What food will give me the most energy with the least cooking?
July 7, 2013 6:51 PM   Subscribe

I'm making a concerted effort to ramp up my exercise, on my bike and at the gym, but it's leaving me exhausted - probably because I have a lousy diet. I'm not an enthusiastic cook, and on the go a lot, so I'm looking for alternatives to full meals. What can I add to my diet that will be good for me, support an exercise-ful lifestyle, but is still rudimentary, and can be prepared in batches then consumed in chunks?

A bit more context: I'm 33 years old for the time being, in reasonably good shape, and live an active, urban-cyclist existence, but I eat terribly: Staples include Subway sandwiches, chain burgers, pizza slices - it's kind of galling to even type it out. I really don't like vegetables. This is all okay if I'm mostly sedentary, and don't mind a growing belly and an early death. But it all falls apart when I start exercising. So it's time to try better ideas.

I'm single and self-employed, living a highly unscheduled life, so regularly-cooked meals and mealtimes are difficult. That's why I'm thinking of things that are rudimentary and easy to graze on, like boiled eggs (which I don't even know how to make!) and bean salads. If indeed these are good ideas, which they may or may not be. What should I be eating? Feed me, AskMe!
posted by bicyclefish to Health & Fitness (35 answers total) 93 users marked this as a favorite
High energy foods you don't have to cook: cheeses, summer sausage, nuts and nut butters. Look for foods that are high in fats; they won't give you a glycemic freak-out and they'll keep you powered up for much longer than carbs.
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:58 PM on July 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Any variation of this salad is great: Black beans, couscous, tomatoes, cilantro - make it in a batch and eat it right out of a tupperware container over the sink, if it comes to that.
posted by pantarei70 at 7:00 PM on July 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

tuna! With pickles, apple, hard boiled egg and red onion. And plain yogurt instead of mayo for the goopiness factor.
posted by Grandysaur at 7:11 PM on July 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

At my supermarket, they sell various cooked but frozen/chilled meats you can toss in the microwave--shredded chicken, pulled pork, etc.. I get those (just make sure it's the one that's basically meat and some spices, not the really heavily processed stuff) and keep em in the freezer, then heat em up in the microwave, add some salsa and whatever good-for-you-fixins I desire (beans? veggies?), and wrap it in a whole-grain or five-grain tortilla shell.

Along those lines, in the canned meat aisle they sell pouches and cans of precooked boneless, skinless chicken breast that's great if I need a protein kick. I usually just wander in and grab a pouch then a container or two of fresh, precut fruit when I'm in "a bachelor but don't want to die of Hot Pockets poisoning" kind of mood. Yeah, it'd be cheaper to buy a bunch of apples and grapes and melons but then I'd have to deal with them going bad/being consumed at different rates and blah blah blah.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 7:13 PM on July 7, 2013

What about if you bought a blender from Craigslist and tried using that everyday?
posted by oceanjesse at 7:20 PM on July 7, 2013

Starting the day with protein is a great start. I have a friend who makes a big batch of quinoa every week. Every day she adds nuts and in-season fruit to the quinoa for breakfast. Cook once - eat all week.
posted by frizz at 7:21 PM on July 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Antarctic explorers, scientists and support personnel, in need of large amounts of calories for survival, generally drink olive oil, by the pint, if fresh seal or whale blubber, with its included vitamin C and minerals, is unavailable. It's one of the highest caloric density foods that won't run right through you, largely undigested. Bonus: you can also keep sled dogs alive for a few days, if you have enough olive oil.
posted by paulsc at 7:27 PM on July 7, 2013 [4 favorites]

I highly recommend cold lentils from Trader Joe's. mix it into anything. Totally filling.
posted by discopolo at 7:42 PM on July 7, 2013

Smoothies. Can be as basic as banana + milk + yoghurt + optional honey and/or peanut butter. No chopping required, just break the banana up with your hands, and if you use a stick blender, you can drink it right out of the container you made it in!

Jerky for a quick protein fix.

You can make up a big batch of vegetable soup and freeze it. Then you'll always have something on hand. I know you don't like vegetables, but if you blend it up and add a bit of cream, it won't taste like vegetables! Someone else probably has a better recipe, but I basically fry some onions and garlic, add veggies such as cauliflower, pumpkin, carrot and potato, cover with water or stock, and cook until everything is tender. Cool a bit, blend, add a swirl of cream.
posted by pianissimo at 7:49 PM on July 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Chickpeas are a miracle food. When I am so hungry and need food NOW I have been known to open a tin, drain & rinse, dump in a bowl and season with a bit of salt & pepper and a drizzle of olive oil. You can also add a tin of tuna for even more protein.

Also chickpea salad is pretty easy: drained & rinsed tin of chickpeas, 1 small tomato diced, about half a teaspoon of cumin, coriander seed and chilli flakes (I grind them up in a mortar & pestle but you can use pre-ground versions), salt & pepper to taste, drizzle olive oil and squeeze a lemon over, stir, done. You can scale up and make a container that you snack on throughout the week. It's very simple but tastes amazing. You can always add variations too - chopped herb(s) like parsley, basil; diced red onion, whatever you like.
posted by Athanassiel at 7:52 PM on July 7, 2013 [9 favorites]

Best answer: First, get a couple of healthier frozen dinner things that you like ok. Put them in your freezer. These are your get out of jail free cards. If you don't feel like dealing with "real" food, you have an option that is already paid for. Pair it with a piece of fruit.

hard boiled eggs. on preview, xingcat posted the exact same link. Use it. Keep in mind that each hard boiled egg only has about 80 calories. Adjust your intake of other stuff accordingly. Pro-tip, Cool under running water; I find them easier to peel when they're still sort of hot.
  • English muffin/toast/crackers with peanut butter or cream cheese and fruit (add good jelly if you want to ease into fruit eating. Move on to banana slices when you're ready.)
  • hummus and pita/vegetables/pretzels
  • I really enjoy ploughman's lunch. Which to me is whatever I can put on a plate without too much hassle. Some bready thing, a cheesy thing, a meaty thing, a vegetably thing- maybe roasted red peppers or sundried tomatoes will feel less like veggies to you? Maybe you will enjoy the traditional pickled thing? This sort of fits in with the idea of using leftovers, or grazing.
  • Dried fruit - not too much at first. Don't fiber shock your body.
  • You can buy a whole cooked chicken at most grocery stores these days and portion out the meat/eat over several days.
    1. Chicken salad
    2. Chicken tacos/taco salads
    3. Optional - use the bones to make a stock/soup. Nobody will shame you for standing over the sink with a chicken leg in your hand.
  • You can also buy mashed potatoes in bulk. They're not my favorite, but they do kind of round out a meal in a satisfying way.
  • Frozen veggies can be totally transformed by sauteeing in a little butter/olive oil with some salt and dried herbs, or even just a dash or two of lemon pepper seasoning. Make a batch, and portion out for the week. If you want to cut out the fat, you can steam them. No need to go for the pre-seasoned veggies. They are always too salty and...weird.
  • Frozen fruit and yogurt is great for me. Buy a huge bag of frozen whatever you like (nectarines seem to be the best price by me) and a tub of yogurt. Put the yogurt and the fruit together in a bowl, do something for about 15 minutes and then enjoy. Or you can thaw the fruit the night before and strain the liquid off before adding yogurt in the morning. One cup of yogurt is a serving. You can use a measuring cup for this if you care.
  • Some people swear by making a big batch of oatmeal less frequently. Instead, I would prefer to make oatmeal cookies loaded up with dried fruit. I like to make granola too, but you can buy a bag of it.
  • Chili. Big pot of chili can last you a while. Add meat or don't. Serve over rice or don't. Top with shredded cheese or sour cream or whatever. Or don't.
  • If you bought bananas and they all went brown on you, let them go really brown and then make banana bread. Or let them go really brown, put them in the freezer and make banana bread on the weekend.
Below are some previous questions of my own that might help you. If you make a big batch of a thing, you can almost always freeze it in smaller containers to eat later. Just take a small container out the night before you might want to eat it. Or take a medium sized container out on a Sunday night to enjoy through the week. But bigger containers obviously take longer to thaw.
posted by bilabial at 7:54 PM on July 7, 2013 [16 favorites]

Oh, and technically chickpeas are a vegetable but they have a nice texture and nuttiness that almost makes them meaty somehow. Not rabbit food anyway.
posted by Athanassiel at 7:54 PM on July 7, 2013

In addition to all the neat food choices listed above, I'd recommend:

1) Some pre-cooking for the week
2) Pre-portioning for the week
3) Plan ahead to use up highly perishable items like green herbs or baby greens

For example, any kind of cold salad (beans and/or grains and at least a few veggies) can be packaged in appropriately sized jars.

I make my chow in a large bowl once a week, then store it in a variety of empty salsa jars (1 cup) or 2 cup mason jars. These small containers all fit into my tiny fridge, and I don't have to dish out a portion from a large container into another dish when I'm hungry. I just eat a full one or two cup serving directly from any jar.

I also make at least one great Southwestern/South Asian bean dish a week. I use a pressure cooker to make own beans from scratch, but buying canned beans is just fine, too.

This means that my cooked beans, a bunch of cilantro, and a fair hunk of baby spinach gets used up in two dishes instead of taking up fridge space while they slowly go bad.

4) Buy decent pre-made food

Example: Metro sells large rotisserie chickens for $7.99 between 4 and 9 PM every Tuesday. You can also pay slightly more for a better chicken from any Portuguese place any day of the week.

I usually break that sucker apart as soon as it's cooled a bit:

a) Skin and bones into a container for the freezer, for eventual stock.
b) Back meat and wings are eaten on day 1 (you're a guy, so you might eat one leg, too)
c) Remaining dark meat eaten with salad, rice, whatever on day 2 (or used in another recipe)
d) White meat is eaten on day 3 OR frozen immediately after being shredded or sliced on its own or as part of another recipe
posted by maudlin at 7:54 PM on July 7, 2013

Roasting anything is incredibly easy. I eat a lot of baked fish, and that involves:

-Brushing pieces of fish with olive oil
-Putting it in the oven for around thirty minutes
-Eating it.

You could roast some vegetables in the oven at the same time, make some rice (also minimal effort) and voila! Easy meal.

Also, make some hardboiled eggs and keep them in the fridge to tide you over those: Oh shit, I need to eat! moments. Almonds are also good for that.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 7:57 PM on July 7, 2013

Grilled cheese on whole wheat is quick and easy, especially if you have a toaster oven.
Guacamole is easier to make than you'd expect, or just slice avocados in half, pop out the pit and eat with a spoon. Buy them at dark green to purple, wait 3-5 days until they're dingy dark brown, then eat.
posted by toodleydoodley at 8:00 PM on July 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

We do a lot of rotisserie chicken from the grocery store here, especially on long days when cooking sounds like a chore. Sometimes I get bored with just eating it as-is and will chop it up and put it into a jarred sauce (marinara, Indian curry, etc) OR something I did recently that was awesome was to quarter the chicken, put in a baking dish topped with canned enchilada sauce and cheese, and baked for ~20 minutes until bubbly.
posted by joan_holloway at 8:03 PM on July 7, 2013

Oh -- you can cook really nice fish from a frozen state. I got some High Liner wild Pacific salmon fillets on sale from Shoppers (go figure).

1) Pre-heat oven to 450.
2) Pull the fish from the freezer, then put it in a foil packet with a little butter, salt, pepper and dill weed, or whatever flavour combo you want.
3) Pull out of oven after 20 minutes and let sit for a couple of minutes. Luscious and sweet!

You can cook several fillets ahead of time that way, but you can also use a microwave instead if you don't plan ahead or don't want to heat up the kitchen.
posted by maudlin at 8:05 PM on July 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm 36 and I've found that since I turned 30 my diet HAS to include a decent amount of fruits and vegetables to feel normal, much less energetic for the gym or anything else physical. It's not just a matter of getting quality carbs, proteins and fats.

I used to not be a big veggie person myself and what really helped was getting a juicer. Juice up the stuff, drink it down, and you're done in 10 minutes. My usual recipe is lime, apple, carrot, spinach, and red beet. When I first started doing this the difference in physical and mental energy was pretty shocking (how could the infomercials have been true...) Once my body made the positive association with fruits and vegetables it became really easy to include them in my regular diet outside of juicing too.
posted by MillMan at 8:21 PM on July 7, 2013 [5 favorites]

Sardines. As easy as opening a can. I like to put the kind packed in mustard sauce on toast for a good little lunch.
posted by scratch at 8:34 PM on July 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Cook in a large rice cooker:
1 cup brown rice
1 cup lentils
1/2 cup olive oil
5 cups water
add whatever seasonings/sauces/etc you like for flavor

That will give you about 2,300 calories of balanced macronutrients. Also take a multivitamin/multimineral supplement and eat whatever fresh fruits and vegetables you can manage and you're set.
posted by Jacqueline at 9:28 PM on July 7, 2013 [5 favorites]

Nuts, nuts, nuts.

GO EASY on them - they're high in calories and fat - but they're also good for you and filling.

When you have absolutely no energy to even peel anything and need to just grab something, grab a SMALL handful of nuts.
posted by kristi at 9:40 PM on July 7, 2013

Technologies for low-effort cooking:

(1) Rice cooker. It's a set-and-forget gadget that will make beans, rice, lentils, oatmeal, and anything else that just needs to boil until the water is gone. You don't need a $500 fuzzy-logic high-pressure one, but look for something with more insulation than the cheapest models - insulation is important for the functioning of the temperature sensor that prevents it from over-cooking your dinner.

(2) Crockpot I survived several winters during college on crockpot-made soups. In the morning you fry an onion, a carrot, and some celery in butter at low temperature. Dump them in the crockpot with beans, pasta, rice, other veggies, and water. (Add cream or sour cream if you're feeling decadent) Come back in the evening to a pot of soup that will last you the next few days. Dump it in jars or tupperware, freeze/refrigerate, and microwave when you want some. Serve with good sourdough bread and cheese or sour cream. Crockpots also do tasty things to meat, but I personally don't cook much meat. Oh, and mushrooms make a good high-protein soup addition, though they tend to result in gray soup.

(3) Blender Definitely smoothies. Bananas are a handy base. Frozen or fresh berries add flavor. My mother used to blend in carrots, which don't change the taste but add good nutrients. Throw in some greens, too - kale isn't too strong if you strip the stalks. Our blender ($15 at Goodwill) came with two cups that fit the blender base - make your smoothie in one, switch the blade unit for a screw-on cup bottom, and toss it in your backpack. Alternately, a stick blender will make blended soups and you can blend smoothies in whatever cup you like!

Also, I like snacking on almonds and raisins. Or any nut/seed and dried fruit/berry. It's the essence of trail mix - provides sugars, starches, fat, and protein. Has a nice mix of crunchy and chewy. It does tend to stick in your teeth, though. Fresh fruit is another extremely convenient and nutritious snack - do try to get what's in season locally for best flavor.

(You've probably heard this before, but... Where do you get your veggies? There's a big difference between run-of-the-mill supermarket vegetables and the beautiful, tasty things you can get at a farmer's market. Also, many market vendors can offer excellent recipes for their produce.)
posted by sibilatorix at 10:17 PM on July 7, 2013 [4 favorites]

Also blender related - I usually make the following shake for breakfast on days when I go to the gym.

1 banana
1/2 cup oats
1 or 2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons of peanut butter
1 or 2 tablespoons of flax meal
1 scoop of protein powder
1 cup of milk (can also use water, almond milk, etc, vary the amount on how thick or thin you want it)

That gets you a pretty good profile of healthy macros (the peanut butter and milk are debatable, there are other choices like almond butter and almond milk). The original recipe I found for this called for olive oil as well which I don't include. Using chocolate flavored protein powder the whole thing tastes really good. I think it's around 800 calories.

Also somewhat similar to sibilatorix I've done bananas, berries, flax, protein power, and water as a lower calorie version of the above in the past, usually after evening workouts.
posted by MillMan at 2:16 AM on July 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

Seconding the crock pot. It's my go-to for making sure that I have a filling dinner ready at the end of the day. This is a good book to start with. Many traditional slow-cooker recipes have canned soups in them. Avoid.

I made pulled pork yesterday that took 10 minutes of prep on the front end and 20 minutes on the back end. I used a 2.25 pound pork shoulder and it fed three with left overs. If you use a 4 pound cut as in the recipe (it says serves 4, but I think it's more like 8), you can do this:

Make it (time spent 30 minutes)
Enjoy 1 serving (if you can!)
Pack the rest up in 7 ziplock backs, squeeze out the air and freeze flat along with the left over hamburger buns.

On Saturday, take out a bag and put it in the fridge. Monday morning, take out a bun. Monday night, microwave the pork to warm it, serve on the bun with some pickles (I would add a side salad).

Think about it this way: 8 meals in 30 minutes + maybe 4 minutes of overhead per meal, that's roughly 16 minutes per meal and you're eating real food.

Store bought chickens are awesome. Enjoy for a few days of noshing then in the morning, pull the rest of the meat off the bird, put the carcass in your slow cooker with whatever wilty vegetables you have left. I throw in an onion with cloves jammed in it, a few garlic cloves, bay leaf, and some pepper corns. Fill with water, cook on low all freaking day. When you get home, you've got about 3 quarts of chicken broth. Strain, put it in a pot with the meat you pulled off, sliced carrots (you can buy them that way if you want), celery, onion, and a handful of egg noodles or other pasta or rice. Bring to a simmer, salt to taste. You now have an easy gallon of soup. Freeze most of it in tubs.

Other foods that fall into this category are corned beef, pot roast, short ribs (which you can do in the slow cooker).

Your issue boils down to two things: planning and execution. If you can plan your meals out and execute on the plan, you will have no problem with this.

For example, the pot roast recipe above is some up-front work - maybe 20 minutes and then 3-4 hours of cooking. And you think, "I'm not going to stick around for 4 hours waiting for this." This is where the planning comes in - you cook this on laundry day.

I personally like doing the chicken broth overnight on a 10 hour cycle and then another 10 hours while I'm at work.
posted by plinth at 7:29 AM on July 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

These mini-omelets are great for an energy boost AND they can be made in big batches that will last a week.

I adjusted the recipe to make 16 at a time and would eat 2-3 for breakfast each morning. Really great energy boost and they would be good for any meal.

I made mine with black beans lean, ground turkey. Add some hot sauce and you're gold.
posted by Tevin at 7:36 AM on July 8, 2013

Nthing smoothies. I make a variation of Alton Brown's every morning (4 oz purple juice, 4 oz plain yogurt, 12 oz mixed frozen fruit, put in blender pitcher and refrigerate before you go to bed, blend in the morning).

I can seriously tell the difference between days when I have this for breakfast and days when I don't. I can literally feel it kick in.
posted by middleclasstool at 8:05 AM on July 8, 2013

I like the chili suggestion above.

I do chili often for my lunches. I make the kind of chili with tomatoes, beans and cut up veggies in it, so it's pretty good for you. It's easy to freeze in smaller containers and then take those out and dump them in a bowl and throw that in the microwave. I can make up 20 or so lunches in one big pot. Chili recipes and tastes vary, so you can experiment with various recipes and ingredients.

I often serve mine with Fritos, shredded cheese and sour cream, and that's probably not the best for you, but there are healthier substitutions.
posted by jefeweiss at 8:21 AM on July 8, 2013

It's hot out, so I eat a lot of good salamis, olives, pates, smoked salmon or trout (sold smoked), tinned sardines, tuna, crab, and other seafood. They're all high in protein; require no cooking, and thus are fast and easy.
posted by ldthomps at 8:25 AM on July 8, 2013

I'm interested in the same thing, and these are some past threads I found useful: 1, 2, 3

Things that have worked for me:

-baby carrots and whatever other fresh vegetables you can tolerate (precut if you like), dipped in hummus or just-peanuts peanut butter

-chickpeas+baby spinach+strawberries or cherry tomatoes+balsamic vinegar+olive oil

-plain yogurt (can add honey, fruit and/or granola)

-cheese or cooked meats and crackers (I think rice crackers are relatively healthy)

-eggs in a million forms (lots of recipes in AskMeFi)

-fruit! fresh, or dried. Also nuts.

-cottage cheese, with or without fruit mixed in
posted by randomnity at 9:06 AM on July 8, 2013

If you have an iPad or iPhone, RUN and get Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything (the companion app to the book) for free instead of $10. It's all the book's content (all 2000 recipes!), all the rationales behind the cooking and prep choices, plus a lot of wonderful features.

The sale is on today only, so even if you think you don't need it right now, grab it, because FREE. One of these days you will use it.
posted by maudlin at 10:58 AM on July 8, 2013 [5 favorites]

You don't say what your cooking skill level is, or your access to a kitchen, but if you want to start by eating the same type of food you are buying out (sandwiches, pizza and burgers) but in a form that you have prepared yourself, you will be that much better off. A frozen veggie or turkey burger from Trader Joe's or elsewhere is going to be less riddled with sodium and fat than a McDonalds or BK burger. Same with a sandwich that you make with good quality cold cuts and store bread (don't get me started on that gross Subway bread).

The key is, to keep tasty things that you will eat in your house. Eggs, fruit, nuts, cheese, whole grain cereals, yogurt, milk, salsa, veggies--these are almost always in my kitchen.

My point is, you don't have to learn cooking technique to get something good into your piehole right now. You can assemble satisfying, more healthful things to eat, without having to learn how to sautee or blanch or roast. (Also, it's too damn hot to cook during the summer.)

Good luck!
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 7:06 PM on July 8, 2013

Put a heaping tablespoon of brewer's yeast into water or any other beverage. You can sprinkle this on all kinds of food, also. Cereal, salads, sandwiches, whatever. It's a natural source of all the important B vitamins, excellent for energy, endurance, and healing. I recommend a balanced diet (including those veggies you don't like :-) ) but brewer's yeast is a powerhouse for health and healing.
posted by ragtimepiano at 11:35 PM on July 8, 2013

Trader Joe's is basically designed around people who don't want to cook. Probably worth a stop.

Munch on dark chocolate and almonds by the handful.
Full-fat yogurt requires no work, and keeps you full.
Peanut-butter is pretty damn awesome.

Also, eggs are stupidly easy to cook, quick to cook, trivial to cleanup (with a 6" or 8" nonstick pan), and dirt cheap.
posted by talldean at 12:24 PM on July 9, 2013

If you're looking for something on the level of paulsc's comment about olive oil, sweetened condensed milk has a history of being used as a ration in wartime due to extreme caloric density.
posted by 23 at 7:31 PM on July 10, 2013

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