How to eat healthily without cooking

(while spending less than 10 minutes a day on it)

I'm a knowledge worker, and cooking isn't part of my core business; it's more akin to one of those "maintenance" activities, like brushing my teeth or cleaning my place - necessary but not particularly awesome. While I like cooking with someone else, or dining with people (or hey, being cooked for), I also don't find it particularly interesting to cook for myself; I'd rather do something more fun or interesting instead. Still, I need to eat, and I want to eat healthy food.

Since I started living alone, I gradually discovered a way to eat healthily while eventually spending less than 10 effective minutes a day on this task. Today I found that other information professionals were spending almost two hours a day for eating, so I decided to write this article.

It works

I've been doing this for 5 years, including living one year gluten-free, a few months being a vegetarian, and 3 months doing P90X, which also requires a very strict regimen. I had a physical examination in December 2009, and all my blood test results were normal. I look like this.

I've even entertained guests who complimented the food, without knowing it came from a pre-packaged healthy meal. (This "blinding" is essential, because most people have a preconceived idea that microwaveable foods are crap, while in reality they wouldn't be able to distinguish Trader Joe's mushroom risotto from a home-made one).

Taste-wise, this style of non-cooking is surprisingly good. When I eat dinner at gatherings where the host laboriously cooks a meal designed to impress, I rarely find that meal to be way tastier than what I can assemble at home in 5 minutes.

Some facts

There are many myths about food. Here are some well-researched and referenced facts.

Microwave ovens

Microwave ovens are perfectly safe. In fact, for most cooking, microwave ovens are healthier than conventional ovens, because they preserve more nutrients.1 The FDA states that,

Microwave cooking does not reduce the nutritional value of foods any more than conventional cooking. In fact, foods cooked in a microwave oven may keep more of their vitamins and minerals, because microwave ovens can cook more quickly and without adding water.

Just don't microwave olive oil for too long, and avoid microwave-unsafe materials.

Processed foods

Many processed foods are just as nutritious or in some cases even more nutritious than fresh foods, depending on the manner in which they are processed. Read more about this at the Australian Food and Grocery Council's article Food Myths

  • In particular, frozen fruit and vegetables are as nutritious, or even more nutritious than "fresh" produce. Unless you buy the produce from the farmer's market the day you eat it, it's going to have spend days (or weeks) in transit, then some more time in the supermarket aisles. During this time, nutrients have been lost, and by the time you prepare them, they're far from peak ripeness. By contrast, frozen produce has been picked up at its peak ripeness, and immediately flash-frozen, locking in the nutrients.2

  • Processed foods typically contain normal levels of fat and salt. Just make sure to read the nutrition label, and shop from a healthy food store such as Trader Joe's or Whole Foods, or from a healthy brand (e.g. Healthy Choice).

  • "Processing can also make some nutrients more available. For example, processing tomatoes into either paste or sauce increases the concentration of lycopene-an antioxidant Harvard University researchers have found may reduce the risk of prostate cancer by up to 40 per cent."

Dieting

How to eat healthily, quickly

Here's how to do it - what you need, and how to proceed.

Key ingredients: microwave, and a healthy food store

A stove, a convection oven and a toaster help, but you can do just fine with only a microwave oven. Use paper plates (made of recycled paper) to avoid having to wash dishes. When possible, reuse a plate. To save time, do something else while the microwave works (duh) and eat at the computer (not so obvious) while you read the news or whatever. Wash utensils immediately after eating, to avoid the formation of crust. Add ketchup or barbecue sauce to improve the taste of bland meals.

Food-wise, you want to aim for things that preserve well for a long time, because grocery store trips take time (at least one hour to fill up for 2 weeks). Fortunately, most foods can be preserved in some fashion (frozen, canned etc.) for a month or more, and the exceptions (e.g. bananas, grapes) still last for about a week.

Trader Joe's and Whole Foods sell good, healthy food. Trader Joe's has less variety, but much cheaper prices. Safeway can also have healthy items.

Frozen foods

Refrigerated foods

  • smoked fish (trout, salmon, mackerel) - largest selection at Whole Foods
  • fruit juice (except some very organic Trader Joe's Orange Juice, which doesn't last for more than 2 weeks)
  • chicken and turkey franks
  • unfrozen bread
  • pastrami, salami
  • eggs can be easily preserved for a month or more
  • egg substitute (ReddiEgg, Second Nature)
  • pre-packaged meals, for example:

In the pantry

These foods will last for months, but may need to be refrigerated after opening.

  • jam
  • ketchup
  • grain/almond/rice/soy milk
  • canned fish (salmon, tuna, trout etc.) and shellfish (Fancy Whole Smoked oysters in cottonseed oil are awesome)
  • canned minced/diced tomatoes - Safeway, Whole Foods
  • chicken broth
  • corn/rice flakes
  • date rolls, chocolate, biscuits
  • canned pineapple
  • dried fruit (including lots of cashew nuts varieties)
  • dried vegetables (many kinds available at Whole Foods)
  • apples
  • pre-packaged meals, see examples below

Trader Joe's Indian Fare Punjab Choley

  • + lasts 1+ years, no refrigeration
  • + simple cooking: microwave from fridge 2:15
  • taste: 72%
  • + vegetarian
  • goes well with rice

Foods that last for at most a week...

...and for which longer lasting alternatives aren't available or satisfactory:

  • oranges
  • grapes
  • bananas (although banana chips exist, they don't quite compare)

Really addictive snacks

Unknowns

I haven't experimented with, and somewhat miss, cucumber and salads. Please feel free to chip in with your knowledge.

Enjoy your new free time!

Imagine you had to spend one hour each day to take care of eating. Now you don't have to. And there's quite a lot you can do with one hour.


  1. "In studies at Cornell University, scientists looked at the effects of cooking on water-soluble vitamins in vegetables and found that spinach retained nearly all its folate when cooked in a microwave, but lost about 77 percent when cooked on a stove. They also found that bacon cooked by microwave has significantly lower levels of cancer-causing nitrosamines than conventionally cooked bacon. [...] When it comes to vegetables, adding water can greatly accelerate the loss of nutrients. One study published in The Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture in 2003 found that broccoli cooked by microwave - and immersed in water - loses about 74 percent to 97 percent of its antioxidants. When steamed or cooked without water, the broccoli retained most of its nutrients." -- The Claim: Microwave Ovens Kill Nutrients in Food, New York Times 2006 ↩

  2. wiseGEEK - Are Frozen Vegetables Less Nutritious Than Fresh?,
    EatingWell - Q. Fresh vs. Frozen Vegetables: Are we giving up nutrition for convenience? ↩

My tags:
 
Popular tags: