The old adage about there never being enough hours in the day has never been truer than now. Even if you like to cook, trying to fit in meal planning and making healthy meals most nights—while also working full time, raising a family, trying to squeeze in some exercise and keep up with current events—is a challenge to say the least. There is a reason processed, pre-packaged convenience food items were invented—to make getting a meal on the table quicker! (And using fewer dishes.) While many of them are high in sodium, added sugars, fat and fillers, I believe it’s possible to work them into your weekly menu here and there without totally derailing your healthy eating plan. Whether it’s a couple nights a week, or only the one in which ALL of your kids have separate activities to go to, consider taking the easy route and let a convenience food save dinner.
- The poor college student staple can be reimagined into a balanced meal with some simple additions and deletions. Begin with three or four ramen noodle packages. Discard seasoning packets from all but one package, boil just enough water to cook noodles. Add seasoning packet and two cups frozen Asian veggie mix. While noodles and veggies boil, cook cut-up chicken or pork in a skillet. When noodles are finished, drain excess cooking water, add meat back to pot, drizzle with a little prepared teriyaki sauce and voilà! By using fewer seasoning packets and draining the cooking water, the sodium is greatly reduced and you’ve added meat for protein and vegetables.
- Boxed Spanish Rice. Brown seasoned pork and prepare rice according to package directions. Hollow out four large green bell peppers, keeping the bottom and sides intact. Mix cooked rice with one can drained diced tomatoes and meat, fill peppers and bake until soft. For quicker baking, halve peppers and fill like boats instead of standing upright. For variety, change up the rice (try a garlic flavor), meat (flavored chicken sausage), veggie (frozen broccoli) and ‘container’ veggie (hollowed-out zucchini squash).
- Macaroni and Cheese. This is my personal favorite! Prepare macaroni according to package directions, adding frozen peas to cooking water just before noodles are finished cooking. Drain and mix with cheese powder. Add one can drained tuna or chicken and mix. Tuna mac on the double! You’ve added protein and veggies to an otherwise carb-heavy dish.
- While avocado toast is all the rage, slicing and storing excess avocado takes precious minutes when you’re trying to get out the door. Consider subbing pre-made guacamole and topping with a crushed hardboiled egg for protein to save time. The addition of avocado and egg add healthy fat, protein and fiber; jam simply adds sugar.
- Bagged salad really CAN be a whole meal if you top it right. Grab a rotisserie chicken and an assortment of ready-to-use extras, such as a bag of shredded carrots, cherry tomatoes and jarred olives—no peeling or chopping required! Drizzle with balsamic vinaigrette and a little feta cheese for a Mediterranean dinner. (If you DO have some extra time, add in sliced red onion and cucumbers.)
With a seven-month-old at home and my husband away the night I write this, I’ll be whipping up the doctored-up macaroni and cheese for sure!