Not-Recipes for Not-Meals

Spur-Of-The-Moment Cooking Can Be Healthy and Fun

You can make delicious soup with a prepared base plus your own fresh vegetables and spices

Cooking from scratch with fresh ingredients is the gold standard for healthy plant-based eating. Tips to make cooking more enjoyable simplify this process. But some nights even the most undemanding recipes are out-of-reach. You are running late at work and get home tired and distracted. Traffic was a hassle. Maybe you have less than an hour to make dinner, eat, clean up, and run out for another commitment. Even on weekends, you can be squeezed for time as you bounce from one commitment to the next.

Don’t despair. Even in these stressful situations, you can have healthy, satisfying food. You do not need to settle for a fast food chain, take-out with uncertain ingredients, or running on empty.

The secret is to jazz up grocery store convenience items with your own fresh add-ins. You don’t need a recipe. Once you get the knack of doing this, you’ll never lack for ideas.

The trick is to select the healthiest convenience items when you shop and always keep a few in your house. Here are some ideas.

  • Soup in a box. Many brands offer soup bases you can pour from a box, using just the quantities you want.
  • Canned soup and chili
  • Jarred or canned tomato-based pasta sauce
  • Frozen ravioli, gnocchi, or entrees
  • Veggie burgers and dogs
  • Cold or hot cereal

Okay, you are probably wondering, how can this possibly be healthy? Everyone knows prepared foods are almost always too salty,

Always keep some fresh vegetables on hand to add to pasta sauce, soups, or wraps

may contain added oils, and possibly other preservatives as well. Keep two things in mind. One is that some prepared foods are healthier than other choices. Second, you are going to dilute the undesirable ingredients with your own tasty additions.

Here are five tips to figure out the best choices for the prepared foods for your pantry.

  1. Read the ingredient list carefully. Don’t look at claims on the packaging – only at the ingredients. If the item has any animal ingredients (milk, cheese, whey, cream, butter, fish, chicken, beef, egg or egg whites, and so on) then don’t buy it. Similarly, make sure that there are no hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils in the product and it is not deep fried.
  2. Favor foods made with tofu over foods made with isolated soy protein.
  3. Once you eliminate items that have unacceptable ingredients, compare the remaining choices to see which are lowest in fat and salt per serving.
  4. The next step is to see which have the most desirable ingredients, such as whole grains (will say “whole” in the ingredient list), vegetables, fruits, beans, and potatoes.
  5. Combine steps 3 and 4 to decide the products to buy.

You don’t need to do this every time you shop. Once you have your list of the best prepared foods, you can usually just buy the

Your cart is a blank canvas. You can add the best available choices...or not.

same brands over and over (reread the ingredient list every once in a while to make sure it has not changed).

The most important step is to add your own healthy ingredients to the prepared base until the healthy ingredients are a significant part of the total. Here are ideas for additions, but in the end you are limited only by your own imagination.

  • Add lots of fresh or dried herbs and spices and fresh or frozen vegetables to boxed or canned soup or chili. You can add leftovers that are already cooked, or just let the veggies heat in the broth on the stovetop. Most vegetables in soup do not have to be cooked a long time. It’s ok just to heat them through and you are good to go.
  • Follow the same procedure above with jarred pasta sauce. Use the sauce on whole grain pasta or another whole grain, such as brown rice.
  • Eat a veggie burger or dog on a whole grain tortilla or whole grain bread. Really pile on greens, veggies, and herbs until they are a thicker layer than the veggie burger or dog base.
  • In a real rush, top whole grain cold cereal with lots of fruit, cinnamon, and dairy-free milk.
  • Cover your healthy leftovers, such as baked potatoes, lentils, or beans, with a bit of boxed soup as a sauce and lots of veggies, herbs, and spices.
  • Cook extra amounts of fresh foods from scratch on days you have time, so there are always leftovers to combine with a purchased base.

This “cooking lite” strategy is not the optimum way to eat, but very often is preferable to just about all the choices that would otherwise be realistic. It’s a great alternative to fast food fries, a bag of chips, or canned soup with no fresh ingredients added.

If you ignore your hunger and don’t eat at all, you are way more likely to overeat later and gorge on totally unhealthy foods. If you are just running out the door, grab a couple pieces of fruit or some whole grain crackers as a not-meal, but don’t leave your body totally unfueled.

So let’s be realistic with our rushed modern culture. We need to live within our time resources as well as our financial resources, making the most of both. Cooking lite will help you to do that.

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Blog posting by Janice Stanger, Ph.D. Janice authored The Perfect Formula Diet, the smart person’s nutrition book built on sustainable food choices. Enjoy six kinds of whole foods for permanent, hunger-free weight loss and health.

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