cooking and meal planning

Grocery Shopping Shortcuts When You Don't Have a Plan

It's Sunday afternoon, you know you don't have much fresh food in the house and you are contemplating heading to the grocery store. 

You have that all too familiar mental discourse in your head as you stare into the pantry, "I could make it for a few more days". 

The only thing holding you back is the idea of having to actually think about some semblance of a plan. The thought of opening up your computer and going on Pinterest does not excite you and nothing sounds particularly appetizing at the moment. 


Have you ever been in this situation? I know I can relate, which is why I wanted to share some grocery shopping shortcuts that can be used specifically on these occasions. Whether you just aren't in the mood or you don't have time for your normal meal planning routine, it's no reason to get flustered and deem it the week of take-out. You have options!

Grocery Shopping When You Don’t Have a Plan

Work Through the Pantry

One of my favorite quick, tried and true methods when feeling uninspired or lacking on time is to open up the pantry and freezer, figure out what I already have on hand, then build around those ingredients. This is a also a great money-saving strategy!

For example, maybe you have leftover rice paper from the last time you made these. Let that be one of your meals for the week and pick up all of the fresh ingredients you need. If you are someone who freezes soups and other leftovers, you might find something tucked away that you can use for meal #2. Have a can of black beans? Turn it into quesadillas - you won't need a recipe for that one which makes things super simple. 

The 5/4/3/2/1 Method 

This next idea is one I use when I'm out running errands, decide to stop at the store on the way home but have no idea what to buy. I've adapted it from the original source based on my own preferences, but in general I love the idea of just keeping track of how many items to grab from each section of the store. This also helps improve your improv cooking skills too because it makes for a little bit more unpredictability. Kind of like on the show Chopped when you have random ingredients and just have to make them work together.

Here's how I approach this one:

  • 4 proteins (meat or plant-based)

  • 4 whole grains and/or starchy vegetables (I usually have most of these on hand)

  • 4 non-starchy veg (in different colors if possible)

  • 3 fruits

  • 1 cheese (or other flavor enhancer)

This makes for a ton of options. I still grab all of my weekly stuff, but of course I have those memorized and I'm sure you do too. If you keep your pantry stocked with all of your favorite staples, you probably already have what you need to cook, amp up the flavor, and make any sauces/dressings. 

Curious what ingredients you should always keep stocked in the pantry? If you sign up for my free 3-day email course, I share a checklist in day two!

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Find a Few Star Ingredients

This is another favorite time-saving strategy and I especially like to use it when I go to Trader Joe's. They have a lot of fun packaged stuff that works well when complemented with a few fresh things. All this entails is finding a few interesting items around the store, then figuring out a way to to make them into a balanced meal with other add-ins. Examples:

  • TJ's has a super delicious frozen street corn that has spices and cotija cheese already mixed in. Top it with grilled salmon and add some simple mixed greens on the side to make it a meal.

  • Find a fun simmering sauce and use it on beans and vegetables; serve with brown rice

  • Try a specialty ravioli (like wild mushroom) and add roasted vegetables and goat cheese

  • Use a boxed falafel mix, then complement with all of the fixings like fresh diced cucumbers, shredded lettuce, tomatoes, red onion, olives, feta cheese, hummus and pita. 

  • Grab a quick-cooking grain and doctor it up with a vegetable, cheese, nut, and sauce or dressing (like this farro, pictured below). 

farro and blueberry salad with creamy herb dressing

Refer to Your Standby Meals

As a last resort, always have a mental list of your "standby meals" to make in a pinch. For me these are things like burrito bowls, chop salads, and turkey burgers. I know all of the ingredients needed and can run to the store and grab everything without a plan. Some things you might include: breakfast for dinner, sheet pan chicken & vegetables, or even grilled cheese sandwiches with a side salad.

Leave me a comment with 1) the standby meals you came up with and 2) any other tips you have for grocery shopping when you don't have a plan. Happy shopping!

Me + A Bunch of Other Dietitians Share Our Go-To Convenience Foods

Is it just me, or do processed (aka packaged or "convenience") foods get a bad rap? As someone with a goal to make cooking more practical, one of my favorite things to talk about is how to incorporate kitchen shortcuts as a way to make the whole routine faster, more manageable, and more doable. 

I always tell my coaching clients that sure, it's a good idea to make whole foods the foundation of your diet where you can, but the nature of being busy means that convenience foods can make cooking and eating less stressful, faster, and more enjoyable. And I think we can all agree that those are important factors in good health too! Finding a balance that works for your lifestyle is what really matters. 

A piece of well-meaning advice that misses the mark: "shop the perimeter of the grocery store and avoid the aisles".

The problem with this is that there are so many things tucked away in the aisles worthy of being weekly staples in your shopping cart: think canned beans, whole grains (rice, oats, farro, etc.), and flavor bombs like sriracha, fish sauce and canned coconut milk. Basically it's where all the fun stuff is that allows you to prepare fresh food in a delicious and satisfying way. 

convenience foods blog post (1).png

The List

As a testament to some of the things that you might want to consider grabbing from the aisles, today I'm sharing a few of my favorite convenience foods that make feeding myself way easier.  I also put a call out to some of my fellow Colorado-local dietitians for their favorites and I got some great responses (along with the why and how behind each) so read on for more!

"I am a rice cake fanatic"

-Monica Salafia (Mind on Nutrition).

"They're the perfect vehicle for other nutritious food and they're crunchy, light, won't go bad and are easily found at any grocery store". 

Rice cakes are notorious for being boring or flavorless but that's only if you eat them plain (btw who does that?). Take Monica's suggestion to bulk them up with other nutrient-dense foods to make it a satisfying snack. These are a great option for the gluten-free folks out there too and I like that they can be savory or sweet depending on your craving. 

Just Say No to Being Hangry

I recently mentioned these Nugo Bars on Instagram because I love stashing stuff like this in my purse when I need something to hold me over between meals and am out of the house. Bars aren't always the most fun choice when it comes to snacks but that's the compromise that I make to keep myself energized on the go. Just say no to being hangry in the middle of running errands on a Saturday. Your significant other will thank you!

Nugo nutrition bars with egg whites

Cereal (aka breakfast in a hurry) 

Cereal is a favorite "breakfast in a hurry" for me. I use it as a pre-workout snack on my way out the door because it gives me the fuel I need without weighing me down and is quick to assemble (and requires little brain power for those 6am classes). As a bonus, many options are high in fiber and several essential nutrients too. Some are more dessert-like, so just be selective if your goal is sustained energy as the higher sugar/lower fiber choices probably won't meet that need. 

Some of my favorite varieties are honey nut cheerios, peanut butter puffins, and Kashi cinnamon harvest. When I want to make it more substantial, I bulk it up with things like fresh fruit, nuts and seeds, and more milk for protein. This can also be helpful for those of you who feel out of control around cereal (super common). Make it more filling to avoid feeling like you need to keep going back for refills. 

"Bagged Salad Kits"

-Laura Young (@LiveWellByLaura

"One of my favorite new-ish products in the grocery store is the bagged salad mixes.  They're perfect for a quick evening meal - all you have to do is add a protein like beans, edamame, or some chopped deli meat and you have a complete meal in 2 minutes! And I love the variety they offer from sweet to savory to southwest."

While these are usually pricier than buying all of the individual components - you really can't beat how easy it is to cut open the bag, dump it in a bowl and mix it all together. These are a frequent purchase in my house too!

bagged salad kit with beans

"Frozen Vegetables"

-Haley Hughes of RDRX Nutrition 

She especially loves riced cauliflower and zucchini noodles since they are a "quick and easy way to fit in some extra veggies while offering some versatility and fun to any recipe". 

It's a common misconception that frozen fruits and vegetables are inferior to fresh - this is absolutely not the case (in regards to nutrition at least). And if this hack is helping you to include produce more often then it's definitely a win.

"Minute brown rice"

-Jamie Magdic of YourHappyHealthy.com

Rice is a dinner staple in most households and the whole grain version is a nutrient powerhouse. Unfortunately it takes forever to cook, which can be a huge barrier to including it regularly. Jamie likes to keep Minute brown rice on hand so she can make it in literally one minute. 

"My favorite go-to convenience food meal is Minute brown rice topped with a bag of veggie Steamers - both items that can you can pop in the microwave for 5 minutes and wallah! All you need to do to prepare this meal after microwaving the items is add some olive oil or butter, a little bit of salt and pepper, and/or a sprinkle of your favorite cheese. This is a delicious meal that leaves me super satisfied on those days when I want something quick and easy.  I love to have this meal in my back pocket on those busy days."

"Chicken Sausage"

-Hannah Turnbull of Nourished with Hannah

The protein component of the meal can often be the most time-intensive. Especially if you buy meat frozen and then constantly forget to thaw it out in time for dinner.  

"One of my go-to convenience foods is pre-cooked protein; some examples being chicken sausage and pepperoni." "I love to throw chicken sausage in a skillet to heat it up, then add some some zucchini, cherry tomatoes, onions, garlic, salt and pepper. Plate it up with salad and 90 minute microwavable rice or mac and cheese for a tasty, satisfying meal. Pepperoni goes nicely on a flat bread with tomato sauce, cheese, bell peppers and mushrooms for an easy personal pizza."

Weeknight pizza anyone?

Canned Fish

Last on the list but certainly not least; you will almost always find some sort of canned fish like tuna, sardines and anchovies in my pantry. A friend recently introduced me to smoked oysters and those are fun too - plus a great source of iron. When it comes to protein, small fish are incredibly convenient and versatile. For instance, anchovies (my favorite) can be used to top pizza, tossed with pasta or blended into a sauce for a great salty and umami flavor. Most of us also fall short on meeting the recommendations of eating fish 2-3x per week and keeping some of these options on hand is a great way to help you fill that gap too. 

Do you have favorites that weren't mentioned? Leave us a comment below! 


My Favorite Kitchen Tools + 3 That I Could Live Without

This post contains Amazon Affiliate links which means that if you purchase something through one of these links, I will receive a small commission but your cost will remain the same. All items linked are the exact model/brand that I own unless I noted "similar" in parentheses.

julienned carrots and zucchini on cutting board

Set Yourself Up for Cooking Success

When I'm leading cooking classes or lessons, the first thing that I usually talk about is the importance of setting up your kitchen with the tools and appliances that you will actually use most often, then getting rid of the "fluff" so you can stay organized and efficient. Sometimes the seemingly minor items can make a serious difference in your workflow. 

I know for me, I own a lot of things that sounded cool at one point, but after a few years it's clear that they might not have been the most practical choice. I know I'm not the only one - I have heard countless stories about ice cream makers, pasta machines and panini presses that sit in the back of the cabinet collecting dust.  

I've written on this topic before, but I figured it would be fun to share a few of my must-have kitchen tools (in no particular order) plus a few not-so-frequently-used things that I could live without. Everything is linked so you can see the model I use. I would love to hear you chime in on this topic too so be sure to play along in the comments.

Favorites

Chef's knife

A versatile and well-maintained chef's knife is hands-down the most important tool for any home-cook. I have several different ones but the one linked above is a recent favorite (disclosure: I actually received this knife for free to review it for another website - I ended up loving it!). In my experience, using dull knives is the quickest way to suck the joy out of cooking. It's really hard to slice something thinly and worst of all, dangerous. If you invest in one thing on this list, make it a quality knife. 

Cutting board (similar)

I use this cutting board every.single.day. I love that it's made of silicon because it makes chopping a breeze, plus I can toss it right in the dishwasher if it comes in contact with any raw meat. Wood cutting boards are some of my favorite serving platters, but I prefer not to use them for actual chopping (unless it's something dry like bread) because I feel like they are harder to clean/maintain and in my mind, the wood just soaks up all of that bacteria. 

chef's knife with vegetables on cutting board

Instant Pot

I am still digging my Instant Pot and I don't care if I'm totally cliche for saying it. I use it for cooking big batches of grains and dry beans but it's also seriously helpful for people with limited time to cook during the week. It's easy to make meat for a crowd (like shredded chicken/pork) and can be used for any slow cooker recipe that you want to make about 6x faster (see my note on this further down). A few of my favorite instant pot recipes can be found here, here and here. If you have an IP, what is your favorite thing to make in it?

Citrus juicer (similar)

Adding fresh citrus juice is a great way to add brightness and flavor to a dish. Sure, you can squeeze limes and lemons by hand but you end up wasting a good portion of the fruit. Plus all of those lemon seeds... it can be a total pain. This citrus juicer has been a game-changer because it works really well to get the maximum amount of juice out - perfect for vinaigrettes, sauces, guacamole and cocktails. I use it almost daily.

citrus juicer next to guacamole

Microplane

A basic box grater is fine for most vegetables, but a microplane is a must-have for grating things directly into a mixing bowl or saute pan. Think fresh garlic or ginger, parmesan cheese, or lemon zest. It grates very finely as opposed to the larger shreds from a grater. 

Cast iron skillet

The cast-iron skillet isn't totally necessary for cooking newbies, but it sure is a nice thing to have and you can find them really reasonably priced. I use it when I want to get a nice sear on a piece of protein or when I want to start something on the stove top then finish in the oven without transferring dishes. It's great for frittatas, casseroles and pizzas. As a side note, if one of your life goals is to learn to make the perfect grilled cheese, this is a totally necessary purchase. 

the best grilled cheese

Blender

For years I used a run-of-the-mill, inexpensive blender but it never worked all that well. I splurged on the one linked with some gift cards and I can definitely say it was a great decision to spend a little bit more. If this broke tomorrow, I would hands-down purchase another one right away. I think someday I would like to do the Vitamix thing but for now, this one works great for the smoothies that I tend to make. The result is always perfectly smooth with no chunks left behind, and it doubles as our food processor. The Ninja isn't as high an investment as the Vitamix, so it can be a nice in-between option. I also like that this model came with to-go cups and a separate blade attachment for when you want to make a single serving portable smoothie (so you don't have to dirty the entire thing). We use these multiple times each week.

The Ones I Could Live Without

While there is nothing wrong with any of these, I probably just wouldn't make an effort to replace them right away. I know many people swear by their slow cooker though so of course each person should form his/her own opinion.

Slow cooker

The Instant Pot has essentially replaced my slow cooker. It does have a slow cooker setting but I mainly just use the pressure cooker setting to cook any of these recipes in way less time with the same results. I never really liked using the slow cooker to begin with because the timing never worked with our schedules. When I worked in an office, I would set it in the morning but then the meal would be done way earlier than we were ready to eat dinner so I worried about it over-cooking. It was all right for weekends, but again I just prefer to use the IP now.

Toaster

This one might seem surprising. I love toast but I think when our toaster bites the dust I'll be replacing it with a toaster oven instead because it's so much more versatile. I like the idea of being able to bake, broil or even just heat up leftovers (mainly things like pizza or sandwiches) without turning on the full-size oven. 

Mandolin

I actually really like the mandolin, but I don't use it nearly enough. I rarely come across a recipe that requires using it, probably since most people don't have one. It's actually a great gift because it's a fun tool to own, but for practicality sake I wouldn't recommend it for amateur home cooks. The one I have has several parts and it can be a challenge to put together and adjust.  

Free Mini-Course

Stocking your kitchen with useful tools and appliances is the first step to streamlining your cooking routine but to keep the momentum going, I created a free 3-day email course with actionable steps on organizing your kitchen, meal planning, shopping and prepping for the week!

The course includes a pantry staple checklist, 5-day dinner plan, and other helpful information to help you refresh your kitchen and refocus your nutrition and cooking routine. Use the form below to sign up!

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