There are those days when we just don’t have the energy to plan and prepare an elaborate lunch or dinner. It might have been a long, stressful day at work. A tiring day doing those tasks that you always end up putting off and finally got around to. Or perhaps even a fun day with family or friends, playing games and spending time together.
If you have the luxury of a cook who can prepare fresh, home-cooked meals, that’s great but if not, is there no option but to order in?
Given the current situation with the pandemic, I don’t order in as much as I used to and I know many of my friends have changed their habits too. I also try to manage with ingredients that are available in my local neighbourhood stores, rather than travel to specialty stores where I can get gourmet ingredients.
We are all slowly learning to manage with available resources and make the most of what we have. But as fatigue sets in, there is a danger that we may start purchasing and consuming more highly processed foods, such as biscuits, instant noodles, processed cheese and other such products that are more easily available and ready to eat (or require minimal effort at our end). Where does that leave us? With a diet that unfortunately increasingly contains excessive salt, sugar and/ or unhealthy fats.
In these difficult times, it’s all the more important to ensure that we make the effort to eat nutritious foods. We need a diet that provides us all the nutrients we need to stay healthy and build our immunity.
And no, supplements are not the answer. Eating a variety of whole foods is the best way to help our body get the nutrients it needs.
How do we do this? Here are 5 simple tricks that will help you:
1. KEEP THINGS SIMPLE: You don’t need additional stress in your life.
You don’t need to be a MasterChef and whip up innovative combinations. Choose simple recipes based on your level of comfort in the kitchen.
Here’s a simple formula: 1:1:1. 1 portion carbs, 1 portion protein, 1 portion veg. Pick anything for each, and this formula will ensure that you always end up with a balanced plate. For example, rice + paneer + veg curry. Or roti + eggs + veggies. Or a salad with veggies + tofu + roasted potatoes/sweet potatoes. The possibilities are endless.
Use available ingredients to flavor your dishes. For example, ingredients like mustard, yoghurt, dried herbs, peanut butter etc can be used to create your own favorite dressings. And each of these can be healthy ingredients that will have a positive impact on your health.
Make double batches and store the extra portions safely (some dishes can even be frozen). Don’t shy away from using leftovers. These are probably healthier than what you get from that packet of instant noodles anyway.
2. PLAN AHEAD: Plan your weekly menu
Often, I find that the mental effort of planning the menu and sorting out the ingredients is the roadblock. Much like how crawling out of bed and getting ready for my workout takes more mental effort than actually doing the workout!
So how about taking out the biggest hurdle? Plan the menu in advance one week at a time. There’s a sample menu sheet below that you can print out and use – just stick it up on your refrigerator. You can note down exceptions such as a birthday dinner out, or a work event, but have the rest of the week covered in advance. Once you have the plan, you know what to shop for and you’re pretty much guaranteed to have a good week. All because you took a little time to plan over the weekend. It’s certainly worth it.
3. PREP INGREDIENTS IN ADVANCE: Make cooking a breeze
(a) Big batches of staples such as cooked legumes (eg. chickpeas, kidney beans etc) can be frozen for storage so you can save time and effort. Thaw only what you need and use as required.
(b) Chop vegetables such as green beans, carrots and peppers and store in airtight containers for 2-3 days at a time. While some vitamins may be lost over time, they will still offer better nutrition than pre-packaged processed foods.
(c) Wash, dry and freeze herbs in oil or water (in small batches using ice cube trays, so you can use only what you need).
(d) Prepare dressings and dips in advance and store in the refrigerator. Many of these can be stored safely for 1-2 weeks. If you want to use store-bought dressings, just pick the ones which have the simplest ingredients, and be sparse while using!
Your menu sheet (see below) even has a space for you to note down what you can prep in advance.
4. MAKE USE OF AVAILABLE RESOURCES: Get creative
(a) The internet is heaven-sent :o) There are thousands of recipes and videos of cookery shows available online. Just follow a couple of your favorite websites or chefs and pick simple recipes that you like the look of.
(b) Ingredients can be versatile and used in different ways to help you make a variety of dishes. For example, cooked chickpeas can be used to make an Indian curry, tossed into a salad or a soup, whizzed into a hummus dip or even combined with other ingredients to make falafels or a burger patty.
(c) If an ingredient is not available or too expensive, try to substitute with alternative ingredients that you can source. You may even end up creating a new dish that is better than the original recipe!
5. SAVE TIME AND ENERGY: Make one dish, but fill with variety
You must have heard of ‘one-pot’ meals. All you need to do is throw in a bunch of ingredients and cook them together and you have yourself a filling meal. Pick a combination of vegetables, proteins, carbohydrates and a small amount of fat, so you get a well-balanced meal. An instant pot, pressure cooker or a large skillet is all you need. A simple way to save time on washing up too!
Looking for ideas?
a) A salad made with a combination of colourful herbed roasted veggies, topped with boiled eggs. Veggies can include broccoli, cauliflower, bell peppers, red pumpkin, beets, carrots, sweet potatoes etc. Just throw them all in the oven, tossed in olive oil with herbs, salt and spices and roast. That makes for a combination of starchy and non-starchy veggies, giving you both nutrients and carbs, with eggs for protein.
b) A soup made with mixed vegetables like bottlegourd, green beans, tomatoes, carrots, onions and garlic, along with cooked chickpeas and paneer tossed in for more protein.
c) A fruit and vegetable smoothie with protein powder.
And if you want to go the extra mile
This is a great time to cook and eat with your family! Involving everyone including kids in the kitchen can have many benefits. It can be a therapeutic process, providing:
(a) a great way to bond with each other,
(b) learn new skills,
(c) have fun,
(d) help with stress relief; and
(e) you never know – the kids may even be more willing to try new dishes!
Go ahead and note down the ‘family Masterchef session’ on your weekly calendar too!