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No time to cook? Not a problem.
My mission this week was to feed my family of four without cooking from a recipe or resorting to restaurant food.
I was on the hunt for healthful convenience foods that wouldn’t break my budget…and they had to please my husband and two kids ages 6 and 9.
Sound like a mission impossible?
Let’s see if it can be done.
#1 The meals have to be healthy.
Each meal should follow the FUEL guidelines and consist of: 1/2 vegetables and/or fruits, 1/4 whole grains or potatoes, and 1/4 lean protein source. I was looking for real foods that were minimally processed and didn’t have a laundry list of hard-to-pronounce food additives.
#2 The meals have to be quick.
I wanted dinner on the table in less than 20 minutes with minimal to no chopping.
#3 The foods have to be cheap.
Obviously you pay a little extra for foods that are already prepared. I aimed for $10-12 per meal for a family of four.
I did most of my grocery shopping at Trader Joe’s. They have a nice selection of healthful convenience foods that are reasonably priced. But you can put together meals like these from any grocery store.
Steel Cut Oats with Fruit and Nuts
These steel cut oats are cooked, lightly sweetened and then frozen into individual portions. Place a block of steel cut oats or steel cut oats with quinoa in a microwavable bowl. Microwave for about 2 minutes. Add a hearty portion of frozen berries like the Very Cherry Mixture below; cook for another 1-2 minutes until cooked through. Top with some sliced almonds and serve with a side of skim or 1% milk or soymilk.
($9/ 4 servings)
Whole Grain Vegetable Lasagna, Edamame, Apple slices
This delicious 4-serving lasagna layers whole grain noodles with vegetables and a little bit of cheese. Microwave it for 18 minutes and dinner is done. Because it is a vegetable lasagna, I served it with edamame to boost the protein content of the meal. Edamame are young green soybeans. They are high in protein and fiber and mighty tasty. The variety pictured below is precooked so just thaw them out and serve. Enjoy with apple slices.
($10/ 4 servings)
BBQ Chicken with Brown Rice and Vegetables
This one is really simple. Cook the package of BBQ Chicken Teriyaki on the stovetop according to package directions. To cut back a little on the salt and sugar, I only used one of the two sauce packets that were provided. While the chicken cooks, microwave two packages of frozen vegetables. Then microwave one package of frozen brown rice (there are three in the box shown). Toss everything together and serve. Leftovers are great for lunch.
($9/ 4 servings)
Beans and Grains
Here is an easy meatless meal. The Multigrain blend with vegetables is already lightly seasoned and just needs to be warmed up. Bring a medium pot of water to boil and cook the fava beans and green beans according to package directions. Then toss the beans with a little bit of vinaigrette (I used Sesame Soy Ginger Vinaigrette) and serve.
($8/ 4 servings)
Baked Cod with Quinoa and Green Bean Medley
We try to eat fish for dinner twice per week. In the morning, place the frozen fish in the refrigerator to thaw. If you forget, just place the frozen package in a sinkful of water when you are ready to make dinner. Then pop it in the oven with a little salt and pepper and bake at 375 degrees until cooked through. While the fish cooks, warm up the Beans So Green and Quinoa Sweet Potato Duo on the stove top.
($12/ 4 servings)
Whole grain pita pizzas
To give the kids a break from sandwiches, we made little whole grain pita pizzas for school lunches. Top mini whole grain pitas with some pizza sauce and a little part-skim mozzarella and bake in the oven until the cheese melts. We served them with leftover vegetables and cucumber sticks.
Whole Grain Spaghetti with Turkey Meatballs and Salad
I have posted this before and it continues to be a favorite with the kids. In a large pot, boil about 8 ounces of pasta according to package directions (1/2 of the package shown below). Meanwhile, in a medium size pot, bring Turkey Meatballs and Spaghetti Sauce to a simmer until the meatballs are cooked through. Combine the sauce and pasta. Serve with a lightly dressed salad. We used a blend of salad greens with baby kale.
($12/ 4 servings)
This is reminiscent of my favorite salad from Chipotle. Just microwave one package of frozen brown rice (there are three in the package below). Season the brown rice with chili powder, cumin, and a pinch of salt. Spoon seasoned brown rice, black beans, corn, salsa, and a little cheese over salad greens. I used spring mix but romaine lettuce would be great also.
($8/ 4 servings)
Chicken with Brussels Sprouts, Balsamic Vegetables, and Sweet Potatoes
I was so proud of my recipe-free week that I decided to splurge for this meal. Brussels Sprouts with Turkey Bacon are my daughter’s favorite vegetable of all time. I sauteed a bag of shaved Brussels Sprouts with some turkey bacon and seasoned with a little bit of salt and pepper. Microwave a few sweet potatoes. Warm up the Fire Roasted Vegetables on the stove top for a few minutes. Thaw out the pre-cooked Grilled Chicken Strips. They are lightly seasoned and would be great to add to sandwiches or salads for other meals.
($12/ 4 servings)
This microwavable frozen meal is another option that I keep on hand from time to time. It is chickpeas simmered in a sauce with Indian spices. I serve it with a little piece of Trader Joe’s whole wheat naan (Indian bread) and some steamed vegetables. Serve with a dollop of plain Greek yogurt.
Lentil and Beet Salad with Feta and Walnuts
These refrigerated lentils and baby beets are ready to eat. I usually toss them with a little bit of olive oil, feta, and walnuts. But this week I had to improvise and used gorgonzola cheese and sliced almonds. Serve it over salad greens with a microwaved sweet potato.
Need more inspiration? Check out these Meals in Minutes.
I tend to cringe when I hear nutritional advice to eat less– “reduce your portion size”, “track your calories”, “restrict, restrict, restrict.”
I am not a bird. And I refuse to eat like one.
Obviously, we need to exert a little bit of self-control over some foods. For example, we can enjoy one or two little cookies instead of the entire box. Or make one trip to the buffet instead of five trips.
But the good news is that we can manage weight and promote good health by eating ample amounts of healthful foods.
Our ongoing FUEL intervention has been promoting a plate-based, low energy density diet for years. The participants find this method easy to use, satisfying throughout the day and guess what? They lose about 0.5 to 1 pound of body fat per week without ever counting a single calorie or feeling hungry. Most importantly, this method makes them feel happy because it promotes a healthy relationship with food. Just honor your hunger cues and conform your plate to the FUEL guidelines as often as possible.
Still not convinced? Check out these two photos below. Both show 1575 calories worth of food. The example on the left contains many high-energy density foods–cheeseburger, fries, chips, a cinnamon roll, and creamy sauces. Small portions of these foods contain a lot of calories. Notice that foods that are high in fat are also high-energy density.
The example on the right contains many low-energy density foods–ample amounts of vegetables and fruits with some whole grains and lean protein sources. Large portions of these foods do not contain many calories. So fill your plate high and dig in. You will most likely feel full before you have the opportunity to overeat calories. Low-energy density foods tend to be self-limiting.
Photo Source: American Institute for Cancer Research
Would you like to learn more about using a plate-based eating guide? Check out some of our resources below:
The Foundations of FUEL: Building a Healthy Plate
Meals in Minutes: Perfect when you are short on time or energy.
Example FUEL Plates: See what some of our participants were actually eating.
Easy Vegetable Sides: You don’t have to spend hours in the kitchen. Check out these easy vegetable sides with little to no chopping required.
Finding Whole Grains: Learn about the benefits of whole grains and easy ideas to incorporate them in intact form.
FUEL Meal Ideas When Eating Out
FUEL Meal Ideas in the Furman University Charles E. Daniel Dining Hall
Stocking a Healthy Pantry: This easy strategy will make meal time a breeze.
Recipe Corner: Over 50 printable meal ideas that fit the FUEL plate. Each has a nutrition analysis, shopping list, and tips.
Pinterest: Search over 1,000 healthy recipes with photos
Live Well Furman Blog on Pinterest: Search all of our blog recipes and meal ideas with photos