I realized during a conversation with a friend last weekend that I’ve collected a lot of kitchen shortcuts for making healthy food that maybe aren’t well-known to the whole world. So, it’s time to share! And here’s why it matters: for me, making healthy food choices is a priority, but I need those healthy food choices to be about as easy as the less-healthy food choices that I could make. I’m not saying the dinners I put together are as easy as ordering pizza or going through a drive-through, but if I’m going to make spaghetti squash or veggie noodles, I need those to be in the same category of time commitment as regular old pasta. Most nights, I need to be able to put dinner on the table in about half an hour, start to finish. Otherwise, pizza it is. And you can easily do that, if you get friendly with your microwave (and maybe a few other kitchen appliances) and learn how to make some simple, healthy foods very quickly. So, without further ado, here are a few of my quickest dinner prep tips.
1. Microwave sweet potatoes
Sweet potatoes are a staple food for me because they are nutrient-packed, and they also provide good carbohydrates to keep me full and energetic. Because I’m fairly active, a really low-carb diet doesn’t work for me (some people will disagree with that statement, but this is my blog so those people aren’t here). Sweet potatoes are a great addition to a simple piece of meat or fish, and I usually also steam some broccoli or roast some green beans or throw a salad next to it as well, so I have some green veggies, some protein, and a nice starchy sweet potato. I love sweet potatoes with a little butter or coconut butter and some cinnamon, and they’re also delicious sprinkled with chipotle seasoning. If we’re out of eggs I will sometimes have a sweet potato slathered with almond butter for breakfast, too. The easiest and fastest way to prepare them, that I’ve found, is to quickly rinse the skin to get the dirt off, poke a few holes in the sweet potato with a fork, and throw it in the microwave for about eight minutes. You might need to play around with timing depending on your microwave, but that’s it. “Baked” sweet potatoes in under ten minutes. Done.
2. Microwave spaghetti squash
I love spaghetti squash. Mostly because pasta was such a versatile go-to before I found out I was gluten intolerant—it’s so easy to throw a mix of protein, veggies, and spices/sauces into a skillet and come up with something to throw over pasta (garlic and olive oil will create a base sauce that is incredibly versatile, a decent tomato sauce without junk ingredients is a great pinch-hitter for a quick dinner). I still eat gluten free pasta sometimes, but after finding so many great veggie substitutes I tend to go that route more often, because they offer more nutrients and fewer calories. Spaghetti squash is one of my favorite stand-ins for pasta, it’s just as versatile and an easy way to sneak more veggies in to your meal (if you’re a pasta eater, you can also easily do half noodles and half spaghetti squash to still get the pasta texture but sneak in more veggies). The trouble is that most recipes recommend roasting spaghetti squash in the oven for about 45 minutes. I don’t know about you, but I have no patience for that. The good news is, it’s totally unnecessary. If you split open your spaghetti squash (word to the wise: don’t stick your knife all the way through the squash, or you’re going to end up with a sword in the stone situation—instead, cut halfway through and work your way around the squash so you can still pull your knife out) scoop out the seeds and stringy insides with a spoon, and place half of the squash face down on a plate. You don’t even need to rub it with olive oil. Just face down, on your plate. Throw that plate in the microwave for ten minutes (again, you can play with the time, but ten minutes works for me) and the spaghetti squash will steam and cook itself. Then you just run a fork across the cooked squash to separate it into spaghetti-like strands, and put your sauce over it. Important tip, though—the plate and squash are going to be lava hot when you take them out of the microwave. Wear oven mitts.
3. Spiralized veggie noodles
Another good pasta substitute are veggie noodles—my favorites are zucchini noodles and sweet potato noodles. I’ve been making zucchini noodles for the past year with a hand-held spiralizer called Vegetti that was around $10, and works great for zucchini. But I couldn’t get it to work for sweet potatoes, or any veggie that wasn’t the size and shape of a zucchini, at all. So, I recently bought a countertop spiralizer for $30 and I am completely obsessed. This one can spiralize anything—sweet potatoes, onion, allegedly butternut squash (still on my list to try) and many others. Expect the spiralizer to be featured in many future recipes. Dan thinks it looks like a medieval torture device.
Zucchini noodles are incredibly easy to make—you spiralize your zucchini into the spaghetti strands (“zoodles,” if you will) and you sauté them quickly in a frying pan, or you use them raw. I like them lightly cooked, but I don’t like them cooked for more than a couple of minutes because they get too soft for my taste. But seriously—start to finish, these take less than five minutes. Lately, I’ve been really loving the sweet potato noodles because they have a little more to offer in terms of carbs and calories, and as my running mileage increases I need some of that. The sweet potato noodles take a little more cooking—first you peel the potato and spiralize it, and then I throw the noodles in a pan with a little olive or avocado oil. I sauté them for two or three minutes, stirring once or twice, and then I pour in just enough liquid to cover the bottom of the pan (I’ve been using some broth that I had in my fridge, but water would also work). Then you let the noodles cook in that liquid until the liquid is evaporated and the noodles are tender. Some people cook the sweet potato noodles without liquid, but I’ve found that the outsides get burned before the noodles are sufficiently cooked, so the liquid method works perfectly for me. Start to finish, those are still under ten minutes. I love them with a sauce of tahini, coconut aminos, almond butter, ginger, garlic, sesame oil and sesame seeds (similar to sesame noodles—would be great with chopped green onion, but I never have my act together enough to have those in my fridge). You could also add dried red pepper to that sauce if you like some kick. The mix of the sauce and the slightly sweet noodles is fabulous.
4. Fast, simple proteins
In our house, something needs to go next to all these veggies. My favorite quick and easy proteins are frozen fish fillets, salmon burgers, frozen shrimp, and chicken (either chicken breasts or skinless chicken thighs--bone-in, skin-on chicken is also something we eat but it takes longer to cook). Costco has great options for frozen wild-caught fish fillets. I thaw these in water (which doesn't take long) and either bake them with some olive oil and spices or pan-fry them with butter and lemon. Costco also carries Trident Seafoods frozen salmon burgers that you can pan-cook from frozen, they're delicious and the ingredients pass my inspection (there's some soybean oil, but I let that slide because the salmon is wild-caught and there are only a few ingredients besides the salmon in the burgers). Frozen shrimp thaws quickly and is delicious in any pasta dish (add it to the sesame sweet potato noodles, above) or sautéed in garlic and olive oil next to your veggies. Chicken is easily baked with any of your favorite sauces--barbecue sauce is a kid-friendly favorite, we love a mixture of mustard, rosemary, maple syrup and a splash of rice wine vinegar over chicken, or you can bake it with salt and some simple dried spices and call it a day. Any of those proteins can be on your table in under half an hour, and will stay good in your freezer for months until you're ready to use them. In the summer, we also love to buy fresh wild-caught salmon (which you can bake or broil in under 20 minutes, depending on how thick your fillet is).
Cauliflower rice should also be on this list, but I already talked about it in this post. If you try these and like them (or don’t like them) I want to hear about it! And if you have great kitchen short cuts, I’d love to hear those, too.