Eating Healthy on a Time Budget

Even if you love cooking and truly enjoy eating from Mother Nature’s abundant garden, after working and exercising, maxed-out meal preparation usually just isn’t feasible. And if cooking bores you, it’s even worse. Not everybody thinks like Julia Child, who tells you that no matter how late you hit the kitchen, there’s still time to bone a bird and make chicken Kiev from scratch. For most of us that is not a desirable goal. The point is to cook smart and know which short-cuts are beneficial for your schedule and well-being.

Leftovers are like money in the bank
If you make a large batch of basic ingredients two or three times per week, you will have the building blocks for healthy meals everyday. Black, white, red or any other dry beans, while slow to cook, last in the fridge for almost a week. Cook up a pound or two on Sunday and have beans and rice, chile, enchiladas, pasta fagoli, and so on, throughout the work week. Mixed grains and rice can all be made at one time, either in the same pot or separately.

When time is really tight, cook your grains as if they were pasta — adding them to copious amounts of boiling water. When al dente, rinse lightly and drain. These can then be used in differing combinations for a wide variety of tastes. Have a lentil, winter wheat berry and quinoa salad one day, add quinoa to your beans for a hearty chile the next and use any left over salad to stuff peppers and tomatoes for a third delicious meal.

Maximize your micro
Some people dread chopping veggies. I myself consider it a soothing form of mediation. But if you can’t convince yourself that it is a spiritual experience, you can certainly make the process increasingly efficient. Raw chopped vegetables lose their verve in a day or two.

So, if you want to get ahead on your prep, chop a big bowl of veggies (either by hand or in the processor), add the juice of a fresh citrus fruit (orange, grapefruit, lime, lemon etc) and 1/4 c sake, white wine or citrus juice and microwave on high for one minute. Stir and cook for another minute. Add one tablespoon miso and stir into the veggies and their cooking liquid. Cool and store in the fridge for up to four days. Combine these with some of your grains or beans and make veggie tostadas. Add some to a can of crushed tomatoes and toss with penne or rigatoni for a satisfying pasta dish. Or top micro baked sweet or white potatoes with the veggie mixture for a light and satisfying lunch.

The root of flavor!
Adding flavor and health to food often comes from our powerful root vegetable friends — garlic, ginger and onions. But peeling ginger and garlic on a busy Wednesday night can seem rather a long and tedious chore. So, prepare a flavorful puree that can be kept in the fridge and spooned into soups, sauces, pasta dishes and everything else! Don’t make your magic puree the same way every time. Add various herbs and spices to it for both health and flavor.

Remember that spices like turmeric are considered an important part of ancient Indian herbal health — and in fact, modern medical science is just now finding out that turmeric is beneficial for our respiratory system, and is a powerful anti-inflammatory. Start your puree with lots of garlic; add some ginger, shallots, chives or green onions. Add to that some sea salt, quality olive oil and fresh black pepper. Then add fresh herbs — basil, marjoram, rosemary, thyme, mint, nasturtium (both leaves and flowers), oregano, epizote, lavender — the list is endless and the combinations are up to you. You can add hot chilies sometimes as well. Make it either chunky or smooth, garlic golden or herbal green. Saute the mixture for 10 mins on low and then store in the fridge for up to a week — if you haven’t eaten it up already.

Then on a busy night, saute 2 T of the garlic mix in 1 T oil add 2 cups of your microed veggies and a chopped tomato, and top thick slices of Italian bread toast for a great bruschetta/pizza bread. Or mix up a bit of puree with some good mustard, olive oil and either vinegar or citrus juice, perhaps a little white miso, and make a salad dressing in all of two minutes that will put those bottled disasters to shame!

It’s a family affair
If you don’t have your own Mr. French, get your little Buffy’s, Jodie’s and Sissy’s involved in the prep. It’s only very recently that cooking and meal preparation became a one-woman operation. Especially where children are concerned — getting them involved in the process is educational and helps them to get acquainted with new and healthy foods in a natural way. It’s fun to stir up their little interests.

Give those kids grapefruit spoons and have them hollow out zucchini or eggplant boats to be stuffed with your grain medley and veggie mix. Slice up two or three large potatoes and let the kids arrange them in layers with some veggies and frozen spinach, top with low-fat cottage cheese whizzed with some garlic/herb puree in the processor till smooth and bake for a simple Shepherd’s pie. Or blend some garlic/herb puree, two or three grains and a brick of firm mashed tofu. Add some instant mashed potato buds or breadcrumbs to adjust the texture/water content. Give each kid a little bowl of the stuffing mix, a bowl of water, and some won ton wrappers and let them get creative making delicious won tons to either be sauteed or boiled in water and added to a simple soup of root vegetables like rutabaga, daikon, turnips, celery root, or sweet potato.

Another great simple soup is quickly and easily made from sun-dried tomatoes, mushrooms, kale and onions. Saute the onions and mushrooms in a little oil and garlic/herb puree, add the tomatoes and their liquid, rough chopped kale and water. Simmer for 20 to 30 mins until the kale is tender and you’re set to eat.

The key to all of this, as you will soon discover, when you begin to run your kitchen efficiently, is to cut out the daily grind of prep time. Do that work all at once, once or twice a week. Then, when you hit the kitchen with all the grunt work done you really can put together a very healthy and truly delicious meal in about 20 minutes. And remember eating well is a habit. It is one of the most important habits we can cultivate and share with those significant others in our lives. Eat well and prosper!