Healthy and Fast Meals with (almost) No Cooking Required

I’m not going to lie, I have slacked off a little (or a lot!) when it comes to cooking this year. Between school, work, trying new workout classes ;), and trying to get a decent amount of sleep, cooking just hasn’t been a priority. But don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t mean I’m having frozen meals or fast food – it just means my meals are a little more simple and don’t take much time to make.

Whether you are a student like me, a working professional, home taking care of kiddos, or have other responsibilities, time is always the number 1 excuse for not eating healthy, so today I thought I would share my tips and tricks for fast and easy, healthy meals.

1. Cook ahead of time – I typically only turn on my oven and stove one or two times a week. I’ll make some chicken, roast some veggies, brown some ground turkey, and cook some rice or quinoa. From start to finish, it usually takes me no more than an hour. I keep everything in separate containers in the fridge so it’s ready when I get home from a long day at work.

2. Build a meal – Now that you have all the food is cooked and ready to be eaten, all you have to do is put it together. Think of it like an assembly line…add some rice, chicken, broccoli, and sauce to a bowl, pop it in the microwave and voila, dinner is served.

3. Oh, wait – there is no step three 😉 It is so easy there are only two steps! See, no excuses!!

Here is a little cheat sheet for building a healthy meal:

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  • Tricks if you are really short on time:
    Choose canned tuna, buy a pre-baked chicken, or try canned beans which don’t require cooking for your protein sources
  • Use frozen veggies that you can steam in the microwave – no baking or chopping required.

Now that you have the “recipe” to build your own healthy meal, I thought I would share some of my favorites. Some might sound strange, but I promise they are tasty! Also, lots are vegetarian since I was experimenting with being a vegetarian for a month.

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No excuses now! What are your favorite meals to build?

Being Vegetarian

Exactly four weeks ago I decided to become a vegetarian…temporarily. Yep, I have officially been a vegetarian for one full month. I had been pondering the idea for a while and I had finally used up all the chicken and turkey in my freezer, so I thought it would be a good time to start. (Oh, and I guess I should include that I just cut out all meat and fish. I still ate eggs and dairy.)

By no means did I plan on being a vegetarian forever, but as a future dietitian I thought it would be a good experience to walk in the shoes of vegetarian patients and clients that I will work with.

Anyways, I thought I would share some things I have learned from my experience with you this week.

The good, the bad, and the indifferent

The first question I have gotten from all my friends and family is, “how do you feel”, and honestly, I can’t say that I feel much different. Prior to my vegetarian experiment, I didn’t each much red meat at all; I mostly stuck to chicken, turkey, tuna, and salmon. Research has shown that there are a lot more benefits to cutting out red meat compared to other lean meats, so I don’t know if that has anything to do with the lack of change I have felt.

People are also very concerned about protein, so I’ll also mention that I was keeping track of my food intake using MyFitnessPal at the beginning to make sure I was getting enough protein. While I could easily meet my protein needs for the day, I had to be a lot more conscious of including it at every meal and snack than I was before.

With that being said, eating out was a struggle– not because there aren’t any vegetarian option (you can get pasta and potatoes pretty much anywhere), but because restaurant menus lack vegetarian protein sources. I especially had a hard time in the cafeteria at the hospital. After the first week I started bringing a container of tofu and beans to add to salads and soups to make sure I got my protein in.

So while it may have been a little difficult at times, I actually am really happy that I gave vegetarianism a shot. I had to get super creative in the kitchen, and find new ways to incorporate tofu, tempeh, beans, and eggs into my meals to make sure I got enough protein in for the day (which means lots of new vegetarian recipes and food combination to share in the coming weeks!). I also now have a good basis of vegetarian recommendations for any patients or clients who come to me with questions.

And finally (skip this section if you don’t want to hear about flatulence and bowel movements), vegetarianism has made me very regular. Vegetarian diets tend to be a lot higher in fiber which kept everything moving smoothly. The first week I was a little gassy (probably due to all the beans I was eating), but my body got use to it and I have been fine ever since.

Overall thoughts

I think a lot more good came out of this experiment than bad. I have cooked up some new things in the kitchen and have had experiences that will help me be a better dietitian. Meeting protein needs can be tough but definitely manageable if you plan ahead.

While I think going completely vegetarian isn’t really necessary (unless you would like to, of course), there are lots of benefits to being a vegetarian. Plant-based diets usually have a lot more fiber, vitamins, and minerals. There is also lots of research showing that decreasing meat intake can help prevent chronic diseases, aid in weight loss, and save the environment.

If I were to give any recommendations, I would say that it is always beneficial to cut back on red meat intake (Eat it no more than 1x per week) and increase you fruit and veggie intake. You can also try Meatless Mondays or another modified version of being a vegetarian to get some of the benefits (such as meatless lunches during the week).

Looking forward

This week I am planning on including a lot of fish and meat to see if I feel any different (I give you any updates in next weeks post). After that, I’ll definitely be adding fish and meat back into my diet but probably not in the same quantities as before. I am going to continue to include vegetarian meals on a regular basis because they both healthy and – more importantly – they taste good!

Considerations

If you are or decide to become a vegetarian or vegan long-term (longer than 1-2 months), I suggest seeing a dietitian (or sending me an email, I’m happy to help!) since there are some vitamin and mineral deficiencies that can occur if you aren’t taking supplements.

Protein!

From protein bars, protein pancakes, protein shakes, protein peanut butter, and giant chickens breasts, I was originally planning on writing this posts about the potential risks of a high protein diet. In school we learned that high protein consumption could damage the kidneys and lead to bone disease, health disease, and possibly cancer. But, when I started digging through the research to write this blog post, I was kind of shocked to find out that none of these side effects of high protein intake were really proven.

The research shows that high protein diets can be harmful to the kidneys, but only in people who already have kidney problems (which are usually caused by high blood pressure and diabetes). High protein diets might also increase the amount of calcium we lose in urine, but it hasn’t been found to have an effect on our bones. In fact, more protein can actually prevent bone fractures.

As for heart disease and cancer risk, we should really be focusing more on where our protein comes from. Many protein rich foods, like beef and red meats, are also high in saturated fats. This saturated fat is actually what has been found to increase risk for heart disease and cancer, not the protein. That means, we should focus on eating proteins lower in saturated fat, like lean meats, low fat dairy, and fish.

So now that we have busted some of the myths, here are some benefits of protein for healthy sources:

1. Protein is made up of amino acids, which are the building blocks for cells, muscles, and tissues in the body. Therefore, more protein can help build/preserve muscle mass and repair damaged tissues.
2. Protein tends to be very satiating, which can lead to fewer calories consumed from other foods and weight loss.
3. The jury is still out there on this one, but some research shows that high protein intake can increase your metabolism (that means more calories burned while you sit on the couch!).

How much protein should you eat?

In order to prevent deficiency, you should have 0.35 grams of protein per pound of your body weight, but in reality, most of us can benefit from more than that. I suggest 0.5g-0.75g per pound (I wouldn’t go much higher than 0.90g/lb – there isn’t enough research to know the long term effects anything higher than that). Most of us typically land in this healthy range every day just by eating everyday foods, but like I said before, it is important to focus on those lean, low fat protein sources to meet your daily goals.

And remember, just because protein has the spotlight doesn’t mean you can eliminate carbs and fats – they provide lots of important nutrients we can’t live without!

 

Breakfast Cereal

Cereal: It is the “go-to” breakfast. Whether you pour a bowl at the table in the morning or dump some in a bag as you are running out the door, it is a pretty classic breakfast. In fact, grain-based breakfasts have been found to help people lose weight better than those who eat a traditional eggs, sausage, and toast breakfast.

Unfortunately, those grain-based cereals can be more like sugar-based cereal. Froot Loops, Frosted Flakes, Coco Puffs, and Lucky Charms and even cereals like Kellogg’s Smart Start, Kashi, and Raisin Bran that are all marketed as “healthy” have heaps of sugar in them… sometimes more than a chocolate chip cookie!

I know that makes finding a healthy cereal very confusing, so here are my top 4 tips for choosing a healthy cereal to start your day with.

  1. It should have less than 10g of sugar per serving
  2. At least 3g of fiber per serving
  3. At least 5g of protein per serving
  4. The first ingredient should start with the word whole (ie. Whole wheat, whole grain, etc.)

If your cereal box doesn’t meet all 4 of these, put it back on the shelf and try another one of the other 500 cereals in the aisle. The one exception is protein. If your cereals falls a little short on protein, that is fine, but I would recommend having a side of eggs or low sugar Greek yogurt on the side.

I’ll also mention that portions are a big deal with cereal. The serving size is usually ¾ to 1 cup but we often dump 2-3x that in the bowl. Try measuring out your cereal for a few days. You might be shocked by how much you are actually eating.

Here is a list of some good cereal options:

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Meatless Monday

If you thought hospital cafeterias were full of healthy food options, you thought wrong. Unfortunately, even in the building where heart disease is being treated, it is also being served on a plate in the form of fried chicken, onion rings, French fries, pizza, and deli sandwiches. Since those are the main options, I resort to the salad bar daily for my lunch, filling my bowl with romaine, kale, tomatoes, peas, mushrooms, and chicken. But it is only now, after almost 12 weeks, that I realized the cafeteria does “Meatless Monday’s”. I just thought every now and then the salad bar was out of chicken, but I have now realized it happens to be every Monday…the same day they don’t serve chicken fingers or BBQ chicken pizza.

With research linking meat consumption to cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity, at least the hospital is on the right track one day a week. Meatless Monday’s is a concept used to both reduce health risks, but also reduce our carbon footprint since there is so much water and fuel used in meat production.

After the Meatless Monday realization I had, I decided I would try something other than a salad this past Monday. In a cafeteria where most of the food looks slightly suspicious, my meatless lunch was actually delicious – stuffed sweet potato with a kale, quinoa, and cranberry salad and a quarter of a roasted acorn squash. It was also nice to switch things up and have something other than a salad.

I have never participated in Meatless Monday’s before, but I think I might try to continue Meatless Monday’s through dinner at home. It is great motivation to get creative in the kitchen, try something new, and get some health benefits.

Worried you won’t get enough protein by going meatless? No need to worry! 85% lean ground beef has 10.4 grams of protein per 100 calories and broccoli has 8.5g per 100 calories… Pretty close, huh? Plus broccoli is full of fiber, vitamins, and minerals that meat doesn’t really have. And of course, there’s always quinoa, tofu, lentils, yogurt, beans, and nuts which are all good sources of protein.

Sure, meats have lean protein, vitamin B12, and iron, but you don’t need to have it everyday to reap the benefits. Give Meatless Monday’s a try! If anything, it is a good excuse to fill your plate with extra veggies, which never hurts.

Up for a challenge? In doing some google-ing about Meatless Monday. I also found there is a campaign called #NoRedOctober encouraging people to cut meat for the entire month of October. I know October is almost over but you can try it any month. Think you could do it? It would be tough, but even a meatless day or week is better than nothing.

Tempeh Pizza

Usually, I can’t wait to eat the veggies on my dinner plate, but every now and then, I want food that isn’t so healthy. Last night was one of those nights. After having fish, chicken, salads, and tons of veggies throughout the week, pizza sounded good for some strange reason (I am usually not much of a cheese or pizza fan). So, instead of ordering pizza (which is super unhealthy and costs more than making my own), I went to the store to get some ingredients. You probably can guess that I got sauce and cheese, but no bread or flour were needed for my pizza crust… I used Tempeh.

Tempeh is a vegan protein made from soybeans (sometimes used as a tofu alternative). I like it much better than Tofu because it is more patty/cake like and doesn’t have that strange mushy tofu texture. It is high in protein, potassium, and unsaturated fat (the good kind of fat)…and it makes for a great pizza crust ;).

The trickiest part was cutting the tempeh into thin slices, but other than that, this recipe is very simple. I like my tempeh crispy on the edges so I put it in the oven for a while before adding the sauce and cheese, but tempeh can be eaten raw, so feel free to put it in the oven for as short as you would like.

Also, remember, it is tempeh and not any sort of bread so it does have a little different taste and texture than traditional pizza…but it is filled with a lot more nutrients!

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Lemon Chia Muffins

Two years in the books! I am not quite sure what I expected when I started blogging, but I never imagined that I would keep it up for this long (I honestly thought it might be one of those novelties that is cool at first but wears off). Either way, I have really enjoyed writing about my food and nutrition experiences.

Just like last year, I thought I would share healthy and lemony recipe to celebrate: Lemon Chia Muffins. Testing out this recipe was just a little more exciting than any other recipe I’ve made. Why, you ask? Because it was the very first thing I ever cooked/baked in my very own apartment! Technically my Blogiversary is August 1, but I was a little busy moving back to Cleveland. There are lots of “firsts” for me this month: first apartment, first day of my Dietetic Internship, and first day of grad school so I am sure I will have lots to share.

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Anyways, back to the muffins. They are packed with tons of nutrients that you wouldn’t find in your typical sugar-filled muffins. The whole wheat flour provides more protein, fiber, iron, and magnesium than white flour. That being said, baking with whole wheat flour makes cakes and muffins a lot more dense and chewy (I thought these tasted great with this texture but it is not your typical crumbly muffin). The chia seeds also pack in some fiber and the Greek yogurt adds protein and calcium.

Each muffin comes in at about 140 calories, only 1g of fat, and 6g of protein (that’s the same as 1-2 egg whites- but tastes much better!).

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