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3 tips for making healthy meals easier this summer — from a registered dietitian

Tired of cooking all the time? Take the pressure off and breathe life back into your meals with tips from a dietitian who knows how you feel.
Lunch boxes with fresh raw food, healthy food concept
There is no need to spend hours in the kitchen putting together a meal. If you’re feeling quarantine fatigue, you can use a combination of prepared and fresh foods to significantly reduce active cooking and prep time. Getty Images

Months into quarantine living, it’s the height of summer and we’re collectively navigating a new normal that requires us to keep reacquainting ourselves with our kitchens and pantries. For some, dealing with cooking sparks more frustration than joy, and that frustration can be made worse by financial strain, stress and limited time — all of which can lead to a bad case of quarantine fatigue.

Has the COVID-19 pandemic worn you out or derailed your regular nutrition routine? Perhaps you’ve found yourself in need of a new perspective and a positive way of reframing your food choices without falling into the blame and shame game.

Mike Dow, a psychotherapist and author of “The Sugar Brain Fix,” suggests trying to make small but sustainable changes. “Ask yourself this question,” he said. “What one change could I make today that would make my diet just 10% healthier?” Dow noted that small steps are integral to the process of making changes. “When people don't use baby steps, they make too many changes too fast. They go from a cheeseburger, fries and a soda to a salad and water. When done too quickly, the taste isn't rewarding.”

Our taste buds have five different types of taste receptor cells — sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami — that can be recalibrated over time. “When you make these 10% changes,” said Dow, “you slowly give all your different taste buds time to ‘recalibrate.’ A salad and water on day one will taste not nearly salty or sweet enough. But it may on day 30.”

As you try to get out of your cooking rut, remember to allow yourself some grace — it’ll take some time to revive your relationship with the kitchen. Here are some tips to get you back at it.

No-fuss cost-conscious wonders

There is no need to spend hours in the kitchen putting together a meal. If you’re feeling quarantine fatigue, you can use a combination of prepared and fresh foods to significantly reduce active cooking and prep time.

Mariana Dineen, a registered dietitian at Pretty Nutritious, has been focusing on nutritious, easy and healthy meals that can be prepared in 20 minutes or less. She’s created an easy family-pleasing stovetop flautas recipe with a twist. “Flautas are rolled tacos usually pan-fried until crispy, but I like to pop them in my air fryer,” she said, adding that the sky's the limit when it comes to the fillings. To make it easy on yourself, she suggested just picking up a rotisserie chicken from your grocery and mixing it with sautéed finely-chopped veggies and shredded cheese.

Pulling together the base ingredients for a meal is just the first step. Don’t turn your nose up at frozen or canned produce either. Those veggies, beans and fruits are usually harvested at the peak of the growing season and can be a shelf-stable alternative to fresh produce. They can also help you whip up budget-friendly healthy meals. Registered dietitian Shana Spence notes that one of the reasons they’re cost-effective is “because they store easily and there is less waste. Fresh produce might be forgotten about in the fridge and frozen will last longer.”

There is no need to abandon fresh produce. Summer is the height of the growing season so fresh produce is abundant. Buying fresh produce on sale and in bulk is a great cost-saving mechanism. Many fruits and vegetables can be washed, dried and placed in freezer-safe containers for later use too.

Spence says oats purchased in bulk can also save you time and money. “The larger bags or canisters are a great option because they last longer and you can make them any way you like. Overnight oats, even using them in a savory dish as a grain, is a great option.”

No-cook options

When the temperatures are soaring, no one wants to enter the kitchen — much less turn on the stove, so no-cook options are the way to go.

There are many ready-to-eat options that are perfect for quick meals. Canned mini fish like sardines are delicious on toast and take less than five minutes to put together. Tuna, salmon or trout in a pouch is tasty over plain microwaved brown rice paired with a bag of well-seasoned salad greens. You can season with fresh herbs, lemon juice and olive oil — or the flavor combination of your choice.

These no-heat options can be quickly made for breakfast, lunch and dinner without breaking the bank.

Chilled desserts

If you’re craving something cold and filling, smoothies can be a great way to combine fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds into a snack or meal. For a cooling homemade budget-friendly option, Dineen suggests getting creative with smoothies by pouring the smoothie in small paper cups on a baking tray, then putting a popsicle stick in the center, and freezing until solid. It’s a fun way to make homemade ice pops.

No-cook desserts are the only way to go in the summer months. Cookies and cakes are wonderfully delicious, but baking them can warm up an already hot kitchen. Alternatively, chia pudding can be prepped quickly and doesn’t require an oven. The combination of chocolate and peanut butter is luscious. “Chia pudding made with chia seeds, almond milk, cocoa powder, maple syrup, cinnamon and topped with peanut butter and banana,” suggests Dineen, is dessert at it’s finest.

As you reimagine your meals in the coming weeks, think of Dow’s advice and recalibrate using the 10% rule. Simplify your meals with nutrition, health and ease in mind.