We get up early, stay up late, work odd hours—often away from home—and spend less time around the home fires than we’d like. We do most of our hunting and gathering in supermarkets, natural food stores, farmer’s markets and by mail or Internet.
Our fast-paced lifestyles can make the prospect of getting nourishing and delicious meals on the table seem like an ominous endeavor. We know we should be eating produce-dominated meals, but how do we find the time to prepare all the fruits, vegetables and lean proteins necessary for a healthy diet?
The biggest stumbling block to eating healthy meals is not having healthy food on hand when hunger strikes. The solution: Shop, chop, prep and cook more food in advance of meals before we’re ready to reach for whatever processed food is within easy reach — even if it’s not part of our New Year’s resolutions.
To get a running start for the week, set aside a four-hour block of time on Saturday or Sunday. Don’t make a week’s worth of food in one afternoon — the food wouldn’t be fresh, flavorful or nutritious. (Salad dressings, marinades, toasted nuts, salsa, chutney and barbecue sauces are the exceptions, as most will keep for two weeks.) The aim is to turn the refrigerator into a healthy salad bar and deli to be prepared for the first half to three-quarters of the week. With this head start, it won’t take as much effort to keep the food flowing all week.
1. Shop ahead
To eat produce-dominated meals three times a day, purchase copious quantities of vegetables and fruits. You’ll want to fill every nook and cranny with fresh produce at the start of the week, then restock as the supply dwindles. If the refrigerator is amply stocked with fresh foods, you’re more apt to eat them than processed foods.
2. Chop ahead
Wash, dry and chop an assortment of colorful vegetables for steaming, simmering, sautéing, stir-frying, parboiling or tossing into salads. Don’t chop every vegetable in the house; just enough for three or four days, then repeat.
3. Quit canning, but use jars
Canning leads to significant nutrient losses and often calls for excessive amounts of salt. But don’t toss those jars — they’re perfect for storing chopped vegetables, salad dressings, sauces, raw or toasted nuts, seeds, shredded coconut, fruit cubes and broth in the fridge, and for shelving dried herbs, fruits, vegetables and baking supplies in the cupboard.
4. Label, label, label
Attach small squares of paper with rubber bands or use wide masking tape and indelible markers to note the contents and to date perishable items, then make it a priority to consume everything in a timely fashion. This will ensure that foods aren’t kept around past their prime.
Make salads a permanent fixture in your daily diet. Rinse salad greens in a bowl and transfer to a salad spinner; spin dry, then store the spinner on the top shelf of the fridge. If your spinner has a flow-through design (holes on the top and bottom), slip a cotton place mat or dishtowel under it to absorb excess moisture.
For a split-second salad, slice or tear lettuce leaves (no need to chop small leaves). Top or toss with colorful raw, roasted, grilled or steamed vegetables, garnish or dress and serve. For one-dish dining, top or toss salads with sliced, diced or flaked fish, poultry or other meat.
6. Plump up the protein shelf
Every day or two, transfer one or two packages of frozen fish, poultry or meat from the freezer (or grocery bags) to baking pans or pie plates on a designated “meat shelf,’’ with two or three meals in mind. After you cook meat, transfer another package to the refrigerator to allow ample time for thawing.
7. Double up
Bake, broil, steam, poach, sauté, roast or grill fish, fowl or meat for two to three meals or days. Hard-boil eggs by the dozen or half-dozen. Serve leftover meats as hot or cold side dishes, or slice over individual salads for one-dish dining. Add extra salmon to scrambled eggs with herbs or a tuna-like salad. Add Sunday’s turkey to Monday’s salad and Tuesday’s omelet. Create an impromptu stew with leftover lamb, roasted vegetables, fresh herbs and broth. Slather last night’s steak with homemade barbecue sauce or herbed mayonnaise, or add it to an herbed vegetable sauté.
When you prepare vegetables, make enough for additional meals. Sauté kale, collards or mustard greens, steam asparagus, or parboil broccoli and cauliflower with three meals in mind. Roast, bake, simmer or grill roots, tubers, squash or onions with up to three days in mind.
Leftover steamed or sautéed greens are perfect for lunches on the go and taste great at room temperature. Serve roasted onions, carrots or mushrooms hot one day and cold (over salad greens with fresh herbs) the next. Turn Sunday’s baked squash into Monday’s creamy squash soup with ginger or curry and fresh chives. Turn baked sweet potatoes into mashed sweet potatoes with lime. Make baked potatoes into potato salad or a main-course salad with last night’s meat and vegetables.
9. Delicious dressings
Scrumptious salad dressings will encourage you to take second helpings of vegetables. Make dazzling drizzles and dressings on the weekend, and you’ll be set. Store in wide-mouth pint jars or bottles saved from commercial dressings and add your own label. With at least two dressings on hand, you might not mind serving salads twice on some days. Also use dressing as sauces for parboiled or steamed vegetables.
10. Get your garnishes ready
For texture and taste, use garnishes. Fill pint jars with minced parsley, scallions, chives, cilantro, arugula or dill to sprinkle over poached eggs, soups, stews or green salads; add to omelets, tuna or chicken salad. Dry-roast two kinds of nuts, pour into glass jars and refrigerate. Chop or crumble nuts over fruit and vegetable salads, cereal, yogurt, poached fruit, baked squash or roasted roots.
Rachel Albert-Matesz is a healthy cooking coach, freelance food and health writer, personal chef and cooking instructor based in Phoenix. She is the coauthor of The Garden of Eating: A Produce-Dominated Diet & Cookbook (Planetary Press, 2004). To order her book, call (602) 840-4556 or e-mail email@example.com and note “about your book” in the subject line.