After a long day at work, you’re tired, hungry and want to curl up on the couch with your dinner. The only problem? You don’t actually want to cook it.
Cooking your meals often leads to eating healthier and saving money, but when you’re strapped for time or if you don’t like to cook, the temptation to just order pizza is real.
Fear (and order takeout) not: You don’t need to go full Betty Crocker to enjoy the health, flavor and budget benefits of homecooked meals.
Try these cooking hacks for nutritious, no-stress meals that can be whipped up in less time than it takes for that pizza to be delivered.
The basics of healthy cooking
If you want to eat nutritious food but don’t want to bother with the nitty gritty of scales or doing enough home research to have a minor in nutrition, an easy framework to follow is the plate method.
“When you’re cooking, make half the meal vegetables, a quarter protein and a quarter grain or starches, like carb foods,” says Morgan Chojnacki, a dietitian at the Nutrition Clinic at UW Medical Center – Montlake. “This keeps your blood sugar stable, you feel fuller for longer, and it helps you feel your hunger cues, so you know when you’re satisfied.”
This doesn’t mean you need to segment the food on your plate into sad portions of chicken, broccoli and rice. So long as you’re generally sticking with the ratios and incorporating in the food groups, you can mix and match ingredients to make your favorite meals.
If you’re new to the kitchen or it’s been a while, it’s also important to remember some food safety basics: avoid cross contamination of raw meats with fruits and veggies, cook and store food at the proper temperature, and wash your hands and space often.
6 cooking hacks to make life tastier, easier and more balanced
Not a cook? Not a problem.
Chojnacki shares how to make preparing meals at home easy breezy.
Stock up on staples
“You’re more likely to cook a meal if the food is already there and available,” Chojnacki says.
Some solid items to have on hand include frozen chopped vegetables; grains like whole grain pasta or brown, black or red rice; and protein options like frozen chicken breast, frozen shrimp, or beans and lentils. It’s also nice to have some favorite spices in the cupboard so you can easily add a pop of flavor.
This way, if you’re in a pinch, you can boil up pasta and veggies, top it with sauce and call it a meal.
Cheat on chopping (and other food prep)
You don’t need to prep every item yourself to have a homecooked meal.
If you don’t like chopping produce, buy prechopped fresh or frozen veggies. If cooking meat weirds you out, grab a rotisserie chicken from the grocery store or snag some flavored tofu. Even small things like using minced or powdered garlic instead of peeling and dicing the cloves yourself can make meal prep easier.
“Just making small changes can speed up the process. You can still get good and fresh food without having to do all the extra work,” Chojnacki says.
Slow cook your way to glory
Chojnacki’s all-time favorite cooking hack? The slow cooker.
“It’s my go-to advice for anyone who says they need help in the kitchen,” she says.
This is because you can pull out those staples you now have on hand, toss them in the slow cooker with some seasoning and then forget about them. By the time you get home from work you’ll have a hearty, healthy chili or warm and comforting soup — without needing to stand over the stove.
Freeze, reheat, repeat
You don’t need to turn to TV dinners to have easy freezer meals.
“You can cook for yourself, freeze the leftover and have easy, ready-to-go meals anytime, prepared by you,” Chojnacki says.
Just be sure to put your food in a freezer safe container so you don’t have a leaky mess to deal with later. You can leave leftovers in the freezer for up to six months; then, when you’re ready to eat them, heat the food to 165 degrees Fahrenheit to be sure it’s cooked all the way through and is safe to eat.
Pick prepared foods like a pro
Even as you start to meal prep more, some days you might not have it in you to cook, and that’s OK.
If you’re selecting premade meals from the grocery store, Chojnacki recommends items with shorter ingredient lists (bonus points if you can recognize and pronounce the items).
“There’s not anything bad with getting frozen preprepared dishes of things like chicken, fish or burger,” she says. “But if you see a huge list on the back, then it’s probably going to be full of a lot of additional, less-healthy ingredients.”
It also helps to choose items with sauce on the side, so that you can portion out how much dressing you want on your food. This helps you control the amount of sugar, salt and saturated fats you’re eating, as these often hide in sauces.
You can help yourself be more mindful at a restaurant by choosing the item you want off a menu ahead of time when you are full. This way you’ll be less likely to be influenced by any hangry cravings when you order. It can also help to portion out the food you want to eat from a restaurant and put the rest in a to-go container (or in your fridge if you ordered takeout) for later.
Enjoy your food
Perhaps the most fun hack is to savor the food you cook. Let yourself enjoy the smell, sight and flavor of the dish you made — and be proud that you put that meal together. (No judgement here if you have an endless scroll of food photos on your phone.)
Along those lines, there’s also space in eating balanced meals to enjoy your favorite foods and restaurants.
“If you are cooking the majority of the time and Fridays are takeout or restaurant night, just enjoy your food,” Chojnacki says. “Aim for 80% being mindful and eating healthfully and 20% allowing yourself to enjoy something you wouldn’t make at home. Remember, you are human, and you’re allowed to enjoy things.”