn because it’s easier to get all the air out of the bag. This makes thawed-and-cooked veggies taste as good as fresh-and-cooked ones, instead of tasting like stale ice cubes!
These shortcuts make it easy to eat plenty of vegetables, when you’re too busy to get to the store for fresh ones.
Even if you’re so busy and stressed that you’re having ramen noodles for dinner, in the 5 minutes it takes to cook the noodles, empty bags of frozen shredded kale and carrots into an oiled skillet over medium-low heat. Stir until the frozen clumps break apart, then turn up the heat and bring them to crispy perfection. Use your crispy veggies on top of your noodle soup!
Meal Time Shortcuts – Eat from the Freezer and Pantry
Frozen vegetables, whether store-bought or homemade, are convenient for making quick, healthy meals. Keeping a well-stocked pantry will help you to be ready for healthy cooking. When you feel like you have time to cook or time to shop, but not both, check your freezer and pantry for inspiration! Maintain a list of what’s in your freezer so you won’t have to dig around in there.
One of our trusty pantry-and-freezer meals is Mexican Beans. Packed with fiber, protein, iron, and Vitamins B and C! Leaving only one pot to wash!
- Brown fresh or frozen onion in oil (if you need to use dried minced onion, add it in step 2).
- Drain and rinse 2 cans or 2 cups of precooked beans (pinto, black, or kidney). Add to the skillet with 1 cup fresh, frozen, or canned tomatoes and 1 cup fresh or frozen bell pepper (can sub salsa for tomatoes and pepper), and chili powder to taste. Cook until hot.
- Serve with corn chips, cheese, guacamole, cilantro, olives, etc. Dinner’s ready in 15 minutes!
Super-quick, healthy meals and snacks you can make from ingredients that are easy to keep on hand:
- American Beanwich – tastes like a McDonald’s cheeseburger, but you can make it faster than you can get through a drive-thru!
- Green Ribbon Lentils – Italian-flavored, comforting on a cold night, yet not too steamy to cook on a hot day.
- Lazy Loubie – easy version of a Middle Eastern dish, using canned or frozen vegetables.
- Homemade Halvah – or chocolate tahini. Gives a great energy boost! Dip apples or a banana, or just eat it off the butter knife.
- Yogurt Sundaes – feel like dessert but loaded with calcium and protein. Plus, a way to use up random fruit.
- Tomato Toast – wonderful breakfast or snack – with protein and B vitamins – when you have fresh tomatoes handy.