If you struggle with post-work hunger cravings and regularly find yourself indulging in quick fixes after an otherwise healthy day, know that it is possible to lead a hectic life and get a healthy, delicious dinner on the table in just 30 minutes or less. Rather than making excuses or allowing yourself to break routine the second you're outside the office, follow these five simple tips to stay on track, eat delicious meals and fuel your body the right way—without slaving over a stove for hours.
#1: Plan Ahead
The most important thing to do in order to get healthy meals on the table quickly is to plan them in advance. By having your recipe, ingredients and anything else you need right at your fingertips, you're less likely to be able to talk yourself into making a quick run to the drive-thru. Make it a ritual to sit down at the beginning of the week and choose which recipes you will cook. Even make yourself a chart that you post weekly so you can visually see what’s for dinner every night. Keep it interesting by finding new cookbooks or cooking blogs that spark your interest, or get the family involved by allowing them to help you pick the meal plan for the week.
#2: Shop Smart
Make your shopping list for the entire week, or, if it’s easier, split it into two shopping days. When I write my shopping list, I like to have all my recipes in front of me and I sit
I also categorize my shopping list in the order of my grocery store. When you walk into most supermarkets, you’ll find fruits and vegetables, which is a good place to start when you’re eating healthy! Grouping foods by the layout of the store makes shopping more efficient, as well. The shopping list groups all the foods together, which makes it less likely that you will forget something at the front of the store and have to run back for it.
#3: Purchase Prepared Basics
Sometimes it’s just easier to skip the tedious prep and purchase items that either have very little prep or none at all. Here are a few things that will make your life easier:
- Sliced or chopped fruits and vegetables: Although it may be a little more expensive, you will save time on chopping and cutting. When I know time is of the essence, I especially like to purchase produce that requires a lot of prep, such as shredded carrots or spiralized zucchini noodles.
- Pre-cooked grains: You can now find pre-cooked grains in your frozen aisle in the grocery store or at the prepared food counter.
- Bottled dressings and marinades: Although many can be laden with saturated fat and some added sugar, there are a handful of brands that do an excellent job in this category. Compare labels and read through the ingredients and nutrition facts to get the best choice for you. As long as you do your research and reading, there is nothing wrong with having a bottle or two of dressing or condiments on retainer in case you can’t make your own.
- Rotisserie chicken: Simply peel off the skin of the cooked chicken and have a lean protein ready in a flash.
- Frozen vegetables: During a time crunch is the perfect time to turn to frozen. It’s quicker to cook frozen vegetables in five minutes, rather than spending more time washing, chopping and cooking vegetables from scratch. Follow the manufacturer’s directions for cooking each type of vegetable. Also, look for vegetables that have no added sauces or butter. The vegetable itself should be the only ingredient.
- Canned or dried fruit: Use canned or dried fruit as an addition for salads or rice dishes (or even dessert!). Look for canned fruit packed in water or in their own juices, and dried fruit without added sugar.
#4: Clean As You Go
Instead of letting your dirty bowls, pots, pans and utensils pile up, along with waste from packages and food, consider cleaning as you go. This helps minimize cleaning at the end, which actually can take longer than if you just clean right away. It can also minimize the dreaded, "I’ll just clean up in the morning" lie we tell ourselves.
One of my tricks when I’m preparing dinner is to place a "garbage bowl" on the counter where I toss scraps and packaging. This helps me minimize my trips to the garbage can on the other side of my kitchen.
#5: Cook Once, Prep Several Ways
If you like to cook up larger batches of food at once—such as grilled skinless chicken breasts—it can get boring to eat the same thing every night of the week. Instead, think outside the grilled chicken box and get creative! Those same chicken breasts can be used as a salad topping, as your protein in a quesadilla, or chopped up into a chicken salad—the possibilities are truly endless!
5 Versatile Meal Ideas to Try
When it comes to quick weeknight meals, you don’t want to prepare complicated dishes. Keeping it really simple will minimize excuses when it comes to heading to the kitchen and will save you precious time to spend with family or friends after working hours. Save the complicated meals for the weekends, parties or special occasions, and remember that healthy eating should be sustainable first! Having these five meals in the back of your mind for those especially frantic evenings will change the way you approach cooking weeknight meals while helping you stay on track with your healthy living goals.
- Quesadillas: Leftover chili, grilled vegetables, chicken or beef make a great filling for quesadillas. Heat between two whole-wheat tortillas with a small handful of your favorite reduced-fat cheese.
- Pesto Chicken and Pasta: Cook up your favorite whole-grain pasta, then toss with skinless rotisserie chicken and store bought or homemade pesto sauce.
- Stir-Fry: One of my go-to weeknight dinners is whipping together a hot, delicious stir-fry. Marinate chicken, beef or tofu before you head to work, then use store-bought diced vegetables (canned or frozen vegetables) and cook everything up in a wok with a tablespoon of oil.
- Quick Chili: Use two or three types of canned beans and canned tomatoes to make a hearty weeknight chili. Add chopped pieces of cooked chicken or skinless rotisserie chicken if you like. Serve with jarred salsa and nonfat plain Greek yogurt.
- Vegetable Omelet: For those very rushed days, have breakfast for dinner. Make an omelet using one whole egg plus one or two egg whites and whatever leftover vegetables you have in your refrigerator. Add a handful of shredded cheese and serve with whole-grain bread on the side.