Struggling To Get Healthy Meals On The Table? Pick Your Battles

Kathryn Dillon

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A lot of articles purporting to help us get healthy meals on the table every night implore us to find the joy in cooking, approach it mindfully, be gentle with ourselves.

They suggest that we prep on weekends, use our slow cooker or instant pot, and then enlist the help of any family member within shouting distance. But meanwhile, we can feel them silently judging us for not making our stock from scratch or buying every last vegetable in our crisper from the farmer’s market.

(I should know…I’ve written some of these articles myself!)

When we’re at wit’s end, about to dissolve into a blubbering puddle of tears and exhaustion on the kitchen floor? A well-meaning person telling us that we’ll be fine if we simply do our from-scratch bread baking on Sunday instead of Monday is likely to get their well-meaning cookbook flung across the room.

In those moments, a message of peace, love, and the joy of grinding our own flour probably isn’t going to resonate.

Not to worry. I’m here to help. If you are, as I am, stuck in the intersection of foodie, fatigued, and financially strapped, here are some tips for ensuring your healthy habits don’t completely implode during the holidays (or any other busy time).

The camera zooms in on a typical suburban kitchen, somewhere in the midwest. A woman has just finished her workday and is half-heartedly staring into the refrigerator, wondering what in the name of all that is holy she’s going to have for dinner tonight.

And the last thing she feels like doing is cooking.

I am that woman, in case you’re wondering, but many of you can relate, can’t you? We’ve committed to eating dinner as a family, we know we feel better when we eat the nutritious foods that are best suited to our bodies, maybe we even enjoy cooking, sometimes.

But somewhere in the midst of a full-time job, a lengthy commute, shuttling kids to and from various activities, running after-work errands, or whatever our routine may be, we’ve lost not only our energy but also our will to care.

Take-out is looking pretty darned good right about now.

It’s not going to get any easier, as the holidays approach. Too much to do, and even more to think about, so meal planning is relegated to the back burner.

What’s a worn-out foodie to do?

First and foremost, know your pain points.

At the end of a long day, what do you hate to do the most? Chop vegetables? Stand over a skillet? Read a long ingredient list?

This list will be different for everyone, but these are the things you absolutely want to avoid on workdays. An overzealous meal plan will simply make you feel like a failure mid-week when there’s food rotting in your fridge as you call your local pizzeria.

Personally, I’ve learned that I’m cool with dinner taking a while as long as it’s mostly hands-off. If I can throw a simple casserole in the oven and relax with a glass of wine and a good book while it bakes, all the better.

But following a recipe with a lengthy list of ingredients, or making a stir-fry that comes together quickly but requires a fair amount of chopping followed by constant attention? Not gonna happen when my brain is mush.

Beans, beans, the musical fruit….uh oh! That’s not what I meant!

Seriously, though, legumes are your good, reliable friend — all the time, but especially now. They’re cheap, the canned versions are perfectly acceptable (rinse them if you want to reduce the sodium content), and they serve as a filling and nutritious base for many a simple meal.

Beans also lend themselves well to no-recipe meals, like this ridiculously good one I threw together the other day. I used the slow cooker because I wanted dinner to be ready when I got home, but it would work well on the stovetop too.

Verde Black Beans and Corn
Combine two cans of black beans (rinsed and drained), one package of frozen corn, and one can of Ro-tel tomatoes with green chiles in the crockpot. Pour one jar of salsa verde on top (I used Goya). Cooking time is very flexible — six hours on low, four on high, depending on your slow cooker. Serve over rice with tortillas or tortilla chips, top with sour cream, shredded cheese, and/or avocado if desired. Sometimes I add chopped lettuce, tomatoes, and onions too, and the vegetables truly make it a one-bowl meal.

Snack dinner — cheaper, quicker, and healthier than takeout

Snack dinners are a bit of a “thing” these days, I admit. Food52 even defines three major categories of snack dinners: spreads and dips, bites, and tarts, toasts, and flatbreads.

But really, what could be better? Quick and easy, cheap, and generally kid-friendly, the whole family can get behind snack dinner.

Hummus is a favorite at my house because it’s tasty, filling, nutritious, and goes equally well with crudites, tortilla chips, and pita bread. We also like simple sheet pan nachos (take them up a notch with minimal effort with this tasty version from Cookie and Kate).

Or, throw some cherry tomatoes in a skillet with a generous amount of olive oil and kosher salt. Put a lid on the skillet and let the tomatoes do their thing on low for half an hour, or until they burst and release their juices, while you toast up slices of crusty bread. Serve the bread topped with the pan-roasted tomatoes and some burrata or fresh mozzarella.

Ok, ok…burrata isn’t even remotely inexpensive, but we deserve a treat now and then, don’t we? Yes. Yes, we do.

Eat your veggies

I don’t know about you, but when I don’t eat enough vegetables (i.e. when my routine is turned on its head over the holidays) I inevitably feel like crap.

When I’m really burned out, though, even a simple salad can feel like too much to handle, especially in conjunction with preparing the main dish. This is when I turn to the steam-in-bag frozen veggies that I always have on hand.

Sometimes if I’m really tired, I’ll just put the cooked vegetables in a bowl and let people season them as desired. Other times I’ll season them myself. If I have a little extra time, I’ll heat a skillet and saute some minced garlic to toss with steamed broccoli.

Combined with a packet of pre-cooked grains (my grocery store carries a lentil-barley combo that’s extra filling), the veggies can even become a five-minute meal.

Embrace leftovers

Please, PLEASE get to know the humble leftover, if you haven’t already. Don’t be one of those people who refuses to eat something more than once.

I promise your food isn’t going to go bad overnight, or even for a few more days. I rely on leftovers for weekday lunches (or sometimes breakfasts) and dinners later in the week when I’m running on fumes.

I’d be lost without them.

Obviously, some foods hold up to reheating better than others. Fish, for example, isn’t going to be as good the next day.

On the other hand, some foods, like soups and stews, actually improve over time as the flavors have a chance to meld. And — see “beans”, above — pretty much anything you make with legumes is going to be delicious the next day too.

Above all, stay flexible and go easy on yourself

Even the best-laid plans implode when life gets in the way. This time of year, I plot out my meals for the week with the underlying knowledge that they’ll inevitably change.

To prevent waste because of this, I stock fewer delicate salad vegetables like mixed greens and more of the hardier greens like iceberg lettuce and spinach (which can be sauteed instead if it starts to get a little bit wilted).

I’m learning how to simplify holiday entertaining, too, whether I’m the host or the guest. It’s perfectly acceptable to take something pre-made to a party. Shrimp cocktail is always welcome, as are cheese trays, and everyone will love the cookies you brought from that great local bakery. There’s no shame in admitting we just don’t have time to make one more thing.

Sometimes, I need to remind myself that cooking from scratch isn’t always feasible this time of year. And I just have to get over it.

During the holidays, and always, the people we care about should be the top priority (along with our own self-care, of course).

While serving delicious, nutritious food is important, it shouldn’t come at the expense of our sanity or spending time with those we love.

And fortunately, it doesn’t have to.

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I live and write in Northeast Ohio, about everything from food to mental health, pets to relationships, music, art, and sports. My articles usually have a personal slant because I believe we as a society and as individuals grow stronger through truth-telling and connection.

Cleveland Heights, OH
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