This year, you committed to (or recommitted to) eating a diet of fresh, whole foods. There’s just one snag: It can take so darn long to wash, cut and cook these foods. (We’re looking at you brown rice, lentils and Brussels sprouts.)
That’s where convenience foods — the other convenience foods — save the day. Think pre-cooked brown rice and lentils or washed and halved (even shredded) Brussels sprouts. “These are convenience products that can reduce your prep time and allow you to eat quick and healthy meals more often,” says Ashley Larsen, RDN, owner of Ashley Larsen Nutrition. Here are six ways to shop so your next healthy meal is ready in a snap:
Keep your freezer stocked with frozen veggies, like broccoli florets and cauliflower rice, says Larsen. “These products are great to have on hand to guarantee you’ll always have a vegetable available for mealtime.” What’s more, these need no washing or chopping and they reduce food waste if you have trouble eating fresh produce before it goes bad. Steam, saute or roast frozen vegetables or, suggests, Larsen, throw frozen cauli into a smoothie and blend for an extra dose of fiber — and creaminess.
The same goes for frozen fruit: Frozen cherries and grapes make great snacks, while berries can be heated in the microwave to make a sugar-free syrup for whole-grain pancakes or waffles.
While the cost is higher, pre-cut and washed vegetables are one convenience product that saves serious time. Look for pre-chopped broccoli and cauliflower, pre-snapped green beans, shredded Brussels sprouts, cubed butternut squash and zucchini noodles. (Some of these can even be steamed or boiled-in-bag.) Or, consider purchasing veggies that don’t need to be chopped (just a quick rinse will do), such as peapods and baby bell peppers, or just need a quick snap of their ends (asparagus) to get them into a saute pan.
If one of the barriers to eating a dinnertime salad every night is the sweat equity involved in rinsing lettuce and chopping veggies, salad kits are your new BFF. There’s a benefit to eating salad before your meal: Research shows it helps you eat 23 percent more veggies and may also help fill you up before the main. “The kits come with the dressing and fixings to make the salad delicious, and you can determine the right amount to add to your salad. I usually use half of the dressing packet and add a squeeze of lemon juice to reduce the calories without missing out on the flavor,” says Larsen. To make it a main, she suggests topping with leftover grilled chicken, steak or shrimp for a five-minute meal.
Not everyone has the time to cook chicken or fish when they come home. If this sounds like you, it’s OK to rely on pre-cooked proteins, as long as you choose wisely. “These options can be high in sodium and fat. Try finding a pre-cooked protein with minimal added ingredients, such as pre-cooked frozen shrimp, or no-salt added canned tuna, chicken or beans,” she says. (Vacuum-packed lentils also exist — and they’re delicious on salads.) A rotisserie chicken also saves on prep, and it’s usually juicier than purchasing a pre-cooked chicken breast alone. When shopping, look for options that contain less than 20% of the daily value for sodium per serving, Larsen advises.
One thing you won’t see a busy person doing on a weeknight: Simmering their own sauce. But with all the amazing bottled simmer sauces, marinades and seasoning packets out there, you don’t have to. These have the ability to lift ho-hum basics into an interesting and craveable meal. One warning: Larsen advises reading the nutrition facts label and ingredients list on each product and choosing one that packs less than 10% of the daily value for saturated fat, sodium and added sugar. “Read the ingredients list and look for products that are made with whole foods and limited added sugars and salt,” she says.
No time to spend 45 minutes boiling brown rice for your stir-fry? No problem. Vent a pouch of parboiled rice and zap it in the microwave for 90 seconds and it’s ready to be dressed up. Just make sure the one you buy contains only rice or grain. If it is seasoned, watch the sodium. Sodium levels can really climb if you use multiple products with added sodium in one meal. Still, you’re one step closer to a delicious — and good-for-you meal that’ll help get you closer to your goals.
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