Help me to re-learn how to eat!
July 19, 2010 8:19 AM   Subscribe

I have no clue how to eat healthily and cheaply. My diet consists of mostly pizza and frozen foods that I re-heat. I know this is bad. I want to change my diet immediately and permanently for the better.

I can cook food, but invariably the end result is what I consider good “mouth food”; tasty but not nutritious in almost any way. While at the supermarket I almost always walk past the vegetables and go straight towards the frozen foods (I like vegetables, but I’m at a loss at how to prepare them). The most important characteristics of my new diet need to be healthy, inexpensive and easily/quickly prepared and cleaned up.

Maybe the best way to phrase this question is to just list what I what I would like to accomplish/requirements of my new diet, so here goes:

  • I want to eat breakfast again, but no cereal and no milk. I want to feel healthy after eating breakfast, and I want to be prepared to face the day.

  • I should be packing my lunch instead of eating at the food court near where I work. This lunch needs to be easily prepared, light-weight since I bike to work, and substantial enough to get me through to dinner.

  • How should I go about snacking, if at all?

  • I’ve flirted with the idea of becoming a vegetarian because of watching Food Inc. and a slew of other food shock docs, I get it, I’m eating like a jerk.. I like meat but I hate slaughterhouses and the negative environmental impact, is there any way to eat meat sparingly and responsibly?

  • I think I’d mostly like to eat vegetables and whole grain stuff healthy stuff.. but how?

  • Making food in bulk and then eating it over a few days is ideal.

  • What staples should I have in my kitchen that are automatically re-filled when they run out?

  • How to eat great and cheaply at the same time, without sacrificing too much on the flavor front?

  • Maybe there are books or websites that can help point me in the right direction? Maybe you can share your perfected grocery lists? Or share your perfected homemade recipes?

    I live in the North End in Downtown Boston if that helps. It’s full of amazing restaurants and specialty food shops that are for the most part outside of my budget.. ok that’s all I got, thanks in advance!
    posted by pwally to Food & Drink (46 answers total) 120 users marked this as a favorite
    I asked a friend a similar question - my problem with vegetables is that they always go bad before we use them. He pointed out that we can easily pick up frozen vegetables and throw them in pasta or whatever. Stir fry is a great way to easily get more veggies.

    As for snacks, by all means have snacks. Lately I've been into Kashi granola bars. I can throw them in my bag and they're ready for when I want them.
    posted by kat518 at 8:27 AM on July 19, 2010

    We had to throw out our microwave a few months ago (cockroach nest EWWW) and haven't really been able to afford a new one. Having no quickie meal options has forced me to find easy stove/oven methods of feeding us and the difference in our diet has been AMAZING.

    - 5-minute oatmeal for breakfast (do dishes or smoke or whatever while it cooks, you don't even notice the time)
    - this is the first recipe I came up with and it is TASTY.
    - Basmati rice cooks pretty fast, and you can throw other things in with it while it cooks - I cut up carrots and add ground ginger, and/or potatoes, lentils, canned tomatoes, spices....
    - Same for those packaged entrees with noodles or potatoes. Throw some chopped veggies or meat in while they cook and you get a nice fast meal/

    We also eat a lot of ham/chicken sandwiches. Salmon/chicken salad is really easy to make from tinned meat (add mayonnaise/mustard/a but of ketchup, whatever floats your boat).
    posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 8:32 AM on July 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

    Have you considered seeing a nutritionist? Seeing one totally changed the way I eat.

    Ours advised us on total number of calories we should be getting and how much from sugar, fat, and protein. She was also able to advise on specific meal plans (3 meals of X calories each and 3 snacks of X calories each), making sure we drank a specific amount of water each day (which helps you feel full), making sure we got enough fiber (which also helps you feel full), and which products to buy. We also were able to get one "cheat" day each week where we didn't eat quite so strictly.

    You should also consider keeping a food journal of not just what you each, but how much. The true serving size of most foods may surprise you.

    Example day:
    Kashi Strawberry Fields cereal (1 cup) with fresh strawberries, nonfat milk, cup of coffee with Splenda
    Wedge of Laughing Cow light cheese on 1 rye cracker as a snack
    Broiled salmon (4 oz.) with brown rice (1/3 cup max and no more) with grilled asparagus
    Fresh blueberries (1/2 pint) with nonfat Fage yogurt for a snack
    Chili made with 93% lean beef, tomatoes, beans, topped with fat-free sour cream
    4 cups of popcorn (no butter) for a snack

    See also Eating Well.
    posted by kathryn at 8:32 AM on July 19, 2010 [6 favorites]

    Almost every vegetable becomes more delicious when roasted, which is great because roasting is probably also the easiest way to prepare them.

    Set your oven to 400. Chop up any veggies you'd like (potatoes/sweet potatoes, carrots, broccoli, beets, asparagus, and green beans are some of my favorites) into similarly-sized pieces, toss with a little olive oil, salt, and pepper. Put veggies on tray. Put tray into oven. Stab veggies periodically with a fork, and remove when tender. And that's it.

    Protip: stick the tray in to preheat with the oven and put the veggies on it when it's already hot. That way the underside of the veggies will be crispier.
    posted by phunniemee at 8:34 AM on July 19, 2010 [20 favorites]

    It's challenging to switch from eating foods that are loaded with artificial flavors, salt, MSG and other taste-bombs to eating whole foods. There will be a period of transition where what you're eating won't be 'satisfying' based on what you're eating now. But you'll need to commit to giving your sense of taste time to adjust. Once it does, you'll be able to try those foods you used to eat and easily have them sparingly because you'll finally taste the artificial flavors and the corn-syrupy-sweetness for what they are and you won't want to eat them often.

    I eat about 95% vegan, high raw, but sometimes I eat a big plate of pasta, or some vegan fast food. Don't forbid yourself from having foods, you'll just want them more and then binge when you do eat them - just commit to making the majority of what you eat whole food - food that hasn't been processed, packaged or turned into something else.

    Here's how I answer your questions for myself, not knowing what you like to eat, it's hard to suggest for your specific tastes...

    Breakfast: Coconut based yogurt with muesli,
    Packed Lunch: Almond butter and agave sandwich, Greens and Hummus/Tahini/Quinoa/Rice
    Snacking: Brazil nuts, cashews, carrots, oranges, bananas, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, macadamia nuts
    Food in bulk: Make large batches of hummus & Tahini for the week - as well as big pots of pasta
    Staples: Almond butter, agave, kale, carrots, oranges, apples, avocados, banas, nuts, seeds, hummus, tahini, sunshine burgers (frozen), frozen blueberries, frozen strawberries
    Eating Cheap: The best way to eat cheap is to buy whole fruits and vegetables as the bulk of your shopping, you'll get tons more food. Cut out as much processed and pre-prepared food as you can and you'll save a ton of money.

    The most carb heavy thing in my diet is whole grain bread and pasta - but I only do the pasta occasionally and every once in a while I'll have a bagel. If you do go veg, watch out for carbs and pre-prepared foods, it's easy to replace meat with carbs and cheese, which isn't a healthful diet.
    posted by jardinier at 8:41 AM on July 19, 2010 [6 favorites]

    Change only one or two things at a time.

    I would start with breakfast. Packaged whole oat and nut granola with some grapes, sliced peaches, apples, or berries will probably leave you feeling better than Cap'n Crunch with milk.

    After a week of good breakfast habits, add on a positive change for lunch. Grill or bake a few chicken breasts (I prefer thighs, but whatever floats your boat) on the weekend and dress them a few different ways through the week. Asian one day, Mediterranean another, taco style a third. You see the possibilities with chicken are nearly endless.

    After a week or two of good breakfast and lunches together, tackle snacks or dinner.

    Frozen vegetables are still your friend, because you can keep a considerable variety on hand with little pressure to consume immediately. This also frees you up for impulse veggie buys. If corn ok the cob looks especially good to you, you aren't necessarily constrained by having zuchinni that's about to turn.

    As for your standby mouth food recipes, I'd say, make them, and serve with a side of veggies. This gives you confident kitchen time, because sometimes new recipes are bad. While you're building up your new habits it's good to create as much space for success as possible. Otherwise, quitting is way more tempting.

    Now, I give up you the easiest way I know to make frozen veggies delicious. (I do this with corn, or carrots, or peas)

    1 serving of frozen veg (I use 3/4-1 cup for my personal serving. I just scoop the serving out of the bag with a measuring cup)
    Unsalted Butter (you can use olive oil if you're concerned about butter, but the flavor is different)
    A pinch of salt (I use about 1/8 tsp, some people like more)
    Some herbs. Oregano, or thyme, or rosemary. Whichever you have.
    Chopped onions or garlic are totally optional.
    Melt the butter in a skillet. When the butter or oil is 'shiny' add (onion or garlic and) herbs. If adding onions, sautéwith herbs until just brown. Then add your frozen veggie of choice, maybe lower the heat. Stir occasionally until veggies are as brown as you like them.

    This whole process takes less than ten minutes! And they make a big bowl of mac 'n cheese seem less unhealthy somehow.

    Also, meat eating. You can do a few things. Find someone who will sell you deer during season. (good luck with that, deer is delicious!). Buy a share in a 4-H kids beef steer, hog, or other meat animal. Or join a meat CSA. I like the 4-H option the best, but it required a chest freezer. (but you're supporting what I believe is usually an awesome extracurricular activity!)

    Unfortunately, labels like organic, grain fed, and even free range are practically meaningless on meat labels. BigAg has gotten ahold of these terms and shaken the life out of them.
    posted by bilabial at 8:43 AM on July 19, 2010 [3 favorites]

    Good for you, Pwally. There's a lot of really simple stuff you can make that is really pretty good. And cheap!

    First, don't shop in the North End. It's crazy expensive, and produce is, as far as I've seen, pretty bad. For the love of sweet buttery Christ, don't shop at the Haymarket. My GF did Urban Planning at MIT and one of her colleagues did a thesis on produce distribution in Boston. She discovered that much (if not all) of the produce sold at the Haymarket is essentially on the verge of overripe/rotting; the laders at the distribution center (which is North of the city on the Orange Line, I think) were continually amazed at the stuff that the Haymarket guys would accept for sale. Plus, it's just the same stuff from Shaw's. End of rant.

    The WF on Cambridge Street is good, though you have to be mindful of what you buy if you're on a budget. The cheapest thing you can possibly make that is healthy and tasty, I think, is beans and rice. Essentially, just make rice per the instructions on the bag, and add beans. Very filling, lots of protein. I would personally tart that up with some salsa, scallions and cheese, and lots of hot sauce. Take it a different route with some mango chutney. Add sausage. Put fresh tomatoes on top. Add cilantro, if that floats your boat. Sautéed chicken breast. Some olives. Beans and rice is like the universal donor. You can add almost anything to it to get a lot of use out of it. It costs practically nothing.

    Another great healthy thing to make is a vegetable chili. Next time you're at a bookstore, check out the chili in the New Basics Cookbook (or check out "Vegetable Chili" on the "look inside" feature on Amazon). Basically, just sauté some onions, garlic and zucchini, add canned tomatoes and beans, and you're off to the races. Stretch it out with rice.

    There's a million other things you can make, but a last pitch for pasta salads in summer. Basically, just make some pasta, add fresh chopped cherry tomatoes, some basil, kalamata olives and maybe feta cheese or mozzarella. Very good.

    My favorite breakfast is an egg or two, a couple of pieces of toast, fresh tomatoes, feta cheese and some basil. Filling and delicious.
    posted by Admiral Haddock at 8:43 AM on July 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

    Your problem is mostly one of willpower, it sounds like. Like you just need to force yourself to buy fresh ingredients instead of prepared food. Even comparatively unhealthy home cooking is probably better for you than the frozen stuff you're eating now.

    Pick up a copy of Joy of Cooking if you don't already have it, and use it. While no recipe in there will be as easy as nuking a burrito, most of their recipes are pretty straightforward.

    I'm not a great cook, but I can follow a recipe. And once you've got a few recipes you're comfortable with, you figure out how you can vary them without breaking anything.
    posted by adamrice at 8:47 AM on July 19, 2010

    Go to Haymarket, when it's open, and you will find all the best and cheapest vegetables.

    There are lots and lots and lots of delicious vegetables, and lots of ways to prepare them easily.

    A good and quick one is to cook spinach like the Swedes - take a saucepan, put about half an inch of milk in the bottom, add salt, pepper, and just a little nutmeg, and when it starts to simmer, add a bunch of fresh (or frozen) spinach, and cook until it wilts and turns a deep and intense green (about 5-7 minutes). ITS SO GOOD.

    Another good thing is a fresh greek/israeli/tuscan salad. This involves cutting up tomatoes and cucumbers (and maybe bell peppers and other soft crisp veggies) into approximately 1-inch cubes, and letting them sit for at least an hour in a brine that is mostly vinegar, with salt, a bit of sugar, pepper, and other herbs (basil, parsley, oregano, thyme, whatever you feel). It's a fine summer refresher.

    Taking some eggplant, summer squash, zucchini, etc. and coating them with salt, pepper, and olive oil (hmm, salt and pepper seem to be a theme with cooking...) and grilling, broiling, or roasting them is also fantastic.

    Braised greens: they are the best - collard greens, mustard greens, kale, chard, Kai-lan (chinese broccoli), beet greens, these can all be cooked the same way: Boil some water, add soy sauce and Frank's RedHot, salt, pepper, and then the greens (you can chop them roughly or leave them whole), cook until the stems are tender.

    Things that are good snacks include apples, pears, oranges, carrot sticks, and cucumber sandwiches.
    posted by Jon_Evil at 8:47 AM on July 19, 2010 [5 favorites]

    I eat a lot of veggies raw, mainly because I'm too lazy/hungry to cook them (esp. in summer). Tomatoes & cucumbers, diced, with a little bit of olive oil, lemon juice & parsley or cilantro, over a bed of fresh greens; boiled beets with the same stuff & a bit of onion... These are both great with a grilled chicken breast or other lean meat or non-meat protein source.

    Instead of giving you a ton of recipes, here are some ways to change your shopping habits:

    -shop @ a farmers market. Tons of local fruit and veg, and you can ask the vendor what stuff is if it's unfamiliar. They'll have great ideas on how to prepare things as well.

    - buy meat at farmers market as well. This meets your anti-slaughtehouse criteria (a great one, by the way) as most of the vendors selling meat will be local farmers, many of whom practice organic, free-range, happy critter-type farming.

    - buy stuff that you've never tried before, look up a simple recipe ( is a good start), and go to town. You'll likely be surprised at how easy & tasty veggies can be.

    - keep lunches simple. Either leftovers from the night before, or do sandwiches with either high-quality deli meat (no more Oscar Meyer), or make your own from the stuff you buy @ the farmers market. Get a few extra chicken breasts, turkey breasts, or even thin-cut pork chops.

    You're making a great shift here, and it may seem overwhelming, but just try to keep it simple. Good/great food doesn't need to be fancy & complicated. Just a few, basic high-quality ingredients, and you're set. You will also feel 1000 times better once you start eating healthier foods, and you'll wonder why you didn't try this years ago! Good luck - have fun with it!
    posted by East Siberian patchbelly wrangler at 8:47 AM on July 19, 2010

    Don't want to turn this into a shitstorm, but the last thing you should do is become a vegetarian (unless you are deeply motivated by ethical reasons). Vegetarianism and processed foods are unfortunately tightly linked in this culture.

    Instead, go to your local library and see if you can find any somewhat authentic "ethnic" cookbooks. In most cultures, meat is expensive and must be extended to get the most flavor and value out of a small piece. That means doing things like cooking vegetables and grains using fats and broths for flavor, and then using the meat as a "garnish". Food pundits talk about this phenomenon a lot these days. When you think about food, think about the word "traditional" -- traditional diets tend to prove themselves via cultural evolution.

    One more thing -- the "mouth food" problem. You are going to have to face this in a big way. When you eat garbage, you change your palate. It will take conscious effort to change it to something better. That means you have to make yourself eat things that you don't like yet. Vegetables which taste bitter to you now will come to taste complex and satisfying. Also, the sorts of processed foods you eat now may become totally unpalatable. What tastes good to you and what you crave are not inherent, they're learned.
    posted by overeducated_alligator at 8:48 AM on July 19, 2010 [7 favorites]

    Seconding everything Overeducated_aligator said.
    posted by Jon_Evil at 8:51 AM on July 19, 2010

    Making food in bulk and then eating it over a few days is ideal.

    My go-to for this is some variation of the following:

    2 cans chickpeas, thoroughly drained of water
    2 cups crunchy vegetables (by this, I mean some combination of cucumbers, radishes, raw red onion, bell peppers -- anything that you like and that has a bit of crunch)
    Olive oil
    Opional: cherry tomatoes or regular tomatoes, cut up small
    Optional: good vinegar of some kind, whether
    Optional: cheese, whether feta or parmigiano reggiano
    Optional: spices, such as garlic powder, cumin, coriander, paprika, garam masala, thyme, sage, miso powder, soy sauce. Whatever.

    Put all ingredients in a tupperware container. Season with optional items to taste. Put tupperware lid on. Shake. Adjust seasonings. Allow to sit in covered bowl or tupperware in refrigerator for at least 15 minutes or so, but will improve overnight and through the week. Makes enough for four lunches for medium-sized girl with big appetite, and it keeps me full for a good five or six hours. It'll keep you full longer if you use more chickpeas and olive oil, and fewer crunchy vegetables.

    Prep time is limited to cutting up vegetables and opening cans. It's easily made in bulk quantities for eating throughout the week, easily transported, easy to keep for a week, easy to make variants of so that I don't get sick of the same flavor, and there is pretty much no cleanup. Plus, vegetarian and without the cheese, vegan!

    If you get tired of (or don't like chickpeas), you can substitute any variety of beans or pulses or even grains like quinoa (if you undercook them a little, so that they won't be completely soggy by the end of the weeak). You can also vary the seasonings so that it suits you.

    My standard is chickpeas with olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic powder, a little cumin, a little sage, and a little thyme. Now that it's summertime, I throw in a handful of low-fat feta cheese, a good dose of white wine vinegar, some cherry tomatoes, some cucumbers, and if I'm feeling expensive, a two dollar bunch of radishes. In the wintertime, I'll make it with lentils (cook in pot until mostly soft), fry up some bacon and chopped-up onions in place of the olive oil, and use garam masala. I also use split peas from the bulk food aisle of the local hippie store/whole foods.
    posted by joyceanmachine at 8:51 AM on July 19, 2010 [25 favorites]

    Learn a bunch of beans & rice dishes and the seasonings that go with them. Olive oil, garlic, salt, pepper, and cumin go a long way in making almost anything tasty. Or hot sauce.
    posted by Jacqueline at 9:00 AM on July 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

    Breakfast: yogurt w/ granola (we make our own to keep the fat down). Steel-cut oats. Fried egg on toast. I also fry and entire package of bacon, then keep it in a bag in the fridge for later chomping or for a BLT on the fly.
    A good and easy lunch is a bean or grain salad.
    Eat seasonally. This has the advantage of being cheaper when you shop. If you don't know about how to prepare some of the veggies, I would recomment Alice Waters' "The Art of Simple Food."
    Make full use of your freezer. Extra portions of big dishes can be frozen to eat a week down the road.
    Do you own a toaster oven? They are tremendously useful, especially if you don't want to heat the whole place up in this horrid summer. It's perfect for roasting veggies, and can even hold a half chicken or some sausage for dinner. I prefer convection ovens.
    Crock pots are tremendously useful things. I use mine to make beans and cook grits, but you could do anything from oatmeal to chili to brisket or short ribs in them. Again, doesn't heat up the house.
    Don't be afraid of using the appropriate amount of oil or salt in your foods. It's literally not possible to make something as bad for you as frozen pizza in your home, so live it up.
    posted by Gilbert at 9:01 AM on July 19, 2010

    I'm going to go out on a limb here and urge you to avoid all grains and cereals. It won't be easy, but it's worth it.

    For one thing, at this time, it seems likely that most of the grains and cereals you're going to eat are going to be processed, ie: bread.

    My wife likes to bake, and we stopped buying store-bought bread about a year ago. When we do buy store-bought bread, it tastes as though it's made out of baking soda - it's *that* salty.
    posted by KokuRyu at 9:07 AM on July 19, 2010

    At least for your lunch issue, you might think about going with a bento-style meal. Maki from JustBento is pretty good about creating healthy, balanced meals, and I find that it's easier to buy better ingredients when I have an idea of how I can combine them into nice lunches. This post is a good starter, and has links to all her best tips-and-tricks posts as well.
    posted by specialagentwebb at 9:07 AM on July 19, 2010

    Coincidentally I just got home from my first ever visit with a Nutritionist. It was awesome! I have so much to read through, and I'm still working on my own new meal plan; so, I hope you will forgive me if I don't write out all my ideas just now.
    However, the very nice lady I spoke to today recommended something very similar to what joyceanmachine mentioned above.

    She said: "drain 1 can black beans, drain 1 can corn, stir together with 1 jar salsa, add chopped cilantro, put in tupperware" Then you can just serve a cup of it over a green salad or a smaller amount over rice (only 1/3 cup of rice, mind you). Easy lunch to make ahead and pack portions for taking to work. I haven't tried it yet, but I'm going to, and it's going to be delicious.
    posted by purpletangerine at 9:15 AM on July 19, 2010 [3 favorites]

    Instead of giving you a shopping list, I'm going to go in a different direction. This is a radical suggestion, but it worked for me: I went on a raw food diet for 30 days.

    Full disclosure: the "philosophy" of Raw Foodism is highly suspect to me, and there is pretty high nut-job factor when you read about it.

    BUT if you make a limited, 30 day commitment like this, you will profoundly alter your diet. You will realize what you're eating, and you will learn to change your habits. Unlike a fast, you won't imperil yourself nutritionally if you do it for a limited amount of time (nor will you be hungry). And almost everything you eat will be good for you, even great for you.

    What it did for me, looking back after six months: I truly understood what I was eating that was bad, and lost my cravings for it. I learned discipline in my eating choices. I lost 20 pounds that stayed off. I went from 100% eating out for lunch every work day to 100% bringing a boxed salad (and saving lots of money as a result). I eat plenty of cooked foods now, but they are much healthier in the way that is described in your objectives. And most interestingly to me, I was able to see and feel the effects of certain foods on my body when I reintroduced them to my diet. It's been fascinating.
    posted by quarterframer at 9:22 AM on July 19, 2010 [3 favorites]

    I think a lot of your challenges could be met by focusing on really good ingredients. I actually recommend against frozen vegetables, because fresh are SO much more delicious and you can start to really look forward to shopping for them if you do it at farmers markets.

    Breakfast: I'm a big fan of peanut butter toast and fruit. Find a bread company or bakery that makes really good whole grain bread and keep it sliced in the freezer. Buy the best in-season fruit you can find. Summer is a great time to start this habit.

    Lunch: I generally advocate leftovers because if you make a really yummy dinner the night before, you don't have to plan your lunch at ALL.

    Snacks: Yes, when you're actually hungry, but stick to whole foods. I always always want fatty sweets in the afternoon, but I try to mostly fill that urge with nuts and dry fruit.

    Vegetarianism: You are trying to make huge changes here already, and I think vegetarianism will be such a big additional change that you'll give up on the whole process. Start thinking about the vegetables and grains before the meat in your meal, and try to have just a few meals a week that involve meat. Also, if you limit yourself to only sustainably farmed meat, you'll find that its really expensive and you will HAVE to eat it sparingly.

    Vegetables and grains:
    1. Buy REALLY good vegetables. Start shopping at your local farmers market. You will be shocked at how much better they taste than the crap at the grocery store.
    2. Almost every vegetable can be sauteed with great success following these easy steps:
    a. cut the vegetables into the size of pieces that you want to eat.
    b. put some olive oil in a medium-hot skillet.
    c. add garlic and saute until you can smell it (10 seconds?)
    c. add the veggies in a single layer. add some salt
    d. sautee until the veggies are the texture you like to eat them at.
    e. if you feel like it, experiment with herbs, lemon, or sauces at this point.
    3. get a variety of whole grains at the grocery store. Brown rice, quinoa, and pearl barley are great starting points. You can cook them in large quantities and reheat them during the week. They also freeze really well.
    Over time you'll start to learn which grains and which veggies really compliment each other.

    Staples: The things you like to eat regularly. There's no right way to do this. Just start cooking and pay attention to which things you use a lot. Add to your staple collection as you need them.

    Website: Heidi is a god. Her recipes are exactly what you're looking for, and though the ingredient lists might look long sometimes, you'll find that a lot of them get repeated from recipe to recipe.
    posted by juliapangolin at 9:27 AM on July 19, 2010

    Two question I've asked before which may be useful to you:
    1. What low-GI, high-protein, portable food can I cook on Sunday night and then reheat for breakfast Mon-Fri?
    2. What low-GI, high-protein food can I cook on Sunday night and then reheat for lunch/dinner Mon-Fri?
    Some general guidelines I've learned:
    • Keep a high amount of fruits and vegetables in your diet. I'm a carnivore by nature, but I've found that when I left my diet become unbalanced it leads to persistent digestion problems that go away when I introduce more alkaline and high-fiber foods into my diet.
    • Eat often. Absolutely you should snack, just make sure that what you snack on is nutritious and doesn't destabilize your bloodsugar (especially if you're diabetic or hypoglycemic, but it's good advice for anyone). The healthiest way to eat is a way that prevents you from ever feeling ravenously hungry or extremely full. It should be frequent, light meals. I am currently trying to keep my daily caloric intake at about 2400 calories, so I aim for three 600 calories meals and three 300 calorie snacks per day, spaced 2-3 hours apart.
    • If you're trying to lose or gain weight, try to figure out the amount of calories your body needs and eat accordingly. More calories than you burn prompts weight gain (usually fat, but can be muscle if you're working out hard and eating a lot of protein). Eating less calories than you burn results in weight loss (again, whether this loss is primarily fat or muscle will depend heavily on your activity level).
    Some simple snacks I've been enjoying recently:
    • A 12oz bowl of fruit salad purchased pre-cut from Meijer, plus a stick of low fat string cheese, plus 1oz roasted peanuts (about 300 calories total).
    • A fudge brownie JayBar (220 calories, 14g protein)
    • Greek Yogurt - suggested to me in one of the above-linked threads. I like Chobani Blueberry the best, it seems less sour than other flavors. 140 calories per 6oz container.
    • If you're eating out, Panera Bread is one of the better chain places for healthier eating. Try their Strawberry Poppyseed Chicken Salad. Fruits, vegetables, and plenty of protein all at once.
    • Progresso Soups - Chicken Noodle, Minestrone, similar varieties. Minestrone can be a high-fiber soup, and has more protein than you might think.

    posted by Vorteks at 9:34 AM on July 19, 2010

    I meant to say I am for three 600 calorie meals and three 200 calorie snacks, totaling 2400 calories per day.

    I can do math, really! ...sometimes.
    posted by Vorteks at 9:36 AM on July 19, 2010

    Fantastic question - and many of the tips here are great. I've fallen in love with the blog "Cheap Healthy Good", which could be a resource for you for some recipes and eating-well resources.
    posted by kellygrape at 9:38 AM on July 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

    Corollary to my earlier comment - try unplugging your microwave and putting it away, to make it harder to reach for it as the first option. That will probably help a lot in making a change.
    posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 9:50 AM on July 19, 2010

    If you want to incorporate more veggies into your diet, here's a low barrier way that would be hard to screw up. Go to the grocery store (farmer's market would give you more choices) and grab as many root veggies as you like.

    suggestions: Potatoes (try different kinds), sweet potatoes, fennel, garlic, beets (red and/or yellow), onions, garlic.

    Pick the ones you like and chop them up into largish pieces. Chop each onion into four pieces and break apart by hand. Peel the garlic cloves but leave whole. This should take less than 10 minutes.

    Place everything in a bowl. Add two glugs of olive oil. Add some salt (kosher if you've got it), some pepper, and throw a twig of rosemary in there. mix. Empty into a baking tray (or do all this in the baking tray for less clean up.)

    Stick it in the oven and let it roast for 1 hour at 375. If you walk by anytime in that hour, just open and mix the veggies a bit (not a huge problem if you forget).

    In one hour, you will have super tasty caramelized onions (sweet and crunchy), nice crunchy on the outside/soft on the inside veggies that smell delightful. Roasted garlic is just heaven. See how easy that was?

    You can easily store this in a tupperware for a week or so in the fridge. This would be a perfect side for any meal (including that frozen pizza).
    posted by special-k at 9:52 AM on July 19, 2010 [5 favorites]

    Breakfast: I have experimented and found that a protein/fat rich breakfast tides me longer than a carb or even carb/fat rich breakfast. My #1 breakfast is an egg and bacon wrap: cook up your bacon or other meat, cook up the egg (add herbs if you'd like), put sour cream/salsa/hot sauce/whatever you like on a tortilla and top with meat, egg, and cheese. Takes very little time, you could even use a microwave for it all though I like using the stovetop. A quicker breakfast is Toastie Avocados, toast an English muffin and smear half an avocado on each half, top with salt and pepper (I like lemon pepper here). This breakfast is faster but I find I need to eat a fruit an hour later. Both of these breakfasts make me feel healthy and empowered, and being on a farm I can raise or make a good portion of the components.

    Lunches are tougher. After years of playing around with them, I think I enjoy a lunch which has all sorts of components versus a lunch that is one big sandwich and a fruit/snack. I have a few lunch containers which are divided up, both longer flat ones and tubular thermos-like ones. Now instead of making one big lunch, you can make an assortment of littler lunches. This approach means I usually fill one of the parts with leftovers from yesterday or the day before, one with a salad (dressing aside), and one with whatever else I feel like, could be cheese and crackers, cookies, peas and corn, pie, bread, nuts, fruit salad, etc. For me, I needed to make my lunches fun to make and fun to eat, otherwise I found the task monotonous and resorted to buying lunches much more often.

    Snacking: One benefit to my lunch system is it is a built-in snack machine. If you leave the last section with dessert/snacks until later on in the day, there's your snack. Otherwise you can try to bring other things, like a few cookies, some vegetable sticks, a fruit. Snacking is fine, just don't make it a pint of ice cream! Try to make it something with fiber so that you feel full.

    Responsible meat: Yes there are ways to do this. I will note here that I am a beginning farmer so my opinion might be a bit skewed, but at least it is certainly an educated opinion. In my opinion, if you want responsible meat, buy it from a local farmer, preferably one that pastures their animals. In my mind, a responsibly-raised animal is one that has a happy life with the sun on their heads and a safe place to come home for the night, is treated right and aided in medical issues but is not raised in a way that abuses the animal's nature (conveyor belts of food, etc). This is how I raise my few animals. If you can, go and visit their farm, see the animals and how they live, even pet them if you want to gain that extra connection. Partner with a friend to buy the whole animal and split it (or many partners if you're buying beef). In most cases you can detail how you want the butchering to happen to the farmer himself, in some cases you will need to sort out the butchering on your own but this is easy and the farmer can help you as they've done it all before. Sometimes you may pay more than in store, sometimes you may pay the same for a superior product, sometimes you come out far ahead and end up with things you'd never find in the stores (hog trotters and tons of soup bones, the pig's head to make head cheese, etc). Either way, you and the farmer form a closer relationship, both parties benefit from the exchange, you contribute to raising ethical animals, it really is a win-win situation. And as a gourmand, I find it neat to create meals in reverse - I have this cut of meat, what should I do with it, versus I want to make this recipe so let's go buy that meat. I recommend reading Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's River Cottage cookbook for inspiration along these lines.

    How to eat vegetables: Find the ones you love and find new ways of eating them. A simple way to make delicious veggies is to roast veggies in the oven, here's a great recipe. Use sites like Allrecipes, put in a veggie you like and find a new way to cook it. You might benefit in buying a beginner's cookbook to become familiar with basic cooking methods.

    How to eat whole grain healthy stuff: Take it a few steps at a time. First, start by making your own bread. Sounds a bit daunting? It's surprisingly easy! Try Julia Child's white bread recipe. Hint, you don't need any fancy equipment at all, you simply need bowls and a surface to knead on, and stamina! This recipe makes a lot of dough so you probably want to split it instead of baking all of it at once - put it in a bigger bowl covered with plastic wrap and plop it in your fridge, then when you need more bread simply take it out in the morning and shape it/bake it in the afternoon. Once you master cooking with all purpose flour, you can start adding in different grains and whatnot (oats, etc), and gradually expand to making a 100% whole grain bread or bun. Double hint, use the dough made above and simply cut it into many smaller balls to make little bread rolls, or quarter the dough and make long baguette shaped breads, or top it with sesame seeds, etc. When you learn to bake, you will learn how to add in your own mix of grains. Also, this reduces the cost of bread dramatically, gives you good arm muscles, and tastes much better than the store bought stuff.

    Kitchen Staples: Canned beans, canned tomatoes, rice, flour, butter, sugar (both brown and white), other baking stuff (baking powder and soda, active dry yeast, salt). Lots of fresh veggies and frozen veggies of the stuff you like (I always have peas and corn and a general winter mix).

    Making great flavours: It's all about herbs and spices. My husband is the one who cooks more and I am amazed at his spice collection, it takes up a full level of a cabinet. I have been growing herbs and I love their fresh and unique flavours. With cooking a lot of veggies, you should save all of the ends and bits and unused parts and make up a vegetable stock. You then use this stock in place of water in, say, cooking rice, and voila your rice tastes so much more delicious!
    posted by Meagan at 9:54 AM on July 19, 2010

    phunniemee is dead on. Roasting vegetables is the easiest way to make palatble veggies for the veggie beginner. Broccoli and cauliflower are great roasted.

    Number one way to make dishes have lots of taste with less bad stuff is to bring on the spicy. Peppers bring free flavor. Same with fresh onions and garlic.

    Adding toasted walnut and pecans (which can be quickly toasted in a microwave) will add flavor and nutrition to many a dish.

    If you can afford it, the next best thing you can do is replace a few meat-heavy entrees per week with fatty fish like salmon or tuna.

    Use meat as a flavoring and not so much as a whole dish. Same with cheese. I like to use aged or cured products with a lot of flavor so I can use less product with more effect. So pancetta, bacon, feta, parmesan are great accent ingredients.

    Learn to make soup. Soup is the closest thing to kitchen alchemy because you can turn water into food. And you can also make stocks and broths from kitchen scraps. I always get two meals from every chicken. Roast chicken for the meat and then boil down the bones and leavings with celery, onion, and whatever veggie scraps I have to make stock. From a good stock, you can make a plethora of quick, tasty and healthy soups. Since you've captured the meaty flavor in the stock, you can add veggies, beans, etc with very little meat and not feel deprived.

    And, finally, get two or three of the best kitchen knives you can afford. Chef's knife and paring knife at a minimum. I'm talking the kind that is a revelation and a priviledge to use. When cutting is tranformed from a dreaded chore into a pleasure, a whole world of healthy cooking is opened up to you.

    Bon Apetit!
    posted by cross_impact at 10:01 AM on July 19, 2010

    Oh, and one more comment: If you like frozen pizzas, you will love making your own pizza. Here's a dough recipe. Add "canned tomato sauce" to my staples list so that you have it on hand. Use whatever veggie or meat toppings you have on hand (corn is surprisingly great on pizza), top liberally with cheese, make your oven as hot as it can go and put it in. Ten minutes or less later you have a delicious, fresh, homemade pizza for dimes on the dollar. Make a big batch of dough once a week, divide it into balls and put them in the fridge & freezer, that way when you want a pizza all you need to do is take out the dough a few hours before, shape it into a pizza shape, and you're ready to have fun. Then, try cooking some of the toppings in advance, like caramelizing onions and mushrooms, slightly steaming broccoli and cauliflower, or using yesterday's leftover roasted squash. And then, go out to a home improvement store and buy some unglazed thick tiles, put them on your bottom oven rack and cook your pizza right on them. Try getting that pizza from your local shop!
    posted by Meagan at 10:03 AM on July 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

    I find that it's really easy to make a whole meal by cooking some veggies, cooking some pasta, and throwing the veggies over the pasta. I can add to this: butter, red sauce, white sauce, cheese, or some combination of the above. Or further raw veggies, like sliced tomato.

    I can make this for dinner for weeks on end without feeling restricted. I most like to saute squash of some kind, but I think just about any vegetable sauteed or roasted would work for this.
    posted by galadriel at 10:08 AM on July 19, 2010

    A lot of good stuff has already been said, but I wanted to add one thing that has helped me a lot in the past month with respect to packing my own lunch: Poached Chicken. For some reason, having to cook chicken on a skillet seems time consuming - I have to stand there and watch it and make sure it's cooked. (Maybe I'm really lazy.) Using the instructions in the link, I've been poaching chicken in the evening when I'm doing something else at home. Then I put it in the fridge and in the morning assemble a quick salad. (I make about 2 breasts at a time and put about 2/3 of a breast in a salad. Other ingredients in my current salad of choice - pecans, dried cranberries, gorgonzola cheese.) I have some small containers that I use to pack about a tablespoon of dressing separately so that the salad doesn't get soggy.
    posted by Terriniski at 10:13 AM on July 19, 2010

    You might find this helpful: Google calendar of Boston-area farmer's markets
    posted by rmd1023 at 10:18 AM on July 19, 2010

    You could be me, about four years ago! I started by picking one vegetable a week. A Veggie Venture's A to Z of Vegetables was INVALUABLE.

    Most of the time I just wanted to know "what do you do with broccoli?" As opposed to the fancy recipes you find if you go looking for broccoli recipes. Her A to Z gives you those basic recipes. It's great!

    Just gradually add one good thing at a time. Learn to cook one "real" dish a week. Some of them you'll add to your repertoire, some you'll decide are bad or difficult or you just don't like them. Don't let yourself get overwhelmed!

    And failing any better options, look for the pre-bagged salad mix kits. They're in the cooler in the produce department, and include all the toppings and dressing and everything. Super easy and tasty! Just dump the whole thing in a bowl and start chomping away.
    posted by ErikaB at 10:26 AM on July 19, 2010

    I get it, I’m eating like a jerk.. I like meat but I hate slaughterhouses and the negative environmental impact, is there any way to eat meat sparingly and responsibly?

    Responsibly, yes, but it's gonna cost ya. Also, the labeling is tricky, as bilabial says above.

    Check with your local Humane Society. They may have information on which local meat producers are the more humane ones, and which labels to look for in the supermarket. However, meat produced under the best conditions may be prohibitively expensive.
    posted by Koko at 10:38 AM on July 19, 2010

    At uni, I bought vegetables fresh and then chopped them all up at once, divided them into portions and froze them (God flavour AND longevity, heh). Frozen meat was either put on the counter-top in the morning, or put in the fridge the previous night, so that by evening it was thawed. Then all you have to do for any meal is chop up the meat instead of fiddling around with lots of peeling when you're tired from a long day's work.

    So for, say, pork chops, all you have to do come meal-time is boil kettle, put water in saucepan, put frozen veg in saucepan, put saucepan on hob, put meat under grill, go watch Youtube for 5 minutes. Take veg off hob, make gravy out of the water, drain the rest, put on plate, take meat out from grill, check it's done by slicing it open, put on plate. Done in about 10 minutes.

    When freezing chopped veg, freeze the pieces on a plate in a single layer and then put them in a carton or bag after they've frozen. If you freeze them in the carton they end up lumping together.

    Potatoes are an exception - I don't know if you can freeze them, but I generally didn't. Provided they're clean then you don't even need to peel them, though. Boiled whole, they generally take 20 minutes, or ten if you cut them up.

    Although pans of veg can generally be put onto the hob and then left to themselves, starchy things (potatoes, rice, pasta etc) tend to boil over because the starch in the water makes stable bubbles. This can be overcome with a dash of vegetable oil in the water (the oil droplets bounce around on the boiling water an burst the bubbles as they go through them... just in case you were as curious as I was as to how that actually works :P).
    posted by Fen at 10:54 AM on July 19, 2010

    Pick up a rice cooker. They're pretty cheap. They're also great for making simple, nutritious meals.

    Throw in one cup of brown rice and two cups of water. Rice - great staple to build from. A little salt, a little pepper, side dish. Lots of leftovers. Then, try to experiment with it:
    -Use chicken broth or vegetable broth instead of rice. Tasty. You can also skip the salt on this, because there's enough in the broth.
    -Try coconut milk instead of water. Really good if you pair it with chicken cooked in a Thai or Indian-style simmer sauce (usually available prepared in jars - check salt/fat content of course!)
    -Use half rice, half lentils. Everything you need, in one dish.
    -Try a different grain - quinoa, for example. Also good with broth.
    -Throw in some meat crumbles (or fake meat crumbles) and some Cajun seasoning to taste for dirty rice.

    Take any of the above grain ideas and add steamed veggies or seafood. Most rice cookers have a steamer tray. You can throw veggies and/or meat (chicken breast works the best) in the steamer tray, turn it on, and have your main protein course plus a starchy side. Experiment, because some veggies and meat items cook more quickly than the rice. Shrimp for example will get pretty tough in the rice cooker, so you would probably want to use a separate steamer basket in a pan for that kind of thing. The folding steamer baskets are cheap, and fresh veggies taste awesome in a steamer. Throw on some Old Bay seasoning - it's just great on so many things!

    One really simple rice cooker meal (recipe courtesy of Trader Joe's): 1 cup quinoa, steamed; stir in 1 jar dried tomatoes in olive oil and 1 package steamed shrimp (peeled and deveined, fresh or previously frozen). It's good and it's really easy to make.
    posted by caution live frogs at 11:41 AM on July 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

    Also, "I like meat but I hate slaughterhouses and the negative environmental impact, is there any way to eat meat sparingly and responsibly?"

    Yes, there is. Step 1 is to find meat from humanely raised animals. Free-range meat is available. Check your local farmer's markets. You want to buy from a small producer who performs sustainable farming. Meat that isn't full of bad karma tastes better - both to your tongue and to your brain. Step 2 is of course to eat less of it. Try substituting meat in your diet with other items - the meat substitutes have come a long way from the stuff they used to sell.
    posted by caution live frogs at 11:46 AM on July 19, 2010

    You're going to need tupperware for all that follows.

    I want to eat breakfast again, but no cereal and no milk. I want to feel healthy after eating breakfast, and I want to be prepared to face the day.
    Fruit. Each week, buy a melon. Chop it in half. Then halve the halves. Then that again. So eight pieces. You'll need to slice the seedy core bit off each bit. Either leave them like that in a container in your fridge, or slice them off the skin and into chunks, and leave them in a container in your fridge. You do something similar with pineapple - chopping mechanics is different - top and tail it, then de-skin it, then do slices, then cut around the core. Ideally, you want a small grate in your fruit containers, as the chunks will lose moisture which will collect in the bottom of the container. You don't want the chunks sitting in this and getting soggy, so lots of containers have removable grate-things that sit in the bottom, elevating your food by a bit, out of the liquid.

    If you have a thing of grapes, or some strawberries etc., or can chop a banana (pro-tip - only peel back one part. Use your spoon to chop out the banana chunks. Use spoon to eat fruit mix. No knife to wash up!), you can quickly make a bowl of fruit.

    Alternatively, eggs. Hard boiled, scrambled and poached are healthy and delicious. Lots of protein fills you up as well. I like all of those with a slice of toast. For a hard boiled egg: Video.

    Finally, porridge. A cup of oats, two cups of water, medium heat. You can even soak the oats overnight and just heat it in the morning.

    I should be packing my lunch instead of eating at the food court near where I work. This lunch needs to be easily prepared, light-weight since I bike to work, and substantial enough to get me through to dinner.
    Cous cous! Pour some into your lunch container. Add boiling water so that it completely covers the cous cous, with a very thin layer of water submerging the cous cous entirely. Whilst the water is soaking in, chop up cucumber, tomato, peppers, cheese, whatever into chunks. Chuck it into the cous cous once the water's soaked in. Give it a mix. Done.

    How should I go about snacking, if at all?
    Bananas are good. Oatcakes likewise.

    I’ve flirted with the idea of becoming a vegetarian because of watching Food Inc. and a slew of other food shock docs, I get it, I’m eating like a jerk.. I like meat but I hate slaughterhouses and the negative environmental impact, is there any way to eat meat sparingly and responsibly?
    Make meat a treat. Want a nice steak on the weekend? Go to your local butcher. They should know the provenance of the food the sell.

    I think I’d mostly like to eat vegetables and whole grain stuff healthy stuff.. but how?
    Wholegrain pasta, wholegrain bread, brown rice. Easy.

    Making food in bulk and then eating it over a few days is ideal.
    Risotto is ideal for this. It's super easy. Heat up a pan (medium-high heat). Chuck in some butter, and some diced onion. Let the onions brown. Chuck in the risotto rice, give everything a stir. Add in a splash of white wine (this is optional, but makes it taste nicer). Add in some stock, reduce the heat to medium. Then, you pretty much just let it sit, adding more stock as the rice dries out, until when you taste the rice is softer and edible rather than chewy and hard. At this stage (or earlier, if they need to be cooked rather than heated) add in your ingredients (e.g. I like leek risotto, so I just chuck in some chopped up leek, let it heat and soften, and serve).

    Poaching salmon is good, as you can do two at once, and have one cold the next day. Take a salmon fillet. Place it on aluminum foil. Squeeze half a lemon over it, and wrap the foil into a parcel over it. Put it in an oven at 180 degrees for 20 minutes. Done.

    What staples should I have in my kitchen that are automatically re-filled when they run out?
    I always have pasta and tinned tuna or mackerel, as well as tinned soup. When I'm down to that, I go shopping. Also, risotto rice, pasta, oats for porridge, eggs, cous cous. Buy bulk for the dry stuff, and put them in air tight containers in your cupboard.

    How to eat great and cheaply at the same time, without sacrificing too much on the flavor front?
    Have a collection of herbs and spices, and experiment. I made a weird cheesy stir fry type thing that was awesome - I chopped up courgette, pepper, tomato, chucked it in a wok, added some herbs and spices, added some cheese.
    posted by djgh at 11:50 AM on July 19, 2010

    Re: vegetables and knowing what to do with them, get yourself a copy of Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison. When I have mystery veg or I'm tired of sauteed spinach or what have you, she rarely steers me wrong.
    posted by hungrybruno at 12:09 PM on July 19, 2010

    Awesome question, lots to tackle, but I'll take my stab at it.

    You'll find lots of conflicting sciency-flavored advice for healthy eating. I'm not a nutritionist, nor a saint. People are so tied up with food, marketing, moral decisions, implied health benefits of foods, guilt, money, economic status, and worry. Ladies, we get a good dose of sexism/gender role BS, as we're supposed to be feeding our men/children wholesome things, less we become an ugly unloved spinster. Guys, you're supposed to be so manly you can inhale 5 quadruple cheese burgers, or you might as well grow a vagina. I try to reject all of these things. Eating the most pure, awesome humane organic free range whatever will not save you from everything bad in the world, even though some people think it will. Likewise, eating frozen pizza will not send you to hell.

    My tip to rejecting some of that messed-up entanglement: don't watch the Food Network or other food-porn, and don't buy food with commercials or a spokesperson. We're talking about something that should be simple, but it can control us on such a primal psychology. How many times a day to we hear the message "if you make this dinner for your children, they will love you" or "eating this will make you attractive to the opposite sex" or "drink this, and your troubles will go away"? All of these things are false. Food is food. Some food can be demonstrably worse or better for you health wise. No food will make you more attractive, loved or happy.

    That said, this is the way I try to eat: 50% veggies, 25% protein/meat, 25% starch. More or less, what I look to serve on my plate is a big pile of green veggies, a bit of meat, and a bit of (preferably) complex carbs. I like this, I feel better when I eat this way, but I'm not some interchangeable scientifically tested human robot. Your diet, preferences, and needs may be very different, but I'll speak to what I know.

    Veggies: Some fresh veggies can get expensive. Bell peppers are one example, and will sometimes cost $1.50-$2 for ONE pepper. Broccoli, green beans, zucchini, spinach (not baby spinach), kale, will reliably be cheaper. Also look for seasonal veggies that go on sale like asparagus and squash. Get a folding steamer basket, the kind shaped like a UFO. Put an inch of water in a pot, drop in your steamer basket, then your washed chopped veg. 5 minutes on high will do most veggies. Roasting is another great option. Line your baking sheets with foil, and you don't even have to wash anything. Frozen veggies will cost slightly more, but are virtually nutritionally identical. The same thing cannot be said about canned.

    As for meat: A great, self limiting, way to eat more responsible/humane meat is to only buy meat at a farmers market. This is self limiting, because its darn expensive. Think about bringing $20 (or whatever your budget allows) to the farmers market just for meat. You'll get one big free range chicken, or maybe 2 lbs of pork loin, or a few pounds of beef stew meat. This will probably be much less meat than the average American eats, but you'll learn to stretch it and savor it. For example, I know a 4lbs chicken is about $14 at my farmers market. I'll roast it on a weekend, and we (the BF and I) will eat the breasts that night. Then save/freeze the carcass and bones for stock, save the dark meat for tacos, enchiladas, salads, or soup with the stock. Thats 1 bird + veg + starch that became 4-6 dinners. Any pork or beef roasting you do will also give you flavorful fats which will stretch your meat even further. If the animals are grass fed/pasture raised, this fat will also be full of those magical Omega-3s everyone is talking about. Keep it covered in your fridge.

    Embrace non-meat proteins. Caned beans are awesome. Fast, already made, cheap, healthy. Full of fiber and protein. If you've got some left over fat from your meat purchases, you can further flavor them by cooking some onions and spices in that fat, then adding your beans. (I'm talking about a teaspoon here, don't freak out. No-fat, but-all-the-sugar-you-want diets from the 90's weren't so awesome either) Dried beans are even cheaper, and kudos if you want to start doing batches of them. I don't have high blood pressure, so I don't really worry about sodium. If you do, you should buy low sodium.

    You may take a while to warm up to tofu, but it's worth doing. For $1 and change you get a pound of low fat protein. Tofu doesn't have a lot ok, any flavor on its own, but that just means it is a blank canvas. Take your block of tofu, dice it into cubes, and mix up a spicy soy marinade. You can keep this in the fridge for a week or until you're ready to cook. Baked is tasty, as is stir fry.

    Starches: Starches/carbs are easy to make, shelf stable, and cheap. They're also going to be the least nutrient dense foods, and are probably responsible for more body fat and the negative health consequences associated with that. Complex carbs, like whole wheat pasta or bread, and brown rice, are more expensive and take longer to prepare. Yeah, I know it doesn't make sense.

    A great habit to start is making a big batch of brown rice on a weekend, or a night when you have more time (it'll take 45 min), and then freezing it. It reheats fine in a microwave. Another good option is whole wheat pasta. Portion size is really important to keep in mind here as carbs are dense in calories. Most people think 1/4 lbs is a serving of pasta. It's actually 1/8 lbs, or 2oz of dry pasta. I also don't think every meal needs a starch.

    Breakfasts: I think of breakfast as it's own category, mostly because I'm not a morning person. I need something to eat with a towel on my hair and my eyes half open. I know you said no milk, but it's actually a good, cheap source of protein. Many mornings I'll have yogurt and fruit. A big, 2lbs tub of plain, unsweetened, nonfat or low fat yogurt is around $1.50. Frozen berries are cheap and naturally sweet. Thaw a handful over night in the fridge. In the morning top with yogurt. Seasonal fruits like peaches or mangoes are awesome too. Bananas are always cheap. I also like oatmeal yogurt smoothies (I skip the sugar), and in the winter just plain cooked rolled oatmeal. If I'm more human-like in the morning, eggs are another great source of protein. Top with salsa, or have on a piece of toast.

    The one thing I break my no-marketed foods rule for is Kashi Go Lean cereal. It's pricy too, but damn if it isn't the easiest, healthiest thing you can make pre-caffination.

    Snacks: Snacks can be a good way to keep you from eating too much at meal times, especially if you'll be running late. The caveat to that, of course, is that you don't eat too much of that snack, and it lets you choose more sensible portions later on as you're not so hungry. There is usually a baggie of baby carrots in my fridge for that reason, as is extra fruit from breakfast. Otherwise I personally don't keep snacks around, as I'm prone to the "I'm not hungry, but bored" munching habit.

    Shopping: I'm a fan of making menus, though not everyone is. I'll make a list of 5 dinners, and cook enough to have leftovers for lunch. From that I'll make a shopping list, plus 1 or 2 "in case" meals, like the Black Bean Burgers below. These are meals that can be made from the pantry/freezer, and help you resist the urge to get take out on a tired evening.

    Re-learn your grocery store. Most grocery stores will have the fresh foods around the perimeter, and boxed/prepared foods in the middle. Start in your produce section. This is where you want to fill up most of your cart. Pre-washed or cut things are going to cost more. You can decide if it's worth it to you to pay the difference. Even pre-washed and cut veggies will end up being cheaper than take out, and probably frozen dinners too.

    Ok, a few favorite recipes: These will cook about 4 servings. Pack leftovers into lunch containers. Or consider making a large batch of one of these on the weekend exclusively for weekday lunches. If you're single, or get leftover fatigue, halve the recipies.

    Black Bean Burgers (awesome with sliced avocado)
    Chickpea Croquettes
    Falafel and Pita Sandwiches, load it up with veggies, mix an herb and yogurt sauce, and buy whole wheat pitas.
    Black Bean, Sweet Potato Chili
    Tortilla Soup
    Thomas Keller's Roasted Chicken
    Veggie Tacos (or add some leftover chicken)
    Tofu Stir-fry I don't really use a recipe, this is just an example. Use whatever veg or marinade you like.
    Crispy tofu nuggets, have with steamed veg
    Chickpea and Potato Curry, Make it with cauliflower instead of potatoes, if you'd like to have rice with it.

    Phew, sorry to drop a novel in here. This is a topic I'm pretty interested in, and a few years ago was eating and shopping much like yourself. If you want lasting changes, be forgiving and flexible with yourself. It bears repeating, microwave dinners will not make you murder kittens, nor damn your soul. Non Fat Vegan Veggies will also not make you walk on water or live forever. What you put into your mouth is not the end all be all of your health, nor is it the cause and cure of every ailment. Relax, have fun, learn new things, eat good food.
    posted by fontophilic at 12:32 PM on July 19, 2010 [10 favorites]

    A cheap rice cooker might be helpful for steaming veggies. And, of course, for making rice. They're really easy to use.
    posted by bessel functions seem unnecessarily complicated at 12:39 PM on July 19, 2010

    I'm eating up (sorry) all the ideas here. We're fortunate to live within driving distance of an Amish Meat & Cheese establishment so every few weeks we fill up a cooler with grass fed beef, free-range chicken, and rbgh-free dairy. The cost is much less than the contaminated versions at our local stores.
    posted by Mertonian at 1:01 PM on July 19, 2010

    My first major piece of advice would be not to try to change everything at once - you'll quickly be overwhelmed and go back to your old eating habits. Start small and be patient...there's a world of wonderful food for you to discover, but you don't have to explore it all at once.

    My very first piece of advice would be to go out and buy a good general cookbook. I like Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything (link). His vegetarian cookbook is How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, and it's an excellent choice for people who are newer to vegetarian eating.

    My second piece of advice would be to find a cooking buddy - a friend who knows their way around the kitchen who can help you with some hands-on practice. If you've really not cooked a ton before, someone who can help you navigate the basics - how your food is supposed to feel and look and smell as it cooks, how to improve the flavor with seasonings, that sort of thing - will help you learn much faster. If you don't have a cooking buddy, fancy grocery stores like Whole Foods sometimes have free cooking classes - no reason you have to buy anything there afterwards.

    My third piece of advice is more philosophical...instead of thinking about thinking about bad foods to avoid, try thinking about good foods to seek out. My general philosophy is to start with good ingredients - fresh (or frozen!) vegetables, whole grains, etc. and then add just enough butter, meat, cheese, etc. to make them delicious. I feel like it's better to eat a decadent creamed spinach than highly processed but nominally low-fat frozen meals. When I was trying to change my eating habits, I set a goal of eating seven different fresh vegetables every week...eating more good food naturally crowded out most of my less desirable meal choices, without making me feel limited or deprived.
    posted by psycheslamp at 3:17 PM on July 19, 2010

    I love the steam-in-bag microwaveable frozen veggies they have now. It's a nice easy way to buy veggies without worrying about them going bad.
    posted by kostia at 4:54 PM on July 19, 2010

    When I started cooking for myself, I found the new Moosewood Cookbook to be a nice beginner cookbook for someone who is thinking about going vegetarian and wants to eat less processed, healthier food. The recipes are simple, for the most part, and the hand drawn illustrations and conversational instructions are soothing and helpful. There are lots of ideas for variants on things like pasta sauces, sandwich fillings, soups. Some people find the spicing to be on the bland side, so you should be sure to taste and adjust seasonings.
    posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 5:26 PM on July 19, 2010

    Changing one's environment works better than trying to change oneself. Here's a different perspective: Your eating habits are strongly influenced by your social network. I found this academic study through an article in WIRED magazine last year: "The Spread of Obesity in a Large Social Network over 32 Years" (full text of the article)
    A person's chances of becoming obese increased by 57% (95% confidence interval [CI], 6 to 123) if he or she had a friend who became obese in a given interval. Among pairs of adult siblings, if one sibling became obese, the chance that the other would become obese increased by 40% (95% CI, 21 to 60). If one spouse became obese, the likelihood that the other spouse would become obese increased by 37% (95% CI, 7 to 73). These effects were not seen among neighbors in the immediate geographic location.

    Other studies found similar effects for smoking as well.

    It makes sense. Eating and smoking are quite social activities (playing music also comes to mind). Back in the day, I didn't know a lot about food or care about enjoying myself eating. My family was mildly lacking food culture and meals were awkward burgeoise ceremonies. I started paying attention when I was house-sharing with Italians, Spanish and French people as a student. I was immersed in positive examples. My gratitude to them for sharing their culture is immense. If you seek out people who have a lot of meaning invested in procuring, preparing, eating foodstuffs in a certain (healthy) way, some of it will rub off.
    posted by yoHighness at 4:26 AM on July 24, 2010

    I really don't know what your budget is, nor whether this suggestion will be considered expensive in its context, but maybe you could consider getting a vegetable box delivered? Boston Organics will do you vegetable or mixed vegetable and fruit boxes. (I live in another country so don't have the first idea about relative prices for this sort of thing - sorry)

    I suggest this because I found when I was in a similar position that having someone else decide which vegetables I'd buy did two things for me: I was made to try a wider range of vegetables and also I was made to think about different ways to use the staples that turned up week after week. By which I mean onions in winter. This doesn't need to be a long term strategy - we only kept ours up for about 6 months I think, but it does force you to think about how to use what's in front of you. Once you're happy with preparing vegetables from scratch, restricting yourself to foods in season means all of the environmental benefits from more local food, but gives you real benefits too: you can look forward to times of year when certain things are in season, and you get the kind of forced choice and helpful restrictions I mention above. I wouldn't mind having some pumpkin soup for dinner tonight, for example, but I know it will taste so much the better when I eat it in October or November, with some thyme which will also still be growing at that time of year. So now I have something to look forward to.

    My bible for vegetables is Jane Grigson's Vegetable Book, which gives you something to read about most vegetables you'll come across and some you won't, explains how to select them and basic preparation and cooking, and then gives some recipes. It was written in 1978 and many many vegetable books have been written since then but it's still the first thing I reach for if I arrive home with something I don't know what to do with.

    Otherwise, if you buy a stick blender, soups are a really very easy way into cooking vegetables and give you a lot of scope for preparing in batches and keeping for a couple of days. Try to always keep garlic, lemons, olive oil, mustard, and vinegar around. Buy a good knife so that chopping vegetables isn't an effort.
    posted by calico at 7:49 AM on July 25, 2010

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