Convenience Foods for the Win

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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!



how I spent my Thursday

…NOT studying, I can tell you that.

I baked instead.

Well, first I blogged at 4:30 in the morning, because that’s when the dog got me up.

And then I swam, followed by a marathon-shopping trip to Wegmans for a few essentials (we were almost out of milk already!) and goodies for Andrew’s Easter basket.  I got myself a coffee and put my feet up at one of their cafe tables to chat on the phone before I even ventured into produce.  Can you tell I’m on a break from school?

Well, as the clock neared 11 (I arrived just after 9 a.m.) I realized I’d better go going or I’d never get anything done.  I raced home to whip up Steakhouse Side Macaroni and Cheese, a recipe that caught my eye in last month’s Cooking Light.

It’s just what the name says; it incorporates all the famous sides from a steakhouse (creamed spinach, sauteed mushrooms and an iceberg wedge with bacon and blue cheese) into one dish.  It was good, but not fantastic.  It was almost a little weird–if you’ve craving that traditional, orange-cheesey mac, this is NOT IT.  But it was yummy and fun to put together.  And (relatively) healthy.

And THEN I baked.  And baked.

My desire to “send Abigail and Grandma home with some goodies” after the Easter weekend has turned into making goodie bags for all my nearest and dearest here.

Susy just gave me the Clinton St. Baking Company cookbook, so I tried their ‘brookie’ recipe.  Easy and so good.  I mean, what’s better than a cookie and a brownie mixed together?  I’d also pulled out a recipe for some sort of mocha muffin awhile ago, making a mental note at the time to make them for Abigail when she was home from school, so I whipped up some mini-muffins to spread the wealth.

I even went all out and got Easter baggies and treat boxes.  If only I could spend ALL my time doing stuff like this…  I have a few more things to make this weekend before I’m finished: almond butter bars (recipe will be added here soon) for the goodie boxes, as well as some savory muffins and Pioneer Woman’s Tres Leches cake for Easter Sunday.  Some lucky ducks are going to get some sweet surprises this weekend!

And then I did the dishes.

After fitting in some co-op work, a dog walk and–eventually–some studying for my Micro test, I headed back into the kitchen to make dinner.  At 8 p.m.  Because that’s when Andrew came home.  Good grief.

I didn’t take a photo, but I made Pioneer Woman’s Sloppy Joe’s (I’m on a never-ending hunt for the best recipe from scratch) to see if they were better than our current favorite, Cooking Light’s version.  They weren’t, but they were still very good.  Very similar.  Amazingly, Andrew professed a love for CL’s recipe, which is just fine with me, since it’s probably healthier.

Andrew’s off tomorrow, so I’m planning a workout, then brunch, then more baking/studying before meeting a friend for a mid-afternoon “snack/lunch” at Danny’s, a local favorite.  Then, it’s pizza and wings and HOMEMADE APPLE PIE (it’s been in my freezer just waiting for the perfect occasion) at the Layer’s house with Abigail and Grandma 🙂