You're starving. The kids are starving. A cheeseburger and fries would be the easy fix. But let's face it: a Happy Meal is not necessarily a healthy meal. You need nutritious food you can grab fast, whether you're on the road or have just walked into the house.
It's not an impossible dream -- at least, not with a little planning and a few essential items in your fridge or pantry, say experts who spoke with WebMD. Before you duck into the drive-through, try their lightning-fast tricks for healthy meals.
Healthy Meals on Wheels
To avoid fast-food temptations, Althea Zanecosky, MS, RD, keeps an 8x12-inch insulated cooler tucked in her car's back seat.
"It's like having a mini-kitchen in your car," says Zanecosky, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "We pack food for every member of the family -- bottled water, 16 oz bottles of chocolate milk, juices, nuts, seeds, pretzels, yogurt, fruit, cereal, health bars.
"It saves time, money, and it saves fat and calories. It keeps us from eating mall food or hitting the drive-through for french fries."
Healthy Meals at Home
At home, you can assemble a healthy meal in about the time it takes you to scoot through the drive-through.
Convenience foods -- anything frozen, canned, pre-cut, pre-washed, and pre-bagged -- is fair game for healthy meals, says Lynn Fischer, author of Lowfat Cooking for Dummies and Quick & Healthy Cooking for Dummies. "Try any new product that comes out. Use everything to your advantage.
"Some vegetarian burgers are very good," Fischer says. "But I don't go for turkey burgers. Unless you have a butcher grind the meat especially for you, ground turkey often contains a lot of fat."
The French concept of accoutrement -- accessorizing -- is key for healthy meals, Fischer tells WebMD. "That means a main dish with lots of side dishes, like a nice salad plus four or five vegetables. Your family can get full, they're eating a lot of vegetables, and there are plenty of choices. The kid who doesn't like the corn can eat something else."
Here are a few dinner suggestions:
Little Dippers: Set out a "party tray" of vegetables and fruits for your family, Fischer suggests. Mix it up with interesting, lower-fat dips -- even melted chocolate and strawberries once in a while for dessert.
Freezer-to-Table Main Dish: "For a dinner that's ready in seven or eight minutes, start with a frozen healthy meal like Healthy Choice or Lean Cuisine," Fischer says. "They don't give you a lot of meat, which is good." If you use a frozen-in-the-bag vegetable dinner, don't add much meat; keep it the size of your palm, she adds. "Some huge chicken breasts are enough for two servings."
Speedy Side Dishes: Keep frozen, canned, or fresh veggies on hand to round out a healthy meal. "A lot of frozen vegetables are frozen fresh, right on the spot, so they still have all the nutrients," Fischer says. "Canned vegetables are also good. And you need some fresh vegetables, like celery, carrots, and tomatoes and fresh fruits like oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruit, and grapes."
Quick Baked Potato: It's a perfect addition to a healthy meal, and you can get oven-baked taste in less time than you think. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Wash the potato, then microwave on high for about 4 minutes. Rinse it again so it's wet. Finish baking in oven for 10 to 15 minutes. "It's nice and crispy outside, with the texture of an oven-baked potato inside," Fischer says.
Quick Chicken Dinner: Chicken is a yummy beginning to a nice, lean meal, Fisher says. Skin a whole chicken. Then shake on the spices -- lemon pepper, Cajun spice, or paprika. Thyme and rosemary can go into the cavity, if you like. Place chicken in an oven-cooking bag. Then microwave on high for 10 minutes.
"I arrange the chicken on a platter of lettuce, surrounded by fresh asparagus or green beans or both, lots of grapes, orange slices," Fischer tells WebMD. "People can pick and choose whatever they want. It makes a marvelous steamed chicken."
Easy Black Bean Soup: Soup is a great filler-upper and can be a very healthy meal. Heat black beans and corn (frozen or canned) in the microwave. Ladle into bowls. Top with any of these: chopped tomatoes, onions, jalapeno peppers, black olives, shredded reduced-fat cheese, "plus a few lime slices, to make it look really pretty," says Fischer.
"In South America, you might have a fresh whole tomato or fresh avocado at the bottom of your soup," she adds. "As you eat the soup, you scoop bits of tomato or avocado with it. Also, adding some rice makes a thicker soup. It's a really neat, healthy meal!"
Veggie Soup: A quick vegetable soup also works well, says Cindy Moore, MS, RD, director of nutrition therapy at The Cleveland Clinic and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.
Like Fischer, she relies on canned and frozen foods, as well as quick-cook grains, when pressed for time.
"You're starting with a canned soup that already has some element of flavor," Moore tells WebMD. "But when you add more vegetables, some grains like barley or quick-cook rice, plus beans or fish, you're diluting the sodium and calories. You're also adding fiber and protein."
Pasta Pronto: Put any of these over pasta (either regular or whole-wheat, or a mix of both), Moore suggests:
- Mix tomato-based pasta sauce (any brand you like) with frozen or canned shrimp, clams, or oysters.
- Heat frozen spinach soufflé or creamed spinach, and top with Parmesan cheese.
- Mix frozen spinach soufflé and Lean Cuisine Fettuccine Alfredo.
Super Salads: Salads can be a healthy meal in themselves. With a bit of crusty bread and a little protein like fish, seafood, beans, or lean meat, you've got dinner in a bowl. More ideas:
- Mix frozen broccoli and corn, chop up red bell pepper, mix with Italian salad dressing, and you've got an easy salad, says Moore.
- Buy lettuce, cucumbers, and tomatoes in the grocery's produce section. At the salad bar, buy all the other stuff. "It's quick, and you don't have to spend much," she tells WebMD.
Cereal: With skim milk and fruit, it's a great quickie supper, Zanecosky says. "Especially if you eat a hot entrée at lunch in your office cafeteria, cereal is a great alternative. Add nuts, dried cherries or cranberries, and skim milk, and you've got a well-balanced meal."
Omelets: This tried-and-true favorite happens fast -- especially when a few fixings are always on hand. "I buy green, red, yellow peppers, sauté them with lots of onions, olive oil. They're always sitting in the fridge," Zanecosky tells WebMD. "We might add ham, chicken, or cheese, and the peppers."
Cook Big, Freeze Small: Once in a while, cook up some large-volume food -- a big batch of soup, a hefty pan of lasagna, lots of whole-wheat pasta, or rice, Moore suggests. Freeze it in small containers for handy use later.
"I always have chili in the freezer," adds Zanecosky. "I make big batches, loaded with sautéed peppers and onions, tomatoes -- but without the beans. They get weird, cardboardy, when you freeze them. When I thaw the chili, I just add a can of beans. Chili is a very healthy meal!"