Help me not live off Trader Joe's and Lean Cuisine.
July 17, 2014 12:22 AM   Subscribe

So I can actually cook, and pretty well. It's the rest of the logistics of getting food on the table (meal planning, figuring out how to make balanced meals, even grocery shopping) that I struggle with. I need help learning to feed myself better than the frozen foods aisle can!

Most of my life, I've been living in a situation where someone else was doing the cooking (family/college cafeteria.) Now I'm going to be living on my own again, and I'd like to break the patterns of unhealthy eating that have been dogging the first 25 years of my life. Problem? I have NFI where to start.

Snowflake details:
- I'm diabetic, type II, and while I'm on medication I know my lifestyle and eating habits need to become a LOT better.
- I'm (mostly) vegetarian- owing to texture/taste issues, I can only handle ground meat, or processed things like bacon or ham. Fish is an absolute no-go, but dairy or eggs are fine.
- I have no idea how to put meals together. The traditional American main + side + veg makes no sense to me, so I stumble a lot trying to put plans together based on what's on the internet. I'm also paranoid about not getting enough green veg, even though, oddly, I am vegetarian.

Things I need help with:
- My family eats a diet that's basically carbs and more carbs. For my diabetes, I need to switch to low-carb high-protein. I need suggestions for dishes that aren't salads and have much more going on taste-wise than most traditional American cooking.
- I live with room-mates and don't have much kitchen/storage space, so cooking and freezing large amounts won't work.
- I'm also in grad school, so quick is best. I am willing to put in a couple hours worth of prep work on the weekends, though.
- I have a $75/wk grocery budget, in Monterey CA, so while I would like to keep things as frugal as possible I am willing to pay a little extra for convenience where necessary.
- Most meal plans I've seen seem to be for at least two people. I have no idea how to cook for one, and the one time I did live on my own I wound up wasting a lot of food on account of buying too much/misjudging serving sizes. I'd rather not do that again.
- Suggestions of blogs that feature healthy without being too wedded to superfoods/trends would be great. (I read and love Smitten Kitchen and Chocolate and Zucchini already, but I would love more recs.)

posted by Tamanna to Food & Drink (19 answers total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
Veggie meals that are low-ish carb can be tricky. I think the secrets are to use heaps of veggies (increase the veggie/carb ratio), and to make sure there's a protein source as well (I put red lentils in everything). Green Kitchen Stories is a great blog.
posted by superfish at 12:38 AM on July 17, 2014

Response by poster: I should clarify that I'm not 100% vegetarian- ground anything is fine, and so are sausages. It's the texture of non-ground meat- pork chops, chicken wings, whatever- I can't handle.
posted by Tamanna at 12:42 AM on July 17, 2014

This is a great question. I am another person who's annoyed by how few easy recipes there are which produce one reasonable-sized serving. Everybody recommends crock pot meals but who wants to eat the same meat loaf for a week?

One thing I have found that works is scrambled eggs with tons of mix-ins. The mix-ins can be frozen stuff (I like PictSweet's frozen creamed spinach, for instance; cooking one box of that stuff in the microwave yields material that can be refrigerated and subsequently used in 6-8 instances of the following dish), and it's OK to let the mix-ins overwhelm the eggs.

The recipe I use comes from this page of the Joy Of Cooking. My favorite mix-ins are creamed spinach, thinly sliced scallions*, chunky salsa, and sometimes a little grated cheese or ground chorizo meat. Scroll down on that link to see more ideas. I use a sturdy rubber spatula that's a little bit curved up so it works well for stirring & flipping the mixture around in the pan as it cooks. Let the whole thing sit for a few minutes after you put it on your dinner plate.

This has gotten to be one of my favorite dinners -- it's quick and easy to make, and you can throw in pretty much whatever you want.

* "Most folks call 'em green onions, but they're really scallions."
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 1:06 AM on July 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

A relative of mine has the exact same aversion to non-ground meat, to the great frustration of my culinary panache, so it's interesting to hear from someone else who's the same.

Salisbury steaks pair well with vegetable sides and are simple to make, yet accommodate lots of experimentation and variety as far as mixing in different seasonings and learning how to make a nice gravy. Like with meatloaf, if you screw up proportions trying to make a small batch it's pretty easy to just add more liquid or more breadcrumbs to get a shapeable mixture, then as long as you've got tasty gravy (don't feel bad about going with store-bought gravy at first, but if you can learn to make your own sauces it's really worth it) it'll still be quite good.

American meatloaf can be a bit pedestrian, apart from scrapple maybe, but many of the other versions from around the world are pretty awesome. This Lebanese pistachio kibbeh is absolutely incredible, if you have a Middle Eastern market handy or another place to get the more specialized ingredients.

Stuffed mushrooms can be a really elegant main course that can bet quick to make and feel restaurant-like. Mix together a savory paste of butter, bread crumbs, cheese, seasonings, leftover mashed potato, whatever you've got, cut the stems out of some medium-to-large mushrooms of any variety (and mince the stems up and add to your stuffing for good measure, or save for other stuff - see duxelles) and mound your stuffing on them. Then the speed trick is, while the oven is heating up, put them in the microwave until they're mostly cooked; then a few minutes in the oven will give the stuffing a nice texture.

A boullion cube usually makes one cup of broth, then you can load it up with whatever vegetables you want, quickly sauteed or microwaved, plus any beans or lentils you've got handy, and arrive at a delectable soup.

No vegetables involved, and tortillas are carb-dense so stick to the small ones, but a quick yummy go-to meal for me is this quesadilla-esque thing.
posted by XMLicious at 1:43 AM on July 17, 2014

I'm a big, big fan of this lentil stew. You can cook it without any alcohol and it tastes amazing. Halve the amount of ingredients for a single person - it also works well as a pasta sauce the next day.

If you have access to a freezer, get some ground beef and set aside a couple of hours on a Sunday to make portions of spaghetti sauce and chilli. It is essentially the same ingredients you put into both, you just season them differently and add kidney beans (yum, proteins) to the chilli. Homemade pasta sauce and chilli will always be better quality than store-bought stuff. My lazy cooking method:

Pack of ground beef divided into two diff sauce pans

1 tin of chopped tomatoes per sauce
1 chopped onion per sauce
1 clove of garlic per sauce
1 big squish of tomato paste per sauce
salt + pepper

oregano & basil for the pasta sauce
cumin & oregano for the chilli

1 tin of kidney beans for the chilli

Brown the meat (I like it a bit dark to add flavour), add the onion & garlic, cook until soft, add the tins of tomato, season w salt & pepper, add herbs (and the kidney beans). Cook for another 7 minutes or so. Cool down, stick in freezer and zap the sauces in the microwave when you need them.

You can serve the chilli with a sweet potato which adds diff nutrients than a potato. Have wholewheat pasta rather than white pasta.

This is not super-gourmet stuff but it's cheap, easy, flavoursome and pretty healthy too.
posted by kariebookish at 3:47 AM on July 17, 2014 [5 favorites]

Whoops, missed the non-freezing. Picadillo is another good, lean ground-meat recipe. A bit more complex on the ingredients side, though. You can adjust serving size on
posted by kariebookish at 3:51 AM on July 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Cooking for just you is actually kind of great because you can eat whatever you want. Stuff I did when I lived alone, I don't have recipes but you could look up recipes for any if this stuff to get a sense of cook times:

- rapini cooked - kind of braised - with chili and garlic, with a fried or poached egg or two on top
- roasted veg of whatever kind appealed, again with an egg on it or maybe with quinoa
- vegetable stir fry with extra firm tofu for protein, I usually served this over rice
- smallish batch of chickpea curry with rice (this would get me through a couple of days but we're not talking big quantities)
- plate of hummus/raw vegetables/olives/pita
- buying a single sausage or two and eating it with a bunch of kale

Honestly I also did a lot of pasta with store bought sauce, Mac and cheese, and ready meals supplemented with big bowls of salad. I really like salad though.
posted by SoftRain at 4:26 AM on July 17, 2014

Get yourself the two cookbooks I flog a lot:

1. The Moosewood Daily Special. This is nothing but salads and soups; one great way to hack the "meal planning" thing is to pick about three or four of these a week, make them all up, and just keep them in your fridge; then you can make a given meal out of "lemme take a big scoop of salad A and pair it with soup B", or "I have some bread that'd go great with soup C" or "a little of everything" or "I have a couple of really nice sausages that'd go good with salad C on the side" or "hey, how about I throw some of the leftover sausage from last night INTO soup C". And by the end of the week things are used up and you start over.

2. Judith Jones' Pleasures of Cooking for One. Recipes scaled down to one person size, yeah - but she also has a number of recipes that are based on sort of improvisational, "do all this and then add a cup of whatever random chopped vegetable you want" kind of things. She also has a section of recipes that tells you how to turn leftovers from one night into something totally new the next night; most of these are meat-based, but there's also a recipe in there for a baby meatloaf that's pretty good, and she also says that if you have a slice of it cold it tastes kind of like a French country pate. She also has a whole chapter on funky things to do with eggs and cheese.

The beauty of both of these cookbooks, though, is that if you work with them for a while, they sort of teach you how to cook by osmosis. Or at least get you confident enough to try experimenting a bit. Judith Jones is good about handholding you through a few methods for "you have leftover A, and if you do [foo baz schmeh] you can turn it into Completely Different Meal B". And after a year of working with the Moosewood book you'll start noticing that everything follows just a few basic recipes, it's just that the ingredients are different, and that'll get you confident enough to start thinking, "huh, I wonder what would happen if I did the turnip recipe only with parsnips" or whatever. They're also both fairly friendly to people on budgets, especially the Moosewood book - if you shop for vegetables seasonally that's always cheaper, and you'll definitely have things in the Moosewood book to do with them.

Good luck!
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:27 AM on July 17, 2014 [8 favorites]

Ooh, I didn't notice that the Amazon link for "Pleasures of Cooking for One" has an excerpt right on the listing page! Scroll down a bit to the part that begins with a recipe for Boeuf Bourginone (sp) - you'll notice at the end of that there's two paragraphs titled "Second Round" and "Third Round" - that's an example of the "walking you through using up leftovers" thing I was talking about, with "second round" being "what you do with the leftovers first" and "third round" being "what you do if you still have anything left over after that".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:28 AM on July 17, 2014

I make regular batches, as I'm quite happy to eat leftovers. Start by planning 1 or 2 meals a week, with leftovers for a 2nd meal. As you develop recipes you like, you can increase your home cooking. Last night I sauteed chopped onions, then added chunked up yellow squash, a little minced garlic (from a jar) and cooked it on medium high until it was beginning to have some brown edges. I added bacon that I'd sliced, then cooked. Added some soy sauce, ginger, sherry, and toasted sesame oil, and put it on whole grain pasta. It was so good there are no leftovers. Mushrooms and/or tofu would have been a nice addition. It didn't take long. Lots of vegetables saute up well and can be served over a small portion of whole grain pasta, rice, quinoa.

To increase vegetables in my diet, when I plan meals, I start with the veg. Fresh green beans with slivered almonds, chard with an egg on top, a baked sweet potato with a little butter. In cooler weather,roasted vegetables - brussel sprouts, sweet and/or white potatoes, winter squash, etc., with a little olive oil - are delicious and easy. I keep almonds on hand and have a small handful if I need a little protein boost. Quiche is really easy, and you can add lots of vegetables.
posted by theora55 at 7:37 AM on July 17, 2014

Apple-chicken sausages (look for a nitrate-free brand; I see you shop at Trader Joe's, their house sausages are a great deal) are great if you slice them up into coins, brown them, set them aside, cook spinach/chard/etc in the fat, and then top the greens with the sausage.

It takes like, ten minutes, tops. I like it over polenta, which I make with the whole-grain medium grind cornmeal from Bob's Red Mill (yay whole grains), but it's totally great on it's own if you're keeping carbs down.
posted by Juliet Banana at 8:16 AM on July 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

You might consider subscribing to the Livin' Low Carb Meal Plan, at least for a month or two until you get the hang of it.

It's not vegetarian and you're going to have to spend a few minutes researching protein or ground meat replacements for things like chicken breast, roast beef, pork etc, but it is literally a couple minutes' work. Otherwise the meal plan is laid out for you, including allowance for leftovers so you're not actually cooking 3 meals a day every day, and it has a shopping list.

The best way to learn meal-planning is to have it modeled for you, which is what this does. I would think that after a month or two you'll have a number of favorite meals in your repertoire and will understand how to plan and shop a week of meals.

Alternately or additionally, if you don't mind spending the money and you live in their delivery areas you might look into subscribing to Blue Apron and/or Plated. They send you all the ingredients to cook 3 or 2 meals a week (respectively) and you may choose veg plans. (If you live in Blue Apron territory and would like a free week, MeMail me your email address and I'll send you a trial code.) These are not specifically low-carb, but I don't think mine have ever gone over 30% carbs (usually whole grains) and frequently are well under that.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:38 AM on July 17, 2014

I've asked a couple of questions here which might help you because I too am a type II (pre)diabetic who hates eating meat.

Low-carb veg is tough. That only works for me if I am exercising very regularly--otherwise the craving for MEAT overcomes my dislike of eating it.

Lots of cheese is good. Cheese is about the highest percentage of protein you can get without eating meat. Egg-heavy things are smart, too. For example, today I made chocolate chip muffins with coconut flour. They are super filling, easy, and tasty. Other things made with nut flours are great, too--and they are much tastier and lower-carb than other gluten-free flours.

Good luck and memail me if you want more help figuring this stuff out!
posted by chaiminda at 9:01 AM on July 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've been eating low-carb for over a year, now. I'm not diabetic (was probably borderline) but did it to lose weight (310->220 lb).

A quick, easy meal for me is: brown ground meat, add seasonings, add vegetables, add liquid, reduce, add cream cheese or heavy cream. Last night, it was ground beef, garlic, onion powder, frozen spinach, mushrooms, beef broth. Once the broth was reduced, I stirred in a block of cream cheese. I ate it like that because I was too lazy to cook shirataki to go with it :)

My favorite is: ground pork, anchovy paste and soy sauce, celery, green olives,turmeric and paprika, chicken broth and heavy cream.
posted by RandyWalker at 9:27 AM on July 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

Make a strata or frittata every Sunday. Eggs, maybe bread, veggies, maybe meat, cheese... All in a casserole dish that will last a few nights!
posted by hippychick at 4:28 PM on July 17, 2014

Here are some ideas of how to think about this new undertaking:

1) What are the TJ and Lean Cuisine meals you like? Try replicating them on your own. Even if you're eating the same thing, home cooked will (almost definitely) be better for you.

2) Set specific, measurable, attainable goals for yourself. For example, "This week I'm going to eat three home cooked dinners." Then schedule cooking those around when works best in your schedule and eat the frozen foods the other days. This will help break your guilt cycle and build your confidence in your cooking skills. As you get better at it, you can cook more and more!

3) Meals don't have to be any particular thing or combo of things, necessarily. For example, sometimes I can't face cooking and opt for "snack dinner" where I just eat cheese and chips and pickles. My personal rule is that it counts as a meal if I'm a) full and b) includes a fruit or veg. So add an apple or some carrot sticks and we have ourselves a meal! That doesn't help with your cooking quandary but could help on those nights when you just can't deal with it.

4) If you're concerned about getting enough veg in your diet, aim for making half of your dinner veg (volume-wise)

Blogs that might help: (See especially their weekly meal plans) (includes friendly, totally optional cooking videos)

Meal ideas:
Veggie scrambles are a great, quick way to go. I like onion, mushroom and broccoli (saute until broccoli is how you like it, maybe cover it for a while), toss in two beaten eggs, top with cheese and/or salsa. You could eat this by itself or add a piece of toast.
Bean burritos and tacos. Top with cabbage for a different veg experience. I don't get tired of eating these so they can be a good meal for one because the leftovers all get eaten.
posted by purple_bird at 4:52 PM on July 17, 2014

I second the Trader Joes sausages, chicken or otherwise - they're delicious and it's an easy way to portion your meal. Add a large serving of veggies and you're done!

Lately I've been cooking for one, and several meals have involved some ground turkey mixed with an egg and veggies (spinach, peas, bell peppers, etc., pick one or all). Sautéed on the stovetop, this takes minutes. Add salt/pepper/garlic/onions/spices/hot sauce to mix it up. Highly recommended.
posted by Red Desk at 11:36 PM on July 17, 2014

Having recently replenished the egg rack in my refrigerator, I followed hippychick's advice and made a frittatta with sauteed garlic and onion and bell pepper, my leftover cold cuts, some shredded cheese, and a handful each of green peas, fava beans, and okra, for breakfast. It's fabulous, even though I forgot to add any salt or seasoning! (Probably due in part to one of the leftover meats I diced up being brined/marinated pork loin, plus the fava beans were canned and hence salty.)
posted by XMLicious at 5:15 AM on July 18, 2014

Most of my meals are just several assembled snacks, which are not too hard to make healthy, low-carb, vegetarian, etc. It's also mostly raw or precooked because I'm too impatient to cook real meals most of the time. I'm not sure how hard it'd be to keep "balanced" but as long as you choose mostly foods that fit your goals and have enough variety day to day, it should be fine in the end. Something like a ploughman's lunch, but with just about any combination of foods you like. Ideally, mostly foods that keep awhile in or out of the fridge.

Some examples:

-just about any green veg sauteed quickly with butter and garlic + some cheese or nuts + dried fruit + crackers

-yogurt + optional granola +fruit+cheese+nuts

-egg(s) in some form + raw veggies (carrots, cuc, tomatoes, whatever) + hummus

-etc etc, in any combination you like, to the variety/quantity you desire.

This works best if you like eggs, dairy, veg/fruit and nuts a lot, but is probably still doable if you don't.
posted by randomnity at 12:51 PM on July 20, 2014

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