We ALL want to manage our finite time and energy and enjoy healthy meals without living in the kitchen. My client Corrie asked me this week how I do it. I actually don’t meal plan much in advance, I rely on having the right things on hand and being able to create a meal out of them fast. I usually don’t spend more than 30 minutes making a meal, and very often much less time than that.
Aside from breakfast (which is pretty much the same every day for me, as I suppose it is for many of you), lunch and dinner could be summarized as having 2 main components: I need a protein and I need vegetables. Yes, I add fats/oils and use starchy vegetables on training days to meet my nutritional needs, but for simplicity’s sake, we can look at meat and vegetables as being my main two checkmarks to make a meal. Here’s how I manage it, without meal planning in advance:1. I keep lots of vegetables in the fridge, and know how to make them tasty in not much time. 2. I keep proteins around which I can cook quickly. 3. I always have some precooked proteins on hand.
I cook fresh vegetables for most meals, since they taste better than leftovers, and generally don’t take that long to make. I’ll share below my standard methods, which I use over and over and just change the varieties of vegetable. Times when I don’t cook vegetables right before eating would be when I have soup or stew (in which case the leftovers rock!), or when I pre-bake squash, yams, or sweet potatoes, since those take longer.
For proteins, I’d estimate about 50% of my meals I cook fresh meat with one of the “Quick” methods that follow, and the other 50% of the time I use proteins I cooked in advance and have on hand.
Let’s get into the methods. I’ll walk you through the quick methods first, and then at the end, I’ll mention which methods are worth investing more time in for the payoff in leftovers.
Proteins: The Quick methods
Ready to eat (0-1 minutes)
Deli meats and smoked or canned seafood all can be eaten with no cooking required. You’ll pay more for convenience items like lunch meats or pre-cooked chicken, but if it helps keep you eating healthy and not going for takeout, I think it’s a worthy investment.
Of course, proteins you’ve cooked yourself ahead of time are also a lifesaver. I almost always have cooked chicken on hand, and some lean beef (either a roast or extra lean ground beef) which I can add to vegetables, put on a salad, or add to a spaghetti sauce.
Hard boiled eggs are also a great make-ahead protein option, consider having some of them already cooked in the fridge if you need quick breakfast fix, protein rich snack, or want to bump the protein in your meal. Any way you go, all of these picks would only take maybe one minute to open the container, making them the fastest route to dinner!
Foreman Grill or Outdoor grill (5-10 minutes)
Chicken breasts, steaks, and pork chops all cook perfectly on the grill, and are the next fastest protein option. I use a George Foreman style grill almost daily. Season meats, throw them on the grill, close the lid, and in five minutes or so they’re done. Truly, this is my go-to.
I keep a variety of seasoning blends on hand to dust on the meat before grilling, including Montreal Steak, Greek seasoning, Tan Tan Moroccan, Longs Peak Pork Chop Spice, and some all-purpose blends. Helpful tip: use an instant read thermometer to take the internal temperature of the meat. Since many indoor grills get very hot and cook both sides at once, food cooks fast but can rapidly get overdone. I pull steaks off at 140 degrees for medium, pork at 145, and chicken at 160.
In a Pan or Skillet (10-30 min)
I know there’s discrete definitions for what constitutes pan frying vs. sauteing, but frankly I’m not a chef and don’t know the first thing about formal cooking. I cook things in a pan. Sometimes there’s oil or a smidge of butter, sometimes not. Call it what you want.
I usually go to the stovetop with fish, use it for browning ground beef or turkey, and cooking thin cutlets of chicken/pork/turkey. Cooking times will vary depending on what you’re making, so it’s hard for me to give specific directions. Thinly sliced meats will cook pretty quickly, but if I’m making thicker pieces (like whole chicken breasts) in a pan I usually start with browning the meat on both sides with a little oil, then turning down the heat, adding some sauce ingredients, and cooking them over low heat with the lid on for 10 minutes or so to make sure the center gets cooked through. Helpful tip: If you want something to get golden brown, use some oil and get it pretty hot. Add the fish or meat and let it be (don’t poke, turn or harass it, okay?) for several minutes before peeking underneath with a spatula. Don’t flip it over until it is golden brown. Sit on your hands if you have to.
Vegetables: The Quick Methods
Salad (5 minutes)
No cooking required. If you have your greens already washed, you can just pile them on a plate and add some other vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, onions, celery, carrots, beets…the sky is the limit. Helpful tip: add something crunchy like chopped apple, nuts, pumpkin seeds, or radishes. While you’ve got the ingredients out and washed, you can prepare several salads and pack a few days’ lunches at one time. Just don’t add dressing ahead of time or it’ll make everything soggy.
Microwave (2-10 minutes)
Zapping vegetables in the microwave is a really speedy way to either cook them all the way, or get a head start. I wrap sweet potatoes or yams a damp paper towel and microwave 2-4 minutes to soften, then slice and finish on the stove with a little butter or coconut oil and salt. (Oif I start with them raw, I steam them in the pan before adding the oil, which takes at least 5-10 more minutes.) You can also cook winter squash in the microwave. Just cut it in half, scoop out the seeds and place cut side down in a dish with 1/4 inch of water. Cook until it’s tender (time will vary depending on the size of the squash). If I want spaghetti squash for a meal and don’t have an hour to bake it, 12 minutes or thereabouts in the microwave will do it.
Frozen vegetables and a microwave are a good Plan B for when you don’t have fresh stuff on hand or you’ve just walked in the door after the Day From Hell and reeeeally don’t want to cook. Frozen peas, spinach, carrots, and corn all come out quite tasty in the microwave. (I find frozen green beans and bell peppers just too mushy and not palatable.) I just put them in a bowl or on a plate and cook until hot. (Drain extra water that may come out). Since frozen veggies can be quite bland, add some garlic power, salt and pepper, tomato sauce (I love peas with dill and tomato sauce), hot sauce, or other herbs/spice to make your meal tasty.
Expert tip: To steam fresh vegetables in the microwave, spread them on a plate, add a little water, and cover them with a wet paper towel. The towel traps the steam and they cook more evenly than if you just put them dry on a plate and zap. This method produces especially nice results – not too crunchy – not too mushy – with asparagus. Drain, top with a little lemon juice, olive oil or butter, a sprinkle of salt and some sesame seeds and it’s delicious.
Stovetop (10-15 minutes)
My personal favorite vegetable method is utterly idiotproof. I cut up vegetables, put them in a pan, and cook them. Water or oil may be added. Yep, that’s the gist of it.
Some vegetables you don’t need to add any water to, like mushrooms, bell peppers, and tomatoes. These all get quite soft when cooked, so for textural purposes, I’d normally mix them with other vegetables. Vegetables that are harder, like broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, turnips, asparagus, and green beans do well with some steam, so I add 1/4 cup to 1/2 cup water to the pan and cover while they cook. Once they are cooked, I’ll add some oil, butter, spices, herbs, etc to make them tasty. To cook up leafy greens like spinach and kale, you can you either water to steam or a bit of oil to saute. I cover the pan and they are soft in just a few minutes. Helpful tip: spinach cooks in the least time, but it collapses down to hardly anything when cooked and is a bit too mushy/limp for some people’s tastes on its own. For cooked greens, I like chard and kale; they “hold their own” a bit more.
Potatoes and yams need a bit more cooking on the stove top than other vegetables that have more water in them. I’ve found that spuds are hard to cook all the way through if I just toss them in a skillet with oil or butter. They do best with some steaming first. As I mentioned in the microwave section, you can microwave yams/potatoes first to soften them, then slice and finish in a pan with some seasonings/oil/butter, OR you can start with them raw, add some water to the pan with the slices and let them boil/steam for a few minutes that way, before proceeding. One of my favorite ways to enjoy sweet potatoes is to microwave them to partially cook, then slice and brown in a pan with butter and Greek seasoning. Add some lemon juice at the end and they are incredibly delicious. This whole method takes about 10 minutes. In that same ten minutes I can have some protein from the grill and the meal is ready!
One thing I don’t normally do: boil vegetables in a pot of water.1. It takes forever to boil a pot of water. I usually cook my whole meal in less time than it would take to boil a pot of water. 2. I’d prefer not to waste whatever nutrients may leach out into the water. When I do steam veggies with water in a pan, I try to let the water boil off. Just my preference. 3. They get soggy.
When I’m steaming/sauteeing vegetables on the stove is where I’ll often make use of my precooked proteins. I may cook up a big skillet of turnips, carrots and spinach, and when it’s done, add in some cubed chicken breast and stir it all up. Or I’ll saute some broccoli, garlic and ginger and add strips of cooked beef at the end. Example in the photo: Swiss chard, garlic, olive oil, white beans and pre-cooked ground beef. Easy and fast!
Oven Bake/Roast (25-45 min)
My basic strategy here is (like the stove top), VERY simple: Toss vegetables with olive oil in a bowl. Spread on cookie sheet, sprinkle with salt, and roast.
Roasting vegetables in the oven is the longest of the methods I will use on a daily basis. It can take anywhere from 25-40 minutes, depending on how big the pieces are and what veggies you choose. Some of my favorites are broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, which all take about 25-35 minutes at 425. Root vegetables like parsnips, beets, and carrots take a bit longer, 35-45 min. With any vegetables, I often add rosemary, garlic, lemon juice, or fresh herbs for flavor, but simply sticking to olive oil and salt is delicious. I eat roasted vegetables day after day for long stretches in the winter without getting tired, I just change up the veggies and the seasonings.
Winter squash do best when they get a little extra water while baking, so instead of cutting the squash in half and just baking cut side up, as I used to, I now start them cut side down in a dish with 1/4 inch of water for 20 min, then turn cut side up and let them keep baking until tender. By then the water has evaporated. (If you keep them cut side down in the water the whole time I find they get too soft). I’ve also found that wrapping pieces or halves of squash completely in foil keeps them just as moist as with the water, so I go either way. Two vegetables I do sometimes pre-bake and save for another day are spaghetti squash and potatoes. Handy tip: Squash, yams and sweet potatoes can all be cooked in the microwave instead of the oven, but the results in the oven are far sweeter thanks to the higher temperature.
Proteins: The Longer Methods
As mentioned earlier, I often precook proteins. If I’m cooking tonight’s meal on the stove top and I’m in the kitchen anyway for 30 minutes, I’ll spend an extra five minutes to put a chicken or roast in the oven so proteins are already cooked for tomorrow’s meals. I’ll wrap some sweet potatoes in foil and put them in the oven too, so our post workout carbs only need reheating when the hungry coaches come home from the gym. It’s a snap to make healthy meals when all you have to do is cube up some already-cooked chicken breast or roast beef to add to a skillet of vegetables, or add already-browned ground beef to a tomato sauce and serve over zucchini noodles. The convenience is worth a little forethought. Often I stock up these premeditated leftovers by making a big batch of meat on the grill, but I also use these techniques below.
Oven Roast (~60 min)
The oven is a great tool for making premeditated leftovers. I will not bother cooking something for an hour to only get 2 servings. But investing the time with a 2-3 pound roast of beef or pork will provide us with a few days’ worth of protein. Ditto for roasting a whole chicken. This technique is pretty simple. To make an oven roast: Season the outside of the roast or chicken and cook it until it’s done to your liking. I make roast beef fairly often and cook it at 375 degrees until the internal temperature reaches 125 degrees, then take it out and let it rest. The temperature will keep rising inside, so it peaks about 140-145 degrees, which is somewhere around medium in the center and stays juicy. Pork roast I’ll pull out at 145, to let it rise to 160ish. For chicken, I cook it more thoroughly, I don’t take it out until 160 degrees. But I also my chicken pretty well done.
I don’t normally bake skinless boneless chicken breasts but you certainly can. It will take about 40 minutes at 400 degrees. Cover them in foil if you want them to stay moist.
Handy tip: knowing the internal temperature is key to knowing when to take a roast out of the oven. I use this thermometer, which you can set to beep when the temperature reaches a certain point. I love it. Just poke the sensor into the center of the roast before baking, (the display sits on the countertop outside the oven) take it out when the alarm sounds. Perfect every time.
Stew/Soup (1-2 hours)
Again, I won’t make a meat soup if it’s just going to serve us for one meal, but if I have the time, soup or stew is a great way to score some enviable leftovers that are effortless to reheat in the coming days. If you add lots of vegetables as well, you can balance it into a one-pot meal and not need to even make veggies to go with it!
Slow cooker (4-8 hrs)
The slow cooker may take a while, but once you realize how easy it is to throw ingredients into a crock and forget it for half a day or so… you’ll be hooked. I do this for the leftovers. Pulled pork, beef stew and Cuban black beans (when I ate beans haha!) are all great uses for the slow cooker.
Putting it All Together
So now we’ve got the quick protein methods down, the quick vegetable methods down, and some strategies available to ensure that you have pre-cooked proteins in your fridge at all times for added ease. What else is there? Making sure you have the ingredients! It all starts at the grocery store, so when you’re shopping, think about picking up some cuts of meat for the quick methods (chicken breasts, fish, steaks, pork chops) as well as one or two protein options intended for premeditated leftovers (like a larger roast for the oven or slow cooker, or meat for a soup). With vegetables, I make sure we have enough starchy ones (sweet potatoes, yams, winter squash, peas) to cover all our post workout meals, and then I stock up on as many other vegetables as I can carry back!
During the week, you can stick to Quick meal strategies day to day, with just a few extra minutes 1-2 times a week to put a roast in the oven or set something in the slow cooker to ensure you don’t run out of pre-cooked proteins. Many of my clients find it’s easiest to schedule a shopping day and also to schedule a 2-3 hour block of time to cook meals for the week ahead. You can also choose to wash and cut up your vegetables on one day and keep them in containers, so whether you want to steam/saute them in a skillet, make a salad, or roast them in the oven, it only takes a few minutes.
The important thing is to find what works for your schedule and your life. Hope this post gave you some ideas to make healthy eating a bit less time consuming for you!