Finding time to cook can be a challenge. Many of us turn to convenience foods that, though fast and easy, don’t always provide enough of the nutrients we need and that can be too high in sodium, sugars, or calories.
You need not abandon convenience food or become a slave to the stove. We’ve taken a look at five quick-fix meals and suggest easy ways to make them more nutritious and satisfying—in hardly any time at all.
Packaged Grain Mixes
It’s tempting to call these dinner when all you have to do to prep them is boil water and add a packet of seasonings. But your meal will lack balance. “A grain alone is not a complete meal,” says Susan Saffel-Shrier, M.S., R.D., certified gerontologist and associate professor at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Adding some vegetables and protein, in addition to using some care when you shop for and prepare your grain, can help you make it a balanced plate. Try:
• Choosing a product made with a whole grain, such as wild rice, quinoa, or whole-wheat couscous.
• Using half the seasoning packet. You’ll still get plenty of flavor, but you’ll slash the sodium.
• Adding protein by mixing in chopped chicken, beans, or tofu, and topping off the blend with almonds or sesame seeds, says Lauri Wright, Ph.D., R.D.N., chair of the nutrition department at the University of North Florida. Or make it a power bowl. These blends of whole grains, greens, a protein, and vegetables are all the rage at restaurants and salad joints but can be pricey. Making your own is cheaper and easy: Combine about a cup of the cooked grain (refrigerate the rest to use in another meal) with any vegetables you choose, and a protein.
• Stir in a bag of stir-fried or steamed cauliflower rice to stretch your grain without significantly changing the consistency of the meal.
Canned or Boxed Soup
The biggest concern when it comes to soup is sodium. Low- or lower-sodium soups are a good place to start. What’s more, many canned soups are too low in calories, protein, and vegetables—fine for a starter course but lacking if it’s your main meal. Turn a canned soup into a healthy dinner by:
• Adding a bag of microwave steamed frozen vegetables, such as cauliflower, peas and carrots, or spinach.
• Mixing in a can of low-sodium beans, such as chickpeas or kidney beans, for fiber and protein.
• Serving it on top of ½ cup of a whole grain, such as brown rice or farro.
• Diluting the sodium by adding 1 cup of water. (If you’re adding other ingredients, you can turn your one can of soup into two days’ worth of dinners.)
Any meal that doesn’t require silverware to eat definitely falls into the “easy” category. Unfortunately, a fork and knife aren’t the only things you’ll skip when you choose this simple go-to. “Many times veggies and fiber are missing from sandwiches, while they can still be high in calories, salt, and fat,” Wright says. Help your sandwich stack up by:
• Starting with whole-grain bread; the fiber you’ll get is good for your heart and will help the meal feel more satisfying.
• Swapping some of the cold cuts, which can be high in sodium, for extra vegetables. “It doesn’t have to be just lettuce,” Saffel-Shrier says. Cucumbers, sliced peppers, shredded carrots, and spinach all work just as well between slices of bread.
• Upgrading your condiment from mayo, which adds calories and fat but little valuable nutrients, to mashed avocado or hummus. Both add flavor and texture along with nutrients such as fiber and potassium.
Freezer meals can be incredibly convenient and surprisingly tasty, Wright says. But—no shock here—they can also be a minefield of calories, salt, and fat. Turning to “light” frozen dinners may not be the solution. Some come in such small portions that they’ll leave you feeling hungry.
“Look for meals that have between 300 to 500 calories, less than 4 grams of saturated fat and 600 mg of sodium, while containing 5 or more grams of fiber and 10 to 20 grams of protein,” Wright says. Then make your frozen meal even better by:
• Serving it with a big side salad.
• Steaming or microwaving a bag of frozen nonstarchy vegetables, such as zucchini; mix together with the prepared meal in a bigger bowl. You’ll stretch the flavor of the sauce and add fiber and nutrients without contributing many calories.
• Finishing it off with some fruit, such as an orange or sliced watermelon. They are high in potassium, which helps your body excrete sodium and therefore can help keep your blood pressure low.
A bowl of cereal is the perfect meal for someone who needs healthy food, fast—if you balance it out, that is. “Cereal is a grain, so to make it a complete meal, add protein and fruits or veggies,” Wright says. Start by choosing a whole-grain cereal with little, if any, added sugars. Then try:
• Adding in some fruit, such as defrosted frozen blueberries or a sliced banana.
• Sprinkling it with nuts or seeds, like almonds or pumpkin seeds, for crunch and protein.
• Using cereal as a base for a parfait—layer it with yogurt, berries, and flaxseeds.
Takeout From the Supermarket
Grocery store premade meals can be convenient, but as is the case with restaurant dishes, they may not always be all that healthy. Here are some foods you can feel good about picking up.
Rotisserie chickens. They tend to be inexpensive, and you can use the meat in a variety of ways. One downside is that they’re salted, so they may contain a fair amount of sodium.
Salad bar fixings. With items such as whole grains, bean salad, cooked chicken and salmon, and hard-boiled eggs, you can get the makings of a meal, not just a salad.
Grilled/sautéed veggies. These save you from cooking veggies yourself, and you can buy only as much as you’ll eat. Just be sure they aren’t swimming in oil.
Safety note: Pick up prepared foods at the end of your shopping trip so that cold foods stay cold and hot ones stay hot. If you don’t eat them that day, store them in the fridge for no more than three or four days.