Professional triathlete and nutritionist Pip Taylor gives a list of foods to keep in your kitchen at all times to ensure that you are always ready to create a quick and healthy meal.
When it comes to cooking and preparing food, no matter our good intentions, we often fall back on fast food or take-out. And now with a great many more options readily available to-go, it is often a viable option for eating well. However, it is also used too readily as an excuse, and with a few exceptions, you are better off preparing your own food and being in control of the contents of the food going into your body. With a little knowledge, a little planning and a little creativity, you should be able to quickly and easily put together a balanced meal in minutes.
Some people like to be organized, even to the extent of complex shopping lists, spreadsheets and meals planned days or weeks in advance. I admire that, but I know that I will never fit into that category. I don’t even know what’s for lunch, and that’s about an hour away. What I can do well, though, is shop strategically and stock my cupboards and fridge so that even when there is “nothing to eat in the house,” I can make not only a healthy and satisfying meal, but one that is quick and tasty too.
When shopping, read food labels. Look beyond potential label traps such as “low fat” (often high in sugar), “trans-fat free” (can be high in saturated fats), “natural” or “organic” (but not necessarily healthy) to find out what you are really eating.
Shopping is the first key. The other is to master a few basics in the kitchen. You do not need to be a gourmet chef every night, but learn some simple cooking basics to help you create meals from “nothing” in the pantry and help you take shortcuts in the kitchen. That also means that what you cook is edible.
Pantry, Freezer and Fridge Essentials
Pastas—thin styles will cook quickly
Gnocchi—cooks in seconds
Quick-cooking rice and other grains such as couscous and quinoa—just need boiling water to be ready in minutes
Tinned legumes, such as lentils, chickpeas and black beans—a great, convenient protein source
Tinned tomatoes and tomato puree—think pasta sauces, soup bases, quick stews etc.
Canned fish, such as tuna, salmon and anchovies—used for anything from sandwiches to salads
Dried and tinned fruits
Oats, oatmeal and other breakfast cereals
Condiments, such as soy sauce, mustard, sweet chili sauce, chili flakes, dried herbs and spices, olive oils, assortment of vinegars (balsamic, white, red), honey, nut butters, capers—these all add essential flavor to the basics.
Potatoes, sweet potatoes and other root vegetables—keep in a cool and dark cupboard
Stock, either liquid or powdered
Garlic and onion
Sports foods/muesli bars
Fridge and Freezer:
Low fat cheese and milk, including long-life milk in the pantry
Frozen vegetables—so good for emergencies, with no compromise in nutritional content compared to the fresh version.
Fresh pasta/Hokkien noodles
Frozen individual portions of chicken, salmon and beef
Fresh herbs, such as parsley, basil, chives and mint—freeze well by washing and patting dry before freezing in small snap-lock bags
Frozen pizza bases and tortilla wraps
Lemons—juice can be frozen in ice cubes for small, quick servings
Sliced whole grain bread and English muffins—can be kept frozen
Salad greens, vegetables, tomatoes and fresh fruit—if you can buy these in smaller quantities so they stay fresh, you are more likely to use them. Also, buy seasonal produce as it will last longer and taste better and probably be the most economical.
Quick cooking cheats:
Stock your kitchen with some essential cooking equipment: a decent-sized pot, non-stick pans, a grill or BBQ, chopping boards and knives. This will make getting in the kitchen and preparing food not only much easier but much more pleasant.
Also invest in a couple of simple recipe books so you can get some ideas on flavor and techniques. Then experiment to find out what you can substitute or add to make the dish your own.
Consider a local grocery or market delivery service. It’s not only a time saver, but you are also more likely to buy what you need rather than get distracted by other temptations.
The microwave is not just for frozen meals; it’s a great way to steam veggies, for example. It can also be used to give roasted veggies a head start: Steam sweet potatoes until tender and then spread them out on a baking tray. Spray lightly with oil and place under a grill until they are golden chips.
Make friends with a wok, one of the quickest ways to cook up a healthy dinner. Using bags of pre-chopped veggies or frozen packs makes it even quicker.
Salad greens can be bought pre-washed and meats trimmed and sliced. It may be a bit more expensive, but it’s another great time saver.
Eggs are such a great staple and can be used for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Frittatas and omelettes are versatile, but there is nothing wrong with a simple egg on toast for dinner. Or baked beans on toast. Or cheese on toast, especially with a side of some steamed veggies.
If you do get more time on a weekend or cook more than you are going to eat, consider freezing individual portions or just eating leftovers the next day for lunch or dinner.
Eat breakfast for dinner. When truly stuck with nothing, some breakfast cereals are actually an acceptable (nutritionally speaking) option. Add some yogurt and fruit and get to the shops soon.
Some quick cheat pantry meals, quicker than ordering take-out:
Couscous salad: Pour hot stock or boiling water over couscous, cover and leave to stand a few minutes until tender. Meanwhile, steam fresh or frozen broccoli florets and green peas, drain tinned chickpeas and chop some cherry tomatoes in half. Combine with couscous, drizzle with olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice and some fresh parsley if you have that on hand. Season to taste and top with some toasted pine nuts. Instead of using couscous, you could also make a pasta salad or even a lentil salad using drained, tinned lentils.
Tuna pasta: To cooked pasta or gnocchi, add drained tinned tuna, chopped tinned tomatoes, capers, chopped basil and season to taste. Top with crumbled feta.
Frittata: Sauté a chopped onion in a non-stick pan over medium-high heat. Add steamed vegetables and mix. Pour over lightly whisked eggs and gently stir. When the edges start to set, top with some low-fat cheese and place under a hot grill until browned and bubbly.
Fried rice: Prepare some par-cooked quick rice (the partially cooked packets cook quickly in the microwave). Let cool and set aside. In a wok heat a small amount of oil, add an onion, garlic and some chopped ham (optional) and stir quickly until onion is cooked. Add vegetables (use either drained tinned corn, greens peas or some frozen mixed vegetables) and stir until hot. Push to the side of the pan and add an egg, stirring quickly to scramble. Then add rice plus some soy sauce and sweet chili sauce to taste and stir until hot throughout. Top with some coriander.
Chicken and noodle miso soup: Combine some miso paste or miso soup mix with a dash of soy sauce and water and bring to a boil. Add thinly sliced chicken pieces, a handful of asian greens or other thinly sliced vegetables (either fresh or frozen) as well as some fresh Hokkien noodles. Cook 2-3 minutes until tender.
Get to the store and get cooking!