Convenient Home Cooking – The Pitfalls of Ultra-Processed Foods and How to Make Healthier Meals Fast

Convenient Home Cooking – The Pitfalls of Ultra-Processed Foods and How to Make Healthier Meals Fast

Convenience foods are, well, convenient. But ultra-processed foods come with a cost: health and well-being. Here’s how to keep home cooking convenient and avoid the pitfalls of ultra-processed foods.

With busy, overscheduled lives, the convenience of a microwaveable meal is tempting. The downside of quick and easy ultra-processed foods is that they often lack essential nutrients and are high in salt, sugar, and fats that can harm health.

What do we mean by ultra-processed foods? Think:

  • Sugary cereals
  • Packaged snacks
  • Frozen ready-meals
  • Sugary drinks.

These kinds of foods can confuse the body, prompting us to eat more and to eat more often than we would otherwise. They have also been linked to a variety of health concerns, including chronic health issues that can shorten lifespan and reduce quality of life significantly.

Convenience foods are also often very expensive and come with a lot of plastic packaging compared to fresh foods and cooking from scratch at home.

The good news is that there are ways to keep things convenient without compromising health.

Convenient home cooking – alternatives to ultra-processed foods

Home cooking is almost always more:

  • Nutritious
  • Delicious
  • Cost-effective
  • Planet-friendly.

By preparing meals and snacks from scratch at home, you have much greater control over what you and your family eat. That means you can tailor cooking to meet nutritional needs. Cooking from scratch also promotes mindful eating and creativity in the kitchen.

The trouble, though, is that cooking from scratch can be intimidating and inconvenient. It does require more planning and preparation, but once you’re in the habit, you, your taste buds, and your bank account will be glad you made the change.

How to make home cooking easier

Here are 10 tips to make home cooking more convenient and easier than ever, so you can reduce reliance on ultra-processed foods.

1.     Plan weekly meals

Think about the meals you and your family enjoy. If you work a conventional Mon-Fri, 9-5 schedule, make weeknight meals simple and save any experimentation and flamboyance for the weekend.

If necessary, print out recipes and save them in a handy folder you keep in the kitchen. That way, you won’t be fumbling to find what you need every time you cook. If a recipe doesn’t work, replace it with something else. You’ll soon find you have a convenient set of recipes in rotation that you can make without having to think too much. 

2.     Create your shopping list 

Use your recipes and meal plan to create a shopping list. If you have go-to recipes you use routinely, consider saving a list of the required groceries on your phone. That way, you can copy and paste quickly to your grocery list.

3.     Use a shareable phone app for grocery lists and meal plans 

If you and a partner or housemate share cooking and shopping responsibilities, use a shareable grocery list and meal plan. This can be as simple as SimpleNote.

That way, everyone can collaborate and check to make sure you always have what you need for the evening’s meal and next day. You can also save grocery lists for different meals, for easy copy and paste into the main shopping list.

4.     Embrace batch cooking

Some meals lend themselves well to batch cooking. Think chilis, soups, and stews. Instead of just making enough for one meal, double or triple the amount and freeze or refrigerate the rest for later use.

5.     Batch cook staples

If you love the convenience of opening a tin of beans or chickpeas or using quick-cook rice, you can create the same experience (but healthier and cheaper!) with a little planning.

Take an hour or two at the weekend to batch cook beans and rice for the week. Or, cook several portions of chickpeas, lentils, or other proteins, cool, and store in the portions you typically need for a recipe. Set these out to defrost in the morning and have them ready to go for your evening meal.

6.     Prepare your veggies

Most veggies are fine to peel, chop, or grate in advance. Set aside a couple of hours one weekend day to prepare your veggies for the week. You can even peel and chop garlic and onions in advance, just be sure to store these in airtight containers in the fridge.

You might even want to marinate tofu or other proteins in advance. Then, when your recipe calls for diced carrots, sliced potatoes, or whatever else, you save yourself twenty minutes of prep time and get food on the table fast.

7.     Learn to love one-pot meals

One-pot meals such as soups, stews, stir-fries and casseroles typically require less preparation and clean-up than multipart meals. Keep these in mind for weeknights and save more complex culinary adventures for when you have more time.

8.     Invest in a slow cooker

Most slow cookers have a PTFE lining made with forever chemicals, but some have a simple stainless steel or non-toxic ceramic non-stick interior. These are a great investment for busy households.

Typically, you add all your ingredients to a slow cooker in the morning, set it and forget it until you get home to a delicious cooked meal ready to serve.

Some slow cookers also act as pressure cookers, which let you cook beans and grains in less time than usual. That means if you forgot to prepare ahead, you can still follow your recipe without losing much time.

9.     Use shortcuts

Not all convenience foods are ultra-processed. Some examples of healthy convenience foods that can make meal prep faster include:

Frozen fruits and veggies

Pre-cut vegetables

Canned beans and veggies.

These kinds of convenience foods still pose a plastic problem and are sometimes sprayed with chemicals or salted to preserve freshness, but many are just as healthy as fresh foods you prepare yourself at home.

10.  Give your kids a job!

Depending on your kid this last tip may not be a timesaver, but it’s important nonetheless. Giving your child or children a specific, manageable kitchen task has numerous benefits, including:

  • Keeping them occupied, so you can get on with the rest of dinner
  • Engaging them with food, so they’re more likely to eat it
  • Teaching them basic cooking skills and manual dexterity
  • Encouraging them to try new foods
  • Saving you time, eventually.

The trick with this one is to offer support and praise for the effort, even if the end result is a poorly peeled potato you have to redo yourself. Make the task inessential until you’re sure they can follow through. No cook, big or small, wants to feel pressured to chop faster!

Final thoughts on making home cooking convenient

Ultra-processed foods offer short-term convenience at the expense of health (and your budget). Making the switch away from these foods can be hard, especially when you’re time poor or new to cooking.

Start out small, making changes to just one or two ultra-processed foods. Think about packing apple slices in a reusable food pouch, for instance, instead of relying on bags of crisps or sugary snacks when out and about. Another good start is to replace one microwaveable meal a week with something simple you cook from scratch, like vegetable chili or a hearty soup.

Over time, when you start eating more real food, your taste buds will begin to realise just how salty and sugary ultra-processed foods are. And that will help motivate even bigger changes, with bigger benefits for your health and wellbeing.

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