This dilemma comes up a lot, and is hands down the most common question I get asked. We all know how hard it is to juggle work and kids, let alone throw healthy meals into the equation. Between work, time with the kids and the dreaded homework there isn’t much time left for shopping for healthy food and preparing meals from scratch. Lets not discriminate against the non working parents either. Running a house hold is busy enough especially if you’re driving the kids around to activities every day after school. I get it, it’s really busy, and dinner just kind of creeps up on us all. At this point we’re left with 30 minutes and we’re usually looking into our fridge exhausted.
Actually before we begin, hats off to all of you. You’re obviously really busy, you’re tired, you’ve got next to no time for yourself, and you’re still making time to think about healthy cooking. I hope you know you’re awesome. Ok – now here are some tips that might help everyone to prepare quick, healthy meals and maintain a bit more sanity during the working week.
You don’t need to be a Masterchef
Lets clear this one up from the get go. Don’t aim to cook elaborate meals that take more than 30 minutes to prepare, or an ingredient list as long as your to do list. Lets take the pressure off and just aim to cook healthy meals with as many nutrient rich ingredients as possible. Anything clean (not out of a box or jar) and simple is always going to be a winner. Remember that frozen substitutes that are still healthy. If you’re re-heating food or using frozen batches, just be sure to serve the dinner with a fresh green salad with as many fresh ingredients as possible. This can take just 5 minutes. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, lets look at some practical tips to help with your busy week.
Keep your pantry stocked
Keep your pantry stocked full of essentials to whip up a healthy quick meal. I keep tins of corn, beans, tuna, salmon, coconut milk, chickpeas, organic pasta sauce, every grain you can imagine, whole oats, chia seeds and LSA (linseed, soy, almond) mix in my pantry at all times. They keep for ages and can be used in a multitude of recipes. Likewise with herbs and spices such as turmeric, cumin, cinnamon that can jazz up a simple stir fry or curry in no time.
Frozen vegetables are absolutely acceptable if you are out of fresh one’s
Frozen fruit and vegetables are actually sometimes more nutritious than their fresh relatives. This is because they are picked at their absolute best – from a ripe, fresh and ultimate flavour perspective, and snap frozen to keep all that goodness inside them.
So what can you buy frozen? Skip the pre prepared meals freezer section of the supermarket and head to the fruit and veggie section. I find the following are pretty good frozen , preferably free from any nasty preservatives, flavours and/or additives : Berries (try and buy local produce), broccoli, green beans, corn, carrots, green peas and mixed vegetables.
Frozen veggies are perfect to add to curries, soups, stir fries and casseroles. They don’t taste as great as fresh counterparts in salads but there’s still plenty you can do with them and they add great nutrients to most otherwise bland meals. Plus you’ve always got them to hand. Just don’t rely on frozen fruit and veg all the time, try and serve your meals with a fresh salad or some steamed veggies where possible to make sure you are eating with the seasons (that’s our body’s natural way of getting the right vitamins you need at the right time of year).
I know it sounds all martha stewart (which I’m not) but planning ahead and thinking about the meals you might prepare the week ahead, BEFORE You do the big weekly shop, will really help in the long run. Knowing what fish or meats to buy ,which one’s need to be cooked sooner or can wait until later in the week, which meals you can cook once / eat twice (see below), which nights are you going to be super busy and might need a slow cooker on during the day, or a pre cooked option. I find it takes the stress out if I’m well prepared and it means less kitchen time in the long run too. Keep fresh eggs and some veggies in the fridge. If all else fails, there is ALWAYS a veggie omelette or eggs on toast which are perfectly healthy quick meals for adults and kids alike.
Learn some quick healthy recipes (and put them on the weekly rotation)
Some delicious quick and nutrient packed recipes that can all be cooked in under 20 minutes (plan ahead and buy your ingredients on the weekend).
- My favourite quick meal during the week is to marinade a piece if fish, whip up a tasty hearty salad or stir fry some veg, and quickly grill or pan fry the fish before serving. Fully of nutrients and not a lot of time needed, especially if you have some stir fried veggies left over from the night before.
- Salmon with Rainbow Salsa (or tuna steaks) and get the kids chopping the salsa
- Quick Curry Veggie Rice Bowls (15 minutes)
- Coconut Bacon Collard Greens (Make sure you bookmark this website for quick healthy meals)
- Kale salad with crispy chickpeas ok this one is for the adults but all you need is some pantry staples and some kale in the fridge. Nutritious to boot !
- Quinoa Gado Gado bowl (30 minutes). I told you minimalist baker was a heathy treasure trove!
- Teriyaki Chicken Casserole
- Simple Veggie and Tofy stir fry (Or swap chicken or fish with the tofu)
4. Cook in batches and use your freezer
Cooking certain meals in surplus and freezing in batches in your freezer is a great way to plan ahead for the inevitable night that you’re running late or something has popped up. Otherwise known as the takeaway or eggs on toast night (not that there’s anything wrong with an eggs on toast night .. just add some veggies, avocado or salmon to go with them). Do your kids like cooking? could they be convinced? setting aside a sunday afternoon every few weeks to cook up some meals and freeze is a great idea. Or just double the recipe when you’re cooking one of these meals (or your slow cooker is) and freeze the other half for another night. Great alternatives to take away. Remember to serve them with a fresh salad.
These meals make for perfect freeze and reheat meals down the track.
- Soups (try this roasted tomato soup recipe)
- Curries (This is a great sweet potato, chickpea and spinach curry recipe)
- Bolognese Meat
- Ragu (tomato, mince and veg) – add to brown rice or pasta
- Meat or vegetable patties
More Freezer Tips
Clear out your freezer regularly and put it to good use. There are some great tips here for getting more use from leftovers using your freezer. I’m especially fond of freezing curry pastes or stocks for future use.
Invest in a great slow cooker
This is absolutely non negotiable, especially as the weather turns cooler. When you’re working long hours you can put a few ingredients in your slow cooker in the morning, set it to cook and stay warm all day, and come home to the smell of a freshly cooked meal. It’s the equivalent of the elves and the bookmaker story we all read as kids. Just make sure you buy one with multiple heat settings and a keep warm function once the timer is up.
Some great healthy slow cooker recipes here – again, serve with a nice healthy fresh side salad.
- Quinoa Chicken Primavera (this is one of my favourite recipe websites so have a good search through it whilst you’re there)
- Slow Cooked Chicken Tortilla Soup
- Slow cooked Curry Cashew Chicken
- Slow Cooked Pulled Pork
- Chilli soy chicken with bok choy
- Slow Cook Mushroom Risotto with Peas
- This one is for the weekend when you’re too busy playing with your kids to worry about dinner – it takes 3 hours in the slow cooker Slow cooker vegetable frittata with Kale
- A google search on ‘slow cooker’ recipes will produce thousands of options if you ever run out of inspiration!
- Gingered Prawns with Snow Peas
- Chicken and asparagus Stir Fry
Using leftovers for tomorrow’s meal (known as cook once, eat twice)
Cooking enough to double up for the next night is great, especially when you know you’ll be home late tomorrow.
- Double the bolognese for dinner and make a lasagne at the same time which can be heated up the next night (remember to pack in the veggies), or add the bolognaise to zucchini pasta the next night
- Roast Chicken one night with vegetables, and leftover chicken can be used in the school lunchbox or served up with a salad and some healthy grains the next night. Great recipe for a roast chicken here (try roast parsnips instead of potatoes for a vitamin packed alternative that kids really like)
- Use your leftover chicken as a hearty salad tomorrow night BBQ chicken chopped salad
- Slow cook a pork shoulder whilst you’re at work and serve it in a curry or stir fry one night, and serve leftovers with roasted vegetables tomorrow night. Also great on sandwiches for lunch the next day.
- Roast a large tray of veggies for dinner and serve with some fish or roast chicken (or the pork above). Tomorrow night the leftover vegetables will make the best frittata with a side salad. Just add eggs and cheese and bake in an oven for 20-30 minutes. Or boil some brown rice whilst you’re eating and add it to the leftover veggies for a healthy lunch the next day
- Use leftover roasted chicken, or lean meat for healthy wraps tomorrow night packed full of salads, try this recipe for healthy thai beef wraps
- Cook steaks for dinner and add leftovers to a stir fry with vegetables tomorrow night or a thai beef salad
- Cook salmon steaks for dinner and turn leftovers into salmon cakes tomorrow night (recipe here )
Meals that can be cooked the night before
When you know tomorrow is going to be crazy. Just make sure to add that side salad.
- Cottage Pie (great veg and lentil pie here as a healthy alternative to the traditional recipe)
- Stews/ casseroles
- Slow cooker (see above).
Multi tasking Dinners
Sometimes you need to put the dinner on and help kids with homework at the same time. here are some simple meals that you can quickly prepare and set to cook whilst you attend to other matters
- Soup (try this healthy but tasty broccoli soup recipe for a vitamin kick)
- Roast Chook and Vegetable tray recipe here (get the kids to chop vegetables with you, it’s more likely to encourage them to eat them to eat their own handiwork. promise!) It needs around 30-40 minutes in the oven
- Beef Pot Bake Stew (45 minutes)
- Creamy Chicken and Quinoa Broccoli Casserole
- Roasted Vegetable Lasagne (if your kids won’t eat big obvious vegetables, grate zucchini, carrot, cauliflower etc and add it to mince before layering it in the lasagne).
Salads that are vitamin packed enough to make a meal (maybe add a side piece of fish or lean meat)
Ok now anything involving quinoa isn’t as hard as it looks. Make a batch on the weekend and it will keep for 5-6 days in a sealed container in the refrigerator.
Also you can buy staples such as corn, tomatoes, beetroot (buy the pre cooked shrink wrapped variety that last for months), spinach, pre chopped salads (see below) to keep in your fridge. Then keep lots of nuts and seeds in your pantry sealed nice and tight, to mix and match.
- Strawberry & Mango Chopped Spinach Quinoa Salad with Sesame-Lime Vinaigrette
- Remember those leftover roast vegetables? Add them to your pre made quinoa salad and voila – see how we’re really starting to mix and match here? Sweet Potato Quinoa Salad with Cherries, Goat Cheese + Candied Walnuts
- Leftover Chicken roast from the night before ? Summer Chicken Chopped Salad with Strawberries, Avocado + Feta (yes strawberries make an excellent salad ingredient!)
- This BBQ chicken chopped salad from the leftover section above
- Got fresh salmon, corn, lettuce, Giner .. check! Gingered salmon, Corn, lettuce salad
Lets talk about pre made salads
I’m a big fan of the pre made kale veggie slaw salads you can find in the supermarket salad section. I used to make all these salads from scratch, chopping cabbage and all the vegetables for a good half hour for a vitamin packed salad. Now it’s all done for us! Just throw out the dressing that comes with it, and use the pre cut salad (usually full of kale, beetroot, cabbage, carrot etc). You can add a few seeds, nuts and fresh cherry tomatoes to make a simple side salad, or add them to wraps and meat for a healthy quick dinner, or add them to a baked lasagne dish.
The thing I like about these pre made salads is that they’re full of a range of bright colourful vegetables, not just lettuce, that will really add to your vitamin quota with every meal PLUS they’re so damned easy to prepare. This is what they look like in case I’m talking a foreign language. Most supermarkets have their own version now.
If you have all these salad ingredients to hand, you just have to add a piece of freshly grilled fish, or some marinated grilled chicken breasts, or some bbq lean meat, or some left over pulled pork, and you’ve got a really healthy quick meal.
Finally .. teach your kids to cook (or at least pack lunch boxes)
I think this is achievable with any child over 7 years of age. Here’s the deal in our house. One child helps me to cook and set the table, the other child packs lunchboxes for the next day (supervised). With lunchboxes, it’s just a matter of only leaving healthy food options for them to include. I tell them two fruit or veg and a serve of dairy need to be included every day. If we run out of time before dinner, the lunchboxes get packed right after dinner and put in the fridge. If you get resistance just give them an option – would you like to pack lunchboxes, cook dinner, or empty the dishwasher tonight? Giving them the option is better than telling them what to do, it gives them the feeling of control.
You’ll be surprised how much they will eat from their dinner plate or lunchbox if they’ve prepared it, so there goes any dinner table argument as well. Even the healthy food and wonky chopped vegetables get gobbled up faster! I let the kids tell me what they want to cook on their cooking night and let them feel it’s under their control, that way I get more buy in. I suggest things like roast vegetables (they love cutting) or lasagne (again, chop and pack those veggies in). Kids love responsibility and control, make a big deal out of it and get them to help you out. Plus, if you teach them a few simple dishes when they’re young, they’ll be able to help a lot more as they enter their teen years.
Some meals that kids can learn to cook
- Get the kids to chop the salsa ingredients as you prepare the fish for this Salmon with Salsa recipe
- The humble omelette
- Pork Lettuce Cups
- Cheesy vegetable pikelets (great for lunchboxes or after school snacks)
- Simple Pumpkin Soup
- Healthy Pita Pizzas
- Quinoa coated chicken nuggets
- Scrambled eggs (add some salmon and vegetables)
- Crispy tuna potato cakes (see if you can get them to add grated zucchini and carrot)
- Zucchini pasta because which kid doesn’t like using a grater or spiraliser (thaw out some bolognaise from the freezer and add a side salad)
Have any more tips?
Be sure to add them to the comments below.