Whether clients are working from home, starting to go back to work, or getting their kids to summertime activities, it can be difficult for them to make homemade meals. As dietitians, we often recommend home cooking because clients can control what goes into their meals, ideally making them more healthful.
However, cooking every meal from scratch can be daunting. After more than a year of takeout for many busy clients during the pandemic, it will be tough to adjust. On the other hand, clients who have been cooking more at home throughout the pandemic may be experiencing burnout.
When speaking to clients about preparing meals at home, it’s best to provide easy, practical tips. A half-homemade approach involves using premade products and adding them to recipes to enhance flavor and spend less time in the kitchen.
Benefits of Home Cooking
Whether our clients are trying to manage blood sugar, reduce their blood pressure, stick to a food budget, or lose weight, cooking at home can be a boon for these goals. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 3 in 5 Americans report eating dinner out at least once per week. Portion sizes at restaurants have grown over time, meaning clients who eat out regularly may be consuming significantly more calories, sugar, and sodium.
If a client has a specific health condition or allergy, or is a picky eater, cooking at home provides the most control to ensuring palatability and healthfulness. This control may make it easier for clients to follow a health-promoting eating pattern.
There are financial benefits as well. If a client is eating multiple meals outside the home and multiple times per week, they’re likely spending a pretty penny. Delivery fees can be steep and add up over time. The average American spends $232 per month on prepared meals outside the home—nearly $2,800 a year. For clients feeding a family, cooking at home can help to not only reduce costs but also establish healthful behaviors in children and teens.
Breakfast can be challenging to make first thing in the morning. It often seems easier to reach for a breakfast cereal or a quick pastry than prepare a balanced meal.
Just Crack an Egg Veggie Scramble is an easy way for clients to get vegetables into their morning meal. This product reduces cleanup, as the eggs are prepared in a microwave-safe cup with the vegetables in it. All clients have to do is add a fresh egg and microwave it for two minutes.
Precut, prewashed, and frozen fruit also can save time in the morning. There are so many different varieties of frozen fruit, from berries to tropical fruit varieties and even frozen avocado. Clients can throw these into a blender with Greek yogurt and their milk of choice for a quick smoothie—no ice necessary. Even easier, they can make smoothies with with smoothie packs or mixes that include most ingredients. For example, Dole Boosted Blends includes whey protein and almond butter for 10 g protein per serving.
Oatmeal cups are another easy way to make breakfast at home and are widely available. RX Vanilla Almond Oats is one delicious option that clients can enhance by stirring in fresh fruit, nut butter, or seeds for added fiber, fats, and protein.
Picking up lunch from a fast-food restaurant or going out to eat may seem easier than making lunch during the workday or preparing a lunch at home to bring to the office each day, but options abound for half-homemade lunches.
For clients on the go, Starkist Tuna, Salmon, and Chicken Creations are a great way to add protein to lunch. There are several varieties, including Buffalo, Lemon Pepper, classic chicken/tuna salad, Jalapeño, Thai Chili Style, and more. Recommend serving with whole grain crackers, on sandwich bread, or on a salad to make an easy and complete meal.
Clients can find salad kits, such as those from Fresh Express, at their local supermarket. There are a wide variety of options, including Asian-style, Caesar, Greek, chopped, and more. Clients can separate larger bags into smaller containers for the week or mix a whole bag into a large bowl to keep in the refrigerator. Topping the salad with a protein source, such as a preroasted rotisserie chicken or cheese like crumbled feta or shredded sharp cheddar, makes a filling lunch.
Whole grain bowls are another simple lunch option for clients on the go and are easy to throw together with ingredients at home. Minute Ready to Serve Quinoa cups can be heated in the microwave or used at room temperature to serve as the base of the bowl. A protein option can include frozen peeled precooked shrimp or cooked cocktail shrimp (usually sold in a tray) found at the supermarket seafood counter. To complete a bowl, clients can add prewashed and cut bell peppers and diced red onions, canned garbanzo beans, crumbled feta cheese, and a drizzle of balsamic vinaigrette—minimal effort and maximum flavor. Instruct clients to prevent food waste by reusing ingredients for other meals or assembling bowls with different ingredients throughout the week.
Stir-fries are another way clients can incorporate more vegetables into the evening meal. There are several half-homemade options for stir-fries that don’t involve chopping and dicing ingredients. For the rice base, clients can use a precooked brown rice such as Ben’s Original Ready Rice (which is ready after 90 seconds in the microwave) and mix with frozen riced cauliflower to hide some of the veggies. For the stir-fry, grocery stores carry a wide variety of frozen stir-fry vegetable kits as well as unfrozen kits (similar to salad kits) that can be cooked on the stove top—seasoning/sauce included. Clients can make these meals vegetarian by tossing in firm tofu for a protein source.
Protein sources often are the most time-consuming part of a meal. Marinating and cooking can be a long and overwhelming process. Many grocery stores service this need by offering precooked grilled chicken, pork, strip steak, or meatloaf for convenience. Frozen grilled chicken, beef, or seafood also are great options for quick meals. For example, clients can use premade grilled chicken served with a roasted sweet potato and tossed green salad with olive oil and lemon.
Burgers (eg, turkey, black bean, beef) can be found precooked or raw, and frozen or unfrozen. Burgers can be prepared in the oven, on the grill, or in a frying pan. For sides, frozen vegetables are great. Instead of simply steaming vegetables, suggest clients use a healthful vegetable oil (such as olive or avocado oil) and add ingredients such as garlic, oregano, and Parmesan to make them delicious.
Things to Remember When Suggesting Convenience Products
While convenience products can make our clients’ lives easier, not all are made the same, and label reading is a must. Here’s what RDs need to warn clients about during counseling sessions:
Added sugars: Added sugars sneak into plenty of food products, such as flavored oatmeal, yogurt, or protein bars. Salad dressings or sauces that come with convenience products (such as teriyaki sauce) can include a large amount of added sugars. It’s important to instruct clients on how to identify added sugars on the Nutrition Facts label and make them aware of recommended limits. The 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend less than 50 g added sugars daily, or 10% of total caloric intake, while the American Heart Association suggests a limit of 25 g/day for women and 36 g/day for men.
Sodium: Many convenience foods, such as canned goods, frozen meals, or sauces that come with prepped meals can include lots of sodium. Quick doughs (such as pizza dough), biscuit mixes, breads, soups, cheese, and deli meats also can contain too much sodium. Dietitians can instruct clients on how much sodium they should get and the consequences excess sodium may have on their health.
Storing food: Once convenience foods are opened, they likely have a shorter shelf life. It’s important to tell clients how long they should store leftovers or opened food products in their refrigerator, pantry, or freezer.
— Emma Anstine, MS, RDN, LD, is a clinical dietitian, freelance writer, and telehealth nutritionist based in Atlanta. Emma attended the University of Alabama for her undergraduate and graduate degrees in nutrition. In her free time, Emma loves to run, cardio kickbox, and cook. She loves to create and share healthful recipes and nutrition information on her Instagram and Pinterest accounts @emmathedietitian.