More whole foods. Fewer processed foods. Sounds simple, but who has time to cook from scratch all the time? You don't. The good new is there are plenty of ways to eat better, more whole foods that aren't going to take you an overwhelming amount of time. It's important to remember, too, that "more whole foods" doesn't mean ONLY whole foods. Processed foods may still be necessary to work in your schedule or lifestyle and that's OK. Some days are just kraft mac and cheese or a frozen pizza kind of a day. Thankfully modern life also includes some conveniences of foods that are minimally processed and easy to cook to make it simpler to eat more whole foods. This post will give you some shortcuts that will help you make choices that are at least a step up from totally processed, but still get you enough protein and veggies to be a healthier choice.
Pre-Cooked Chicken, Meats, and beans
One option for a quick food is precooked chicken. Foster Farms, Purdue, Tyson, Archer Farms and others have a variety of precooked chicken options. You can find fully cooked grilled chicken breasts in the frozen section and fully cooked and chopped or shredded chicken in the refrigerated section. There is also a variety of other precooked meats that are reasonable options. Hormel makes precooked taco meats, and Del Real has a variety as well including carnitas and beef barbacoa. Having precooked meats on hand eliminates the need to thaw, chop, and cook. All you have to do is heat, and you have a great protein packed main dish. Precooked canned beans are a great plant based choice for an easy protein, as well.
Did you know that frozen veggies are just as nutritious as fresh? This makes it super easy to have a healthy vegetable with every meal. Steamer bags are a super quick and simple way to have vegetables in minutes and they come with a variety of veggies including broccoli, corn, carrots, brussels sprouts, edamame, peas, and more. You can get a single vegetable or a mix. You can buy frozen vegetables that roast from frozen in the oven, and frozen veggie mixes to put in a quick stir fry or sautee on their own.
Refrigerated Fruits and Veggies
Of course, there's always the staple fruits and veggies that last well in the fridge like apples and baby carrots that you can just grab and eat as they are. There's also a whole line of pickled vegetables (peas, carrots, green beans, etc) or the good old fashioned jars of pickles and olives. Also there's a large variety of premixed salad mixes that make salads a quick and easy option as well.
Choices like cheese sticks and yogurt are perfect for an easy to grab snack at home, or to throw in a cooler to bring to work if you have that option. In general these snacks are a good source of protein and will help you feel more full. One string cheese is under 100 calories and is enough to calm a hangry stomach until it's time for the next meal.
Cook and Serve Meals and Pre Cooked Sides
Many stores not offer cook and serve meals, where all the prep work is already done so all you have to do is cook it and you have a full meal ready. Even Target has ready to cook chicken kabobs with peppers and onions. Costco sells heat and serve roasted potatoes, and you can find ready rice that heats in a minute or two in the microwave at any grocery store. Some grocery stores also have fresh chopped veggies like peppers and onions that are great for stir fries, quesadillas, etc.
Some Quick and Easy Meal Ideas
Putting together some of these super easy options can make for balanced and quick meals. Here's a couple of ideas you can try that will have a healthy meal ready in 30 minutes or less:
The obvious- premixed salad plus precooked chicken with a healthy dressing for a protein rich salad makes a great lunch option with almost no effort. Many places you can find a salad kit that already includes the protein and the dressing in addition to the veggies.
Lunch wrap- precooked chicken in a wrap/tortilla with cheese and pre-chopped onion and/or spring mix. Even better with an apple, orange, or other fruit on the side.
Fiesta night- Del Real carnitas on corn tortillas or tostadas topped with salsa, ready rice spanish rice on the side.
Traditional- Precooked chicken breasts with steamer broccoli and carrots (or heat and serve roasted potatoes.)
Quesadillas- precooked chopped or shredded chicken (or another precooked meat, or precooked beans) with shredded cheese and salsa or sauteed frozen fajita mix veggies (until thawed) in between 2 tortillas. Best flavor when cooked in a quesadilla maker or a pan, but also works just fine in the microwave for an extra quick option.
Stir Fry- Use pre-cut, or precooked and cut, chicken or steak with frozen stir fry veggies. Heat in a skillet until heated through and add whatever sauce you like (soy sauce plus oyster sauce with some chopped garlic is always a winner, or Campbells and McCormick make some pre made skillet sauces that are good! We also use marinades as stir fry sauces. The possibilities are endless. Just make sure to track the sauce.)
Have a Little Extra Time?
If you have a little extra time, you can quick thaw your frozen uncooked meats. Place in a bag (or get the individually wrapped frozen meats, like the individually wrapped chicken breasts at Costco) in a sink filled with HOT water. Thaws quickly (20 minutes or less) and evenly, unlike in the microwave. Due to thawing so quickly, bacteria doesn't have a chance to grow making it a SAFE way to thaw your meat. You can also pre cut your foods and freeze. We batch cut onions and peppers (a food processor really cuts down the time required) and throw directly into the freezer to use for stir fry and quesadillas. You can also pre chop your meats and freeze in individual servings so they are ready to quick thaw and cook when you don't have the time or desire to chop. It helps to separate the servings before freezing, because the pieces will be hard to separate when frozen and you don't want to thaw more than you are going to use. You can also batch cook and freeze to make your own precooked meats to use later! Doing this takes some extra time, but can also save you some money over store bought precooked options.
Let me know if you try any of these suggestions! What are your go to short cuts for healthy meals on limited time?