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When I was working outside the home and had one little one at home, my friends always seemed so impressed that I would cook 'real' meals several times a week. In all honesty, it wasn't that hard! I'm a person who loves to find ways to increase efficiency. I also feel very strongly about planning healthy meals for the family (even when my husband cooks!). So, I just kept adding techniques that served to simply dinner preparation so that it became nearly painless!

Of course, you need to start with a good recipe or plan. Make sure you read through the whole thing before choosing to make it. There have been many times that I had all the ingredients ready and started to cook dinner, only to read "chill for 4 hours"! Darn - time to call the pizza place again! You probably also want to avoid those recipes where you have to chop, saute, assemble, bake for 45 minutes, uncover and add cheese, and bake for another 20 minutes. After a long day at work, this will seem like too much work, and will take too long to get to the table.

Once you've found some quick recipes to try, you can speed up meal preparation by using several creative cooking and shopping techniques:
1. When cooking both pasta and frozen vegetables (for example if you're making a tuna casserole with peas and carrots), add the vegetables into the pasta pot to cook and drain together.
2. If you cook pasta a lot, you might want to look into buying a pot specially designed for pasta - it has a locking lid with drain holes…no colander to wash!
3. Steam your fresh or frozen vegetables in the microwave instead of on the stovetop to save a few minutes, and some cleanup time.
4. When prep time is in short supply, shop for precut fresh veggies and fruits. You can usually find broccoli, carrots, snap peas, mushrooms, mixed fruit and many others like this in your produce section. Many stores also have a salad bar you can use to select the ingredients you need. I've even seen chopped onions and green peppers in the frozen food section - very handy for pasta sauces, omelets, fajitas, stir-fry's, etc.
5. Buy shredded cheese. It's a little more expensive, but the time saved on shredding and cleanup is well worth it.
6. When recipes call for chopped or minced garlic, you can usually get away with using a jar of prepared garlic. One exception I'd note is when garlic is a primary ingredient, such as to add flavor to steamed vegetables. In these cases, fresh just tastes better. You can also usually find bottled minced gingerroot - great for all those wonderful Asian recipes.
7. Use your deli! Turkey, roast beef, ham and whole rotisserie chicken (with the skin removed) can all fit into a healthy diet and make great, quick meals.
8. Buy a crockpot, or use the one you have. Crockpots probably rank up there as one of the most underused kitchen appliances. There's nothing like coming home to a house full of a tempting dinner aroma knowing all you need to do is serve it up! You'll need to find a few healthy recipes either in cookbooks or online and you'll be set to really simplify your mealtimes.
9. If your family likes seafood, it is nearly always quicker to prepare than beef, chicken or pork. Shrimp, crab, salmon, cod, flounder or other seafood selections are healthy and take very little time to prepare.
10. Start with low-fat prepared sauces, salads, or stir-fry's and jazz them up with healthy ingredients. Add fresh veggies and herbs to any of these prepared entrees and you'll have a quick meal with a homemade, more nutritious touch.

There are many other ways to speed up meal preparation and keep up the nutritional value. Just remember - it doesn't have to be hard or time-consuming. You'll feel great, look great and be setting a positive example for your kids!

Ten Things You Can Do To Make Any Meal Healthier

We all know weeknights can be stressful, rushed and hectic. You may have every intention of putting a healthy meal on the table, only to be overcome by 'real life'! Don't despair - all is not lost! When your best efforts go awry, and you order pizza or serve another meal that doesn't exactly fit into a healthy diet, you still have many options for making it healthier:

1. Start your meal with a large glass of water.
2. Blot pizza with a napkin or paper towel. This can remove several grams of fat from each slice.
3. Opt for veggie toppings on pizza if possible.
4. Add a bag of salad (but be careful of high-fat dressings and toppings)
5. Try adding dried herbs or other seasonings to your salads to give them a kick without relying solely on the dressing to do this. Eat salad dressings on the side. Use the technique of dipping your fork in the dressing and then adding your salad.
6. Fill half your plate with vegetables, and leave the other half for protein and complex carbs.
7. Sneak vegetables tin wherever you can - in casseroles, pasta sauces, pizzas, sandwiches, soups.
8. Try starting your meal with a glass of vegetable juice or vegetable soup.
9. Cut back on bread where you can. Eat thin pizza crust; avoid garlic or cheese bread; limit servings of bread with italian meals. If you can, opt for whole grains.
10. Eat fresh fruit for dessert, or for an appetizer.

Just like when you fall off your exercise program and the experts tell you to just pick up where you left off, the same can be said for your wish to eat healthier. Make the best of the choices you have, and don't expect to be the perfect eater every day. It's all about making it work with the rest of your life!


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Erin Rogers, a work-at-home mom of two, is the founder of Health-E-Meals.com, providing practical healthy living resources for busy people. Visit her website (link to http://www.health-e-meals.com) to sign up for the FREE newsletter, 'Dinners on the Double' - offering a quick and healthy, no-recipe dinner idea each week. Other available services include quick and healthy recipes, healthy cooking articles, fitness and motivation tips, healthy living web links, and lots more! Erin can be reached via email at [email protected].
 
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