How is it possible to be so bad at eating?
September 7, 2017 5:10 PM   Subscribe

I live alone, and my diet is godawful. How can I improve it?

I'm in my early thirties and I live alone. As a kid, I was a super picky eater who basically only ate comfort foods like white rice with butter and salt, TV dinners, and Hamburger Helper, and I hated veggies. As I got older, I became a much less picky eater, and now I love all kinds of cuisine from Ethiopian to Uzbek and everything in between.

The problem is with what I eat at home. As an adult, I've learned that I'm an adventurous eater, but not an adventurous cook. I lived with a partner for several years and that pushed me outside of my comfort zone in terms of cooking and the types of meals that I cooked, because I knew he wouldn't eat pasta every night.

But now that I live alone, I tend to stick to the same quick and terrible-for-you meals that I had as a kid: lots of pasta, TV dinners, stuff from a box, etc. I've tried to at least do healthier versions of those things, but if I have to eat another Lean Cuisine I'm going to scream. I hate cooking meat at home (the thought of raw chicken makes me gag), but on the other hand I struggle with how to prepare and like veggies. Several times over the last few years I've done a big shopping trip where I commit to lots of veggies and healthier meals, but a lot of it ends up going to waste because I get overwhelmed and I don't know how to just throw something together. And I often don't want to cook at the end of a long day, anyway.

I've gained a lot of weight over the last few years, and I know my body is telling me that I can't eat like this anymore. What are healthier quick and easy meals and tips and tricks that can replace my terrible habits?
posted by anotheraccount to Food & Drink (38 answers total) 82 users marked this as a favorite
A couple of ideas:
1. Check your grocery store meat and produce departments for pre-seasoned fresh meat and veggies that you just need to take home and throw in the oven.
2. Have you ever tried a meal kit delivery service like Blue Apron? It's geared toward cooking for two, and there is some flexibility as far as frequency, delivery days, and meal options. I know some single people who like it because it solves lunch for the next day, too.
posted by SamanthaK at 5:23 PM on September 7, 2017 [5 favorites]

I eat a lot of meal salads at home because they're quick, easy, and healthy. In less than two minutes, I can grab some greens from one of the prewashed bags, add some carrots/broccoli/peas/etc., shake on some nuts/seeds/croutons for texture, give it a dash of a spice mix and some salt, and finish it with a swirl of olive oil and vinegar. I keep a bunch of different infused oils and vinegars so I can vary the taste. It's filling, low calorie, and keeps my veggie intake high.

I tend to eat protein heavy breakfasts and lunches so I don't necessarily need more for dinner, but if you do, it's easy to add some beans/chickpeas or pre-cooked chicken breast as well.
posted by Candleman at 5:23 PM on September 7, 2017 [3 favorites]

Slow cooker (can you borrow one from a friend if you don't want to commit or see if the local thrift store has one?)
- thai curries, indian curries etc. are fairly easy to make in slow cookers. basically any stew / curry dish you like, add "slow cooker" to the search term and you will find some recipes to try out
- because they use a lot of spices, curries will make good leftovers and you can freeze some for later

Rice-based meals instead of pasta based meals? I learned about single serving rice portions just a few years ago and this has been hugely helpful (make a big batch over the weekend and then freeze!)

Keeping greens fresh longer. Putting a paper towel in with my lettuce, green onions, cilantro etc has been useful in preventing food waste for me.
posted by spamandkimchi at 5:27 PM on September 7, 2017 [5 favorites]

> I eat a lot of meal salads at home because they're quick, easy, and healthy. In less than two minutes, I can grab some greens from one of the prewashed bags

...or you could get even lazier and buy prepared salads from Trader Joe's, or similar. I like their Cobb salads.
posted by The corpse in the library at 5:27 PM on September 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

I also used to hate cooking meat at home, and one thing that really helped me was learning some techniques that don't involve any handling, and also don't have tricky timing where doneness/rawness is a concern. With a pressure cooker (Instant Pot) I don't have to do anything to the meat, just dump it in the pot with everything else. There's no real risk of under- or over-cooking if you follow the general instructions. It's great. Bone or no bone, and you can use frozen meat if that is easier to handle. And good for an adventurous eater, since you can make a stew/soup with the flavors of pretty much any cuisine. Also stew/soup is easy to freeze, so you can make big batches and cook less often. You don't need a pressure cooker, either-- slow cooker, etc would also work (but is slower).

Other things that helped: buying a good meat thermometer and writing down the internal temps for various types of meat, buying a meat tenderizer to make chicken easier to cook, and a few weeks of Blue Apron.
posted by acidic at 5:28 PM on September 7, 2017 [3 favorites]

Instead of going all in with a full week of healthy meals, can you find one or two that are 1) easy to make and 2) you can see making again the week after? Then once you've got them down, add on another couple. I've searched through a bunch of recipe blogs (and made a lot of crappy meals) before finding a reliable set I reuse week after week at this point. I live with a partner but neither one of us minds repetition, so now we just have 7 weekly dinners and a very reliable shopping list. Here's some of what we make:

* Teriyaki Salmon with Sriracha Mayo, paired with Garlic Smashed Potatoes
* BBQ Pulled Chicken Sandwiches can be made with pre-cooked shredded chicken from the store, and we use a bagged coleslaw mix and premade coleslaw dressing, because laziness wins. I think we're going to try subbing this Spicy Cauliflower Stir-Fry for the coleslaw though, to mix in a healthier vegetable.
* One Pot Creamy Sun-Dried Tomato Pasta - really simple and makes a lot, so we halve it and throw in a bag of pre-cooked veggies from Trader Joe's.
* Yellow Jasmine Rice is also great with a bag of veggies thrown in (bell peppers and onions especially) and we top it with a fried egg.
* Broccoli Pizza - even simpler with store-bought pizza dough, even healthier with spinach and a few other veggies mixed in.

Would you be okay with throw-it-in-the-oven kind of cooking? A lot of vegetables are perfect for roasting, and come out better than any other method IMO.

* Parmesan Roasted Brussels Sprouts
* Crispy Broccoli with Lemon and Garlic
* Beautiful Roasted Vegetables
* Roasted Carrots with Vinaigrette
posted by erratic meatsack at 5:31 PM on September 7, 2017 [27 favorites]

I also don't like cooking meat at home. The answer: beans! (Specifically canned, though if you graduate to dried eventually it pays off.)

Learn to sauté onions and garlic. Add salt and pepper while sautéing. Add some cut up tomatoes, spinach until wilted down. Add the beans. Voila, a dish.

Salmon in a foil packet in the oven is foolproof if you do crave meat. Roasting vegetables consists of cutting them into bite sized pieces, toss in olive oil, salt and pepper on a baking sheet, then roast at about 425 until soft inside and crispy outside.

Bake sweet potatoes like regular potatoes. Eat with mashed, seasoned avocado or nut butter. Make avocado toast. Unsweetened peanut butter and tomato with salt and pepper makes a fantastic toast.

You can roast eggplant, make some "instant" couscous, sautee the eggplant chunks with cut tomatoes and canned chicken. Add spices you like.

Chilaquiles are kind of junk food but dead easy. Sauté tortilla chips in salsa, crack eggs on top. Add accoutrements.

I pretty much only cook foods with 2-3 steps these days, and only foods that I can enjoy sensually while preparing/cooking. The above apply.
posted by stoneandstar at 5:41 PM on September 7, 2017 [4 favorites]

What's your budget? If the answer is "I can chuck a couple hundred dollars at this problem" then you should be subscribing to a meal kit service like Blue Apron (I've tried and really like it) or Hello Fresh (a friend swears by it).
posted by capricorn at 5:41 PM on September 7, 2017 [3 favorites]

Google "sheet pan meals." I roast boneless chicken thighs with veggies and a little olive oil.

Once you get a little more confident, you might want to try Melissa Joulwan's cook-up plans -- a huge game-changer for me. If I can do this, anyone can! (The recipes are paleo, but you can add some bread or pasta or whatever if you don't want to go paleo. The real point is that she tells you what to do and (importantly for me) when to do it.
posted by jgirl at 5:41 PM on September 7, 2017 [11 favorites]

If you try some of the suggestions here and still find yourself gaining weight or letting lots of food go to waste, I would propose that you redouble your efforts to find satisfying TV dinner type prepared meals. In the past few years I've had to face the fact that despite (or maybe because of?) having developed some proficiency in cooking over my lifetime, in a number of respects I tend to eat more healthily if I just stick to a microwaved prepared meal perhaps supplemented with a small whole-grain carb item like a digestive biscuit or a wheat roll or a few pieces of a breakfast cereal.

Since I'm diabetic, I actually very quickly see quantitative results confirming this in the form of lower blood glucose numbers, and weight loss later on. When I was a kid my mom taught me that TV dinners were unusually unhealthy food, but I think that may have changed, or may have been a product of food labeling laws only just have come into effect at the time and consumers being too lenient in what they demanded from food vendors.

Room-temperature boxed stuff like pasta meals from normal super-markets probably don't get healthy enough, but I especially like the frozen meals from my local South-Asian/Indian/Nepali/Bhutanese market. There are also these room temperature foil packet dishes which seem to be common in Desi cuisine the world over: lentils in sauce or vegetables in sauce, which you heat and combine with a little rice or something like that. (But stay away from frozen breads!)

(There are also more expensive, higher-tier frozen meal options at normal supermarkets which I've found satisfying and healthy, but the ones from the Desi markets fit my budget and tastes better.)
posted by XMLicious at 5:54 PM on September 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

Do you like eggs? They are good protein and easy to cook. For me they do not have the ick factor of raw meat, but YMMV.

And yes to beans. When I lived alone, I ate black bean soup so often I'm amazed I didn't turn into a black bean. That recipe I linked doesn't have much in the way of veggies, but when I was able to eat tomatoes, I'd leave out some of the broth and put in a chopped fresh tomato or two. (If you include all the broth it gets too watery.)
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 5:54 PM on September 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm the same way actually. It's just me and Mr. Patheral, but we're on completely different eating regimes, so mostly I cook for myself. What helped me the most is getting cookbooks that are specific to cooking for one person (or couples). The good ones have tips and tricks for shopping "small". What I also found helpful are cookbooks for college students like, for example the Healthy College Cookbook because most college cookbooks are geared towards cheap, easy, and fast and some (like the one linked) are geared towards healthy too.
posted by patheral at 5:56 PM on September 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

I didn't grow up in a particularly cooking-friendly environment but found I loved to cook elaborate and exotic and cheap meals when I had the time on my hands. This usually meant like 50-60 hours a week work + commute and weekends free of "chores" etc. Now i'm lucky to have a 60-70+ work and commute week...

When I am burning the candle at both ends I like to:
- Prep many smoothies (usually banana + yogurt + peanut butter or banana + yogurt + mixed berries) at a time and put them in the freezer in mason jars. Maybe not the healthiest, but at least it's got a bit of protein, fruit, and super easy to eat. This takes like 10 minutes and I wish I did it more often. Comes out best if you freeze at least half the fruit first if you're going to be drinking one right away.
- Prepackaged soup mixes + frozen veggies
- Frozen veggies + box of soup (usually do a vegan mushroom or potato type, I forget the brand but they're usually pretty cheap for the volume)
- Frozen veggies + braggs liquid amino + peanut butter (optional: sesame or pumpkin seeds and hot sauce)
- Frozen amy's burritos (pretty good for you and not that expensive). I also like the evol burritos
- Rottisserie chicken on sale + salads or frozen veggies or soup
- Turkey sandwich or wrap

None of this is the healthiest thing in the entire world but it beats pasta with butter. I don't mind preparing raw chicken but if you don't like raw meat I don't think that you really need it for dinner as long as you get protein at lunch or via beans, etc. I don't miss the meat-protein dinner like I thought I would as far as hunger or weight go, and I'm older now! Lean cuisine isn't that good or even particularly good for you but amy's, trader joes, etc., has some good mexican or indian frozen meals that have higher calories with around the same or less salt content plus ... yummmm. Note: packaged meals are expensive so I tend to buy them on sale, but if you're already eating packaged stuff and lean cuisines it probably will come out in the wash.

When I am feeling more adventurous I like to do chicken slow cooker meals, rice cooker veg and rice + maybe leftover chicken, muffin pan frittata (these freeze well and if you can do cheese a bit of cheese really makes a lot of veg quite yummy), lots of meal prep salads with a bunch of ingredients, etc. Acorn squash cut in half with an egg in it in the microwave is surprisingly super good too. I find, like you, that buying a lot of fresh veg at once leads to waste *unless* I cook or cut it all in the next two days. Also have learned sometimes the week goes sideways, just freeze the veg, most vegetables freeze quite well. If possible, cut it up beforehand.
posted by love2potato at 6:02 PM on September 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

Absolutely the way to go about this is to buy your usual junk, except for ONE day that you'll make a veggie-heavy healthy meal. Start on a weekend day, or pick the day of the week you're least-tired after work. Do that for a few weeks, then graduate to two days. And so on.

It's tedious as fuck but I sit down in front of the TV with a cookbook and decide what recipes I'm going to make and make my shopping list. (And write down what recipes and what cookbooks and what pages so I don't forget!) As you gain skills you add cooking days, you can start to be like, "Okay so I'll use half a head of broccoli but I'll have some left over, I can put that in lunch the next day or I can add it to something I make later in the week ...."

I also strongly suggest you find a recipe or two that can be made ANY way and uses up veggie extras -- I like frittatas, but stir fry, or soup, or omelets, or roast mixed veggies -- and you can make that at the end of your "cooking week" to use up any odds and ends of vegetables left over from earlier in the week.

Half-prepared veggies make a huge difference in how many I eat. If I buy heads of lettuce I eat salads once or twice a week; if I buy bagged salads (complete or just the lettuce and I add the stuff), I eat them just about every day. It costs more but it's worth it for my health. Lots of supermarkets carry "stir fry mix" veggies all pre-cut. Or "roasting veggies" pre-cut. I also buy some fruits pre-cut -- melons, strawberries (I freaking hate hulling strawberries). If your supermarket has a salad bar, that's a great place to get a selection of veggies in smaller portions without having to get a WHOLE cauliflower head or a WHOLE pepper. (Plus pre-cut!) Again, this is all somewhat more expensive than buying the veggies whole, but it's worth it to me because I eat SO many more veggies(/fruit) and have so much less waste (from things going bad because chopping two pounds of veggies is overwhelming so I eat junk and never get to the veggies) when I do it this way.

Another thing you could do is pair a relatively healthy treat with dinner on the nights you cook, but only the nights you cook, so you look forward to them -- a glass of good wine, or maybe a gourmet chocolate candy, or fresh berries with just a touch of cream for dessert, or something like that. At first it'll be kind-of a hassle but soon you'll be looking forward to a healthy meal followed by a glass of wine while you read a novel or blow up zurg or whatever.

Another thing you could try (if you're the sort of person this would work for!) is to buy a couple place settings of fancy china or just something really pretty from Crate & Barrel or Target, pretty glasses, etc., and only use them when you cook. TV dinners on boring old plates you've had forever, but when you cook you get to eat off something fancy and pretty because you're spoiling yourself by eating well and every aspect of the experience should be pleasing.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:19 PM on September 7, 2017 [3 favorites]

If you don't eat like a college boy (and I'm a 6 foot female who still eats a lot) then the blue apron meals for 2 will actually give you 3 servings per meal. Sub the rest of your meals for the week with salads at or meat +veg+carb (or veg again) and you'll be set.
posted by raccoon409 at 6:23 PM on September 7, 2017

You'd be surprised how much pre-cooked meat is available at your grocery store. There are strips of chicken and steak meant to go on salads, roast beef and pork (drain the gravy), and I've even seen thanksgiving-style turkey. Just microwave it. And of course, nearly every grocery now offers fresh rotisserie chicken. Buy a couple of them and you'll have chicken for a few days.

Cooking meat from frozen may help with the ick factor. It's common to find frozen beef or turkey burgers meant to be cooked from frozen, and there are bags of frozen chicken breasts you can bake or boil.

For veggies, try steamer bags. Prep can't get any easier, and they taste ok (and I hate veggies, so that's high praise). Pour some olive oil and garlic-and-herb seasoning on them.

If you have a grill, grilling veggies is fun. Zucchini and bell peppers work best. Same deal: olive oil and seasoning. Parmesan cheese is good on zukes too.

For fresh veggies, cut them up, toss them in olive oil, and throw them in the oven. This works well for root veggies (I had some good parsnips tonight) and eggplant.

Trader Joe's has a bunch of frozen veggie mixes that are good. That's my go-to method of trying new veggies. Find something in a mix so that if you don't like it, there are other veggies you can still eat. That's how I found the parsnips (although TJs no longer makes that mix!).

For salads, dump the iceberg lettuce in the garbage where it belongs, and use spinach instead.

Black beans are tasty, either as a side dish or as a meat substitute. Not much in terms of prep, either. A dollop of sour cream is delightful.

Try Greek yogurt-based dips and sauces. Tzatziki, roasted red pepper dip, etc. You can usually find these pre-made at the grocery.

And of course, you can make an unhealthy dish marginally healthier by decreasing the portion size.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:44 PM on September 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

If you can muster more energy on the weekend cook a big batch of something, divide it into single servings and freeze them for quick nuke 'n eat on weekdays. This works especially well for stews, which are easy in a slow cooker, are good vehicles for vegetable delivery, and which (in my world, anyway) qualify as comfort food.
posted by duoshao at 6:48 PM on September 7, 2017

n-thing the meal prep boxes for convenience and generous portion size - many of the 2-person meals we've had could easily be 3 servings as is or by stretching things with a side salad or some bread.

Since you like a variety of cuisines, you will probably like Blue Apron, which has more interesting flavor profiles and ingredient combinations. Since you don't cook much, you will probably like HelloFresh, which runs simpler and more classic. You can check out full recipes on both sites.

Also, consider if there is a supplier in your area - here in Mpls we have Local Crate, which gets many of its recipes and food from local chefs/farmers, and since it doesn't have to be shipped, for about the same price they provide more and higher-quality food than the national boxes. Last night's "2-serving" curry chicken fried rice filled the largest skillet I own.
posted by Flannery Culp at 7:13 PM on September 7, 2017

I cook for one also. A few things I've found useful:

Buy small amounts of veggies so you have little waste, and concentrate on things that are versatile, that you can add to either salads or stir fries or soups, especially as you're starting. Like one onion, one red bell pepper, one zucchini, one broccoli crown, and a bag of baby carrots (or other things you like a lot). Then specific items for specific recipes.

If I'm making something that only requires half a can of pintos or diced tomatoes or whatever, I'll divvy up what's left in 1/2 cup or so portions, put into snack-sized baggies, and freeze, ready to thaw for a few minutes in hot water and add to a stir fry or a soup. Put left-over tomato paste or minced jalapeño (with a little added water) or the like into an ice cube tray, freeze, and put into a baggie or container, ready to pull out and pop into whatever you're cooking for added flavor and goodness.

Spices are your friend - always have a good variety on hand. And onion, garlic, and black pepper make pretty much *everything* taste better.

Experiment. Don't be afraid to fail. But fail small initially, by making a single portion of anything new until you know it works for you. If it's too awful and you can't stand to eat it, say, "Oh well, nice try," dump it and pull out a frozen dinner or make a sandwich. Then try something different the next day. You'll be surprised at how few times that will happen. You may decide not to make something again, but it will seldom be inedible.
posted by ClingClang at 7:14 PM on September 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

Move? I found that food waste went way down after I moved to a location that was a one block walk from a major grocery store. I buy a couple of days worth of food at a time, leave no junk in my house, and give myself no alternative but to eat fruit, salad, grilled/baked meats (sometimes pre-marinated). I tie my dog up outside the shop so the trip doubles as walking the dog.
posted by crazycanuck at 7:33 PM on September 7, 2017

I'm good with repetitive eating. Pretty much my daily 'alone' meals rely on a cast iron skillet:

Breakfast: Really good bread toasted on the skillet with some butter, then mashed avocado and tomato or cucumber on top. Add pepper and salt and it's dreamy.

Lunch: Tuna, sandwich, beans spiced up, easy stuff.

Dinner: Cans iron skillet again, I cut up veggies right over the skillet and let them drop in. No need to be even or fancy. Mushrooms, onions, tomato, asparagus, anything really. Add garlic, add tofu or another protein. Sometimes add butter again. Anything that sounds good will mix, and it's quick.

That's my basic, and I can even fit in a glass or two of wine, some snacks, and still lose weight. Totally easy.
posted by Vaike at 7:36 PM on September 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

Beans & Greens: my easy, one-pot, healthy comfort food:

Take a base of collard greens and black eyed peas, boil with some onion and garlic powders (or fresh). Add sausage (or TVP) if you like, and a good dose of fat (canola, coconut oil, bacon fat, etc).
Add in any leftover veggies that may be around, with salt/pepper/paprika/chili/hot spices, etc. as desired.
Can substitute a wide variety of dried beans or fresh or frozen greens (mustard, kale, turnip).
Throw some brown rice or millet in there (cooked at the end or dry earlier), and it's a whole meal that can feel indulgent yet fairly healthy if you keep the greens high and the salt low.
If you make a big batch of it, you can live on it for days. Or so I'm told :)
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:39 PM on September 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

Trader Joe's has a bunch of frozen entrees that are tasty, relatively healthy and come from various cultures: tamales, Indian food, etc...

If you can afford a more expensive grocery store the meat counter will have things like individual hamburger patties with stuff in them that you can just pop into a frying pan for a few minutes. Also things like steak pinwheels - flank steak rolled up with bleu cheese and walnuts that are easy to broil. There are a lot of "half-prepared" meat things there.
posted by bendy at 7:40 PM on September 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

Also keep in mind that you don't have to necessarily make meals at home. You can also have healthy convenience foods, like salads, grape tomatoes, hard boiled eggs, etc. You might also consider buying a juicer and making your own juice/smoothies.

As a lazy single person who doesn't cook very often, I do a lot of these:

1. Tuna salad
2. Rotisserie chickens, where I strip off all the meat and freeze it in 1-2 serving containers, and use the chicken in salads and dishes, or just eat it by itself
3. Frozen, cooked shrimp (also portioned into single servings and defrosted as needed)
4. Romaine hearts (it's a pain to wash, but it lasts 1-2 weeks in the fridge vs. the almost instant degradation of salad in a bag)
5. Steel-cut oatmeal, which you can make in 3-4 serving batches and refrigerate for the next few days, and which you can make overnight as well
6. Easy balsamic tomato salad (grape tomatoes, splash of olive oil, splash of balsamic vinegar, kosher salt, done)
7. Baby carrots
8. Greek yogurt

You get the idea. I personally don't have a liking for many kinds of fruits and vegetables, so I try to eat a lot of the ones I do like. And yeah, I don't make *dinner* for myself very often, but so what? Eating an apple, a carrot or a banana is good for you, there's no rule that things have to be cooked in order to count. I've been thinking about branching out into soups, since you can do that in a slow cooker quite easily, and it would be a good option for when I want something hot and savory, but not calorie-dense like pasta.
posted by Autumnheart at 7:45 PM on September 7, 2017 [3 favorites]

You don't have to actually cook or even do much in the way of prep work. Dinners can be whatever you decide and whatever is satisfying for you:

* fresh apple or pear, handful of nuts, cheese and crackers
* pre-cut veggies with hummus
* plain yogurt with fresh fruit
* A bowl of vegetable soup cooked up on the weekend
* Store-bought pate with an apple and crackers
* Salsa with yogurt and chips. I wouldn't eat it every night but sometimes it's a guilty pleasure and it could be worse.

A couple of my favorite easy comfort dinners:
* A slice of hearty bread with a smear of dijon mustard, topped with sliced tomatoes and then seasoned (usually with salt, pepper, vinegar and olive oil), then topped with cheese and popped into the oven until it melts
* Pocket pita split and stuffed with tomatoes, pickled onions and cheese, toasted in a skillet until the cheese has melted and the outside is browned
* A sheet pan of roasted veggies. They can go on top of dressed greens with some cheese, or beside rotisserie chicken, or over pasta

For the sheet pan of veggies I might group eggplant, zucchini, yellow bell pepper and cherry tomatoes; butternut squash on its own, broccoli with brussels sprouts or cauliflower and carrots; sweet potato with broccoli; potatoes with green beans.

For now, just think about your favorite veggie and research different preparation methods. Try a few and see if anything makes you fall in love. Then try another veggie. Etc etc.
posted by bunderful at 8:24 PM on September 7, 2017

I eat a lot of microwaved frozen spinach / broccoli / kale / whatever with some spices or a spoonful of chili garlic sauce, plus peanut butter on a pita or something for protein and carbs. Also, microwaved eggs. Canned soup on rice, heated in the microwave.

I microwave a lot of things. (You can too!)
posted by batter_my_heart at 8:29 PM on September 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

Meat scissors are your best friend. I hate to cook, but with a pair of meat scissors + rotisserie chicken, the possibilities are endless.
posted by invisible ink at 8:35 PM on September 7, 2017

Best answer: In my experience people have a food type that they need to eat in order to feel like they actually have been fed. For most people I know who eat a western diet this is either meat, or carbohydrates. I'm sure some of this is simply conditioning, but I also have been guessing that this has to do with the bioflora in our digestive systems that signal to us if we are hungry or not.

From your description of your dietary history, I'm going to go out on a limb and come up with the theory that your hunger might need carbs to be satiated. It doesn't matter how many veggies and interesting spices you add to a dish when you eat Uzbek or Polish or Thai. Those things add the interest, but the carbs add the ballast. Maybe another person can dispense with carbs and not miss them, but very likely the limiting factor on your food choices is whether it will provide you with those carbs.

So I am going to suggest that instead of starting by trying to switch from carbs to "healthy", what you do is work on making the carbs you eat the most healthy and satisfying carbs that you can. It's not that you can't eat carbs, but that you put your effort into making sure there is variety and roughage and different proteins in the carbs that you are consuming.

Would you consider setting a goal of avoiding eating the same type of carb twice in a day? For example, if you have whole wheat toast and peanut butter for breakfast (quick, carb, relatively healthy, includes protein) you can't have wheat again that day. You could grab one of those single serving brown rice packets, or have an oatcake, or a cornflour tortilla, or salad made by combining a small can of black beans with a chopped tomato. You could have a bowl of oatmeal. You could have a baked potato - but not wheat.

The next thing I am going to suggest is that you plan for not planning. You want to be able to enter the kitchen, grab something, heat it and leave the kitchen without wasting executive functioning on did the arugula get eaten and do I need to to finish off the chicken. The only question at meal time should be "Do I want to eat this for dinner or not?" Counter-intuitively, I would suggest that you try to stock your kitchen with as few perishables as possible. There are probably a few perishables that you know you will eat in time - bananas, maybe, or milk, and you should continue with any favourite perishables that you don't have any concerns about letting go bad.

So then the thing to do is to find as many good, healthy foods that are shelf stable. For example, frozen vegetables are shelf stable, come in lots of varieties, and have a high nutrition content. Jars of unsweetened applesauce are shelf stable. Cans of soup are shelf-stable - but look for high vegetable content soups that you would actually be willing to eat, such as squash, plain old vegetable or carrot soup.

Then when it comes time to eat you want to grab a few things that will combine well, satisfy your hunger, take only a few minutes and not result in a bunch of dishes to wash. - You are basically trying to recreate the convenience of lean cuisine, but in a way that doesn't leave you munching on a bag of potato chips after dinner because you are still craving.

So while the black beans/cornmeal tortilla/baked potato/sachet of rice is heating in the microwave, start snacking on a healthy appetizer, like half a cup of applesauce, or a few canned asparagus spears eaten straight from the can. And when you put the black beans/tortilla/potato/rice in the microwave, add about three-quarters of a cup of frozen veggies, and heat that up in the same microwave, and the same dish, at the same time. You may want to buy a few jars of sauce to keep in the fridge so you can add a dollop of that before it goes into the microwave too, or simply go with a generous sprinkle of whatever spices are currently your favourites. But the main thing is that you shouldn't have to think about the appetizer and the additives - the idea is that you should be able to grab the first jar or can or pouch from the freezer and just dump it in.

Let's say that you eat a lot of those noodle or rice with flavour packets, that you make us with milk or water on the stove. Don't try to wean yourself off them on the grounds that they are white flour and grease and salt - add a few healthy things to the pot when it is simmering so that instead of having a pouch of Spanish rice, you end up making a pouch of Spanish rice and (canned) beans with frozen sweet peppers and onions, double the quantity and end up eating the same dish, with added nutrition for two days running and then give yourself a bowl of frozen mango, defrosted in the microwave as a second dish/dessert.

One pot meals are a go to - add enough to the pot to make it satisfying. If you use a vegetable steamer you can heat up other things with the veggies - canned beans go in the steamer nicely as does pre-cooked noodles. Pre cooked rice is apt to spill if your steamer is the floppy kind.

If not steaming vegetables, start with a pot of vegetable soup - you need your carbs, so toss them in. Chickpeas? Shelf stable pre-cooked chicken? It's a one pot meal and in a pinch you can eat it from the pot. The organization time you could have spent on finding a bowl can be spent on dressing the soup up some more. What about a quarter cup of frozen greens? Or some curry, to make it tempting, instead of bland.

The frying pan stir fry is also your friend. Again, add some carbs. You won't have the motivation without the carbs. But you're still starting with a frozen broccoli stir fry so you know you're getting your veggies. Throw in a filet of frozen haddock, a wee dollop of soy and a packet of brown rice and you've still only dirtied one frying pan, and not had to chop anything but now you've hit three food groups. And it takes close to the same amount of brain as a frozen tv dinner, if you count dreading the idea of another lean cuisine and rooting through the freezer in hopes that one of the deeper more freezer burned dinners will somehow have become more appealing.

To make the one pot dinners simpler you can store your utensils in sets. When you put your dishes away, the pot, the steamer and the lid all go together in one place. The less you have to think about the easier it gets. Mental energy not spent looking for that damn steamer lid means that you will definitely remember to put water in the bottom of the steamer.

Also try to make it pleasant for yourself to spend the ten minutes while you are making dinner in the kitchen. This is where the appetizers come in too. But do you have a nice place to sit down and can you actually face looking at your kitchen counter? Dinner prep time is a relief if you experience it as that time when your shoes are kicked off and the music is the playlist that transitions you into nesting mode, instead of it just being the alarming tones of CNN in the background.

The most likely to be successful long term plan is if you don't have to change your habits, budget or tastes much, and if you end up doing what you have already been doing, only end up with something you actually like to eat more than you did when you started. So think, what would make this dish of frozen starch into something more healthy that tastes better?

I'm guessing that when it comes time to eat you are already hungry, having a low blood sugar crash, and most likely are hoping to eat in front of whatever project you have been looking forward to now that you are not working. Think appetizers. Yes, you may be making mac'n'cheese, but while the mac'n'cheese water is coming to a boil, eat something healthy. Have a glass of vegetable cocktail. Open a can of artichoke hearts. This will raise your blood sugar so that ten minutes later when it about to be time to serve the macaroni you remember that the protein content of mac'n'cheese sucks, so you pause in the kitchen long enough to combine some walnuts with some raisins, or open a can of salmon.

Think in terms of giving yourself treats and rewards. I could just grab a TV dinner tonight... but five extra minutes would turn it into a Pad Thai with mango... Mmmm....
posted by Jane the Brown at 12:17 AM on September 8, 2017 [13 favorites]

A small step, but it will help a bit and there is no extra work involved: switch as many of your carb-based foods as you can to the wholewheat version. Pasta, rice, bread, couscous. You'll need to eat less of them to feel just as full and you'll feel full for longer. And it's better for you.
posted by Too-Ticky at 1:22 AM on September 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

I came in to mention steamer bag veggies, and pre-cooked rotisserie meats, but they've already been mentioned!

Feeding myself got a lot easier when I realized that not every meal had to be some elaborate, restaurant-style concoction. It can be as simple as component parts, all dumped on a plate. All you need are three things that don't have to be mixed together: A vegetable, a protein, and a small amount of a carb.

For veggies: Those frozen steamer bags are AMAZING. Green Giant makes good ones. They come pre-seasoned, too. Throw one in the microwave, boom, done.

For protein: Grab a rotisserie chicken from the grocery store. Cut it up into bits. Put a fist-sized serving on the plate. Done. (This way, you don't have to cook raw meat at home.)

For carb: Some rice. You can even buy the pre-cooked baggies from the store. Done. (As you go further along, you can experiment with whole grains, which I LOVE, like wheat berries, farro, bulgur, etc.)

Beans and lentils hit both the protein + carb.

If you want more flavor, first just try adding a bit of salt. Then you can try things like soy sauce, hoisin sauce, dijon mustard mixed with lemon juice and oil, etc.

This strategy is great for you because you won't have a ton of leftover foods that can go bad. Once you get into the swing of things, then you can go for the adventurous cooking to match your adventurous palate.

Lastly, I found calorie counting apps like MyFitnessPal to be invaluable! They really helped me see exactly what I was eating. The phone app also has a lot of fun, easy recipe suggestions every time you log in.

Best of luck!! You can do it!
posted by aquamvidam at 3:54 AM on September 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

I started doing foil packets last year (gave up for the summer when I didn't want the oven on, but am looking forward to starting up again) which worked really well for me. They require frozen meat, but only very minimal prep and handling. (You can do non-frozen meat, too, but frozen is a lot less work, I think.)

Mine involve frozen chicken (I do tenderloins or chicken breasts), a good helping of frozen vegetables, a glug of some sort of dressing or sauce (I do ranch and honey mustard a lot), and if you want carbs, there are recipes out there for rice or other options. (I just do the meat and vegetables, and you could also do that and rice or pasta or whatver on the stovetop or I'll sometimes throw sweet potato fries on the baking sheet at the right point in the cooking.)

Fold into foil so it's all sealed inside. Stick in freezer until wanted, possibly pausing to label what you've got.

When you want to eat, pull one out of the freezer, preheat the oven (I do 400 F), stick it in for 40 minutes or so, and then unwrap and eat. What I love about them is I can prep a bunch quickly on the weekend, and then just pull something out and have dinner 45 minutes later without having to think about anything or stir anything.
posted by modernhypatia at 5:38 AM on September 8, 2017 [12 favorites]

If you can afford $60 - $80 a week then a food subscription box sounds right up your alley. I'm not sure they do meals for one, but you'd end up with 6 meals a week so it's not a bad price. I learned everything from how to cook kale so I actually look forward to eating it to the fact I actually like Bulgar as a side dish (still can't eat quinoa though). You don't have to over think what you're eating, the dishes are usually super easy to make, they worry about the variety etc & you learn new techniques & flavors you might like. There are even vegetarian ones out there if you don't want to worry about cooking meat.
posted by wwax at 6:17 AM on September 8, 2017

I think the number of times I have recommended this cookbook are now in the double-digits. It is nothing but soups and salads, most of which are pretty easy. Many of them keep well in a fridge, and many of them are designed to go together. Several of them have grains as well. All of them would also make great side dishes for a simple meat dish (like roast chicken leg or something).

What I recommend is - get the cookbook, and then once a week pick two or three things from it and make them up, and leave them in the fridge. Then, "dinner" each night can simply be a matter of "get a roll on the way home, then heat up a bowl of one of the soups, make a simple green salad and eat all that". Or, "roast a chicken leg and have a small bowl of soup and a small bowl of one of the salads with it". Or, "dole out a little of each of the things from the fridge and eat it all." The weekly cooking is more like "pre-loading your fridge with ready-to-eat healthy stuff."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:02 AM on September 8, 2017 [2 favorites]

I love my rice cooker because I can throw in a can of diced tomatoes, a cup of brown rice, a can of black beans, and spices, and it makes something that I am happy to eat as a meal, esp. with some shredded cheese and sour cream. If I have extra time, energy and motivation (basically never!) I can pop some chicken in a pan and put it on top. It makes plenty, and I freeze the extra in portions to bring in for lunch.

I buy frozen vegetables (except for root vegetables, since they keep a long time). I can throw those in the rice cooker with brown rice, maybe some white beans, a little bit of better than bouillon, and some spices. Stir in some cheese when it's done.

The rice and beans together give you some completish protein. How complete? I don't know. I don't seem to have a problem. I also hard boil a bunch of eggs every week or two and will have one in the morning, with steel-cut oats, that I made in the rice cooker. I keep 'fixins' handy for the oatmeal (dried fruit, chopped nuts).

Did you know you can roast frozen veg? Chop up your root vegetables (sweet potatoes, red potatoes, carrots, stuff that won't betray you by rotting too quickly) into good sized chunks, throw them in a bowl with pre-chopped, frozen broccoli, cauliflower, etc., toss with oil and salt, maybe some spices. Bake for about 45min at about 400 degrees.

This is what works for me because it requires minimal effort and timing on my part. It stinks to be subject to the tyranny of fresh vegetables (will TODAY be the day that my avocado ripens???, oh, the lettuce is wilting, but I would rather stab myself in the eye than eat lettuce today, etc.), or the package of chicken that you brought home and you either have to cook it tonight or freeze it, and if you freeze it good luck ever remembering to unfreeze it in time to actually use it for a meal.
posted by acanthous at 7:45 AM on September 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

Add one vegetable or fruit to every meal.

Slice a Roma tomato, sprinkle on a touch of salt, then toss it (still raw) over pasta or into a sandwich.
Small handful of arugula leaves thrown on literally any savoury meal- buy the baby pre-washed leaves. They have a wonderful peppery taste.
Sliced banana, berries, or chopped apple dumped on cereal or oatmeal.
Slice a red pepper and add it to a frozen pizza.
Handful of baby carrots or frozen peas tossed into a microwave meal box to steam as the food cooks.
Handful of pre-washed salad greens sprinkled onto soup.
Half a head of broccoli or cauliflower, cut into florets, tossed into pasta or ramen soup when it's almost done so it just boils for 1 minute.

Buy small amounts of many veggies (1 pepper, 1 apple, 1 tomato, etc to keep the pressure low. Store produce where you can see it (glass bowl on top shelf of fridge) and make it a challenge to add 1 item per meal, even if the rest of the meal is not "healthy".
posted by pseudostrabismus at 10:33 AM on September 8, 2017

I think you've got a LOT of good advice above. I'd just like to add a suggestion to check your library for An Everlasting Meal (or even splurge and buy a copy if you feel like it). It's a beautifully written book about how to make food a really satisfying part of your life and how to use up vegetables and is wonderfully dismissive of a lot of shmancy overcomplicated cooking advice while being celebratory of the simple acts of learning to cook. It might give you some new ways to think about your vegetables and the act of cooking to nourish yourself.
posted by kristi at 10:56 AM on September 8, 2017 [2 favorites]

Congratulations! You've picked a very good time to clean up your diet- it's so doable now thanks to the technology and the ability to organize around said technology.
You've already a gotten a lot of good advice on food combining and what might be the best kinds of food for you to eat. But I actually think getting organized and finding some good hacks is the most helpful piece of advice for the beginning cook. Not sexy, I know. But there it is.
But I do want to strongly reiterate the food subscription box thing- it can really be a game changer. I use GreenChef and it's great.

Best time/energy/money saving hacks for healthy cooking:

1.) Look into grocery delivery services. If you live in a city, some grocery stores will deliver for free if you spend a certain amount. You can also try services like PeaPod and VitaCost or ThriveMarket (for dry goods). Not having to shop is energy saved that can be put to home cooking and meal prep after a long days work. It might be worth it to you, especially since you're flying solo.

2.) Are you a visual learner? Youtube really is the best way to learn how to cook anything, IMO.
And if you are confused about how to do something, go back and watch it again. You can't even do that in a live class! And it's free. Total win-win. Buzzfeed's Tasty channel has some the easiest, healthy meal tutorials ever.

3.) Use Pinterest. It's great for organizing and collecting recipes that excite you and you can search specifically for dishes that are geared for beginners. Actually most Pinterest dishes are very easy while still often yielding a good (and healthy) result.

One you start building up a repertoire of dishes that you like and are good at making, you'll gain confidence and want to keep going.

4.) Look into kitchen tools that and good quality supplies that make your job easier. It can feel like a big outlay at first but it's worth it in the end. If you don't have a decent blender or food processor, get one. One great quality skillet is better than four crappy ones. I LOVE this pan because it's so foolproof and NOTHING sticks to it so cleanup is a breeze! Thinking about all the cleanup after your meal can be really demoralizing at first so anything that makes it easier is so helpful and worth it.

Good luck- you can TOTALLY do this.
posted by ChickenBear at 3:10 AM on September 9, 2017

You've gotten great advice above, especially from Jane the Brown.

I share your struggle, and aside from following pretty much what Jane the Brown recommended above, I noticed that having great tupperware -- I got Pyrex -- oddly helped me a lot. I think it was very satisfying for me to have my meals packaged in neat, high-quality, easy-to-wash containers (I've found it to be much better than plastic tupperware, which fogs up with repeated use and sometimes can be difficult to clean oil out of). The consistent size of the container also helps me get a sense of how much I need to eat. Best investment I've made in a while!
posted by gemutlichkeit at 2:35 PM on September 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

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