Cooking more often is the best strategy for healthy eating. The cook is the gatekeeper for what goes into his or her food, and all the more so if he or she does most of the household shopping. Lack of time is a universal affliction of modern life, though, and is a deal-breaker for many cooks on many days—but it doesn’t have to be.
For one thing—and people who struggle with cooking don’t believe this—cooking can be a stress reliever and a healthy transition between work time (whether work is at home or at the office) and nighttime. For another, these fast-cooking strategies, when brought to bear on good recipes, make efficient, delicious cooking a realistic goal.
1. Stock the Pantry
A pantry filled with quick-meal essentials is the best assurance of healthy eating during the week. If the cupboard contains little more than flavored vinegars, dried mushrooms, and spices, cooking up a fast meal becomes nearly impossible (unless you have the ingenuity of a TV chef-testant). But if you have couscous, dried apricots, and chicken broth, you’re well on your way to a simple Moroccan- style tagine. Make a long list of must-have staples, and be sure to keep them on hand. These form the backbone of every weeknight meal; you’ll just need to supplement with fresh meat or produce.
Keep in mind, though, that packaged foods are often loaded with sodium and sometimes too much fat, too. Check labels. A few products we love: canned organic beans (lower in sodium than conventional); boil-in-bag brown rice; precooked whole grains like farro or brown rice; lower-sodium marinara sauce (we like McCutcheon’s and Amy’s); lower-sodium chicken broth; canned diced tomatoes; and quick-cooking pasta. Shop the global-food aisle for more go-tos, such as canned light coconut milk, curry paste, and rice noodles. And consider your freezer a pantry extension: Stash bags of frozen peas, corn, edamame, and blueberries, all of which can offer peak-seasonal nutrition during the off-season. (And keep prewashed salad greens in the fridge while you’re at it.)
2. Organize Your Kitchen
Clear clutter from countertops: If you don’t use something daily or at least several times a week, stash it away for more counter space. Organize drawers and get rid of useless gadgets. Keep knives sharpened and within reach. A garbage bowl on the countertop is a good idea; make cleanup even faster by lining it with a plastic grocery bag. As you start on dinner, get out all the ingredients you’ll need and have them on the counter. There’s less chance that you’ll forget an essential component or find yourself scrambling during a critical process.
3. Love Your Microwave
The microwave is a godsend in the kitchen, helpful for so much more than heating leftovers. You can speed up a soup by bringing broth to a simmer in the microwave while you sauté veggies in the pot. Pop fresh pizza dough in for 30 or 45 seconds at 50% power, and you shave off the 30 minutes you’d normally have to spend resting the dough. Fast-track beets by wrapping individually in parchment paper and microwaving three to five minutes—this can save you more than an hour.
4. Get Ahead Whenever Possible
Do some weekend-warrior cooking and prep. Chop vegetables to tuck away in the fridge. Parboil parsnips, butternut squash, or carrots—they’ll take just a few minutes to cook when you’re ready. Precook broccoli, cauliflower, or green beans by boiling until crisp-tender, then shocking with cold water to stop the cooking; stash them in the fridge and reheat by quickly sautéing in a little oil or butter with a sprinkling of fresh herbs. Cook dishes that keep well (soups, stews, casseroles), and refrigerate or freeze; you can reheat during the week for superspeedy meals. Boil some whole grains or beans on the weekend, and keep in the fridge or freezer. Remember that those grains can also be used for savory breakfast dishes.
5. Go Simple
When you have a great fast entrée, make the rest of the meal radically simple: a bag of microwave-ready haricots verts or sugar snap peas for the vegetable, and a whole- grain roll with a smidge of honey butter for the starch. Or, if you’d rather have a side dish as the meal’s star, cook something easy for the entrée: seared scallops, sautéed shrimp, or pan-grilled chicken. Finally, remember the egg: the ultimate fast-cooking food.