We believe that whole food, from scratch cooking is one of the best ways to support our health, our family’s health and the health of the environment. Trouble is, cooking from scratch is often considered extravagant or time-consuming when in reality it is simple and easy once you make it a priority. Even so, we all need a little extra help to speed up the process in our busy lives and this is where these 20 healthy kitchen hacks enter the scene.
If you’re struggling to get dinner on the table and feeling stressed about doing it, try some of our favourite healthy kitchen hacks to help transform mealtimes into a wonderful way to relax and unwind at the end of the day. These tips are simple to implement and while some of them take some advance planning, the results (and your sanity) are well worth the effort.
1. Stick to simple recipes.
There are times when it’s joyful to languish in the kitchen while creating an involved, elaborate meal – but not when you’ve arrived home at 7pm after a long workday or a tough commute. Instead, stick to simple recipes (there are a ton of 5-ingredient wonders out there) that are nourishing and filling.
For example, try pairing your protein of choice (meat, fish, eggs, beans, tofu, etc.) with your favourite roasted or steamed vegetables. Amp up the flavour with lemon and sea salt, or try one of these five ways to add flavour to any meal.
2. Enlist family members for help.
Why should you be the one stuck with all of the work and pressure of getting dinner on the table? Enlist your family members, partners, spouses, roommates or friends to help you in the kitchen. Throw on some tunes and make a party of it. The group effort will complete the prepping and chopping in a flash, and help teach the youngsters (or cooking-challenged grownups) valuable culinary skills they can use for a lifetime.
3. Meal plan in advance and save those plans to be re-used.
Healthy eating is much easier when you’ve got a plan in place to make it happen – and this is one of the kitchen hacks we use most at the Academy of Culinary Nutrition. While a meal plan that includes breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks is helpful, if you’re new to meal planning you can start off with creating a menu for dinners only if that’s easier. Chart your meals for the week (you can even plan to make large batches and have the leftovers for lunch) and include any recipes you’ll need and a shopping list.
Once you have a sheaf of meal plans at the ready, all you’ll need to do is pull one out, pick up the necessary ingredients and get to work. The more you repeat meal plans in your rotation, the easier it will be to shop, prep and cook for them.
4. Create a prep schedule.
A detailed prep schedule allows you to actually implement your menu plan successfully. For each recipe, write out the ingredients and how they need to be prepped (sliced, chopped, blended, soaked, etc.). Then assign yourself or someone in your family to complete that prep task and note when they need to do it.
We recommend integrating prep schedules with your menu plans so you can get into a groove and re-use them later.
5. Prep on the weekend.
Let’s face it: the majority of the work involved in cooking is actually chopping, not the cooking itself. Save yourself the time and effort during the week by doing prep on a Saturday or Sunday. Then, all you’ll need to do is assemble and cook and dinnertime will happen much, much quicker.
Some prep tasks might include:
- chopping produce in various sizes (depending on what’s needed for different recipes) and sealing them in jars.
- cooking large batches of grains, beans or legumes to use throughout the week
- cutting up crudites for snacks
- making one or two full recipes to have for dinner on Monday or Tuesday (if you work a Mon-Fri workweek)
Menu prep can take a couple of hours, but if you throw on some music or a TV show it can be more enjoyable. Plus, if everyone in the household lends a hand your prep time will be quick and easy.
6. Use up the ingredients in your fridge.
Don’t stop at the grocery store on the way home to cook dinner – assess what you’ve got in your fridge and use it to create a delicious meal. This not only cuts down on food waste, but also saves you some cash.
Easy meals like stir-fries, soups, stews and pasta can be thrown together quickly with a variety of veggies and herbs that are lying around in your fridge. Fridge-scrap dinners are easy – the only problem is you may not be able to recreate them in the exact same way again!
7. Skip recipes altogether and cook what you know.
Cooking from recipes is enjoyable and exposes us to fresh flavours, new techniques and ingredients, but when dinner needs to happen it’s better to cook what you know rather than taking the extra time to follow something novel. This is especially important when you’re new to menu planning – if you try to cook half a dozen new recipes in a week the learning curve will be much steeper.
Save yourself some time by cooking what you know at first and adding in new recipes as you feel ready to tackle them, or during the weekend when you have more opportunity to play.
8. Cook seasonal meals.
Nature has its own innate kitchen hacks – and that’s local and seasonal ingredients! Using what’s available locally means you’ll spend less time searching for ingredients. Also, when food is in season and local it travels less from farm to plate. This means it will taste fresher and meals will require less adornment because the ingredients themselves will shine, shine, shine.
9. Use high-quality ingredients.
Buy the best quality ingredients that you can afford. As with the seasonal meal kitchen hack above, when your ingredients are amazing you won’t need to do as much cooking and transformation to make them taste delicious.
10. Build a well-stocked pantry.
The secret to creating quick and easy meals is building a well-stocked pantry that you can draw upon when you need dinner, stat. Begin to stock your pantry, fridge and freezer with basic ingredients such as:
- Gluten-free grains (brown rice, millet, sorghum, quinoa, buckwheat, wild rice)
- Dried beans and legumes (chickpeas, lentils, split peas, black beans, kidney beans, etc.)
- Dried spices
- Oils (check out this guide to healthy oils for which ones to use for high-heat, medium-heat and low-heat cooking)
- Frozen veggies (peas, greens, carrots, etc.)
- BPA-free canned goods
With these basic pantry ingredients, you can easily throw together a meal of beans and rice, and pair it with whatever veggies happen to be around, or create a satisfying dairy-free soup that you can pair with gluten-free bread or biscuits.
11. Work on your stash of freezer meals.
It doesn’t get much easier than pulling a tasty meal out of your freezer and popping it in the oven to reheat. When you have some spare time on the weekend, try making a freezer meal. Soups, stews, lasagna, enchiladas, shepherd’s pie and veggie burgers are all easily freezable and can be made in large batches. It takes a little bit of extra work up front, but your future self will thank you!
12. Skip the stocks and broths.
While we adore homemade vegetable broths and nourishing bone broths, they’re not always quick and convenient unless you’ve made large batches of them and popped them in the freezer. Instead of broth, you can easily substitute water in any recipe – and since many recipes call for onions, garlic, carrots and celery anyway, you’re basically making a broth as the food simmers.
13. Skip the sauces.
Use basic seasonings like a squeeze of lemon or lime, gluten-free tamari, coconut aminos, sea salt, mustard or olive oil to flavour your food. If you feel up to a challenge on the weekend, you could make your own simple condiments. Make one condiment and use it on everything for the next week or two so it doesn’t go to waste.
14. Pre-make salad dressings.
Salad dressings are simple to make and can be easily incorporated into your prep schedule. A basic salad dressing will use oil, an acid, herbs and salt. Shake up a dressing on the weekend to use on salads all week.
If you’d like to learn more about creating flavour profiles for salad dressings, check out this post about How to Make Salad Dressing.
15. Master the one-pot meals.
Dinners that involve a main dish and sides are more work than one-pot wonders. Protein-rich soups, stews and chilis are wonderfully filling options and can be easily adjusted based on seasonal offerings and the spices you have on hand. They’re also a great way to use up any produce left in the fridge!
16. Put your slow cooker to work.
Slow cookers are one of the best lifesaving kitchen hacks in a busy household. All you need is a few minutes of prep and chopping, and then six to eight hours later you’re gifted with a healthy and delicious meal. These 20 Best Slow Cooker Recipes include some of our favourite recipes to get you started!
17. Make DIY dinners.
Transform dinner into a ‘choose your own adventure’ situation and everyone assembles their own plate from an array of prepped ingredients. For example:
- A build-your-own taco bar with fresh veggies, beans, salsa and other toppings.
- Buddha bowls that combine protein, grains, greens, healthy fats and seasonal veggies (learn about the 6 Essential Elements of a Recipe-Free Dinner Bowl here)
- A build-your-own pho bar with fresh veggies, tempeh, herbs and lime
- A make-your-own healthy pizza with individual corn tortillas for a thin crust and top with sauce and veggie toppings
18. Have breakfast for dinner.
Most of us don’t spend a lot of time making breakfast, so why not use the brevity of breakfast recipes and have them for dinner? Savory oatmeal, smoothies, scrambled eggs with greens, crustless quiches, tofu scrambles, gluten-free waffles or congee all make amazingly flavourful and easy dinners.
The key with breakfast for dinner is aiming for savory flavour profiles and plenty of fresh vegetables, rather than relying on the sweets. Here are 12 vegan breakfast ideas – that aren’t cereal or toast – to offer you plenty of breakfast-for-dinner inspiration.
19. Make use of good kitchen equipment.
Dinner will move along much quicker when you’ve got the right tools on hand. Appliances like high-spend blenders and food processors help with blending and grating, but they’re not absolutely essential kitchen hacks for a great meal.
Ensure that you have a sharp knife that is appropriate for the task at hand. A good chef’s knife is one of our most-used tools, but you may also find you like using a paring knife as well. Find the knife that feels best in your hand and learn some simple knife skills – this will help you chop easily and safely.
Other simple tools that you may find handy are a solid cutting board, a box grater, a vegetable peeler or a microplane grater.
20. Go (mostly) raw when seasons allow for it.
Raw food can be much quicker to prepare than cooked because you don’t need to take the extra time to cook it (obviously). We’re not talking about dehydrated kale chips or dehydrated almond burgers – but fresh, raw food like salads, zucchini noodles or collard wraps that rely on fresh produce and herbs.
Aim for one or two raw or mostly raw dinners per week when the weather is warm and more fresh produce is in season.
What are your favourite kitchen hacks? Share away in the comments!