Go Off Script
You don’t need a recipe to boil a few eggs and mix up some random salad greens. Got an avocado that’s at its peak? Throw that in too. Add some nuts, seeds, goat cheese, even a bit of fruit: You’d be surprised the feast you can make with what is at hand. Dress the whole thing to your taste with olive oil and something acidic: vinegar, lemon, lime. The key: Improvise!
Power Through It
Maybe you don’t slice and dice like a real chef. No problem! Your food processor will help you chop veggies or even knead dough far more quickly than you could by hand. If you don’t want to pull out a big machine just to cut a few vegetables, consider a smaller handheld version to use for little jobs.
Hit the Bar
The salad bar, that is. Someone’s already washed and chopped all those veggies for you! And, depending on where they’re from, they can be pretty cheap. You can also find a lot of pre-washed, cut-up vegetables at the grocery store too. Pick some up on the way home and save yourself a chunk of prep time.
Keep Staples On Hand
Oils, vinegar, pasta, grains (rice, oats, quinoa, and farro, for instance), beans, and tomato sauce: They keep well and are an easy go-to when you need a quick meal. Pick up salad greens, fish, or chicken from the market to finish it off. Or use eggs, frozen veggies, or canned tuna -- also good basics to keep stocked -- and skip the store completely.
Break It Down
You need just three things for a healthy lunch or dinner: a veggie, a whole grain, and a lean protein. There are many ways to do it: rice and beans; chicken, quinoa, and squash; salmon and spinach on multigrain bread -- the list is as long as your imagination. Add yogurt and berries or peaches and cream for an easy fruit-and-dairy dessert, which can also be part of a balanced diet. (There are plenty of plant-based versions, if you prefer.)
Keep It Simple
You’ll save yourself time and stress if you don’t take on multi-step recipes with special sauces and cooking techniques when you’re in a hurry. Sometimes, basic is best: a mushroom omelet or a piece of grilled fish with a squeeze of lemon. If it’s something you enjoy, you can try more involved meals when there’s less of a rush.
Are lentils your side dish for dinner tonight? Cook more than you need. Work the leftovers into a salad to go with your lunch tomorrow, or turn it into soup for some other meal. Or both. If you really prepare a big batch, you can freeze portions of it in small airtight containers to use later.
Plan, Plan, Plan
If you think ahead about what you’ll want to eat in the next few days, you can map out all the ingredients and the recipes you’ll use. Once you know what you need, you can get all your shopping done in one trip, instead of spreading it out. Check out apps that can help with this process, and cut stress and hours from your week.
Make Meal Prep Day Fun
Pick a day that works for you when you have a stretch of time to chop, roast, slice, dice, and marinade as much as you can for the week. Try to make it a social event. Invite friends or family to share the work (and the food too!). Put on some music. Open a bottle of wine.
Everyone Pitches In
Many hands make light work. At dinnertime, there’s a job for every age. Grown-ups might cook the big dishes and do the heavy lifting. But older kids can help chop the veggies, and the youngest could set the table or pour drinks. And of course, everyone helps with cleanup.
You ‘Can’ Do It
Canned foods like beans, tomatoes, peas, peaches, and salmon are easy and nutritious. And they’ll keep safely in your pantry for weeks or months until you need them. Just make sure you check the ingredients and the date by which you should use these items.
Head for the freezer section of your grocery store, especially for fruits and veggies. Farms freeze those items at their peak, so they may have as many vitamins and nutrients as those bought fresh. (And probably more than the pale, shriveled, 2-week-old broccoli you just found in the back of the fridge.) Your best health choices for fruits and veggies will be plain -- they won’t need other ingredients added to them.
The rotisserie chicken was a hit for dinner Monday. But half of that meat is still on the bone, and you don’t want to waste it. Pull it off and put it under the broiler. Add some avocado, cheese, tortillas, and a bit of salsa, and it’s taco Tuesday! And you’re not done yet. Boil the bones with some herbs, onions, carrots, and celery for some chicken broth you can freeze for a rainy day.
Slow Cooker to Go Faster
Prep your ingredients and toss them into the pot in the morning before you leave for work. Then you can program your slow cooker to have a piping hot meal ready at whatever time suits you best. You’ll arrive home relaxed knowing you've already done most of what you need to do for dinner.
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