My friend Carmin, who recently lost 150 pounds and is delighted with her improved health and energy, sent me a note about a Facebook group she had joined called “Eating on a Dime Recipes.” Here is an excerpt from her e-mail to me…

“What I found was not what I expected…What I have seen is the most appalling list of food items. Maybe I live in a bubble. I don’t know…When I look at the recipes, there’s so many ways that I can quickly think of to substitute for what they are using that would be just as inexpensive but way more healthy. Yes, there are some good recipes mixed in, but for the most part, they’re really crappy. Here are some examples—cheesy chicken spaghetti…fried chicken with mac and cheese, dressing and corn bread…chicken wrapped with bacon, basted in barbecue sauce…shredded chicken with sour cream, ranch dressing, cream of chicken soup, cream of mushroom soup, corn and Tater Tots. When I add many of these ingredients up, they actually are way more expensive than doing it a healthy way…”

What Carmin is seeing, however, is the reality of the dining choices Americans are making every day…

  1. Most people really know very little about nutrition. Parents don’t know much…and kids aren’t being taught about it. If they did, then we wouldn’t see toddlers being given sugar-filled colas to drink or kids bringing Lunchables to school.
  2. There is very little time for meal planning and preparation. Meal-prep kits have tried to address this. They were popular for a while, but now are losing market share to heat-and-eat meals—the modern-day version of TV dinners. Rich or poor, people are not taking the time to cook at home.

Let me address the time issue first. I don’t like to cook during the week either, especially since I usually don’t get home until 7 pm. And frankly, I’m not a great cook, nor do I have a fancy palate. My husband and I like simple meals and simple food—it’s healthy and easy. But we do eat home-cooked food 90% of the time.

Here are a few of my secrets…and again, I’m no master chef. This stuff is so basic that you’ll mock me and wonder why you’re reading. But then think for a moment about what you ate for dinner last night…

1. Cook too much. Whenever I cook on the weekends, I make too much—my mother-in-law calls these “planned overs.” I call them midweek meals.

2. Always have grilled chicken breasts on hand. It takes five minutes to marinate them in a giant zip-top plastic bag with whatever salad dressing I have on hand. I let that sit for a day in the refrigerator, turning them every so often. My husband will grill them, usually on the weekend, cooking enough so that there are always leftovers. Grilled chicken can be eaten with just salad…or added to pasta with pesto and veggies… sautéed with onions and peppers for fajitas…baked with tomato sauce and a little mozzarella to make parmigiana. You can bake chicken breasts with some sauce (I like pesto) and veggies—it takes about five minutes to prep and 30 minutes to cook. So easy and done in less time than it takes to watch an episode of The Office on Netflix.

Sick of chicken? Pre-grill some steak or lamb or sausages. Onetime cooking—several times of eating.

3. Roast chicken—another all-purpose kitchen staple. Roast chicken is easy to cook but a pain in the butt to clean up, so usually I buy a roast chicken at the grocery store. Again, roast chicken can be used for chicken salad, chicken sandwiches, fajitas, added to chicken broth with some carrots and celery for quick chicken soup (one of my daughter’s favorite meals).

4. Baked potatoes—easiest thing to make and requires little cleanup. Add some of that grilled or roast chicken and frozen vegetables if you don’t feel like cutting any fresh. Fun fact: Frozen fruits and veggies often are more nutritious than fresh because they are harvested and frozen at the peak of freshness, rather than being picked early and shipped halfway around the globe.

5. Use a rice cooker. You can set it and forget it. Add rice (or quinoa) and water…push go…and ignore it until it dings “done.” 

6. Keep pesto, tomato sauce, hot sauce and chimichurri sauce handy. Any of these goes great with that chicken, veggies and potatoes. Just watch the ingredients on the label to be sure they are not filled with sugar or ingredients you saw in your high school chemistry class.

7. Keep lettuce in the salad spinner in the fridge. I hate washing lettuce, so when I get fresh lettuce, I cut it and then wash it and leave it in the salad spinner in the fridge. It keeps the lettuce crisp and fresh for days.

You get the idea here, right? It really does not take a lot of time to put together a very simple, basic and healthy meal. Any chef will tell you that if you stock your fridge and pantry with the basics, putting them together takes little time.

So let’s talk about those cheesy, creamy, ingredients that Carmin found in those recipes. Given America’s lovefest with cheese and ranch dressing, you would think that we can’t survive without them. My husband thought that—but that was before he lost 40 pounds. Want to know how he did it? Ate less…exercised more…and cut out a whole bunch of cheese and ranch dressing from his diet. He didn’t go cold turkey—he just cut back bit by bit, substituting the cheese that was sprinkled on pretty much everything, with avocado or guacamole for texture, mustards, spices and seasonings. Yes, he still uses a little cheese and ranch dressing, but it’s no longer the star of the plate.  

There are an endless number of websites that offer heathy recipes, so you really don’t need me to give you any. The “Eat This Not That” website is a great resource for healthful options and ways to cut back on fats and sugars.

When I was in my 20s, I ate cheese popcorn for lunch and breakfast cereal for dinner. Never would I have recognized the woman that I became—one who made my children’s baby food (easiest thing in the world—take food cooked for the family…put it in a blender until it’s goo…freeze it in ice-cube trays)…still makes homemade taco seasoning with all good spices, minimal salt and no ingredients I can’t pronounce…and brings my lunch to work every day because I prepare better food that is far cheaper than the mediocre fare I can get for takeout.

Like Carmin, I realized just how much easier and less expensive it is to eat well. Give it a try, and let me know how you do.