By Daisy Luther
Those of us who are proponents of whole foods and scratch cooking have known it all along, but a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine confirms it. Time spent in the kitchen equals a better diet.
1319 participants in the Seattle Obesity Study answered questions about the amount of time they spend preparing food for their families each day, including prepping, cooking, and cleaning up.
- 16% spent less than an hour a day
- 43% spent between 1-2 hours per day
- 41% spent more than 2 hours per day
Those who worked outside the home were less likely to spend time on food preparation. They relied on restaurant meals and convenience foods. Those who spent more time preparing food were also more likely to consume a greater proportion of fruits and vegetables.
Many of us lead very busy lives, what with activities for the kids, work, and other obligations. This doesn’t mean that you have to say goodbye to healthy eating. There are lots of ways to cut the time spent in the kitchen while still enjoying optimum nutrition, scratch meals, and yummy produce. When you are not in control of your food, you’re much more likely to consume additives, toxic chemicals, and GMOs. Even though I work from home, it’s rare for me to spend hours per day in the kitchen. Here are 5 of my favorite scratch cooking shortcuts that allow me to step away from the stove while still providing a hearty dinner for the family.
#1 Weekly Food Prep
When I worked outside the home, Sunday afternoon was always dedicated to weekly food prep. It was absolutely necessary to be able to juggle all of my responsibilities during the week ahead. Now that I work from home, I usually break food prep into two sessions, but the basic premise is the same.
There are a lot of time-saving benefits to this.
You only have one big kitchen clean-up. The rest of the week your dishes only consist of your plates and flatware, and what you used to heat your food in. You can multitask by having several things in the oven cooking at once – this also saves on your utility bill. You can also wash and prep all your produce at the same time, and then just wash your colander and cutting board when you’re finished.
Throughout the week meals are strictly grab-and-go. If your food is already prepped, dinner can be on the table in 10-15 minutes every night.
What does a food prep afternoon typically consist of?
- Menu planning
- Washing and cutting up vegetables
- Washing fruit
- Portioning out snacks for lunch boxes
- Doing the baking
- Preparing some basic items that can be used in different ways throughout the week (chicken, beef, grains, salad)
When you prepare your food ahead of time, dinner is on the table faster than you can say “drive-thru”. Your budget will thank you because you won’t require those impromptu pizza deliveries when you just don’t feel like cooking. Your waistline will thank you because you won’t grab high-calorie, low-nutrient convenience foods. Your health will thank you because you will be eating nutritious, wholesome foods from scratch that nourish rather than deplete.
Here’s an example of a weekly food prep at our house:
- Yogurt parfaits (combine fruit and yogurt in individual BPA-free containers, portion out some granola to stir in at serving time)
- Meatloaf “muffins” (Cooking meatloaf in a muffin tin makes perfect individual servings)
- Baked eggs (These can be loaded with veggies and cheese and baked in muffin tins for a super-fast breakfast on the go)
- Veggies, cleaned, chopped, and ready for steaming or stirfrying
- Roasted chicken (the leftovers can be used in future meals)
- Blueberry corn muffins
- Cookies or granola bars – I usually make at least one lunch box “treat” every week
- Rice Pilaf
- Broccoli slaw with bacon
- Veggies packets for lunchboxes
- Cooked, seasoned ground beef (can be used in tacos or marinara sauce later in the week
- Roasted ham (Use for one dinner meal and for sandwiches and salad throughout the week)
- Green salad (Just grab a handful and add protein and dressing for an instant meal)
If you enjoy canning, home-canned food is the ultimate pre-made food. Here are some delicious meals-in-jars recipes from my soon-to-be-published cookbook.
#2 The Crockpot
One of the most used appliances in my kitchen is the humble crockpot. There’s nothing like coming home after a long day to a mouthwatering aroma and dinner ready to be dished into a bowl.
Most crockpot meals require little in the way of prep time. You can often throw all of the ingredients into the crockpot in less than 10 minutes in the morning. Here are some of our favorite dishes:
- Spaghetti and meatballs (you don’t have to precook the meatballs – just let them simmer in your favorite marinara sauce all day. When it’s time to eat, boil up some pasta and you’ve got dinner in 8 minutes.)
- Chili: Again, it isn’t necessary to cook the meat ahead of time.
- Pot roast and veggies: Place a slab of meat, cut up potatoes and carrots, and some onion and garlic into the crockpot. Add a cup of water, beer, or red wine, and salt and pepper to taste.
- Pulled pork: Top a pork roast with your favorite organic barbecue sauce and cook it all day. Serve with sweet and sour cole slaw.
- Beef stew: Pretty much like pot roast, but smaller pieces and 2 cups of liquid
- Rotisserie chicken: It’s unbelievable similar to what you’d get at the grocery store – check out the recipe here.
- Mexican pulled chicken: Skinless boneless chicken breasts and a jar of salsa = perfect soft taco filling
Don’t be afraid to adapt your own soup recipes for the crockpot. Nearly any soup is heavenly after simmering all day long. Just add delicate veggies and grains during the last hour.
You don’t have to spend big money on the fanciest crockpot around. Mine is an inexpensive model that I got when I gave my 18 year old crockpot to my daughter when she left for college. These suckers last forever. If you have a larger family you can get a big 7 quart crock pot.
#3 No-cook meals
Lots of people either don’t have the time, the inclination, or the ability to cook. There are shortcuts you can take without sacrificing your help. If you have the extra money to spend, you can buy your fruits and veggies already washed and cut up. You can buy an organic rotisserie chicken.
Here are 99 ideas that are far healthier than ordering pizza or going McCrazy at a drive-thru.
#4 Turn your refrigerator into a home salad bar
This goes hand in hand with #1 and #3, but it’s a little more specific. When my kids were younger, they absolutely loved it when dinner was a “salad bar.” The only rules were that they had to pick one protein serving and 3 veggie servings.
If you prep your salad bar choices ahead of time, dinner is as easy as pulling containers out of the fridge and lining them up on the counter. Wash and chop your veggies and place them in individual containers. Precook your meat and cut it into bite-sized pieces. You can portion them out into individual servings if you are counting calories. Here are some yummy salad bar ingredients:
- Greens (baby spinach, romaine, spring mix)
- Sugar snap peas
- Baby carrots (get the organic ones so they aren’t soaked in bleach)
- Cherry tomatoes
- Bell peppers
- Chicken breast
- Boiled egg
- Kidney beans
- Shredded cheese
- Sunflower or pumpkin seeds
- Dried fruit
Have some healthy salad dressings to pick from or quickly make your own in a handy shaker bottle,
#5 Make better choices when dining out
If you simply must eat out, you can make better choices than a bucket of KFC with all the fixings. Here are a few tips to help you choose wisely:
- Make your own meal from ala carte dishes. Sometimes when I go out for breakfast, I make my own meal with sides: an order of ham, an order of eggs, and an order of fruit.
- Skip the bread – lots of empty calories and additives come in those fast-food buns or sides of garlic bread. Opt for the meat and the veggies.
- Load up on veggies. If you order pizza, top it with lean chicken and every veggie on the menu. Same thing goes for subs.
- Get a salad with a vinagrette. Forget the “light” dressings that are someone’s chemistry project. Get a simple oil and vinegar dressing, salad, and some lean protein
- Opt for fish or chicken.
- Go vegetarian. Enjoy a stir fry loaded with veggies.
- Choose better establishments. Instead of eating at places without good options, pick up dinner from the Whole Foods hot food counter or salad bar. Find some local favorites with a tasty, healthy menu for a go-to meal.
- Ask for to-go container right away. As soon as they bring your food to the table, look at the portions. Is that enough for two meals? (Hint: YES, it probably is.) Dish out half to take home with you so that you aren’t tempted to sit there and pick at it even when you’re full.
Isn’t better health worth a little bit of time?
We’ve come to a place where many folks think more about money than they do about their health. Despite all sorts of medical advances, the generation of kids who are currently growing up are destined to be shorter-lived than their parents. Many of these children will have no idea how to cook, because no one did it at their house. Their kids will be in even worse health. By eating fast, cheap, processed foods, not only is the health of future generations being sacrificed, but cooking itself is destined to become a lost art – the purview of a few lone, old-fashioned health nuts.
We need to reprioritize and spend time where it can do the most good – in the kitchen, as a family.
Pablo Monsivais, Anju Aggarwal, Adam Drewnowski. Time Spent on Home Food Preparation and Indicators of Healthy Eating. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 2014; DOI: 10.1016/j.amepre.2014.07.033