Our family always eats together in the evening, but everyone fixes what they want for the remainder of the day. I'm a little bit lazy when fixing food just for myself, and tend to impulsively grab options that are quick and easy. Often these quick and easy options are not the cheapest, most nutritious or lowest-calorie options. However if I can eliminate some steps in preparing foods by making mixes in advance, I am more likely to make better choices. Here are five examples:
- During the warmer months I make smoothies out of frozen fruit. Some people use room-temperature fruits and add ice cubes, but ice cubes grind harder in the blender, and leave ice chunks in the smoothie. I prefer to use frozen fruit and a cold liquid. To maximize nutrition I use a mix of fruits. But it is cumbersome to get fruit out of many individual containers for each smoothie, especially because I am likely to want a smoothie when I am tired from a workout.
So I keep a container of smoothie mix in my freezer, and continually add to it. The mix includes our homegrown blueberries and strawberries (big berries need to be chopped a little smaller). I also use up whatever fruit we have that's going by; most often this will be bananas. But I have also frozen slices of apples and peaches, with the skin (I hate to throw away fiber). Once frozen these fruits get chopped smaller before adding to my mix.
I also freeze applesauce and juices in ice cube trays, then chop each cube once before adding to my mix (to eliminate this chopping, fill trays less full). The juice might include the surplus fruit juice from canned fruit.
I've also frozen canned fruit that was otherwise unpopular with the family... say an odd brand of mandarin oranges. So basically, I add whatever I have around and want to use up.
To make a smoothie I combine about a cup of frozen fruit with 1/3 cup of dry milk powder, a cup of water (vary for desired thickness), a squirt of vanilla and a smidge of sweetener. This provides one non-fat dairy serving and one fruit serving for about 150 calories. If you use whole milk, it's about 225 calories, and more if you add a lot of sugar.
- I eat oatmeal prepared in the microwave most mornings. Oatmeal is very cheap, nutritious and filling. In addition, researchers know that carbohydrates increase serotonin (happy brain chemical) so a whole grain gives you a slow even release of this emotional lift. Researchers also know that a complex carb breakfast will help curb your appetite even in the afternoon.
But I got to thinking that maybe it would be more nutritious if my hot cereal included other grains. Plus other added grains give the oatmeal a more interesting texture. It was a little challenging for me to mix up all this stuff every morning, so I started mixing up a large quantities in advance... about 12 cups of mix fills my can. I do about 80% quick oats and 20% of a combination of things like cornmeal, bulgur, wheat germ, bran, steel-cut oats, ground flax seed and so on. I've also added some grains that have been on my shelf a little too long, like Cream of Wheat, or grits.
Then for every half-cup serving of this mix I add a teaspoon of brown sugar, a teeny pinch of salt and some cinnamon. I store this mix in a can with a half-cup measure. So in the morning I put a scoop of mix in a bowl, add a few frozen blueberries and a scant cup of water. (If I didn't have a surplus of blueberries, I would add raisins to my prepared mix.) The first time I made this, when I added water, I noted the water filled to the bowl to a half inch of the rim, so now I just add water by eye. I microwave this until the oatmeal threatens to bubble up out of the bowl.
Then I let it sit for about five minutes, as the bowl is hot to handle and the cereal will continue to cook. Since I have learned exactly how long to microwave (would vary with different microwaves), I just set the timer, go take my shower and then return to a breakfast ready to eat. Not including added milk, this breakfast is 175 calories. So hot cereal can be as convenient as cold cereal, but much cheaper and requires less calories to get the same feeling of fullness.
- During the cold months I drink a lot of hot cocoa as one way to get in my required dairy servings. So I keep a can of hot cocoa mix... per every cup of dry milk powder, I add a tablespoon of cocoa and a tablespoon of sugar. I keep a 1/3-cup measure in the can. When I want a hot cocoa, I scoop mix into a cup, add cold water and microwave for my set time. It works best if you add a little water, stir out the lumps, then add the remaining water.
Most people will find this mix not sweet enough, and so may wish to adjust. There are also homemade recipes for hot chocolate mix that use items like non-dairy creamer, but this adds cost, calories and no additional nutrition. As I make it, each cup provides me with one fat-free dairy serving for 100 calories.
- In the summer months when my garden is producing leaf lettuce, I make up a bag of "salad mix" to keep in the fridge. This mix includes inexpensive store-bought veggies that have a long shelf life, such as chopped cabbage, celery, carrot, radishes etc. I do not add things like tomatoes and cucumbers that would get soft within a day. So when I want to take a brief break for lunch, I can throw together a salad quickly. Though I still have to fetch lettuce from the garden, and usually add additional items, I have at least eliminated some of the steps.
- I am the only family member that prefers a veggie pizza over higher-calorie meat options, and so usually have my own corner of pizza. I have sometimes made up and frozen veggie mixes, in one-portion quantities. A veggie mix might include mushrooms, black olives, and sauteed green pepper and onion. This way I don't have part cans of mushrooms and olives forgotten in the fridge, and don't have to chop and saute other veggies for each pizza.
Photo credit: YoLaGringo