Preparing fresh healthy meals with real foods is fast, easy and affordable with a little organization and planning. Here are some tips that help me stay on track.
Create a master shopping list
Decide which foods you most enjoy eating and preparing in each of the basic food categories. Organize your list however it makes the most sense to you – for ideas, you can look at my shopping list. I chose to list frozen vegetables (which I get at the grocery store) separate from fresh vegetables (which I get at the farmers’ market or food co-op). I also grouped nuts, grains and seeds because I often buy those together in the bulk section at the co-op. Sometimes it helps to have one “master list” and a couple others grouped by source (grocery, farmers market, online, etc.) Experiment and see what works for you. But, most important, always have copies of your list handy! Try posting one on the fridge or inside a cupboard door so you can do a quick pre-shopping inventory. Keep one in your wallet or purse for those spontaneous shopping trips. You’ll save a lot of time and aggravation if you don’t have to think too hard about what to shop for.
Stock plenty of “helper” ingredients
You’ve got a drawer full of kale, a nice cut of meat or block of tofu and maybe some fresh fruit. Now what? Well, for me, what makes preparing real foods truly approachable is having the right “helper” foods on hand at all times: extra virgin olive oil; toasted sesame oil; rice, balsamic or apple cider vinegars; fresh herbs; high-quality dried herbs and spices; wheat-free tamari or Bragg’s Liquid Aminos; bottled lemon or lime juice; cooking wine; stone-ground mustard; natural peanut butter and/or sesame tahini – and whole host of others. I stick to those foods that are minimally processed or have just a few, recognizable ingredients. I try my best to avoid GMOs and sometimes choose organic when I’m unsure.
With the right helpers on hand, it’s pretty easy to keep the menu varied and interesting. I can quickly whip up a homemade vinaigrette for my salad, a marinade for meat or tofu or a spicy peanut sauce for my vegetables. I use my “helpers” in countless ways – the beauty of a well-stocked kitchen is its ability to fuel your imagination! And, by starting with real foods and dressing and “saucing” them yourself, you know exactly what’s going into your food – no more leaving it up to industrial food processors, whose ingredient list is dictated chiefly by production units and profit margins. That’s the beauty of real food!
Stock a few “convenience foods”
It might be tempting to resort to take-out or something easy from the grocery store at the end of a long day. That’s why I always keep some “short cut” foods on hand – frozen veggies, canned beans, ready proteins and shredded cheeses are a big help when I’m tired and unmotivated. I can usually come up with a combination that can heated in the microwave and enjoyed with minimal effort. Rice, beans, salsa and cheese or quinoa, frozen veggies, tempeh and kimchi are a couple quick favorites. And, remember, you can always “put up” your own frozen dinners when you do cook – leftover soups, casseroles and baked goods generally freeze well and can be heated up in minutes.
Follow the “FIFO” rule (first in, first out)
So, you’ve done your shopping and you’ve got the right tools and ingredients. Those veggies won’t do anyone any good rotting in the crisper drawer! You can take a lesson from the food and retail industry by practicing simple food rotation, particularly in the refrigerator. Keep tabs on what needs to be used up first. I like to put the veggies I’ve had the longest on the shelf over the crisper drawer, so I know to look in that pile first when I’m considering what to make. These piles make great raw materials for spontaneous “what’s in the fridge” creations. Rotate dairy products and other perishable foods, keeping the oldest in front. At times I’ve used plastic baskets to contain the “use first” foods. Do whatever makes sense to you.
Use what you have
One of the most important principles of eating fresh, healthy foods on a budget is cooking them while they’re fresh – and adapting to whatever you do (or don’t have) to work with. If you’ve got lots of zucchini to use up, build your meals around that. If your recipe calls for oregano and you only have sage or the farmers has kale but no broccoli, go ahead and substitute. Don’t get “stuck” on recipe specifics – most of the time they are merely guidelines and are quite forgiving. (Baking being the exception, which is why I do so little of it 🙂 One of my favorite ways to decide what to make is creating a big pile of the fresh ingredients I need to use up, then kicking around a few ideas (soup? salad? quiche? big pan of roasted veggies?) until I hit on something that inspires me. Sometimes I consult a few favorite recipe sources for ideas. The key is to be flexible and keep it interesting and fun!
Organize your kitchen toolbox
Remember “the next supper”
You’ve got an arsenal of fresh, wholesome foods on hand, so the next step is to make them as easy as possible to use. That means: pre-wash, pre-cut and pre-cook whatever you can. Wash and bag those lettuce greens, fresh herbs, veggies and fruits. Cut up the heartier vegetables for salads, sautes and snacking. I love having cut cucumbers, carrots and peppers and washed fruit for quick snacks – they’re so easy to munch during late night excursions or to pack along with some nuts or cheese on the go.
Hard-boil some eggs and cook new potatoes for quick home fries, sautes, salads and side dishes. Keep a container full of cooked grains and one of cooked beans or legumes in the fridge – they can be thrown together with salsa, veggies and cheese or tofu and kimchi to take to work or make a home meal in minutes. Or try some cooked grain for breakfast with nuts, dried fruit, milk and a little honey.
Some weeks, I set aside a couple of hours to batch prepare and cook these items. Often, I just do some extra prep as I need a particular ingredient. That’s when I really think about that “next supper.” I slice a whole onion, wash the whole head of lettuce and cube an entire block of tofu, throwing the rest in containers for later. I cook enough beans or grains to last me several days. I’ll steam or saute extra vegetables because the leftovers can be tossed into a salad, in an omelet or on top of some cottage cheese for a speedy balanced meal. If you’re always thinking of that next meal, you’ll always be a step closer to eating well.