By Chris Woolston, M.S.
Do you measure your meals by the minutes? When you're pressed for time, "fast food" takes on a whole new meaning and importance. Many of us simply don't have a few spare hours to spend in the kitchen. We look for shortcuts and time-savers, often sacrificing good nutrition in the process. But quick food doesn't have to be unhealthy. With a little planning, you can eat well in a hurry.
Making the most of your kitchen time
You don't have to spend hours in the kitchen to enjoy home-cooked food. The right tools -- and a can-do attitude -- make cooking fast and easy. Consider investing in a few time-saving gadgets, such as a food processor or blender for everything from chopping veggies to making creamy soups and smoothies, as well as a sharp knife and flexible cutting board for efficient slicing and dicing. If you prefer a slow-cooked taste, buy a crock pot. You can load it up with ingredients in the morning, and enjoy a savory meal as soon as you come home from work.
Whatever you're making, look for shortcuts and think "fast." The recipe may say that the chicken needs to marinate for three hours or the chili should simmer for two hours, but things will taste just fine if you need to reduce the suggested time a little. When possible, cook in large batches so you have leftovers for tomorrow's lunch or dinner. It doesn't take much more time or effort to cook four servings of spaghetti (or rice or potatoes or meat) instead of two.
Stir-fries provide a tasty blend of nutrition and efficiency: Cook up some sliced meat or tofu, add vegetables and stir-fry sauce, and serve over brown rice. Now you're looking at a great lunch tomorrow in addition to dinner tonight. Some leftovers -- including soups, stews, and many casseroles -- can be frozen and reheated. Learn how to cook a few simple meals well, perhaps a three-bean chili, couscous, or chicken casserole.
When you have a little extra time, prepare and store individual ingredients for future meals. For example, hard-boil a few eggs and put them in the fridge (for up to a week) to use later in sandwiches and salads. Shred extra cheese, put it in a baggy, and keep it in the refrigerator. Freeze a few cups of chopped onions or peppers for future stir-fries, soups, or pasta sauces.
Taking multiple trips to the grocery store every week is inefficient. Buying everything you need for the week in a single trip will definitely save time, and most likely money, too. You'll also use less gas and have fewer chances to make impulse purchases.
Naturally, it will help if you have a rough idea of your week's menu before you head to the store. You don't need to plan every single meal, but be sure to have the fixings for one or two standby dishes. You can make mealtime easier and expand your options by buying "mix-and-match" items such as rice, pasta, eggs, frozen vegetables (including stir-fry mixes and other blends), meat, poultry, and a supply of basic seasonings.
To cut down on extra dashes to the store, try buying your week's worth of produce and milk in one trip. Use up the most perishable fruits and veggies (such as asparagus and strawberries) first, and save the heartier items (like apples and cauliflower) to use later in the week. You may also want to buy frozen blueberries or strawberries to sprinkle over your cereal or blend into smoothies.
In addition to the fruits and vegetables in your refrigerator, freezer, and fruit bowl, stock your cupboards with canned tomatoes, kidney beans, and other canned produce. (Contrary to common belief, canned produce can be just as nutritious as fresh.) Fortify your pantry with a few long-lasting staples including premade broth, canned tuna, dried soups, and whole grain pancake or biscuit mixes. Sandwich bread and tortillas can be handy, too.
A sandwich or a wrap may not fit the traditional definition of "dinner," but it's quick and filling. Stop by the deli section at your grocery store for some sliced sandwich fixings. Most delis also have roasted chickens -- a tasty main course that could stretch for at least a couple of meals. Any chicken that you don't eat the first night can quickly liven up a soup or pasta dish the next night.
Consider buying a few nonperishable items for "emergency" meals on the run. A stash of granola bars, dried fruit, and a container of juice or two in your car or briefcase can be a lifesaver if your meeting runs long or the kids need a boost after school or practice.
Beware of some quick "fixes"
Microwave dinners, fast food, and "ready-to-eat" meals can definitely save time, but proceed with caution. Such meals are often high in salt, fat, and calories, and probably cost more than food you can whip together yourself. A home-cooked meal will likely taste better, too, no matter how rushed you are for time.
You may not be a master chef, but you can cook better than some machine or fry cook on an assembly line. When eating fast food, consider skipping the fries and the regular sodas. They'll both give you loads of calories without much nutrition. Most fast-food restaurants now offer other sides and beverages that can add up to a real meal in no time.
Take a little time
Your schedule may be packed, but you should still take a few minutes to enjoy your meals. Racing the clock to chow down your food isn't fun -- and it's not especially healthy, either. The American Dietetic Association recommends eating at a table with an actual plate whenever possible. If you eat too quickly, you may end up overeating before your stomach has a chance to feel full. Slow down long enough to savor what you're eating. Chew slowly, enjoy your food, and then get on with your busy day.
Alliance for a Healthier Generation, American Heart Association. Making better choices at fast food restaurants.
Iowa State University Extension. 3 steps to quick, healthy meals. 2004.
U.S. Department of Agriculture. Official USDA food plans: Cost of food at home at four levels, U.S. average, October 2008.
American Dietetic Association. Are you speed eating? Hit the brakes!
University of Nebraska. Cook it quick: Mix and match meals.
University of Kentucky. Make ahead meals.
University of Idaho. Time saving strategies for quick meals.
Washington State Department of Health. Egg-ucation.