Make It Easy

The most excellent Kathryn Elliot at Limes & Lycopene confessed her hatred of stir-fries in an entry called, Do small impediments stop you from eating well?

"Don’t get me wrong stir-fries are a great meal and I love eating them. They’re quick, easy and healthy … Plus we always have tofu and vegetables in the house, which are perfect stir-fry fodder. Our mid-week meals would be better and easier to prepare if I made more stir-fries.

Instead I hate and avoid cooking them.

There are lots of reasons for this.  I don’t think I cook them very well, we often run out of necessary condiments etc, etc.

But the real reason I don’t cook stir-fries is . . . I can’t stand cleaning the wok."

Rather than kidding herself that there would come a miraculous sunny day when wok cleaning suddenly appealed, she devised a different strategy – she steams her veg and grills her tofu then throws over a quick dressing.

I agree that it’s often the small, seemingly trivial things that lead to less healthy choices. Kathryn gave examples like skipping brekkie because you didn’t have milk in the house; raiding the vending machine because you forgot your afternoon snack.

Personally I’ve found eating well becomes easier if you’re truly realistic. What fits into your life? What are your likes and dislikes? What can you manage without wanting to stab yourself with a fork? Some people wouldn’t mind washing a wok but for others it could mean, Screw this! I’m dialling a pizza. (Not that Kathryn would do that, mind; being an ace nutritionist and all!)

I love food and I love cooking. In my fantasy life, I slave over complicated casseroles and ponce off to the farmers market to stroke the organic spinach. But in reality? I’m lazy, busy and irritable. And hungry. There’s no point pretending otherwise; you just have to work around it.

So I have a list of about 20 easy meals in the back of my notebook. There’s old Weight Watchers recipes, food blog recipes, soups, salads; things I swiped from Ready Steady Cook. Half of them aren’t meals so much as assembling things. I use the list to plan our meals before doing the weekly online grocery shop. I take into account the Level of Busyness – what will I have time and energy to cook? What could I be arsed to peel or steam after work or kickboxing?

I chuck the notebook at Gareth and ask for his opinion. He says, I don’t mind! You’re in charge of Foods. I say, Just look at the damn LIST would you.

We debate for five minutes: Yep. Nope. Bored of that. Aye. Nope. Too hard. That one’s good. Too much chopping. Too many utensils. Can’t we just have CHIPS for dinner? No. Oh.

Right now, with the Kitchen of Chaos, it’s about minimum effort. For example, in the past I’ve made falafels from scratch, blitzing chickpeas and herbs and whatnot. Currently the very thought of messy food processor and messy chickpea hands and messy frying pan makes me want to stick my head in the oven. So this week I bought ready-made, non-dodgy falafel that take ten minutes in the oven. Last night while they baked I slapped hummus, salad leaves, cucumber, cherry tomatoes and grated carrot on a wholemeal wrap. Then I plonked on the wee falafel… squeeze o’ lemon… dinner in 15 minutes. Rock n roll.

In summary: Online shopping, a daggy old list and a strong sense of reality make it easier for me to do the healthy thing. It took a lot of time and effort to find my groove, and sometimes I still fall out of it. But when I screw I just return to the basic formula and soon enough we’re rattling along again.

I realise this topic won’t be particularly earth shattering for some, but I know from experience that eating healthy can feel like a royal palaver and totally overwhelming. Do you have any crafty strategies for eating well? Let’s hear ’em!

UPDATE: Many people have requested a copy of The List – you can find it here.

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47 thoughts on “Make It Easy

  1. What gets me is when you buy a good of healthy recipes and it’s just 50 variations on the stir fry! Like I’m going to follow a recipe anyway and not just throw in what I have in the fridge/cupboard.

    I reckon having a good supply of (healthy) sauces/condiments helps. At least it’s adding some variety. Although some days I wish they’d just invent a new food so I didn’t have to think – my tip for that is have some Lean Cuisines or whatever in the freezer for when you just can’t handle thinking.

    Oh yeah and eggs. Eggs are awesome when you don’t have the strength to cook anything else.

  2. This isn’t really news, but what saves me–I am one of those perpetually snacking boredom eaters, esp. since I quit the smokes–is never having junk food in the house and always having plenty of easy-grazing foods like baby carrots, grape tomatoes, grapes, or sliced cucumbers. That way I can eat constantly without gaining weight.

  3. I always have a big pot of cooked brown rice on hand. That can be turned into a base for lunch, or a fried rice dish with egg and broccoli. Also, I always have tortillas to make some sort of fajita or taco dish out of meat and veggies and salsa.

  4. Well it may not be earth shattering but it always helps to have reminders of how to KEEP the weight off. It’s a daily grind, after all.

    Freezing cooked meat has been a huge life saver. When I’ve frozen raw meat in the past, there was never a good way to thaw it and when I needed it it was frozen. So, I cook my chicken and turkey and ground lean sirloin on the indoor grill and then freeze individual portions in ziplock bags. A quick turn in the microwave warms and thaws, and I have fresh tasty protein. And I no longer let fresh meat expire and go bad, which I used to do a lot and obviously was stupidly expensive and wasteful.

  5. This obviously isn’t going to work for everybody, but we recently invested in a gas grill. One of the reasons we rarely grilled is because we had a crappy old charcoal grill that took an hour to get to cooking temperature and then didn’t stay there very long. Now we can be cooking five minutes after we decide what to make. Also, the gas grill has a lot more surface area, so we can grill up a bunch of chicken or tofu or vegetables and then just have them in the refrigerator. And no pots/pans/broiling plates to clean up. It has really been very helpful in trying to cook healthful meals quickly and without a lot of aggro.

    One thing I’m trying to do but don’t seem to really be getting the hang of is soaking dried beans for use in recipes. If I could just remember to do that once per week, I could have the basis of all kinds of delicous salads and snacks. But I never, ever do.

  6. I do the whole “pre cook” thing, cooking and prepping a bunch of stuff on Sunday morning. This makes it easy (relatively) for my family to get in a healthy breakfast and pack a lunch quickly in the morning.

    Also, cooking a bag of beans in the crock pot at the start of the week is great – I leave them unseasoned and I can use them in a variety of things throughout the week!

  7. Great post, and very true. I have a healthy-recipe list of my own too: my favourites are my own homemade bolognese sauce with loads of veggies. I freeze it in portion-size baggies for easy dinners. Would it be too much trouble to ask you to post your 20-recipe list?

  8. strategies? Well, I am quite a faddy eater anyway which narrows down my choices quite considerably, so I simply make sure that I plan the week before I go shopping on Sundays!!

    Having said that there is a particular sausage casserole that I just love, but it makes a terrible mess of the pot, so I try to cook it in one of those disposable foil thingies, but I never remember, so I still have to wash up the darn thing!

  9. I think most of us have learned that the key to success is surrounding ourselves with healthy options rather than bad options. As such I just don’t have junk food in the house. That way when I’m home I eat healthy. Going out is still a bit of a problem at times but I’m getting better.

  10. I’ve had to become a food prep-whore with my crazy schedule. So on the weekends I shop and prepare foods that I’ll have interest in eating later. My fav’s are egg-like cassaroles and meats/veggies cooked in the oven in little tin-foil packets…oh and of course some southwest chili. The egg cassaroles are like frittatas, my fav. is the asparagus, mushroom and goat cheese one…mmm. If you want any of my recipes, email me and I’ll be happy to share them with you. Oh and check out this sugar & flour free cookie recipe, it’s good for anyone, except the nut allergic ones. link to kalynskitchen.blogspot.com

  11. Oooohhh, just to make your life even busier can you publish the odd recipie on here? Im so bored with my own notebook!

  12. My biggest problem was I didn’t like to cook and didn’t know what I was doing. I’ve since experimented and can cook a few more vegetables. I love those ziplock bags that you steam veggies in!

  13. Cheese Ravioli (from the refrigerated section) with veggie laden marinara, and a salad from a bag. Everyone in my house ACTUALLY eats this – I just have to vary the amount of sauce per picky eaters.

    Veggie burgers – just pop in the oven.

    Chili is surprisingly easy if you let it be. Just dump a bunch of cans (tomatoes of any kind) and seasonings in a pot – a few onion and green pepper bits, and you’re all set (let it simmer). Add canned beans closer to the end of cooking (maybe 30 mins or so). I try to chop my peppers and onions all at once and freeze them for use later.

  14. no worries naomi, i’ll scan it tomorrow 🙂

    kathryn i think you hit the nail on the head with the ‘don’t have the strength to think’ thing. sometimes you just need robot dinners i reckon.

    hiya jo! i will throw in a recipe now and then but warning you i did try the cooking blog thing once and FAILED miserably:)

    oh man, thanksfor the groovy comments, sorry my brian is too cactus to think properly… zzzzz

  15. I think its time for the resurrection of “Cooking with Ginger” – what do you think Shauna?

  16. My go-to is to saute sliced chicken breast in taco seasoning (mixed appropriately with water) and put in a whole-wheat tortilla with a sprinkle of white cheddar cheese.

  17. If im feeling VERY energetic on a day off,and i know im going to have a busy week ahead, ill get all my old plastic takeaway boxes (aaaah the memories) and make up 7 or 8 dinners, or even 10, on one day and then pop them in the boxes and freeze them. Then when i want to come in and i havent got the time or energy to cook something from scratch,(and invariably ill pick rubbish) i just pop one of my meals in the microwave. So i have healthy microwavable goodness.
    this worked particularly well when the oven blew up about a year ago. i popped round to my nans and cooked everything in one batch and froze it at home. i only needed my microwave whilst i waited for the lovely cooker people to arrive 🙂

  18. Boring a tip as it is, the best thing to keep me on the straight and narrow is to write out a food plan. I do it 2 or 3 days at a go and then just buy in what I need for those days – plus 1 treat. If I let myself have any lattitude/just play the day by ear I end up with ice cream for dinner.

  19. Soup soup soup. I make it for dinner. All kinds, Indian lentils +mushrooms, clear Asian ones with fish, Italian ones with canned beans or chick peas and lots of vegies, pureed ones with sweet potato etc Quick to make and great satiety.I have the left overs for lunch. I have a little book the Penguin Soup Bible which is brilliant.

  20. Dietgirl, thanks for the link – so very kind. Being realistic about what you eat is such an important step. I see so many people who tell me what they think they eat. The idealised version. But then when I send them off with a diet diary for a week, the actual diet is very, very different.

    Given a full, organic garden, a personal chef and lots of time we could all eat perfectly. But back in the real world it’s important to be realistic about what you can do.

    Buy what you have to, make what you can, try to avoid dialling for a pizza too often.

  21. I totally agree. You need to find what works for you. For me, it is a steamer (electric, sits on the counter). I can hack up some vegetable and stick it in with the timer while I fix something to go with the vegetables. I also always cook extra veggies -I can always use them in a salad, for snacking or in a fritata,

    The other essentials are frozen vegetables and making sure I have some ready-to-eat protein: cooked chicken breasts, marinated tofu, cooked tempeh, steak etc.

    I also like to have a nutritionally ok out: sometime delicious in the freezer or some takeaway that isn’t too bad. In my case that’s a local deli that has individual portions of roasted chicken, roasted vegetables and beet and gorgonzola cheese.

  22. Good posting – even though I am preggers and the thought of a diet to LOSE weight is the furtherest thing from my mind – I still want quick and healthy food when I get home from work.
    We tend to find it best (for shopping, feeding the hunger and not wanting to eat a block of chocolate afterwards) if we have a bit of protein and some salad or complex carbs. We buy enough meat from the butcher for 3-4 meals and will have a bit of steak/chicken/fish/pork on the BBQ each night (his job) and I will make some couscous (Ainsley Harriott instant is fabulous) with a quick green salad. This takes 10 mins tops – is healthy, delish and doesnt cost us too much (in time or moula). Saying that we do live in Oz where a) you can BBQ all throughout the year, b) meat is plentiful and fresh and relatively cheap.
    I’m sure I would cope with the whole protein thing being a veggie – but for me there is nothing better than a lean bit of steak from a bbq and a quick green salad!

  23. I’m afraid that I am one of those people who come in from work, having nothing prepared at all.

    My fall back recipe is always Pasta Bolognese. Some Turkey mince, jar of bolognese sauce, wholemeal pasta and some extra sharp parmesan cheese are always part of my staple foods.

    When I get some extra time, I will definitely start doing a weekly food plan. I personally think that this my main problem…..oh and also a very fussy 9 year old daughter!!

  24. What i am into now is beautiful easy soups for tea and for lunch I just grab a tortilla and shove some salad and avocado in it, yummy.

  25. I just discovered your blog today…I did laugh at this. I can completely relate to absolutely every word.
    Will look forward to reading more…after work, sadly.

  26. My new staple is Sticky Onion Chicken (recipe from Rosemary Conley). It’s sooooo easy to make (or else I wouldn’t bother) and I can prep it while I’m waiting for dinner to cook and let it marinade overnight – next day, bang it in the oven for 30 mins, brown rice and salad – Done!

    Also find having salad and cous cous in is a lifesaver:
    “What was that, you want chicken for dinner?” Chicken, salad, cous cous – tadaah!!!!
    “Lemon sole? Oki doki” Sole, salad, cous cous – Loverly!

    I suppose it does help that hubby would eat salad for every meal if I let him!!! (Yes, I mean breakfast too!)

  27. same breakfast every day

    usually a cooked lunch

    usually a salad dinner

    formula works well for me too.

  28. It seems to me that we could do with a website or a blog to record all our recipes and ideas. Being on diet it feels really hard to come home every evening and cook something healthy and low calorie. Although I am slowly (very slowly) starting to learn what meals are very quick and tasty…

  29. why am I NOT shocked out fantasy selves and reality selves are so similar 🙂

    Im entirely lazy and always think *today* shall be different.

    that’s why Im all about DO AS I SAY NOT AS I LAZILY DO NO.

  30. I can rarely be bothered to cook brown rice from scratch (takes too long!) and when I do, I eat too much. So I tend to cook a HUGE vat of it then freeze the cooked rice in portion-size bags. When you need one, take it out of the freezer, put it in a sieve, hold over the sink, pour over a kettle of boiling water and it’s ready to go.

  31. Thanks for the reminder. I work a lot and sometimes just cannot scrape together a thought for a meal. I am in a serious meal rut and bored, bored, bored with everything that I make.

    I might be able to scrape up a little motivation, though.

  32. This is a paradise for the lazy veggie lover, as they have women on the street who peel, cut up and prepare the veggies they sell for you while you wait. I grab a bag of those, steam them in my trusty bamboo steamer basket and eat them with an avocado, two boiled eggs or some slices of smoked salmon. At a pinch, I just have the veggies and throw on a handful of almonds for protein. Back in the developed world, my easiest dinner was edamame. I just steamed a packet of frozen edamame, added soy sauce and hey presto. Another very lazy meal, which I particularly like for breakfast but which is good anytime is a few heaped tablespoons of porridge oats, a small handful of almonds or other nuts and a chopped up apple or banana, topped with skimmed milk.

  33. I usually don’t have time to make a big salad for lunch in the morning, so instead I’ll just pile a whole bunch of vegetables- bags of carrots and whole tomatos etc- into a big bag and chop them up at work. And I lovelovelove eggs for when I’m feeling lazy:)

  34. One of my shortcuts is to make a white cheese sauce in the microwave. Takes 5-6mins from go to ready and can be used in a number of different ways.

  35. Just a thought, there is a website called savingdinner.com (I think) and they have all sorts of menu trailers. American though, so the ingredients can be a little strange. Also just to let you know, I joined a weightloss forum this week and a lot of the members (Australian) were raving about your book and website. Nice to know you are appreciated.

  36. god, i’m sitting here all smug about how just like everyone else out there i’ve surrounded myself with healthy options. i keep a stack of sauces and pasta for the quick and easy option, but i keep meaning to make up quick and easy stratas using whatever i can find.

  37. I try to make one big casserole-type dish on Sunday evening (or early Monday morning) and then eat leftovers for a few days because life is busy and I’m tired and cranky and don’t want to think during my work week. Between the casserole and making sure I have plenty of simple lunch stuff to pack and healthy snacks, I can usually squeak by.

  38. Well, this is slightly off topic, but I can’t eat stir fries anymore because I made them into ‘diet food’. I used to cook bland, tasteless stir fries when I was on a diet. They were so dry and over cooked, they were awful, it was practically a punishment.

  39. I drain a can of lentils and chuck it into the wok with some fresh spinach en chopped sun-dried tomatoes. Heat through and add some feta at the last minute… YUM! I’ve also tried cooking the lentils myself, but somehow they never taste as good. A perfect excuse for being lazy and using canned ones! Thanks for all the tips!

  40. I’m glad I’m not the only one who hasn’t cooked something because they don’t want to clean the dishes. My grandmother used to serve food on paper plates, so I blame her DNA.

  41. would it be possible to ask for your 20 recipe list too?

    my life savers are salads: chucking whaever i have into a bowl with salad dressing. this often includes veggies, pulses (tinned are always good because i rarely remember to soak them) and grilled haloumi (sp).
    another fave is my vegan chilli in winter, or the ol’ cabbage soup which i make a dutch oven of each week in winter and eat it about once a day. as i don’t measue everything each pot is always slightly different so i never get bored. or i can always add some pulses or barley or parmasan to the soup if i fancy a change.

  42. Ah Shauna, you hit the nail on the head once again. I’m currently struggling with summoning the energy to chop a few veggies let alone actually throw a whole recipe together. And yes, a bag of carrots is just as easy to buy as a bag of Minstrels, but let no one tell me that it’s actually a substitution. It just smacks of deprivation to me and I end up feeling like I deserve a reward for eating all those veggies anyway so it’s a tad counter-productive.

    By the by, you’ve been my inspiration for finally getting off my backside and starting my very own blog! Just wanted to say thanks for being such a superhero sweetheart.

  43. My healthy eating consists of lots of fruit n veg.

    I have porridge or cereal for brekkie. I have fruit n yogurt for lunch. I eat Tracker bars or nature valley granola bars as snacks. I have home cooked food for dinner.

    I buy tinned veg as its easier for me.

    I plan my menus monthly & have a set day each week for different foods. Monday is pasta day, Tuesday is mince day i.e. spag bol or sheppards pie, Wednesday is things like pizza, Thursday is vegetarian day i.e. soup or jacket potatoes, Friday is fish day, Saturday is things like curry or tortillas, Sunday is Roast day. This works well for me & I know I’m getting a balanced diet overthe week this way.

    I’m putting a list of foods I eat on my blog if anyones interested.

  44. I’m afraid I’d have to go with Jen and say, don’t have any unhealthy stuff in the house. Although every so often I get fed up with this. And sometimes unhealthy stuff creeps in (like that packet of chocolate digestives that my parents-in-law brought with them when they visited, and then didn’t eat any of).

    I’m like Gareth – I’d happily leave all the food decisions to somebody else! I like food, but by the time I get home from work I’m not really fussed what it is. I’ll happily chop any amount of veggies if someone else will make the decision for me.