Who has time to cook on weeknights anymore? No one, that’s who. I could stand on my soapbox and declare our busy and long work/school days are dumb but then, I’d be the dumb one. The reality is that we are busy, no matter how much we want to have that work-life balance everyone’s about which everyone is talking. I struggle because there are days I wake up at 5:30am and don’t finish my work until 10pm. It’s not easy, and it’s not uncommon especially with this generation’s workforce. God knows I’d rather come home at 3pm everyday and cook everything from scratch, but I don’t have the job of the Barefoot Contessa (love her!).
Last week, I was at Trader Joe’s and I was perusing their prepared foods section. Even though I make grocery lists, I like to walk down the aisles to see what inspires me. That’s when I spotted their freshly-made spinach and cheese tortellini. (Side: they also have the dried kind.)
Ready-to-eat meals are a complete upgrade from our childhood frozen Swanson dinners. They’re great because they’re freshly made and require no or minimal cooking time. The best part is: they’re relatively inexpensive! Even frozen foods have been upgraded. But not all frozen, prepared, or ready-to-eat meals are made equally. Here are some tips to help you pick the best ones for you and how to maximize their benefit:
(1) Separate the sauce. Frozen vegetable and chicken stirfry options are great because they’re loaded with vegetables, they’re easy, and they have the sauce in a separate package inside. This allows you to moderate how much sauce you eat. The sauce can be the culprit of the meal because it can be high in extra calories and low in nutrients. Otherwise, you can always substitute it with your favorite sauce at home or skip the sauce all together.
(2) Buy single item meals. Choose meals that are just one ingredient like the tortellini or a marinated roast. These are great because all you have to do is cook that one individual ingredient and add your favorite vegetable, protein, and/or whole grain to make it a whole meal.
(3) Check the expiration date. Most of these meals are freshly made each day or up to a week in advance. It’s great to have freshly made items because they’re easy/quick to cook at home. If you don’t use all of it, just pop it in the freezer for later use.
(4) Balance out your meal. As previously stated, make sure that you pick a variety of ingredient to prep your meal. Following the guidelines of Choose My-Plate, load up on the fruits/vegetables/whole grains if you pick up a ready-to-eat rotisserie chicken. Vegetables and salads are also easy to prepare at home or pick up at the grocery (they have many prepared vegetable and salad options).
(5) Buy them during the weekends. By doing some light planning, you can buy these items during the weekend and have them within arms’ reach when you get home during those busy weeknights. How easy is that?
Here are a couple of ideas for weeknight dinners that you can make with this one package of pre-made tortellini–
Dinner Idea #1: Tortellini Soup. Toss the tortellini in your favorite stock with some garlic, onions, tomato slices, parsley and spinach and BOOM! Dinner is ready. If you like meat, some shredded chicken would be great.
Dinner Idea #2: Tortellini Pasta in Spicy Tomato Sauce. A few months ago, I made a large batch of tomato sauce to which I added fresh tomatoes, garlic, mushrooms, and onions. I made so much that I froze small portions of it so I could have homemade tomato sauce on-hand. I tossed in some frozen peas and fresh basil from my garden. DELICIOUS!
You may ask, “Thomas, are these meals nutritious?” Actually, they’re totally acceptable especially with the idea that you follow the Choose My-Plate recommendations of eating a balance meal each time you sit down. If you’re loading up your plate with fresh produce, then eating a cup of tortellini is totally fine. This is where you exercise good portion control. To be frank, it’s probably a better option than going through the Jack-in-the-Box drive thru, which you were probably considering since you’re so busy.
Thomas Ngo 🙂
NASM Certified Personal Trainer