Getting dinner on the table quickly while keeping it healthy can be quite a challenge when you're time poor. We share top tips for fast, healthy food.
Our 10 top cooking shortcuts
1. Think ahead
Try and save time for tomorrow by chopping up extra veges tonight. If chopping an onion for dinner tonight, chop two. Prepare a whole pumpkin for several meals – cut into chunks for roasting and cubes for a casserole or soup. Keep prepared veges in a sealed container in the fridge, labelled so you won't forget them.
2. Double up
If you're making up a casserole or stew, make up double the quantity and save half for a busy night. Freeze and label it clearly. Do the same with mince dishes like chilli and bolognese sauce. Serve with different pasta, in tacos or on a jacket potato. If you're cooking potatoes, cook double the amount you need. Chill the leftovers and add to soups; or use them to bulk out salads; or mash leftovers for a pie topping for the next night.
3. Get grating
If grating cheese for a dish, grate the whole block ready for a bake or cheese on toast. Do the same with vegetables like carrots and courgettes, ready to add a vege boost to stews and bolognese-style sauces or use to make fritters.
4. Think small
The smaller things are, the quicker they'll cook. Choose small or thin cuts of meat like cutlets, schnitzels and thin steaks which take minutes to cook, and cut veges into small pieces to steam, boil, roast or microwave quicker.
5. Rediscover the microwave
It's good for more than just defrosting! Start baked potatoes off in the microwave, then crisp up the skins in the oven on a high heat. Use the microwave to cook frozen veges to perfection and make perfect scrambled eggs. Or pre-cook pumpkin and other starchy veges for stir-fries.
6. Make the most of healthy pre-prepared items
Bagged coleslaw is a great way to increase your vege intake without having to do the peeling and chopping. Cut out chopping time by buying minced ginger, garlic and curry pastes which add instant flavour.
7. Think pre-cooked
Ingredients like smoked chicken, smoked fish, packaged tofu and soy sausages are already cooked, so they can be tossed into warm salads, egg dishes and stir-fries with only enough time needed to heat through.
8. Double bake
Roasting is a surprisingly quick and 'hands off' way to cook. When using the oven, roast a chicken or some veges at the same time to pop into frittatas or warm salads later in the week. Cook a little extra meat than you need, then chill it overnight to use in a salad or soup the next day.
9. Make friends with frozen food
Frozen veges, fish fillets, seafood and pastry can be a big help when you think you've got no food in the house. Keep a good stock on hand to add to fresh ingredients for speedy dinners and snacks.
10. Don't forget fish
Most fresh fish takes only a few minutes to pan-fry, grill or bake. Add it to veges or salad and potatoes or rice with an interesting dressing and you've got really fast food that's really healthy, too.
Fast meal ideas
Dinners in under 20 minutes
Smoked fish pasta
Toss smoked fish in cooked pasta with green veges, chopped fresh herbs and a squeeze of lemon.
Steak and salad
Cook beef or lamb steak in a pan till done to your liking (see page 66 for a cooking-time guide). While steak is cooking, microwave whole scrubbed potatoes and make a salad with rocket, sliced pear, parmesan cheese and balsamic vinegar. Serve with grainy mustard.
Add extra fresh or frozen veges and small pasta shapes to canned soup and thin it down with a little stock. Serve with bread.
Posh poached eggs
Who says eggs on toast are just for breakfast? They also make a healthy dinner. Serve poached eggs on whole grain toast with ham and spinach.
Healthy fish and chips
Small fish fillets like salmon or terakihi need just a squeeze of lemon and 10 minutes in the oven. Serve with oven chips (frozen or homemade) and a salad.
Cheese and herb omelette
An omelette is the ultimate fast food. Flavour with cheddar and fresh herbs, or add any leftovers you have on hand.
Warm lentil salad
Toss together chopped feta, canned lentils, pumpkin seeds, croutons and baby spinach with a drizzle of olive oil.
Top large portobello mushrooms with sliced tomato and fresh pesto. Bake in the oven. Serve on toast.
Spread pita breads with tomato purée, scatter over veges and grated cheese, and bake for 10 minutes until crisp.
Potato and tuna salad
Toss canned tuna or salmon through crunchy salad leaves with olives, capers and cooked potatoes or pasta.
Mix a 150g pottle of natural yoghurt with 2 chopped garlic cloves, 2 tablespoons tikka paste and the juice of a lemon. Coat boneless pork steaks or chicken. Cook under a preheated grill and serve with salad and pita breads.
Quick fish curry
Cook a chopped onion in oil until softened. Stir in a teaspoon of curry powder. Add a can of reduced-fat coconut milk and a can of chopped tomatoes. Bring to a simmer. Add sliced fish fillets and cook for 5 minutes until fish is cooked through. Serve with rice.
Spread a tortilla or halved pita bread with a little tomato pesto. Scatter over sliced veges such as mushrooms, cherry tomatoes and spring onion and canned chilli beans. Top with grated cheese and another tortilla to make a sandwich. Grill on both sides. Slice into triangles to serve.
Place couscous in a bowl and pour over same amount of hot vegetable stock. Leave to stand for 5 minutes. Fluff up with a fork. Stir in canned tuna, canned sweet corn, sliced spring onion, chopped dates and low-fat dressing.
Pesto and tomato spaghetti
Preheat the oven to 180°C. Scatter cherry tomatoes on a baking tray and drizzle with olive oil. Bake for 10 minutes until the skins begin to split. Remove from the oven and stir into cooked spaghetti with 3 tablespoons pesto. Serve with a salad.
Chilli jacket potato
Place a can of chopped tomatoes, 1 tablespoon tomato purée, 2 cloves crushed garlic, ½ teaspoon chilli powder, a can of red kidney beans and a sprinkling of dried mixed herbs in a pan. Bring to the boil and cook for 15 minutes until thickened. Season to taste and serve on jacket potatoes.
Dice 1 green or red capsicum and 1 red onion. Mix into 4 tablespoons reduced-fat mayonnaise with a little chilli powder. Add canned tuna and a cup of drained and rinsed kidney beans. Mix well. Use to fill 4 warmed ready-made tortillas.
Put a small onion, 2 cloves garlic, 2 tablespoons parsley or mint, and 2 tablespoons tomato purée in a blender with 1 pack lean minced beef or lamb (500g). Process until smooth and then form into burgers or sausages. Chill for 10 minutes before grilling. Serve with salad and crusty bread. This mince mixture keeps well in the fridge for up to 3 days.
Your speedy shopping list
What to have on hand for healthy food in a hurry
Be prepared to throw a quick meal together with these pantry essentials:
Onions make a great base for almost every kind of meal. Keep red and brown onion varieties on hand.
Fresh herbs, with a little love, will last weeks and can liven up all sorts of meals.
Eggs are incredibly versatile, quick to cook and keep well in the fridge.
Dried noodles and pasta make quick and substantial meal bases.
Canned beans, lentils and chickpeas add nutritional value and texture to soups and stews and can be the base of a meal on their own.
Canned tomatoes are essential for so many dishes; stock up when they're on special!
Soup mixes, flavour and meal base sachets and jars are not as cheap as doing it yourself, but can be a boon when time is tight.
Oils, vinegars and Asian sauces liven up simple meals and make tasty dressings.
Frozen veges like peas, beans, broccoli and carrots can be added to stews and soups straight from the freezer at the last minute or microwave to balance out your plate.
Salad staples like carrots, cucumber and bags of lettuce and baby spinach are easy to toss together with canned chickpeas or cooked meat for a speedy meal.
Tortillas keep in the pantry and make a little bit of meat or beans go a long way.
Canned fish like tuna, sardines and salmon are ready to use straight away and make an inexpensive meal base.
Can't be bothered?
Healthy 5-minute dinners for low-energy nights
Sometimes about all we can manage cooking is toast. Here are some low-effort but healthy options to save you phoning for pizza.
Eggs are a healthy protein option, and making scrambled eggs takes a few minutes – just long enough to cook toast. Add a chopped tomato, cheese and spinach – if you have some.
Use pre-cooked rice, add frozen veges, an egg and leftover meat. Flavour with soy and chilli sauce.
Speedy pea and ham soup
Put frozen peas in a blender with chicken stock and fresh mint. Purée until smooth. Heat on the stove or in the microwave with some chopped ham or cooked bacon. Serve with lots of black pepper and toast.
Not for every night, but when you have lots of bits and pieces in the fridge and no inspiration, try arranging everything on a big platter with chutney, salad, bread, crackers and those few stray olives that have been in the fridge for ages. It's amazing how impressive this can look!
Fresh or canned vege-based soup is a quick and comforting meal in a hurry. Add extra veges if you like, and toast bread or rolls.
Baked beans on whole grain toast
An oldie but a goodie, with lots of fibre and energy.
Bring chicken stock or miso paste to the boil, add dried noodles, any veges you have and leftover bits of meat, tofu or frozen seafood.
Deluxe toasted sandwiches
Who doesn't love a toasted sandwich? Toast grainy bread, then spread with hummus, pesto, mustard or chutney. Add cheese, tomato, ham and spinach or salad greens. Top with another slice of bread and heat under the grill until the cheese is melted.
Tuna and white bean salad
Open and drain a can of tuna and a can of cannellini or butter beans. Combine in a bowl with salad leaves or spinach, lemon juice, olive oil, lemon zest and chopped tomatoes. Eat cold or warmed.
Speedy slow food
Making the most of your crockpot or slow-cooker
Even though a slow-cooker takes hours to cook a meal, it can be a boon for busy people, because with minimal preparation in the morning before you leave the house, you can come home to a ready-to-eat meal. Here are our favourite ways to use the slow-cooker on busy days:
- Add a packet soup like King soup mix to water and leave on low for 6-8 hours. If you like, add chunks of beef or lamb for a soupy stew.
- Cook cheap cuts of meat (like gravy beef or lamb shoulder) in stock with spices of your choice on low for 8 hours or more. Use the tender cooked meat in wraps, pies, stir-fries, on toast or in pasta dishes.
- Cook mince with onion, garlic, spices, chopped veges and a can of flavoured tomatoes on low for 6-8 hours. Use as bolognese sauce over pasta.
- Cook mince as above, then add cooked, dried kidney beans (or use canned kidney beans). Serve as chilli with rice and salsa.
- Brown onion with a Thai or Indian curry paste. Add to crockpot with chunks of kumara and pumpkin, coconut-flavoured evaporated milk and chicken stock. Cook on low for 8-10 hours. Purée with a stick blender. Garnish with coriander.
A week of fast food
Like many people, I face a lengthy commute to and from work. In winter, when I get home in the dark, sometimes, the last thing I feel like doing is spending ages cooking! Here's my week of low-effort dinners.
Quick salmon pizza
A throw-together casual supper to eat (just this once) in front of the TV!
- Halve pita breads and spread with tomato purée or canned tomatoes.
- Add spinach leaves, sliced red capsicum, sliced red onion and flaked smoked salmon or other smoked fish.
- Pop under the grill for 5-10 minutes until crispy.
- Serve topped with sour cream and a squeeze of lemon.
TOTAL TIME SPENT: 15 minutes
Spiced pumpkin rice
A comforting one-dish meal which makes the most of the microwave.
- Cook pumpkin pieces in the microwave till tender.
- Fry an onion with spices like curry powder, ground cumin and coriander and fresh ginger.
- Add chicken stock, pre-cooked brown rice (I used SunRice 90 seconds rice) and pumpkin. Simmer a few minutes.
- Garnish with plain yoghurt and fresh coriander if you have it.
TOTAL TIME SPENT: 15 minutes
Slow-cooked beef red curry
Use a slow-cooker to cook a cheap cut of meat to perfection.
Put a good quantity of chopped beef shin (or other cut of stewing beef) into the crockpot with just enough water or stock to cover, a chunk of ginger, a dash of soy sauce and, if you have them, a stick of lemongrass and a red chilli. Leave to cook on low for up to 10 hours.
When you get home:
- Take the meat out of the crockpot and break up with a fork. Set half aside for tomorrow. Save the liquid.
- Put some rice on to cook.
- In a pan, stir-fry the veges of your choice, add red curry paste, light coconut milk and a little of the cooking liquid from the meat. Simmer. Add the meat, heat through.
- Serve over rice.
TOTAL TIME SPENT: 15 minutes (plus slow-cooker time)
Beef and bean wraps
An assembly-only dinner using last night's leftover meat.
- Warm the beef left over from last night.
- Heat a can of chilli beans.
- Arrange on the table with tortillas, salad greens, salsa and light sour cream.
- Everyone wraps their own.
TOTAL TIME SPENT: 10 minutes
Salmon and tomato pasta
A quick dinner straight from the pantry.
- Cook small pasta like macaroni.
- Combine in a pan: tomato and olive pasta sauce, fresh baby spinach and a can of pink salmon in spring water.
- Drain pasta and toss with sauce, lemon zest or preserved lemons.
- Top with parmesan cheese and parsley, to serve.
TOTAL TIME SPENT: 15 minutes