How Can I Eat Healthy With No Time to Spare?

Families, Food and Fitness July 30, 2010 Print Friendly and PDF

Part I – Make a Plan

Eating healthy with limited time begins with one simple step, planning. By personally adapting these basic planning stages, you’ll be the hero, serving your family healthy meals even with no time to spare.

Busy family at table
  • Plan a weekly menu. Examine your family’s schedule that week to determine how much time you actually have to prepare a meal. You don’t want to choose recipes that need hours of cooking when you only have 15 minutes. Involve your family in this process by letting each member pick out a meal. Think about your cooking style. Are you a "from scratch" cook, or do you like convenience items? Neither is right or wrong, but knowing yourself is the key to success in the kitchen.
  • Plan your trip to the grocery store. Make a list based on the menu you prepared. Keep an eye out for fresh fruits and vegetables on special for a healthy snack. Purchase salad ingredients like lettuce, grape tomatoes, cucumber, baby carrots, and a light vinaigrette for a quick dose of vitamins to accompany your meal. Keep your family’s health in mind when purchasing breakfast and lunchbox items and snacks. If you only keep good-for-you foods in the house, your family will have more opportunities to eat healthy.
  • Plan for the unexpected. Sometimes plans fall through, situations change, or you just don’t feel like cooking. Here are a few suggestions for handling the unexpected.
    • Grab a rotisserie chicken on the way home. Serve with a salad and whole grain bread.
    • Keep prepared pizza crusts on hand. Get the kids in the kitchen to assemble a healthy vegetable pizza and have fruit for dessert.
    • Bring out the can opener for a soup and sandwich night. Try to choose low-fat and low-sodium soups.
    • Keep a well-stocked pantry and refrigerator. Just be sure you read labels for prepared items like sauces and seasoning mixes. Basics to keep on hand include whole grain starches, fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy items, and lean meats.

Part II – Lay the Groundwork

  • The key to getting meals on the table at the last minute and with minimal effort is having a well-stocked kitchen and dependable recipes. With adequate pantry staples, fresh fruits and vegetables, and dairy products in the fridge, a satisfying, healthy meal is only a few minutes away!
  • Kitchen staples differ depending on what type of cook you are. Decide whether you want to be a “from scratch” cook or a “convenience item” cook. Both can be healthy. It is personal preference, and neither one is better than the other.

canned peaches and pears

  • Pantry Staples (these are suggestions and may differ depending on your region or ethnicity):
    • Dried pastas: spaghetti, macaroni, lasagna, angel hair, etc.
    • Dried beans: pinto, black, Great Northern
    • Packaged biscuit baking mix
    • Flour (all-purpose and self-rising)
    • Sugar (white, brown, and powdered)
    • Cornmeal (yellow or white)
    • Rice, barley, lentils, split peas
    • Potatoes, onions
    • Canned fruits, vegetables, beans, tuna
    • Canned and bottled fruit and vegetable juices
    • Salsa, seasonings and sauce mixes, spices, and other condiments (don’t forget salt and pepper)
    • Cooking oil (canola, extra virgin olive oil, non-stick spray)
    • Chicken, beef, and/or vegetable broth
    • Peanut butter
    • Healthy snacks (granola bars, graham crackers, dried fruit, nuts, popcorn, rice cakes)
    • Vinegars (red, white, balsamic, white wine, or champagne)
    • Baking necessities (baking soda, baking powder, cocoa powder)
    • Ready-made sauces or dried sauce packets (Alfredo, tomato sauce or spaghetti sauce, gravies, dips)

storage of fruits and vegetables
  • Refrigerator/Freezer Staples:
    • Fresh/frozen vegetables (whatever is on sale that week — this can be a driving force for your menu development)
    • Fresh/frozen fruit and 100% fruit juices
    • Frozen, pre-chopped vegetables (onions, bell peppers, celery); if you have time one afternoon or on the weekend, chop a lot of onions and bell peppers, and portion them into freezer bags. This is much more economical.
    • Tortillas, pita bread, pizza crust, bagels, ready-to-bake rolls, whole grain bread, English muffins, frozen biscuits
    • Cheese (block, grated, sliced), yogurt, cottage cheese, milk, eggs, butter, cream cheese, sour cream
    • Deli meat (ham, turkey, roast beef); be sure to select low-fat and low-sodium varieties
    • Ground meat (hamburger, chicken, turkey)
    • Fish, shellfish (unless you’re planning on preparing within one or two days of purchase, buy frozen; most seafood was actually flash frozen after being caught and is thawed by the grocery store)
    • Chicken and turkey breasts (buy poultry with the skin and bones; it is much more economical, the skin is easily removed, and tons of flavor lives in the bones)
    • Condiments (ketchup, yellow, coarse grain, and Dijon mustards; mayonnaise, hot sauce, Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce)
  • This may seem like a lot of ingredients, but once you’ve established your pantry and refrigerator/freezer staples, your weekly grocery list will only consist of what you’ve run out of, meats, fresh fruits and vegetables, and specifics for recipes.

Part III – Bring It All Together

  • Choose the entrée you want to serve each night the following week. When you get to the grocery store, look for the specials on vegetables, fruits, and meats. Even if your recipe calls for a specific meat, if a comparable meat is on sale, you can substitute. Choose turkey or lean pork for chicken, ground chicken for ground beef, fish for shrimp, chicken thighs for chicken breasts (chicken thighs contain more fat and calories than chicken breasts).
  • The good news is that cooking healthy usually requires little cooking time! When using lean meats, such as chicken breasts, the cooking time is shortened. Vegetables retain their nutritional value and their vibrant, appealing color when minimally cooked.
  • You now need to know some quick-cooking methods so you can utilize all of these staples!
    • Pan-fry or sauté
      • You will need a hot pan and a small amount of oil just to coat the pan.
      • This is good for quick-cooking meat such as boneless chicken breasts, pork loin cutlets, lean steaks, fish or shellfish.
    • Bake
      • You will need a baking pan and either oil or non-stick cooking spray and dry food. Preheat your oven to 375° to 425°F – this high temperature allows the sugars and proteins in your food to react to each other, producing beautiful color and delicious flavor.
      • This is good for chicken breasts, pork loin, beef loin, vegetables such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, summer and winter squash, broccoli, asparagus, cauliflower, tomatoes of any variety.
    • Slow Cooker
      • You will need a slow cooker!
      • This is good for beef or pork roasts or meats that need moist cooking methods to enhance tenderness. You can add vegetables and seasonings for a one-pot meal. To increase flavor, season the meat with salt and pepper and coat lightly with flour. Cook until browned on all sides using the sauté cooking method, then transfer to the slow cooker. It is also great for soup, stew, or chili.


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This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.