Do you start the week intending to cook every meal you eat at home, only to find yourself grabbing takeaway on more days than you enter the kitchen?
We all know that a home-cooked meal is more likely to be a healthier choice than takeaway or eating out, but sometimes there just doesn’t seem to be enough time to cook, especially when ordering online is so easy. Other days you might have cleared your schedule, only to find that all you’ve got little left in the fridge to make a meal.
We asked Senior Public Health Nutritionist Charlotte Morrison, Health and Wellbeing Queensland, to share her hacks for easy home cooking, to help you conquer your kitchen and make healthy choices regularly.
If you’ve set a goal to cook at home more often, the first thing you should do is create a plan to help you succeed.
“One of the key things is just spending half an hour on the weekend, or when you have time, to think about what you’re going to eat in the week,” says Charlotte.
Meal planning isn’t something you have to do months in advance. A week-to-week plan will allow you to consider your schedule, the ingredients you already have or need to purchase and what you want to eat, then plan accordingly.
“Think about where you’re going to be, how much time you’re going to have, when you’re going to do the shopping and how often you’re going to do the shopping,” says Charlotte.
Part of creating a meal plan that you can stick to is being realistic about the time you’ll have to cook. Not every meal has to be home-cooked; if you know you’re going to have a night out or you’ve got a busy day coming up and might not have time to cook, put that in your meal plan, too.
Heading to the grocery store without a list is a great way to get distracted by sale items, while forgetting to buy the one ingredient that’s necessary to your meal plan.
Once you’ve thought about what you’ll cook for the week, check your fridge, freezer and pantry for what you’ve already got, then write your list to fill the gaps.
“Buy appropriate food that you can store in your pantry, fridge or freezer, so that you’ve got the ingredients or choices that will fit into your life for that week,” says Charlotte. “Also check out weekly specials or buy fruit and veggies that are in season to help with the budget.” If you’re not sure what’s in season, use this seasonal guide.
Shopping and cooking in bulk can help save money and time, two things everyone appreciates having more of.
“If you’ve got time,” says Charlotte, “cook up more serves of a dish and put it in the fridge for the next day, or put it in the freezer, so if you’re busy in two weeks’ time you know there’s a meal already there.”
Cooking in bulk can also allow you to buy ingredients in bulk, which often makes it cheaper.
Whether you’re buying or cooking in bulk, it’s important to put food safety first. When you’re cooking food to store in the fridge, consume within three days of cooking, or freeze if you plan to eat it later in the week or save it for a busy day.
“Everyone needs to be aware of potentially hazardous foods and practice behaviours that can keep food safe to consume,” says Charlotte. “If you’re confident food safety practices have been followed, you can store leftovers in the fridge and consume within 3 days – and that’s the same if you’re buying a takeaway.” Learn more about safe ways to store and prepare food here.
“You can also freeze pasta or rice, so if you’re bulk cooking, just make sure that the food is not steaming anymore and then put it in the freezer.”
If you’re buying perishable foods in bulk, check the ‘used by’ or ‘best before’ dates and separate out and freeze portions that you’ll use later to minimise food waste.
Don’t dismiss frozen produce
Frozen fruits and vegetables can save time when cooking and can be bought and stored in bulk, ready to use whenever you want to cook. They’re also usually just as good for you as fresh produce.
Charlotte explains, “Frozen fruits and veggies are frozen very quickly after they’ve been picked, so they’ve got all the nutrients in there.”
When it comes to frozen fruits and vegetables, it’s all about how you cook them. “You don’t necessarily need to thaw frozen veggies first,” explains Charlotte. “Put them straight into the casserole, curry or stir-fry. Also think about which dishes they’re appropriate for. For example, frozen broccoli won’t come out the same as fresh broccoli when you cook it, so you need to think about how you cook them, how you use them.”
Pre-prepared can be a healthy option
With our increasingly busy lifestyles, it’s no surprise that the pre-prepared produce and meal sections in grocery stores are expanding.
If you don’t have time to cook a meal yourself, or you don’t feel you have the cooking skills, buying a pre-prepared meal is a great alternative. However, before you do, Charlotte recommends learning about the tools that can help you make healthy decisions when buying processed foods.
“The best thing to look at is the Nutrition Information Panel,” Charlotte says. “This will be on all the processed food packets and boxes. You can see how much energy is in the product, the amount of fat, salt and sugar – whatever you think you need to look out for. If you look at the per 100g section of the table, you can compare products against each other.”
You can also refer to the ingredients list and the Health Star Rating system as a way of deciding which food will be the healthier choice. If you’re not sure what to look for be sure to read this guide on how to read food labels.
There are also ways you can add to pre-prepared meals to make them healthier, without putting in a lot of effort.
“These meals tend to be low in fruit and vegetables,” says Charlotte. “If you are choosing one, it may be a good idea to put a side salad or a side of veggies with it, to fill you up as well as giving you a lot more nutrients.”
Pressure cooking and slow cooking
Pressure cooking and slow cooking can be simple ways to cook healthy meals in bulk while you do other things.
Slow cooking allows you to cook meals like stews, soups or curries over time. Some slow cookers use timers so you can put all your ingredients in and then ‘set and forget’, leaving your meal to cook during the day and be finished when you’re ready to eat. Pressure cooking uses pressure to cook the same types of meals in a much shorter amount of time.
But are slow cooking and pressure-cooking healthy ways to cook your meals?
Charlotte says yes: as long as you’re putting in the right ingredients.
“If the water-soluble nutrients from fruits or vegetables are lost into juices or sauces, of the dish, and you eat these juices, then that’s good,” says Charlotte.
Many traditionally slow-cooked meals are meat-based, so make sure you add lots of vegetables into your recipes. You can also experiment with other proteins, like beans or lentils.
“If it fits in with your life, it’s an easy way to get in a good home cooked meal with lots of veggies,” says Charlotte.
Get others involved
Sharing the cooking responsibilities can maintain your stamina for cooking at home.
“If you’ve got children, get them involved,” says Charlotte. Children might not be able to cook a whole meal from scratch, but they can help with preparing ingredients, finding recipes or cooking alongside you. We have a collection of kid-friendly recipes that you can make with your little ones.
If you’ve got a partner or other adults living with you who aren’t top chefs, put them in charge of making simple meals on busy days, like toasted sandwiches, heating up meals that you bulk cooked or bought pre-prepared.