Eating Healthy on a TIME Budget

broccoli-rice-bowl
This broccoli, tofu, and rice bowl tossed with cashews is a favorite quick meal at my house.

Cooking from scratch and reading labels are all well and good, but how can we eat healthy when we’re so often strapped for time?

We talked not too long ago about how to eat healthy on a budget, and Vikki, a reader at our Facebook page, mentioned that her big issue wasn’t just saving money but budgeting her time. It’s a really excellent point, especially if you do the typical 9-5 thing.

Between running this site, my crafty business, and other freelance obligations time isn’t always on my side, either, so I thought I’d share some tips on how I prepare healthy, quickie meals for my family.

Handy Appliances

There are two kitchen appliances that I could never live without during my busy times of year: my rice cooker with steamer basket and my crock pot. Let’s talk about both, because between the two you can really spend very little time in the kitchen and still eat quite well!

The rice cooker is for those days when I don’t even have time to plan meals ahead. There are two key things to remember about a rice cooker/steamer combo:

  1. You don’t have to cook rice in there. Pretty much any whole grain will do; just make sure you have the right grain to liquid ratio. I like making quinoa and wheat berries in my rice cooker!
  2. The steamer basket is key. Load that basket up with veggies and beans or tofu, and they’ll steam up while your grains are cooking.

That’s it! You can play with different combinations and either top with bottled sauce or something quick you whip up while the steamer is doing its thing. Either way, the rice cooker is a versatile and simple tool for making healthy weeknight meals with very little prep work on your part.

The crock pot is a similar “set it and forget it” situation. I highly recommend picking up a cookbook of slow cooker recipes if you’re new to the slow cooker. A good cookbook can help you get used to what sorts of meals go well in there.

In general, you can make tasty soups, stews, chilis, and even roasts in the slow cooker, you just need to remember to toss in the ingredients beforehand. Some slow cookers even have fancy timers, so you can set them to turn on and off to do the cooking while you’re at work. It’s always nice to come home to a fully cooked meal!

pasta casserole
This pasta and veggie casserole topped with Daiya cheese and sunflower seeds feeds my husband and me for 3 meals.

Weekend Cooking

We’ve talked about weekend cooking before, but I think it bears mentioning again. The basic idea is to take a few hours over the weekend to cook up big batches of food that you can heat up in a pinch.

When I’m able to make time for weekend cooking, I like to make one large casserole, some kind of sauce to use on my rice cooker meals, a batch of stew or soup, and some roasted vegetables. I know this sounds like a lot of cooking, but you can really do it all in a short time, if you multitask. Here’s an example:

  • Get some pasta going on the stove for your casserole. To save some time, you can use a jarred pasta sauce. While the pasta cooks, saute some onion, garlic, and veggies. Toss everything into a baking pan, top with bread crumbs, vegan cheese, or dairy cheese, and put the pan in the oven to bake at 350 for about 30 minutes.
  • While the casserole bakes, chop up your veggie roast and stew veggies at the same time. Toss the roast veggies with oil, salt, and pepper and put them in the oven, then put the stew veggies into the crock pot with some garlic, beans, and broth and set that to cook on high for a few hours. Your roasted veggies will probably be ready to go in while the casserole is still baking, and that’s fine. Just turn the heat up to 400 when you take out the casserole, and make sure you stir those veggies every 15 minutes until they’re all cooked up.
  • While the veggies are cooking, grab the food processor and whip up a quick batch of pesto.
  • At this point, you’ll probably have some time to kill while things bake and cook in the crock pot. Play with your kids, pay some bills, or dig in the garden for a bit, then head back to the kitchen.
  • You should have a ton of food ready at this point! Pour everything into containers, stick them in the fridge, and you’re done!
Amys burrito
While not ideal, there are some healthier convenience foods for the occasional super busy evening. oztenphoto / Flickr (Creative Commons)

Convenience Food

Handy appliances and planning ahead are awesome, but we all deserve a break sometimes. When you just can’t face the stove, I think it’s totally OK to turn to packaged food once in a while. The key to choosing healthy packaged food is careful label reading. Keep an eye out for preservatives, additives, and genetically modified ingredients like conventional corn, soy, and canola.

My husband and I always keep some Amy’s burritos in the freezer for those nights when cooking anything is just too much. We also really like pre-made frozen dumplings for a quick weeknight meal. Beyond that, though, I have to admit that frozen dinners are not my strong suit. Have you guys run across any frozen meals that you like in a pinch?

I also don’t see anything wrong with ordering take out from time to time, when you’re slammed. Just look for healthier options on the menu and see if you can do anything to reduce the waste that comes with most take out meals.

I’m sure there are other tricks that you guys use to help you eat healthy when time and money are short. Share away in the comments!

Written by Becky Striepe

5 Comments

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  1. Ok, now you’ve done it… rice cooker/ steamer is officially bumped up to top of wish list! πŸ™‚

    I second the motion, re: crock pots, and would like to add 2 things to the ‘time-saving gadget’ list for healthy/ fast meal prep… bread machine (can’t live without!!) and pressure cooker (just got/ love! cooks dry beans in NO TIME!!)… I also like smoothies, for breakfast & snacks: frozen banana, soy/ almond milk, glob o’ peanut butter, couple spoons of cocoa powder = 2-minute yum! Frozen berries & juice plus frozen bananas also work well…

    Stir-fries are also good, and really super EXTRA fast if you buy pre-chopped frozen veggies… move ’em from freezer to fridge the night before, then rinse/ drain before cooking… Saute in peanut or sesame oil, serve over rice or quinoa or rice noodles (which cook in 5 minutes!), top with peanuts or cashews or sesame seeds & your favorite sauce… yum & quick!

    As emergency ‘fast food’, I’m in love with roll-ups of Tofurky brand ‘italian sausage style’ links, on a tortilla with horseradish mustard & Daiya mozzarella, mic’d til melty… With chips/ crackers & whatever dip is leftover in the fridge (salsa, hummus, bean dip, etc), it’s practically ‘instant lunch!’

    Where I live, the summers are hideously hot, and even when I have *time* to cook, my a/c hates the extra work– the kitchen gets way to hot. So I love time-savers like this– thanks for posting! (Rice cooker added to amazon.com basket.) πŸ™‚

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