My Must-Have Food Staples for Healthy Meals in No Time
Sure after a long day at work, of running errands or of just being a mom, we all wish we could just crash out and not have to get in the kitchen and start cooking. Unfortunately, regardless of how tired we may feel, everyone’s hungry and supper still needs to be served. Same goes for us stay-at-home (or working from home while raising our kids) moms that have 3 full well-balanced meals to prepare each day! I mean I love cooking, but three meals a day EVERY DAY, does take its toll, and that repeat of the breakfast for lunch type of meal that I loved during my pre-motherhood/single days just won’t cut it for a growing child. And who hasn’t stood in the kitchen around meal time and realized they forgot to take something out from the freezer in the morning and there are no leftovers in the fridge… What should we do? Make sure we have some frozen ready-to-eat meals in the freezer for moments like these? Frozen pizza anyone? Or forego cooking altogether and order out or make it a dinner at the restaurant night? It can be tempting! In fact, Canadians spend 30% of their food budget on eating out or eating prepared meals! I’m here to show you that a healthy, home cooked meal can be whipped up in no time and even save you money. Eating wholesome, healthy and delicious meals doesn’t have to be complicated and can be quick especially if your kitchen is well-stocked and if you allow your creativity to flow a little! Unfortunately, I am not into the whole meal-prep craze and cooking in bulk for the week, I prefer cooking fresh and as I go, and for me having a well-stocked kitchen is the best way to both save time and eat healthy. Here are the foods I always have on hand to prepare a good for you meal in no time, or what I call "fast food"!
Eggs are incredibly versatile: hard-boiled, poached, baked, scrambled, sautéed or fried, beaten into a frittata, omelet or quiche, the possibilities are endless. One egg has roughly 70 calories and contains a whopping 6 grams of high-quality protein, the perfect protein boost for every meal or snack.
Foodful Life Tip
There is no difference nutritionally between a white or brown egg, all it means is that a white egg was laid by a white feathered hen and a brown egg by a brown one!
Hard boil a few eggs each week and eat them for a snack or use them to add some protein to a salad or for a quick egg sandwich.
Don't waste your money on omega 3 eggs. Instead, choose ideally organic or organic free range eggs.
Greek yogurt is essentially regular yogurt that has been strained to remove the liquid whey and lactose, leaving behind a product with a creamy, indulgent consistency. For the same amount of calories, Greek yogurt is better than regular yogurt because it is packed with protein, up to twice as much, and has only half the sugar! We usually think of yogurt to eat as is and often as a snack option, but we can also use it as an ingredient in the preparation of our meals. We can use it to make sweet dishes, like a classic breakfast parfait with nuts and fruits, or a healthy homemade frozen yogurt or smoothie, giveing these not only a creamier texture but also boosting its protein and calcium content. Greek yogurt has the perfect texture to be used as a topping for soup or chili, or as a dollop on top of pie, fruit cobbler or cake. It can also transform your basic tomato sauce into a creamy, yet healthy rosé version. FInally, it is an excellent and healthier substitute for sour cream and mayonnaise. Use it to make healthy dressings, dips, potato salads or to replace mayonnaise in sandwiches. Personally, I love serving it simply by adding a good amount of it on a plate, then I flatten the top with the back of a spoon, drizzle some good olive oil on it, and sprinkle dried mint and paprika or cayenne pepper on top. I then dig in with crudités or pita bread…soooo good!
Foodful Life Tip
I suggest choosing a lower fat, plain Greek yogurt (with no added sugars, thickeners, flavours or colorings) for a high-protein low-fat option, and when possible opt for organic.
Variety of Breads
What does a peanut butter and banana bagel (my ultimate anytime go-to meal!), avocado toast, breakfast sandwich, grilled cheese, taco, fajita, quesadilla, chicken wrap or quick pizza crust all have in common?? They can all be made with some type of bread! Bagel, sliced bread, pita, tortilla, having a good variety of breads can pretty much get you through any meal or snack. Bread defrosts quickly and retains its flavor and texture even after freezing, making it a perfect item to have on hand at all times.
Foodful Life Tip
Look for organic sprouted whole grain bread. Sprouting is a process that releases vital enzymes, increases fiber and vitamin content (particularly folate), makes minerals like calcium and iron found in bread more easily absorbable, as well as boosts the protein content. Sprouted bread is also more easily digestible.
I particularly love that Silver Hills Bakery has a wide variety of breads and not only are they all sprouted, many are also organic, plus most of them also contain seeds or ancient grains. I also love the fact that they are certified Glyphosate-Residue Free by a third party, which is something that is of concern to me when choosing grain products.
Frozen Fruits and Vegetables
A well-stocked freezer can be invaluable when you want to save time in the kitchen. Frozen fruits and vegetables not only can save you time during meal preparation, but they can also save you money and help you reduce food waste. They don’t require any peeling, cutting or washing, plus they are frozen at their peak ripeness which means they are full of nutrients. This gives them an extra edge during the cold winter months when fresh, local and seasonal fruits and vegetables are scarce. Frozen fruits and vegetables are tasty, more nutrient-rich and also cheaper than the imported fresh ones which are typically picked off the vine before they are fully ripe leaving them with a lesser vitamin and mineral content! There are so many ways they can be handy in the kitchen: as a side dish of sautéed or roasted vegetables, to make pasta primavera, minestrone, frittata, grain bowls, fruit sherbet, smoothies, fruit cobbler, a quick fruit sauce... There isn’t much you can’t do with frozen fruits and vegetables!
Foodful Life Tip
Always keep a bag of frozen green peas and shelled edamame to use as a vegetarian protein for a pasta dish, stir fry, soup or even salad!
Get an array of nutrients by making sure you have many different colored frozen fruits and vegetables.
Frozen organic fruits and vegetables are much less costly than fresh ones, especially in winter, so choose organic!
Look at the ingredient list and make sure there are no unwanted ingredients like sugar, salt or syrups, and if the vegetables come with a flavor packet avoid using it as these are often full of salt, fat, sugar and calories.
Quick Cooking Grains
When we think of grains to have on hand to whip up a quick meal we usually think of pasta and rice, and most of us will buy white pasta and white rice, not exactly the best food choices out there, these are processed and refined! It has been a couple of years now that unless I am going out for sushi, which is maybe once or twice a year, I tend to avoid eating rice as much as possible due to its elevated inorganic arsenic content. Arsenic is a toxic element that is found in our environment, mainly in rocks, soil or water supplies, and inorganic arsenic is the most toxic form. Rice is the biggest food source of inorganic arsenic. Instead, I use other grains that not only are much more nutritious, but are also cooked and prepared in less than 20 minutes. Quinoa and whole wheat couscous are two popular choices, but there are so many other nutrient-dense quick cooking whole grains that we think of less often, such as amaranth, buckwheat, bulgur and freekeh (cracked freekeh cooks faster than whole freekeh while it's nutritional content remains unchanged). These amazing grains offer more fiber, more protein, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants than their refined counterparts. Studies have also shown that they provide health benefits and keep you feeling full and satisfied much longer. They are quickly prepared and can be used in much the same way we would rice; you can add some to your salad, your soups, use them to make cabbage or collard wraps, as the base of a grain bowl, as a simple side dish, you can even serve them for breakfast to replace the standard bowl of hot oatmeal.
Foodful Life Tip
Choose minimum half the grains you eat (pasta, bagels, tortilla, artisanal breads, sliced bread, oats, wheat, crackers, etc.) as 100% whole grains.
Since the cooking time for many whole grains is often longer than 20-25 minutes, cook extra and refrigerate it to simply heat up and serve at another meal later that week.
Try substituting whole grain flours (oat, buckwheat or emmer flour) in your favorite muffin or pancake recipes.
Half it! In other words if you are not ready to make a full switch and eat a whole wheat lasagna, do half whole wheat noodles and half regular!
Being high in fiber and protein, as well as low in fat, legumes are a healthier and much more affordable protein alternative to meats. Canned legumes are incredibly convenient because they are already cooked and thus require a minimal amount of preparation, plus they are so versatile and can be transformed into a delicious meal or snack in a whim. They can be easily added to any salad, soup, stew, omelet, pasta sauce, whole grain bowl or dishes, blended into a delicious creamy dip or spread, used as a base for veggie burgers or to turn a regular meatball into its high-fiber half plant-based twin, and the list goes on!
Foodful Life Tip
Keep a good variety of legumes in your pantry.
Look for and choose cans or jars that are BPA free. BPA (Bisphenol A) is a chemical that is found in a resin that is used to line the lids of the cans or jar lids in order to seal and preserve the food. It is also found in plastic. It has been linked to breast and prostate cancers, infertility, as well as hyperactivity in children.
Choose a no-salt or low sodium brand, or make sure to always thoroughly rinse the drained canned legumes before using them in order to remove as much excess sodium as possible.
Red lentils, French lentils or split lentils are a quick cooking legume so no need for cans, just buy them dried.
Canned and Frozen Seafood
Canned tuna, salmon, sardines, anchovies, clams, as well as some frozen seafood like scallops, shrimps or fish fillets can easily be defrosted and are super versatile. You can turn any of these fish into a pasta dish, others lend themseves perfectly to a number of sandwich preparations or fish croquettes, you can simply grill, sauté or bake them and eat them as is, in a taco, as a salad or pizza topping.
Foodful Life Tip
When buying frozen seafood, to save time in the kitchen choose those that are already cleaned, such as peeled and deveined shrimps.
The sodium content of canned fish can creep up rather quickly, especially if the fish you choose is smoked or flavored. I always say stick foods that are in their most natural form and then add your own flavors to it with real food, herbs and spices! Choose canned fish with 400 mg of sodium or less per 100 gram serving.
Canned sardines, salmon and mackerel contain their fish bones which are very soft and a great source of calcium. Mash these soft bones up, mix them with the fish and eat up! One small can of sardines can provide half of the daily calcium requirement for an adult when you also eat the bones.
Sustainability is very important when choosing fish, look for the mention or logo on the product.
Like with all canned foods, look for BPA free cans.
When choosing any fish or seafood I recommend you always take wild-caught and stay away from farmed and organic as much as possible.
Canned Tomatoes (and Exceptionally Bottled Sauces)
Tomatoes are a must in the kitchen, well at least in an Italian kitchen! Bottled or canned tomatoes keep well and are perfect for making a quick last minute sauce when we have run out of fresh tomatoes. They are also perfect as a base for homemade pizza, to make eggs purgatory, to poach your fish in, to add to the cooking water for your whole grains or to simply add extra flavor to a soup. You know I always advocate for making your own everything as much as possible. I also believe nothing beats a good homemade sauce, especially since it can be put together with just 3-4 ingredients and ready in about 30 minutes. But, I know sometimes we all need a break and a good bottled sauce can be the answer and save us all a few steps in getting a hot meal on the table.
Foodful Life Tip
When it comes to canned tomatoes, because they are an acidic food, if the cans are not BPA free they absorb higher levels of this chemical than other less or non acidic foods.
I recommend buying whole bottled/canned tomatoes because they have more flavor and better texture than the crushed or diced variety, and then I simply crush them by hand as I add them into a dish.
The ingredient list for canned tomatoes should not include any added salt or sugar.
Try to always choose oragnic for any tomato based product, even fresh tomatoes since they are part of the Dirty Dozen list figuring at number 9 for the 2018 shopper’s guide to pesticides in produce.
When choosing bottled sauces, I strongly urge you to choose the ones with the cleanest ingredient list, that means no added sugar, filler, preservatives or any ingredient that you wouldn’t add to your own homemade sauce. You also want to look at the nutritional facts table and choose one that ideally per serving (125 ml) has no more than 5 g of fat, 5 g of sugar (if more and there is no sugar added, it means it is all the natural sugars from the tomatoes and that's ok) and no more than 400 mg of sodium.
I always try to make my own homemade broth, especially during winter season when I regularly make my pastina meal (aka chicken, veggies and small pasta soup), but I also always have a good variety of organic and ideally low sodium broths in my pantry for those times that I simply don’t have time to wait for my homemade broth to defrost! Chicken, beef, vegetable broths are obviously great to make a quick soup, but I mainly use them to sauté vegetables, to add extra flavor when cooking grains or whenever you would normally add water to a recipe, I'll use broth, to reheat leftover food quickly in a pan or as a great liquid base for a non-tomato pasta sauce!
Foodful Life Tip
When you make homemade broth, freeze some in smaller containers for a quicker thaw. I love freezing some in my ice cube trays and leaving them in a container in my freezer. Whenever I need just a little burst of flavor in a dish I’ll grab a cube and throw it into my pan or pot.
Look for a clean ingredient list, this means try to stay away from broths that contain sugar, caramel coloring (beef broth) or any ingredient you wouldn't typically add to your homemade broth.
I recommend buying low sodium broths; you can always add extra salt or spices and herbs for a boost of flavor if necessary.
Avoid bouillon cubes, pastes or powdered mixes, not only will they be much higher in sodium, but they will contain all sorts of ingredients you definitely don’t want to add to your wholesome, homemade meals!
Variety of Condiments
A good jam or fruit spread like the one from my fellow dietitian Dr Isabelle Huot is a fantastic condiment to have on hand at all times and not only for breakfast! Obviously they will taste incredibly on a peanut butter toast, but you can also use them on yogurt or chia pudding, as a base for a salad dressing and vinaigrette, in a marinade, on top of ricotta or goat cheese crostini, as a quick last minute dessert glaze, or to add a sweet touch to a stir fry sauce. These Kilo Solution Fruits & Chia Spreads are free of additives and stand out from the others because not only are they made with chia seeds which boost their fiber content, they are also low in sugar because they contain no added sugars or artificial sweeteners. They are available in three flavors: 4 fruits & chia, cranberry & chia and strawberry & chia.
A good olive oil can be used to cook with, drizzle over your salad and vegetables or to make a quick “pasta aglio e olio” or any other oil based pasta sauce.
Spices and herbs not only add flavor, but can change the taste of a traditional recipe and add a boost of healthy antioxidants to your meals. If you need to control your salt intake, herbs and spices are definitely the answer. They help add an extra pop of flavor without the need for excess salt, while lowering your blood sugar (cinnamon), improving memory and brain function (sage), fighting inflammation (turmeric and ginger), improving heart health (garlic), preventing nasal congestion and allergies (rosemary), etc. My favorite spices and herbs are from Simply Organic, a company that offers an extensive selection of high quality certified organic spices, herbs, seasonings and baking flavors. They are also committed to supporting organic and sustainable farming around the world and unlike other brands, I love that their products are packaged in glass jars and not plastic containers. I also love using miso or tahini as a seasoning for many of my dishes or to kick my salad dressing game up a notch.
Kimchi, coleslaw or any other type of fermented vegetables are a great source of probiotics for our gut health and can do wonders to a plain grilled cheese or sandwich, potato salads, grain bowls, salads, burgers or even just as a quick side of vegetables to accompany a meal!
Olives, sundried tomatoes or pesto are ingredients that have a long shelf-life can be stirred into pasta, spread onto your sandwich bread, added to a salad or simply snacked on as is.
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