Taking care of your kids, partner, or elderly parents can feel like a full-time job – and getting nourishing meals on the table is just one challenge among many. In your busiest, weariest moments, you may be tempted to turn to convenience foods for quick meals. Unfortunately, many fast food favorites and prepackaged dishes are high in sugar, fat, and sodium, spelling long term trouble for your family’s physical and mental health. In fact, recent research shows that eating fast food on a regular basis may increase the risk of depression by more than 50 percent, not to mention the increased risk of obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes.  In contrast, a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, poultry, fish, and low-fat dairy could help you battle the blues while managing the stress of caregiving.

Fortunately, preparing nutritious, comforting meals is easier than you think! Follow our simple tips, like using a slow cooker and freezing extras, to get healthy satisfying meals on the table with less time and effort.

Simmer Low and Slow

Slow cookers have offered respite to many weary wives and frenzied fathers. After you do the initial work of preparing ingredients, slow cookers do the rest. They slowly simmer the food for several hours, while you go to work or chauffeur your kids from one hockey practice and music lesson to another. There are few things more rewarding – or less demanding – than coming home to a crockpot full of ready-to-eat stew. The smell alone will soothe your soul and leave your family asking for more.

Look for recipes designed for slow cookers, or adapt your stovetop favorites by reducing the amount of liquid called for by up to 50 percent. Slow cookers are particularly good for tenderizing tough, inexpensive cuts of meat in pot roasts, stews, and soups.

To maximize the healthfulness of slow cooked meals, skim off excess fat before serving.

Add Pressure

Pressure cookers are another wonderful tool, which many modern caregivers have yet to discover. You can use them to prepare meat, beans, soups, stews, and vegetable dishes up to 70 percent more quickly than conventional cooking methods. When you seal and heat the cooker, pressure builds up inside, pushing hot steam into food to mimic the effects of slow-and-low simmering in far less time. For example, pressure cookers can transform dried chickpeas from inedibly hard to toothsomely delicious in just fifteen minutes.

If you are haunted by memories of your mother’s pressure cooker blowing a valve and spewing food all over the place, don’t worry. Today’s models are more sophisticated and very safe.

Double and Freeze

When you have time to whip up lasagne, meat loaf, or muffins, make a double batch and freeze extras for later. In the long run, you will slash the minutes spent on shopping and cooking, while preparing for busy times ahead.

Many classic comfort foods freeze well, including casseroles, burritos, chili, mashed potatoes, muffins, and quick breads. Let the dish cool completely before you freeze it. Package it in well-sealed, food-grade containers and label it clearly with the date and contents. When you have a hectic evening ahead of you, take the dish out of the freezer and let it thaw for a day or two in the refrigerator. This is safer than thawing it on your countertop, where room temperature conditions cultivate bacterial growth.

Stock Healthy Convenience Foods

In general, it is healthier to choose fresh ingredients over prepackaged dishes. Sometimes, however, all you have time for is a can of soup or frozen dinner. Be prepared for those moments by stocking your pantry and freezer with relatively healthy options. Look for products that are low in sugar, fat, and sodium by reading labels and comparing nutritional information. Our “Eat It or Leave It” series offers practical tips for choosing the best options, while leaving the worst behind.

You can also boost the nutritional value of convenience foods by adding fresh, frozen, or dried produce. For example:

  • Serve canned chili over baked sweet potatoes
  • Add handfuls of spinach or kale to boxed macaroni and cheese
  • Stir frozen peas, corn, and carrots into dried or canned chicken noodle soup
  • Incorporate fresh, frozen, or dried berries into boxed muffin and pancake batter

Use Shortcuts to Enjoy Healthier Comfort Food

In times of stress, it is easy to reach for comfort foods. Unfortunately, when those foods are high in sugar, fat, and sodium, they may leave you and your family feeling worse, instead of better. Using timesaving tools, cooking extras for later, and shopping wisely will help you prepare nutritious and delicious meals that nourish the body, as well as the soul.