The Beggars’ Banquet: How to Nom Well When You’re Really #@&*$ Busy

I don’t know about you, but sometimes reading all of these cooking posts makes me feel simultaneously hungry and exhausted. I’m one of those people who works too much by necessity, and on average I am out of the house for 12 hours just for work and commuting every weekday. So by the time I get home around 7 p.m. and still have to walk and feed the dog and spend time with my dude, the last thing I want to do is make soup from scratch or prep and chop a dozen ingredients for anything. It’s not that I don’t like to cook, or that I’m afraid of cooking. It’s just that after a long day, cooking a meal becomes one more chore I can’t possibly skip, or else I (and my blood sugar) face dire consequences.

The challenge, of course, isn’t in getting enough to eat – I could sit on the couch with a sack of rice cakes and a couple of Diet Cokes every night and not bat an eyelash – but rather in getting adequate nutrition when I do eat. After a while, you start to notice that your nonexistent coffee breakfast, vending machine or Starbucks Bagel lunch, and bag of chips on the sofa dinner just isn’t cutting it. You feel tired and lethargic; you’re getting grumpy, veeeeery grumpy.
Well, take it from me and my lived experience: you can’t keep that up forever, Miss McMuffin 2011. Luckily for you, I’ve whipped my ass into gear in the last year or so and figured out ways I can improve my nutrition and still be the laziest of lazies when it comes to putting dinner on the table.
Somehow, I'm not feeling inspired. Pro Tip #1: Take advantage of the weekend. Not just for cooking, but for shopping, too. I’m not saying you have to make a day-by-day plot of exactly what you’re going to eat for each meal, but I would come up with at least five flexible dinner plans to shop for and a handful of easy-to-pack lunch go-to items. As far as cooking goes, I find I can get all of the chopping (and even some of the boiling) done for just about anything I want to eat in an hour or two on a weekend. Way worth it: it lets me eat more veggies throughout the week. Ziplock baggies and tupperware containers are your friends. Another thing the weekend can be handy for is practicing recipes that shouldn’t take long, but that unfamiliarity makes longer. With practice, I’ve made everything from homemade sweet potato fries to casserole and lasagna to stir fry recipes that take me less than 15 minutes of actual hands-on cooking time (I don’t really count the oven-cooking time because it doesn’t require my presence at all, barring house fire).
Pro Tip #2: Don’t be afraid of frozen. My dude and I are pescetarians, so we’re limited in the easy-to-thaw-and-heat meat options, but we have some great frozen substitutes we’re really stoked on. One of my favorites is the Quorn brand Chick’n Nuggets (the Southwestern ones are my to-die-for favorites). They cook in 10 minutes, they’re reasonable in calories, and, bonus for vegetarians, they’re not made of soy like every other meat substitute out there, so they offer nutritional variety and a break from the constant uptick in estrogen so many soy-based foods shove on you. Dump these on a cookie sheet, cook for 10 minutes, and serve on a plate with some barbecue sauce, and you’re set.
Pro Tip #3: Learn as many hands-off recipes as possible, by heart. Buy sauces in jars, pre-chop your veggies, pre-brown your meat, and throw everything from tacos to lasagnas together as quick as can be. Other things that can constitute a full meal, very quickly and easily, include: meat-and-cheese plates (just cut and serve), salads (you can put anything in a salad, and I highly recommend that you do), and sandwiches (even grilled cheese should only take a couple minutes longer than a cold sandwich. Throw some soup in the microwave while you’re grilling the sandwich, and you’re set).
Pro Tip #4: Take your vitamins. Seriously, you need the nutritional bolstering. Take a multi – pre-natal vitamins add extra horsepower for your hair and nails – and ask a doctor or nutritionist to recommend other things for your personal needs. Depending on your time of life and nutritional input, you may need iron supplements, folic acid, and/or calcium supplements as well. Taking your vitamins ensures that eating doesn’t have to be a chore of hyper-vigilance: you can feel free to eat what sounds good, with variety, and not panic that there weren’t enough B-vitamins in that salad.
Pro Tip #5: If it can be delivered, have it delivered. I used to be the kind of person who loved grocery shopping, but between pedestrian commuting, long work hours, and not enough free time to myself, I’m just not finding it to be the most reasonable course of action to force myself to run to the store every time I’m out of something, every time I’m hungry, or once a week to haul what amounts to fifteen or more meals home with me. Instead, I use a Safeway delivery service (they automatically give you Club Card savings and routinely offer with-this-purchase style delivery discounts), and supplement it with occasional trips to the neighborhood grocery stores near my home or office for small things I can’t get with them. We’re also looking into using a local CSA for more variety in our veggies – do any of you use a CSA? What have been your experiences? For those cities that support it, Amazon Fresh is also a great option.
Pro Tip #6: Don’t skip any meals. This seems basic, but honestly I can remember entire weeks (vaguely, through a blur of plummeting cognitive power) wherein I had something half-assed like an English muffin and then just snacked on crap like gummi bears and Sun Chips until dinner time. Breakfast really doesn’t have to be difficult: a yogurt cup, piece of fruit, and some kind of bread product (bagel, English muffin, piece of toast, whatever) are not only easily portable, they’re not wickedly expensive, either. Lunch can be a sandwich, or leftovers from one of the killer meals you prepared half on the weekend and half the night before, or you can map a handful of blocks radius around your workplace that have delicious eats, and try not to repeat the same place (or meal) too often. Variety isn’t just the spice of life, after all – it’s also the source of all those essential amino acids and sugars you need to keep plowing through.
I know it’s super Betty Crocker annoying to say this, but just doing this handful of forethought and preparation has allowed my family to eat home-cooked(ish) meals almost every night for months, even when we’re out of the home 60 hours during the work week, and we feel much better for it. And hell, when you really just don’t feel like even turning the oven on for half an hour, there’s always takeout.

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Meghan Young Krogh

Meghan had a number of quality writing mentors over the course of her education, which just goes to show that you can't blame the teacher for the way the student turns out. Team Oxford Comma represent.

15 thoughts on “The Beggars’ Banquet: How to Nom Well When You’re Really #@&*$ Busy”

  1. “Ziplock baggies and tupperware containers are your friends.” SO TRUE. I’ll spend about 3 hours max cooking on a Sunday, and I’ll have my dinner, plus Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday lunch in lock ‘n’ lock boxes (I found out the hard way that some tupperware boxes are leaky despite the manufacturer’s assurances), ready to pull out of the fridge and reheat. Yeah it means I have to eat the same thing on four days, but I make something different and much more simple in the evenings.

  2. Thank you for all these great ideas! I am known for skipping breakfast, eating garbage junk food throughout the day and then wondering why I never have any energy to cook a “real” meal beyond pasta or something instant(dang going to both school and working messed up my eating habits). These are simple things I can do to transition back to a normal/healthy eating routine.And yes on the vitamins I can always tell when I’m lacking in some key nutrient or something b/c things just feel off and I make sure I take a vitamin it helps loads.

  3. Ahhhhh this was very much my life until recently!

    My go-to dinner when I was having super-long days usually involved a baked potato topped with veggies/beans and cheese and sriracha. Microwave-only and in my mouth within 10 minutes of starting “cooking.” Also, eggs for dinner. I’d do the Sunday cooking thing whenever I could, eat it for 3 days, then freeze any leftovers, then reheat them a few weeks later when I was no longer sick of eating that thing.

    This is also yet another thing Trader Joe’s freaking excels at. Their frozen stuff is pretty tasty and healthy (depending what you get, obvi) but what I always make sure I have a few of are their packets of Indian food. They’re good for like a year, cost about $1.50, and even if you are out of eggs and your potatoes are rotten and there is literally no other food in the house, dump one in a bowl, microwave it, and you’re all ready to eat in 2 minutes. (I would sometimes not be able to have dinner until 11pm, so speed of cooking was really important to me for awhile.)

    Also, and I know this isn’t the most cost effective, but when my life’s super-hectic and I can’t even get it together to pack a lunch, I try really hard to get as many veggies and nutrients in my lunch as possible, so if dinner is lacking in the fruit and veg department (and heavy on the cheese) I don’t feel so bad about it.

    The vitamins is a very good point though, I really need to get better at taking those …..

  4. Also- A good friend of mine and her partner use a CSA and love it. If you are in the Toronto area, I can recommend a couple for you. Thus far I have not used one, because I have been going home for summers (which is the best time to be in a CSA) and it seems like a lot of veggies for one gal. When my boyfriend moves out here, it is something we will definitely look into.

    1. I’m in San Francisco and got the name of a good-sounding one at the Ferry Building, but definitely share the names anyway – I’m sure there are Torontoans (?) here who’d benefit! The one I’m looking into here in the Bay Area has different sized boxes for different numbers of people/different levels of interest in eating veggies/fruit, etc. Maybe you can find one that has a flexible plan so you could get a single-gal-sized subscriber box for now, and up it when he arrives?

  5. I eat breakfast every day. Usually it involves cheese, EggBeaters, and something meat-y. Sometimes you just want some carbs, though. I tried Alton Brown’s recipe for cooking steel-cut oats in a crock pot. Dump in the ingredients, turn it on, go to bed. In the morning, you have perfectly cooked oatmeal that tastes a zillion times better than that instant stuff.

  6. My pro-tip *(for a gal living a lone) is cook a bunch of things that can be used in a variety of tasty combos throughout the week on Sunday. For example: I usually brown some tempeh or tofu for sammiches and prewash and chop veggies and sprouts as well, I also usually make some sort of soup and salad-ish thing, and some hummus. I also keep around a lot of frozen veggies, and wraps. So for example this week I made a big-ole batch of broccoli soup, hummus, crunchy tahini seed coleslaw and I prewashed a bunch of veggies. This week`s meals have consisted of spinach `pizza` (on a tortilla, with washed spinach, sliced up mushrooms, sliced peppers and soy cheese`), hummus and cut veggies, wraps with grilled tempeh with hummus and veggies, broccoli soup accompanied by a tortilla with melted soy cheese, all occasionally with a side of tahini cole slaw.
    *note: And by pro-tip I mean I have been doing it for a month, and it has prevented me from eating total crap during the busiest paper-writing and grading time of the term*
    Also- crockpots are the best invention ever. AND they are hard to break and are super common at goodwills etc. I think mine cost me $12

  7. For me, the key is to pack my lunch the night before during particularly busy weeks with lots of early mornings. If I don’t pack it, I probably won’t eat lunch that day. If I don’t have time to sit down and eat cereal or yogurt in the morning, I try to have bananas and maybe granola bars on hand for an on-the-go breakfast.

    Even though I get home late, I almost always cook dinner. It may take awhile, but it’s actually a form of stress relief for me because I enjoy it so much. And I guess I’m so used to 8 and 9 and 10pm dinners at this point that waiting a little longer to eat isn’t a big deal, provided I ate lunch.

    For really quick weeknight dinners, my fail-safe back-ups are tuna melts, salad with everything in the fridge in it, or a quick 5min. saute of fish filet (always in my freezer) with whatever veggie I have on hand. Also, eggs/omelets are super quick. I also like making a big pot of soup or stew on Sunday and stretching it for a few days, alongside some bread or a salad.

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