Thank you to Melissa Brown, MPH CHES, RD, LD from Food Outreach in St. Louis for contributing to the blog.
A balanced eating style, one including whole grains, lean protein, and a variety of vegetables and fruit, is important during and after cancer treatment, but some days, cooking can feel like an insurmountable task. Whether you hate to cook, normally like to cook, but find yourself with limited energy or bothered by the aroma of cooking food, or are somewhere in between, strategies for eating healthy with less kitchen time will come in handy. A few shortcuts can have you on your way in no time!
Frozen food gets a bad rap, but there are more options than ever. Vegetables and fruit frozen immediately after harvest often have higher vitamin levels than their fresh counterparts, as freezing locks in nutrients that are lost when fresh produce is shipped and sits in the store. Making smart choices and knowing a few tricks to round out frozen entrees can go a long way.
Start with the nutrition facts label for frozen meals. Look for meals with at least 8g of fiber and 10g of protein and less than 600mg of sodium per serving. These days, many frozen meal manufacturers offer meals that fit these categories. If you want to limit your time in the freezer aisle reading labels, look up the nutrition information ahead of time on the manufacturer’s website and make a list of the meals that fit the bill! (You may even find a coupon!)
Amp up the nutrition in frozen meals by adding additional frozen veggies, low-sodium canned beans, or eggs. Finely chopped cabbage, either raw or quickly sautéed or stir-fried, is versatile and makes an easy veggie addition that works with many frozen meals.
Whether or not you go the frozen meal route, keeping frozen vegetables and fruit on hand can help minimize your time in the kitchen. If it’s been awhile since you’ve looked at frozen vegetables, you will be in for a surprise. In addition to the usual suspects of frozen peas, corn, and green beans, you can now find frozen, pre-cut versions of almost any vegetable, including bell peppers and butternut squash.
Make sure to heat all frozen foods thoroughly, to a consistent internal temperature of at least 165°F.
It’s in the Can
Canned food provides another kitchen hack. In the canned food aisle, look for low-sodium versions of canned vegetables, beans, and soups. For soups, add extra fresh, frozen, or canned vegetables and some extra protein, either to the soup or on the side, to make a nourishing, filling meal.
Look for low-sodium, water-packed canned tuna or chicken. Add directly to green salads for a protein boost, or mix up a quick tuna- or chicken-salad to enjoy on crackers or bread.
For an quick and easy meal made with just a few pantry staples, check out this Three Bean Pasta Salad.
Other Pantry Staples
Some simple pantry staples come in handy for easy, no- or low-cook meals. In addition to the canned items above, look for 100% whole grain bread and crackers; brown rice – there are shelf-stable, pre-cooked versions if you want a shortcut; a vinaigrette salad dressing you like; seasoned rice vinegar; peanut butter (or other nut butters); nuts or seeds; toasted sesame oil, extra virgin olive oil; garlic powder; onion powder.
Keep some protein options in the fridge: plain Greek yogurt, tofu, hummus and eggs are a great start. Cabbage and hearty greens, like kale, last longer in the fridge than lettuce, and can serve as the base for a quick, hearty salad when paired with your protein of choice.
Meal Prep Light
Meal prep doesn’t have to mean making a full meal. Cook a big pot of brown rice at the beginning of the week, and pair with different veggies and protein throughout the week. Or roast a pan of veggies one night – or in the morning if that’s when you have time and energy – and pair with a protein and whole grain.
If you like to cook, but have limited time or energy to spend in the kitchen, take advantage of times when you do have the energy (or enlist family or friends) to cook big batches of recipes that freeze well – think lasagna, chili, lentil soup, casseroles, etc. After preparing, portion in single serving containers and freeze for later.
Stretch Your Take-Out
Apply the above strategies for boosting the nutrition profile of frozen meals to your take-out. With enough added veggies, many take-out entrees can be stretched to provide two or three meals. In addition to more meals you don’t have to cook (or buy), you get extra fiber, vitamins, and minerals from the veggies, while getting less sodium and fat per serving. Refrigerate the portion you will be saving for later immediately and make sure to reheat thoroughly.