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Home cooking can be quick and healthy
By Laura Whelan
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- After the whirlwind of wedding activities are over, many new couples find that when stomachs growl, it's easier to go to a restaurant than prepare a healthy meal at home.
Melissa Mixon, human nutrition specialist with Mississippi State University's Extension Service, said the convenience of fast food may not outweigh the consequences. A simple fast-food meal consisting of a burger, fries and soda can contain 1,000 calories.
"From a nutritional standpoint, the dangers of fast food are that it is high in fat and sodium, low in calcium and rarely includes fresh fruits and vegetables," Mixon said.
Cooking meals at home -- on the other hand -- has many healthy advantages. Cooks control the ingredients, know how the meal is prepared and can add nutrients that might not be available in a restaurant.
Preparing meals at home doesn't have to take all day -- with diligence and planning, a couple can prepare a nutritious meal in 30 minutes or less. The first step is to make a menu plan. Begin by planning about two weeks of balanced dinner menus.
"The important thing to remember in planning a menu is to include a variety of foods in diverse forms," Mixon said.
Make a grocery list of needed ingredients, and stock frequently used cooking essentials. Shop for already prepared meal items such as refrigerated fresh pastas, prewashed salads and produce and precut meats to eliminate some of the work at home.
Another time-saving tip is to cook ahead.
"Every few weeks, set aside one day to prepare and freeze a variety of healthy dinners," Mixon said. "Make double portions of favorite dishes. Date and label these, seal tightly and store in the freezer until you're ready to thaw and bake the meals."
When selecting recipes for quick and healthy meals, consider simple cooking techniques, like steaming, grilling and broiling, which take little time but produce nutritious, delicious dinners. Baking is another excellent option, and shoppers can buy frozen precut meats to go directly from the freezer to the oven.
Stir fry takes only minutes and can be healthy when just a small amount of oil is used. Casseroles are ideal meals for busy couples and new families. Easy to assemble or prepare ahead, casseroles cook quickly and provide plenty of leftovers.
Invest in an electric slow cooker to cook a great meal without even being at home. Put ingredients in the pot, turn it on in the morning, and by evening, dinner will be ready.
Recipes for healthy, easy meals can be found in health magazines, specialty cookbooks and Web sites like http://www.msucares.com, http://www.nutrition.gov and http://www.eatright.org. The key to choosing recipes is to remember that cooking doesn't have to be complicated or at the gourmet level to be nutritious and enjoyable.
Another helpful tactic for cooking on the go is to make it a joint effort.
"Alternate cooking duty with your spouse or work together in the kitchen so that no one feels overloaded with cooking responsibilities," Mixon said.
Involve children in the cooking process by letting them help in the kitchen, set the table or clean up after eating. This can be quality time for the family while accomplishing the important task of providing a healthy meal each night.
"In the midst of daily life, cooking can be a joy and an encouragement as you do something beneficial for yourself and your family," Mixon said. "With planning, creativity and easy recipes, it won't take much time to dish out a healthy meal that everyone will enjoy."