Too tired to cook? Too busy? Just don’t feel like it? I get it. Most of us need a break from cooking every once in a while. But if once in a while has turned into several nights a week, and you’re stopping at McDonald’s, ordering a pizza, or picking up Vietnamese instead, it’s going to start taking a toll on your health, if it hasn’t already.
The good news is, there’s a middle ground between Subway and gourmet from scratch! Hit the grocery store instead of Boston Pizza. You can restock fresh fruit and veggies while you’re there, and put some real food on the table in about ten minutes or less. Your heart and wallet will thank you.
If you’re seriously not up for cooking. At all.
Grocery stores are happy to meet this need. Some have gotten quite creative with their offerings, but you should at least be able to find these just about everywhere:
- Rotisserie chicken. Pair it with a salad from the deli or a bagged salad from the produce section. Not quite enough food for you? Add a pre-cooked whole grain, like this brown rice. But dodge the seasoned rice-in-a-box, which can add upwards of 1000mg of sodium.
Compare to fast food: A 3 oz serving of rotisserie chicken has about 300mg of sodium, the bagged salad might add another 300mg, depending on the ingredients, and this rice has next to none. A similar salad at Subway will be about 1100mg of sodium. And this way, you can use the leftover chicken for lunches all week.
- Bean and/or whole grain salad from the deli counter. If you’re picturing a tired 4-bean salad with overcooked green beans, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Most grocery stores are making satisfying, nutrient-packed salads with ingredients like quinoa, black beans, and roasted peppers. Skip the couscous salad unless you know it’s whole-wheat (most aren’t). Quinoa is great, but if you see less common whole grains like wheat berries, bulgur, or barley, try them, they’re good! Natural food stores, like Planet Organic, do this especially well, but they will be pricier.
Compare to fast food: Uh, most fast food restaurants don’t offer this (except Freshii).
If you’re up for spending 10 minutes in the kitchen.
Now you’ve got some serious options. I’ve included some ideas to get you your half-plate of veggies, but of course, you can substitute with your favourites. And if you pick up some pre-washed greens, you can easily make a side salad. (Try this Easy Arugula Salad.)
- Tuna melt. Somehow a tuna sandwich seems more like lunch, but adding a little cheese and frying turns it into a satisfying supper. Pair with sliced cucumber or baby carrots. And make sure to use whole-grain bread (real whole-grain – here’s how to tell).
Compare to fast food: You won’t get real whole-grain bread in any restaurant that I know of, except Good Earth. The best the others usually do is 50%.
- Poached egg sandwich with avocado, greens, or sliced tomato. Throw a few extra thick tomato slices in the hot pan at the end for a quick veggie side.
- Big salad. My seven year-old told me once she didn’t like salads. I said, “by definition, you can’t not like salads, because you can make them out of whatever you like.” She eats salads now, although there are a few more cranberries in them than I would like.
Start with some of the tastier (and more nutritious) dark greens you find pre-washed in plastic containers and add extras like tuna, chicken, chickpeas, cooked pasta, sunflower seeds, frozen corn, avocado, parmesan cheese… whatever you have handy. If you have a batch of homemade salad dressing (which is easy and soooo much better than bottled), great, but if not, toss it in some good olive oil and vinegar, with a sprinkle of salt and pepper. You might just turn into a salad lover yet.
- Kickin’ chicken. This Looney Spoons recipe is a cinch and a crowd-pleaser. I often make it when we have a crowd of carnivorous out-of-town guests. It goes in the oven in less than 10 minutes, but it does need to cook for 35-40 minutes. You just mix salsa and peanut sauce in a baking dish, add chicken, and slide it into the oven while you change and unwind. (I don’t use the basil unless I happen to have some.) I like this Blue Menu peanut sauce, which is a bit lower in sodium than most. It’s good over quinoa. I usually stir pre-washed baby spinach into the hot dish at the end, and it wilts nicely, for your half-plate of veggies.
Note: I have no relationship with the manufacturers of these foods. I just think you might find it helpful.
- Black bean soup. This is another one you can put together in less than 10 minutes. Fresh lime juice is delightful in this, but if you don’t have it, bottled will do. And use regular (not reduced-fat) cheese on top if you prefer. Although the recipe says 1004mg of sodium, if you buy no-salt-added canned beans, low-sodium broth, and use frozen instead of canned corn, you’ll be down to about 500mg, and most of that is in the cheese. Go easy if you want less.
Compare to fast food: Again, pretty rare to see any kind of legume/pulse at a fast food restaurant, but Tim Horton’s chill, for comparison, is 1180mg of sodium per cup.
- White fish with pesto sauce. Fish is so quick and easy! Depending on thickness, it will only take a few minutes at 400F, or grill it wrapped in foil if you prefer. You can pick up pesto in most grocery stores where they sell the pasta sauce. It’s not as good as homemade pesto, but the sun-dried tomato goes nicely with fish. Spread on a little before cooking. And while you have the oven or grill hot, throw in some vegetables too. Mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, or peppers don’t require a lot of chopping and are great roasted or grilled.
- Broccoli slaw stir-fry. Really for this, you can use any pre-chopped veggies you like. Pre-sliced mushrooms are handy. And the easiest protein I know is frozen shrimp (look for the MSC checkmark for sustainable shrimp). Add a little chopped ginger or garlic if you’re feeling energetic. Or not. The peanut sauce above is good with a stir-fry, or just a little shake of reduced-sodium soy sauce. Easy peasy.
- Chill-rubbed salmon. This is just salmon topped with a flavourful, 3-ingredient spice rub. If you like it, make extra and keep it in a ziplock bag in the pantry. Pair with salad.
- Beans and rice. Who says healthy eating has to be expensive? Canned black beans (no-salt-added, or rinse well), tomatoes (no-salt-added if possible), and brown rice are a great combo, with salsa and a grated cheddar on top of you like. Bonus if you have an avocado ready to go.
- Pasta with ground meat and veggies. I know what you’re thinking. Isn’t pasta bad for you? It’s about portion size. If you eat this, you’ll get more carbs and calories than most of us need in a day, let alone a meal.
But go for something like this instead,and you’ve balanced a smaller portion of pasta with protein and veggies. Now you’re in business. About 1/2-1 cup of the pasta itself is plenty. Fill the rest of the bowl with the other stuff. And for all of you watching your blood sugar, if you cook it until just al dente, pasta actually has a low glycemic index. While you can make your own sauce, a can of no-salt-added tomatoes is decent substitute in a pinch, and much lower in sodium than store-bought pasta sauce. Bonus points if you want to sprinkle in some basil, oregano, garlic, or parmesan cheese (the real stuff, please). Stir in some baby kale at the end to top off your veggie quota for that meal.
- Black-bean quesadilla. If you follow me on Instagram, you know we make this every week or two. Simple, simple. Just mash up black beans with salsa (I prefer a quick blitz in the food processor) and spread on whole-grain tortillas (these Dempster’s ones are about the lowest sodium I’ve found, and they’re real whole-grain). Top with a sprinkle of grated cheddar cheese, another tortilla, and bake for 15 minutes. Sometimes we add extra veggies, sometimes we don’t. (Translation: Sometimes I make it, sometimes my husband does.)
Most of these use ingredients may be in your kitchen already. If not, stock up on your next grocery run, so the next time you’re not up for cooking, you’ll got some easy options that hit the sweet spot.
One final tip about rice, quinoa, and other grains. While you can buy at least brown rice pre-cooked, it’s much less expensive to cook your own. Quinoa and bulgur take only 15-20 minutes to prepare. Wheat berries (and brown rice) take longer, but they all freeze nicely. So next time you cook some, make double and put the extras into single-serving containers. Then you’ll have some ready whenever you need it.
Happy (not) cooking! Do you have a no-time-to-cook favourite? Join the conversation on Facebook.