By Paulette Lambert, RD, CDE, Director of Nutrition, California Health & Longevity Institute
Often I hear, “I want to eat healthfully, but I don’t cook.” The reasons vary, but lack of cooking skill, lack of time, and lack of interest generally top the list. Most of us recognize, often by our expanding waistlines, that not cooking isn’t exactly the healthiest way to go. Whether we’re replacing home-cooked meals with a frozen entrée and a bag of chips or with a large portion of restaurant food with added fat and a basket of bread, not cooking can make healthy eating a bit more challenging.
If you find yourself cooking-challenged for whatever reason, know that you can really improve your overall nutrition by becoming proficient at “food assembly,” or making a meal without going through the steps and the time commitment typically associated with traditional cooking. Kitchen technology has made it easier to assemble healthy food, and you can stock your pantry with healthy foods that require little cooking.
Keep in mind that, generally, the more real, whole food you consume, the healthier your diet. Less-processed foods have less added unhealthy fat, sugar, and sodium and are higher in vitamins, antioxidants, and fiber—all of which promote health.
One can assemble many meals that are noteworthy for their good nutritional value. The following tips can help move you toward healthier, home-based meals—without very much cooking at all!
Use Your Blender
Smoothies can serve as great one-stop meals and can also add a nutritional boost to a larger spread. For a basic, healthy smoothie, throw into a blender some frozen, unsweetened fruit; a banana; low-sugar, nonfat Greek yogurt; and ¼ cup of organic soy or nonfat milk and whirl away. Throw in a handful of spinach, a carrot, or a red bell pepper, and you’ve just added a serving of vegetables. A spoonful of nuts, flax seeds, unprocessed bran, or raw oatmeal can add whole-grain goodness and fiber.
Another great way to use the blender is to steam frozen veggies like broccoli: toss them in the blender with a little onion, garlic, and reduced-sodium organic chicken broth and blend well. Pour the mixture into a bowl, sprinkle with a tablespoon of Parmesan cheese, and heat the purée in the microwave for a healthy, delicious vegetable soup.
Think Salads and Sandwiches
Salads and sandwiches make easy, complete meals. If you’re in the mood for a salad, buy bags of prewashed greens—different varieties of lettuce, baby spinach, or kale, for example—to use as your base, and add preshredded carrots, red cabbage, cherry tomatoes, leftover grilled chicken, canned tuna or salmon, low-fat shredded cheese, canned beans, or other healthy toppers to create a balanced, delicious meal. Fruit, such as dried cranberries, raisins, or fresh sliced apples or pears, are also great additions, as are chopped almonds or walnuts (limit to 1 tablespoon) to increase antioxidants, vitamins, and omega-3s. Add lite salad dressing, oil and vinegar, or lemon juice, and you’re good to go.
If you like sandwiches, nothing is healthier or easier than natural peanut or almond butter on whole-grain, high-fiber bread with sliced banana for a simple meal that’s high in fiber, omega-3s, vegetarian protein, and antioxidants. Foil packs of wild salmon, also high in omega-3s, are a great alternative to canned tuna, which can be high in mercury. Mix the fish with a little olive oil mayo and a teaspoon of capers and spread it on whole-grain bread with some sliced tomato and a handful of greens for an easy, delicious meal—and it’s great paired with a vegetable soup and cut fruit. Nitrate-free deli turkey on whole-grain bread with low-fat cheese and sliced apple or pear makes another great combo. For a vegetarian option, try hummus with sliced raw veggies in a whole-grain pita.
Get a Grill Pan
Invest in a grill pan and use it to grill chicken breasts once a week. Try making three to four at a time and use the leftovers for salads, sandwiches, or to add to cooked pasta. Combine with fresh vegetables, a couple tablespoons of teriyaki sauce, and frozen, precooked rice for an easy one-dish meal. Or grill three to four turkey burgers at one time; add barbeque sauce to one for a yummy burger, keep one plain to be added to pasta sauce, and combine one with salsa for quick taco or burrito filling.
Use the Microwave
Truly a valuable piece of kitchen equipment, the microwave does not alter the value of nutrients any more than any other cooking method. Most markets now have a variety of frozen, healthy, whole foods that take just a few minutes to get from freezer to plate. Frozen veggies have the same if not better nutrient content than fresh and can be added to pastas, brown rice, soups, and take-out food to increase the nutritional content. Try the steam-fresh packages from the freezer: top with pasta sauce and low-fat cheese for a meal that delivers several servings of vegetables and 500 fewer calories than a pasta entrée. An 8-ounce yam or baking potato can be cooked in six to seven minutes (just make sure you first pierce with a fork a few times to let steam escape); add steamed broccoli or spinach with low-fat cheese or cottage cheese and a spoonful of salsa for a filling meal.
For an easy, healthy breakfast in five minutes, make real oatmeal in the mircowave with frozen fruit and organic soy or nonfat milk; add cinnamon and a tablespoon of chopped nuts for a complete meal. Or spray a glass measuring cup with nonstick cooking spray, crack an egg or egg whites into the cup, beat with fork, cover with a paper towel, and microwave for one minute for the perfect scrambled egg. Serve on a high-fiber English muffin with low-fat cheese or a veggie breakfast pattie for an easy breakfast sandwich.
Focus on Real, Whole Foods
By increasing fruits and vegetables and whole grains and choosing lean proteins, you can greatly improve your overall nutrition—no major culinary feats required!
Canned beans. Keep a variety of canned beans on hand (kidney, black, pinto, cannellini) for a quick and easy source of vegetarian protein. Rinse and drain them, then eat with brown rice and salsa, use to make your own hummus or bean spreads, or add to pasta, salads, and soups.
Frozen vegetables. Look for “steam fresh” varieties for quick and easy veggie sides. Add to take-out, pasta, salads, and low-sodium canned soups to incorporate a variety of veggies year-round.
Frozen fruit. Frozen fruit is better than imported when fruits are not in season. Use frozen berries, mangoes, and peaches in smoothies, oatmeal, and desserts.
Foil-packed wild salmon. Use salmon in place of tuna to avoid mercury and for a full dose of healthy omega-3 fats. No need for refrigeration or a can opener—just open the package and use in sandwiches, salads, and pastas.
Organic nonfat Greek yogurt. Keep calories under 130 to control sugar content. Add to smoothies, mix with fruit and nuts, or top with crunchy cereal. It’s a great source of protein and probiotics.
Nuts. Eight walnut halves or 12 almonds equal one serving of nuts. Add to salads or pair with fresh fruit for a filling dose of protein, fiber, and healthy fat.
Double-fiber English muffins. Fiber helps keep us full, regulate blood sugar, and manage body weight. Use these muffins for sandwiches, pizza, or breakfast to help reach your daily fiber quota (25 to 30 grams). One whole English muffin is equal to only one carbohydrate serving.
Frozen shelled edamame (soybeans). For a quick and easy source of vegetarian protein, use edamame in soups, salads, and snacks.
Oatmeal. Real, whole, unprocessed oats are a great option for breakfast; add fruit, nuts, and cinnamon for extra flavor and nutritional value. (Avoid instant packets due to sugar and sodium content.)
Shredded wheat with bran. Add this to your morning routine. Shredded wheat is as unprocessed as it gets; it contains no additives and only two ingredients (wheat and bran).
Tomatoes. Get tomatoes any way that you can. Use fresh, sundried, or boxed tomatoes in soups, sauces, and pasta. Boxed Pomi tomatoes do not have the harmful BPA (Bisphenol A) found in canned tomatoes. Add fresh tomatoes to everything, and try cocktail tomatoes by the handful for a sweet snack.
Apples. Buy organic apples and leave the peel on. The peel provides much of the fiber found in apples; just be sure to wash well before eating. Add diced apples to your oatmeal, slice thinly for salads, or enjoy whole as a quick snack.
Paulette Lambert RD, CDE, is director of nutrition for California Health & Longevity Institute, located within Four Seasons Hotel Westlake Village (chli.com). With more than 27 years of private practice after an extensive clinical education, Lambert has wide-ranging experience in clinical nutrition and the development of individualized dietary plans.