Plan your meals in advance and keep the larder stocked
We don't have endless time to shop, prepare food or clean up, so keep it simple, says Rozanne Stevens
Published 11/02/2014 | 02:30
I grew up, as I'm sure many of us did, in a meat-and-two-veg dinner household, with a lovely roast dinner on a Sunday and a weekly homemade dessert. There were no pizzas or burgers or convenience foods, and a tub of vanilla ice cream in the fridge was considered a treat. Growing up in South Africa, a wider range of cuisines was part of the norm, ranging from Indian to Greek to Chinese, but weekly meals were pretty normal.
I think we need to pare things right back and go back to a weekly menu planner. None of us has endless time to shop, prepare food and clean up afterwards. So if we keep a reasonable stock of healthy ingredients in the fridge and store cupboard, we only need a few fresh ingredients to whip up delicious weeknight meals.
When I plan a weekly menu, I have a vegetarian day, two seafood meals, one red-meat meal and one or two chicken dinners. This is a healthy structure and in line with nutritional recommendations. Aim for planning five dinners per week, as the other two nights you can have something quick, use up leftovers or you may be out. This reduces food waste and gives you a break.
The freezer can be your best friend or your worst enemy in healthy eating. So many highly processed, high fat, high sugar, high salt foods are frozen products. Those cartons of potato waffles, ice cream and ready meals might seem comforting as you always have food on hand to feed hungry kids, but they are non-foods.
I don't often freeze home-cooked meals – except soups. I prefer keeping some key ingredients in the freezer to help me whip up tasty, quick and healthy meals in minutes.
Frozen spinach: larger supermarkets stock bags of frozen spinach where the spinach is frozen in small golf ball-sized bundles. Simply add frozen to curries and stews or allow to defrost if using in another recipe. I love fresh baby leaf spinach as a salad leaf, but cooking it wilts it down to nothing, so frozen spinach is a great solution.
Frozen fish: there is nothing wrong with frozen fish. While the texture won't be suitable for high-end dishes like sushi, the quality is more than fine for daily recipes. Stock up on salmon and firm white fish such as hake, haddock and cod. Choose plain fish and not fish in batter or a crumb coating.
Raw prawns: you can buy shelled and veined frozen prawns from some supermarkets and all Asian markets. They are low-calorie, a good source of protein and easy peasy to cook. Just add them to your pan of stir-fry or whatever you're cooking and cook until firm and pink. To defrost, simply leave them in the fridge or rinse quickly under cold water.
Grated cheese: I prefer strongly flavoured cheeses like mature cheddar and Parmesan. The stronger the flavour, the less you need. Freezing cheese changes the texture so while not ideal for sandwiches, frozen grated cheese is ideal for melting.
Fish pie mix: supermarkets and fishmongers sell small containers of fish-pie mix, which is a mixture of diced salmon, smoked fish and white fish. Buy fresh and pop a couple in the freezer for homemade fish pies and seafood chowders. Very budget friendly and a great way to eat more fish.
Garlic cubes: I have yet to find a decent garlic paste, so I crush several bulbs of garlic and freeze the garlic paste in ice cube trays. One cube works out to roughly three cloves of garlic, but it does lose a little flavour in freezing so it's not too strong for kids.
Bacon lardons: not the healthiest ingredient, but a little bit of bacon, especially smoked bacon, goes a long way to add flavour to a dish. You can use from frozen as they defrost very quickly in the pan, just break them apart with a wooden spoon.
Chorizo: the same goes for chorizo. It is quite a fatty sausage, but when sliced and fried, renders a delicious paprika and garlic infused oil that is perfect for frying your onions, veggies and meat in, with no need to add extra oil. Chop into lengths and wrap in clingfilm before freezing.
Berries: frozen berries are so handy for smoothies and healthy desserts. Not all berries freeze well, but raspberries and blackberries are great. Crumbles are a great family dessert if you sweeten them with orange, cinnamon and vanilla and use less sugar. Use wholewheat flour and oats in the crumble topping.
Barley: this is a high fibre, slow releasing carbohydrate rich in B vitamins. Traditionally added to soups and stews, it helps thicken the sauce. Barley makes a great base for substantial salads, perfect for packed lunches. Barley has also been found to be effective in managing and losing weight for Type 2 diabetics.
Brown rice: brown is such an easy swop for white rice with exponentially more nutrition. Not just a side dish, but perfect as a base for rice dishes such as healthy jambalaya, paella, fried rice and Asian rice dishes. Brown rice is packed with B vitamins and is good for weight management.
Bulgur wheat: this is super easy to prepare. Barely cover with boiling water in a bowl, tightly seal with clingfilm and leave to absorb for 10 minutes. A delicious, nutty texture and taste, this fills the gap for couscous type recipes but with more fibre.
Oats: I have written at length about the health benefits of oats. They're in my Top 10 Superfoods list and can be used in so many ways. Besides breakfast porridge, muesli and granola, add it to crumble toppings for a healthier dessert, to bind meatballs and veggie burgers and to banana bread and muffins.
Quinoa: this gluten-free grain from South America is packed full of protein, gentle fibre and nutrients for energy. I cook quinoa at least once a week as it complements almost any cuisine, is extremely easy to cook and has a wonderful texture. As it is a protein grain, it can be helpful in losing weight.
Wholewheat pasta: this is a family favourite and can be a healthy option if you choose the high-fibre, wholewheat options. Not a huge difference in flavour and texture, your family probably won't even notice the swop.
Wholewheat pizza bases: pizza is normally classed as a junkfood, but when you use wholewheat pizza base, passata and loads of veggies as toppings, it makes a great family meal.
Wholewheat tortilla wraps: I cannot do without these. You can of course use them for lunch-box wraps but I use them for quesadillas, the ultimate quick, low fat toastie. Place one tortilla flat in a non-stick pan, no oil. Spread with pesto or relish, top with a little grated cheese and some slice peppers and spring onions. Place another tortilla on top and flip over when toasted underneath.
Anyone that follows my column knows that I support Meat Free Monday. This is a worldwide movement to encourage people to have one vegetarian meal a week to reduce the environmental impact of farming animals for meat. From a health point of view, cosying up to plant-based meals has many health benefits. You'll naturally reduce calories and saturated fats while increasing fibre and nutrients.
Beans: you can of course cook your beans from dried and I do with my favourite beans such as cannellini beans. But tinned beans are brilliant. Stock up on butter beans, kidney beans, haricot and cannellini. These are great added to Mexican dishes, salads and almost any soup or stew.
Chickpeas: I cook up a 500g bag of dried chickpeas every week as I use them so much. Add chickpeas to salads, curries and soups. Turn them into veggie burgers and dips like hummus. Highly nutritious and excellent for growing children and women's health particularly.
Lentils: there are several different types of lentils and they all cook down to different textures. Red lentils go very mushy and are great for veggie burgers and soups. Brown and green lentils stay a little firmer so are good for dishes such as lentil moussaka. And puy lentils stay nice and firm so are ideal for lentil salads.
I keep a good supply of dried herbs and spices, mustards, vinegars and other condiments to liven up recipes. But don't buy too many bottles unless you have recipes to use them in. Don't be afraid to try new things, you'll be surprised what kids like to eat.
All recipes are taken from A Month of Meals cookery course and 'Delish' and 'Relish' cookbooks by Rozanne Stevens. To book a place on the course or order a book, log onto www.rozannestevens.com