If you don't know how to sauté scallops; that gazpacho is food; and can't understand why you would even contemplate inviting 20 people for dinner, this is for you.
There are many of us who are too busy, too tired, or just not interested in cooking. Food assembly is what you really need to know: how to grab a few things, assemble them on a plate, and call it a healthy (and tasty) meal. It's worth noting that eating this way all the time is likely to cost more than cooking things from scratch – convenience usually comes at a price.
So learning a few basic cooking skills will help if you're keen to bring the grocery bill down a bit. You may find, once you get into assembling your healthy meals, that you want to expand your repertoire of dishes, so picking up a bit of cooking know-how will help there, too.
But in the meantime, assembly is not about being lazy; it's about being practical and efficient. To get you started, here's your step-by-step guide to assembling a healthy meal.
1. The ideal plate
Your ideal healthy meal is about 1/4 carbohydrate, 1/4 protein and the remaining 1/2 is vegetables (but not the starchy ones that are included in carbs). Before you start picturing the meat and three vege scenario of your youth, let me assure you that it doesn't always have to be like that. The images on your right will give you good visual examples or what the ideal plate can really look like. For example, a pasta salad could have that balance within it: 1/4 of the volume is cooked pasta, 1/4 of the volume is smoked chicken, and the rest is diced vegetables like capsicum, cucumber and tomatoes. Sounds like an ideal meal!
2. In the pantry
Make life easy by stocking up on things that can be the basis of, or a simple addition to, a quick simple meal.
- Noodles; dried pasta; rice (dried and quick-cook sachets)
- Canned salmon, tuna and other fish
- Canned beans, lentils and chickpeas
- Canned tomatoes (including ones with other veges added)
- Tomato paste tube (keep in the fridge once opened)
- Soup mix packets or cans
- Stir-fry and other meal-base sachets and jars (check and compare the nutrition information panels when choosing)
- Oils, vinegars, and sauces (eg soy sauce, sweet chilli sauce)
3. In the freezer
There's nothing worse than a freezer full of food you're not using: frozen steak or chops need to be used within 4 months, vegetables are okay for about 6 months. Keep a few of your staples on hand, but if you go shopping regularly you won't want too much frozen food. Ideal foods for quick meals include:
- Wholegrain bread or rolls
- Lean steak, lean diced chicken, lean lamb cutlets
- Frozen vegetables and vegetable mixes
- Frozen fish and seafood like squid and prawns
Frozen vegetables, fresh pasta and sliced bread (if you're toasting it) can be taken out when you want to use them. Ideally, most other frozen food should be thawed in the fridge, so take it out in the morning to thaw. Ensure uncooked meat is on a covered plate and put on a lower shelf so it can't drip on other food in the fridge.
If you need to thaw meat in a hurry, leave it in its sealed freezer wrap or vacuum-pack and either microwave using the 'defrost' setting or place the sealed pack in a sink of cold water (the pack must be watertight). Meat thawed using these methods should be cooked straight away.
4. In the fridge
Keep a selection of easy, yummy products in the fridge to go with your pantry and freezer staples such as:
- Lean meat (fresh, or defrosting for tonight)
- Smoked salmon
- Smoked chicken
- Salad vegetables
- Pouch of bought soup
- Fresh filled pasta (freezes well, too)
- Hummus and other dips
- Ham, salami, deli meats
5. 'Gourmet' ingredients
And here are some 'gourmet' ingredients that can really jazz up your meals but are secretly really easy to use:
- Pesto: Sounds fancy; all it is, is pounded-up herbs, pine nuts and oil. Toss it through cooked pasta, spread it on flatbread, spread it on a chicken breast before grilling. Adds flavour and colour to otherwise boring meals.
- Hummus: Blend up a can of chickpeas with a bit of olive oil and lemon juice and you have your own simple homemade hummus. Bought or homemade, it's great as a filling for wraps or sandwiches, as a condiment with grilled steak, or on its own with toasted bread.
- Rice paper rolls/rice noodles: These both require no cooking! Just a brief soak in hot water. Use the rolls to wrap around salad for your own fresh spring rolls, and use the noodles as you would normal noodles in soups or with stir-fries.
- Couscous: If you can boil a jug, you can make couscous. Just pour boiling water over it, cover, wait a few minutes and voila: a fancy base for a salad or side dish.
- Canned crab: It's no different to use from the humble canned tuna, but tossed through pasta or in a simple salad, it just looks and tastes that bit posher.
- Squid tubes/rings: The big secret about squid is that it's dead easy to cook, mostly because it takes about 2 minutes flat in a hot pan. Also, it's really cheap!
6. Quick and ready-to-eat food from the supermarket on your way home
There's loads of choice if you're buying on your way home, but chances are that means you want something really quick.
- Quick-cooking meat like steak or cutlets – pan-fry for 10 minutes.
- Fish fillets – pan-fry for 10 minutes.
- Ready-to-cook filled pasta and pasta sauce – follow pack instructions.
- Soup base or ready-to-heat soup.
- Salad vegetables and herbs or ready-made salad mix – to go with your meat.
- Frozen ready meals. Read and compare the labels. If you're using these very often you need to ensure you're going for the lower-fat varieties. You're looking for real food, not 'treats'. Look for 10g fat per 100g.
- Ready meals or salads at the deli (again, don't 'treat' yourself to something that looks less than ideal: you're looking for healthy nourishing food).
7. What to do when you really can't be bothered or you ate out for lunch
Once in a while it's not going to kill you to revert to an old favourite like baked beans, creamed corn, egg or cheese on toast. But why not add a side of salad, heated frozen vegetables, or at the very least some chopped tomatoes and capsicum? It only takes a moment and not only are you likely to enjoy it, you'll feel quite virtuous!
8. Gadgets are your friends: kitchen tools for non-cooks
Some kitchen gadgets really are a blessing for the non-cook. These are our favourites:
- Microwave: For healthy veges cooking in minutes with no mess. For defrosting and reheating without fuss.
- Bench-top grill: Grills like the George Foreman are brilliant for non-cooks because they make it easy to cook meat in no time and with no technical skill, and they turn any sandwich or wrap into something hot and tasty and more like dinner.
- Stick blender: I know it sounds suspiciously like cooking, but a stick blender is a great tool for a non-cook too. Use it to mush up beans and chickpeas for simple dips, to chop up herbs and nuts (make your own pesto!) and to make fantastic smoothies.
Healthy family food in a hurry (and they'll never guess you can't cook)
These are not recipes; these are assembly instructions. Work out your own quantities depending on how many people you're feeding.
Step 1: Carbohydrate
Use a 'brown rice in 90 seconds' or 'express' rice sachet from the supermarket (or pantry). Heat in the microwave.
Step 2: Vegetables
Chop a pile of vegetables (or get someone else to). Use things like cucumber, capsicum, red onion, tomatoes, mushrooms, celery. You could also use veges like broccoli or asparagus; they'll need up to 2 minutes in the microwave. Rinse them in cold water once out of the microwave to stop further cooking. Veges from the freezer can be cooked in the same way.
Combine the rice and vegetables in a large bowl .
Make a dressing using 1/2 olive oil and 1/2 vinegar (malt/balsamic/wine) and mix into the salad.
Step 3: Protein
Add your choice of:
- Canned tuna or salmon. Drain; chunk; arrange on top or mix through the salad.
- Barbecued lean steak. Rest it for 5 minutes after cooking; slice thinly and arrange on top of the salad.
- Smoked salmon. Use a fillet; break into chunks and arrange on top of the salad.
- Canned beans. Drain. Mix through the salad.
- Cooked chicken. (Could be smoked chicken, rotisserie chicken or leftovers.) Remove skin and fat. Cut into chunks. Mix through the salad.
Bonus: Do the same salad with cooked pasta as your base and they'll think you've got another recipe!
Filled pasta with tomato vegetable sauce
Step 1: Carbohydrate
Use a packet of fresh, filled pasta from the supermarket (or fridge/freezer). Boil a large pot of water and cook the pasta for as long as the instructions say. (Add a teaspoon of salt to the water – this adds flavour to the pasta. And use lots of water so it doesn't stick.)
Step 2: Vegetables
Throw a can (or more) of crushed tomatoes into a pot (or microwave container) and heat. Stir in lots of chopped leftover vege from the fridge like mushrooms, capsicum, silver beet, broccoli or beans, or use a frozen vege mix. Cook for a few minutes; the veges are better slightly crisp.
Step 3: Protein
Add canned beans to the sauce mix. Drain the pasta when it's cooked. Put it back in the large pot. Add the tomato vegetable sauce and mix together. Serve into bowls and grate some parmesan on top if you have the energy.
Remember the ideal plate: The noodles provide the carbohydrate, so in the soup you also want loads of vegetables and some protein. Use a boxed chicken stock (choose low-salt varieties). Heat it up in a large saucepan.
Step 1: Protein
The protein in the soup could be meat, fish or beans. Add the meat to the pot in small pieces. It will cook quickly in the stock.
Step 2: Vegetables
Add chopped leftover fresh veges or frozen veges.
Step 3: Carbohydrate
Add rice noodles or plain Chinese noodles to the pot – they cook in about 2 minutes. Serve. (Instead of noodles you can add rice, pasta or chopped potato to the soup.)