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How Do I Fit Cooking into My Busy Schedule?

May 2, 2014

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Hi, I’m Maria Marlowe, a Certified Health Coach and author of Detox without the Deprivation. In my weekly “Ask Health Coach Maria” series, I answer frequently asked questions that relate to health and wellness. Have a question? Ask me here

Hi Maria, 

I want to make healthy meals at home, but I feel like between work and kids, there's no time to cook. Any tips to make cooking easier and faster?

-Aimee, Los Angeles

Aimee, I hear you. I’m a Health Coach and even I don’t want to spend all day in the kitchen!

I am all for quick and easy meals that taste good and are, of course, healthy!

There are a number of shortcuts, or cooking hacks, which will allow you to do it all— work, kids, and cooking—without breaking a sweat.

Health Coach Maria's Quick Cooking Hacks

1. Cook Once, Eat Twice: 

The idea with this kitchen philosophy is simple: cooking takes much more time than reheating, so why not cook double or triple batches, and then refrigerate or freeze for a weeks worth of fast and easy meals?

Now, don’t think that this means you have to eat the same thing for 7 days straight. Instead, use the larger batches as your chef’s palate for a wide variety of dishes throughout the week. For example, on Sundays, I’ll cook a big batch of both a grain and a plant protein, like brown rice and lentils, and then throughout the week, I will use each of them in different dishes.

So on one night I can make curried lentils and veggies with a side of brown rice, on another night I’ll have a steamed veggie and brown rice stir fry with a garlic ginger sauce, and on still another night, I can turn the lentils into a lentil burger.

In addition to cooking double batches of individual grain or protein staples, you can cook a double batch of your favorite complete meals, and then use them for lunch the next day. I like to turn last night’s dinner into a burrito simply by putting it in a wrap and sometimes adding avocado or sprouts. Leftovers never sounded so good, huh?

2. Use Frozen or Pre-Cut Vegetables:

This is not cheating. And in fact, this shortcut may even lead to a more nutritious meal! Frozen vegetables are often picked at their peak, when they are their most nutritious, and then flash frozen within hours. This allows them to maintain what can sometimes be a higher level of nutrients then their fresh counterparts, which are often picked before they are fully ripe and trucked across the country for days or even weeks before they end up in your grocery store. What’s more, frozen vegetables are often cheaper than fresh. I often pick up peas, broccoli, edamame, and a veggie stir-fry blend.

Additionally, many grocery stores now offer fresh pre-cut vegetables. While they will be more expensive then buying the whole vegetable, if time is your main concern, these will help cut down on time spent chopping.

3. Use a Pressure Cooker:

A pressure cooker dramatically speeds up the time it takes to cook anything, from beans to rice to complete meals, so it’s a great kitchen tool for the time-pressed home chef. If you eat a more plant-based diet, a pressure cooker is particularly great, because it cooks vegetables and beans to perfection, without turning them into mush the way a slow cooker or crockpot sometimes does. You can find plenty of pressure cooker recipes online or in specifically designated cookbooks.

4. Use Quick-Cooking Grains:

On nights when you’re short on time and haven’t done any prepping or planning, turn to quick-cooking foods. Grains like quinoa, millet, bulgur wheat, and teff are ready in 20 minutes or less. And, oats, which can be ready in 5 minutes, should not be relegated only to the breakfast table. Turn them into a savory side dish, like these spinach and tomato oats.

There are even plenty of quick-cooking whole meals! Brown rice pasta cooks quickly, and you can turn it into complete dinner by adding veggies for a pasta primavera and making a quick side salad with beans.

5. Try One-Pot Meals:

I am a huge fan of the “one pot meal” where, as the name suggests, you cook everything together—veggies, protein, and grains—cutting down on both your active time in the kitchen and time spent cleaning pots. 

One of my favorites is this warm and spicy kale recipe. It’s ready in about 20 minutes, and is extremely flavorful and satisfying. 

6. Try Healthy Frozen Foods or Take-Out:

Ok, I get it. There are going to be some nights when you just really don’t want to cook. And that’s ok! You have two options. 

One, you can keep some healthy frozen foods in your freezer. (Notice my emphasis on healthy).  Some of my go-to brands are Amy’s, Hilary’s Eat Well (for veggie burgers), Engine 2, and Daiya (for veggie pizza night). Between them, they have a wide range of options for you to choose from. Now, I am not suggesting you eat these foods every night, but once in a while, they are a good plan B.

Secondly, you can order out. It gets a bad rap, but ordering out doesn’t have to mean unhealthy. Just choose wisely. The Happy Cow app helps you find the most health-conscious restaurants nearby. In New York, there’s also a new website called Healthy Out, which allows you to find nearby restaurants that will cater to your specific dietary preferences (and it even recommends specific dishes!).

No matter where you order from, whether it’s Italian, Thai, Chinese, Mexican, or anywhere else for that matter, they will most likely have at least a side of vegetables or a salad. Just make the best choices that you can with whatever options you’re given.

Ok readers, what are some of your tips for making cooking easier or faster? Tell us in the comments below!

Maria Marlowe is a Certified Health Coach and regular Wellness Today Contributor. Get your health question answered in her next column by sending her an email at