One of the biggest benefits of home-cooked meals is the ability to control the ingredients, additives and portion size of each meal. However, enjoying home-cooked meals may not be an option for many people who lead very busy lifestyles, who travel often or those who are unable to physically meet the demands of cooking (standing, bending over, cutting & chopping, lifting heavy items, etc.). The alternatives to affordable home-cooked meals used to be limited to frozen dinners and/or fast-food take out but, in recent times, the options have grown to include meal-prep services, meal-delivery services or a combination of the two.
Your choices of home-cooked meal alternatives will depend on your nutrition goals, budget, current state of health and other individualized factors such as convenience and dietary preferences. With all the potential options available to the person who doesn't or can't cook at home, these 3 quick tips will help better inform your decision-making process:
Read the label: Whether you're perusing the frozen entrees aisle of your local supermarket or choosing meals from an online meal-prep service menu, reading the nutrition facts and ingredients for your meals is the most important tip for proper meal selection. Most mass-produced, processed frozen meals are loaded with sodium and/or calories from fat. The FDA suggests consuming less than 2,300 mg of sodium per day, however the amount of sodium you consume should ultimately be recommended by your doctor - he or she will know your medical history and current (if, any) medical conditions. Reading the label also includes knowing what you're healthier options are when you're eating out, whether at a fast-food chain or a 5-star restaurant. It would be to your benefit to do a bit of research before you dine out by viewing the restaurant's menu and nutrition facts. Most restaurants have their nutrition facts stated on their website or on their physical menu.
Consider meal-prep services: Meal preparation services have grown in popularity in the last couple of years. There is a great chance you can find a local meal-prep service that will provide customized, nutritious meals that you can pick up or receive at your door step. These services may be a bit more costly than frozen meals but the advantages are that these meals are fresh, made to order weekly or bi-weekly and are likely to contain far less sodium and artificial ingredients than frozen meals.
Healthy snacks & meal replacement shakes: Stocking up on nutrient dense, filling snacks such as fruits, dried fruits, nuts & seeds, veggies (carrots, celery, broccoli, snap peas, etc.), yogurt, granola bars, boiled eggs and nut butters (which can be calorie dense, as well) is a great way to stay satiated between meals when you're on the go. There are myriad options for healthy snacks at your local supermarket, airport kiosks and even vending machines. Read the label! Many packaged, "healthy" snacks are actually laden with artificial ingredients and sodium. Choose fresh options whenever available. Meal replacement shakes are also plentiful and can be found just about anywhere that sells refrigerated drinks. Gas stations, supermarkets, convenience stores, gyms and even some sporting goods stores carry several different brands of pre-made shakes that contain the calories and nutrients typically consumed in a small, healthy meal. Meal replacement shakes differ slightly from protein shakes in that they typically contain more grams of carbohydrates per serving. Read the label! Some meal replacement shakes are designed specifically for people who need more fiber or higher amounts of carbohydrates in their diets. Some are made with more added sugars than others. Some have 2 servings in 1 bottle. Some contain added ingredients such as caffeine or green tea extract. Choose the product that best fits your dietary needs.
Optimal nutrition, regular exercise and effective stress management are the keys to longevity and a higher quality of life. You don't have to cook to keep your nutrition in check. When cooking is not an option, there are a plethora of choices you can make to maintain a healthy and nutritious diet. The most important of all is to know what you're eating and to be mindful of your portion sizes when consuming meals. Get the facts on what you're eating, considering investing in a local meal-prep service and choose healthy snacks or meal replacement shakes.
Resources: Use the Nutrition Facts Label to Reduce Your Intake of Sodium in Your Diet Nutrition Labeling Information for Restaurants and Retail Establishments 10 Tips: Eating Food Away From Home The Best Frozen Dinners 22 Best and Worst Frozen Dinners