There’s a big difference in fast food, convenient food and quick food–in taste, nutrition, and satisfaction. But let me define how I use my terms here. Fast food is what you get from the drive-thru. It’s definitely fast, but in many cases questionable food. It’s high in fat, high in sugar and acts as a filler rather than a fueler for your body. Convenience food can be fast food, but more importantly it can be eaten easily with little or no preparation on your side–think fruit, frozen dinners, or a box of mac and cheese. If you’re cooking for one, are trying to get out the door within the next 10 minutes, or are eating in the car on your family trip, then convenience food is what you want. What I’d like to talk about is quick food—a meal you can feed your friends and family without missing out on the conversation. Ideally, a full dinner you can have prepared and on the table within an hour without straining too hard.

Basics on hand

I’m at work until 6:00 or 7:00 every weeknight so, as a rule, our weekday dinners are either cooked on the weekend or are a combo of home cooking (in the loosest possible sense of the word) and packaged Co-op items. My wife and I have around 10 to 20 different meals we whip up after work depending on just how rough the day was. We also have rules for when we shop—there are a few things that we agree will never run out. My wife’s list differs slightly from mine in that she has fruit and chocolate on hers, while I have cheese and more cheese on mine. Generally, though, we see eye-to-eye on having frozen veggies, potatoes, onions, garlic, tomato products of every kind, Quorn products, pasta, eggs, and canned beans (again of every kind).

Creating meals in a snap

Starting with these basics, we are able to create meals in a snap. Here are some examples for you: Monday of this week we boiled some potatoes then mashed them with some Camembert, sour cream, and spices. While the potatoes boiled, we sautéed some frozen broccoli and carrots with onion, butter, and garlic. All of that went into a baking dish with a little Monterey Jack grated over the top for about 15 minutes. On the side we had some pears and Amy’s Organic Lentil Soup. Total cooking and prep time was about 25 minutes. Tuesday we seeded some bell peppers and boiled them for about 10 minutes, mixed a can of rinsed black beans with some frozen corn, filled the peppers with the mix, topped it with cheese and paprika and baked with a little water for another 15 minutes. On the side we had tortilla chips and salsa and some of the Hawkwind pepper relish (straight out of Baraboo). Sibby’s Vanilla Ice Cream was dessert. Wednesday we went fancy. I toasted some of the Quorn brand faux chicken patties in the toaster oven (seriously, if I was vegan I’d be worried how much these taste like chicken) and topped them with some crumbled bleu cheese. We put these over some spaghetti and topped with Rossario’s spaghetti sauce (another local company and my current favorite sauce). Total cooking time was a whopping 15 minutes including peas and garlic toast on the side. On each of these days we had enough leftovers to feed us lunch and, in the case of the mashed potato casserole, dinner again.

The other great thing about these meals is that you can switch up the ingredients and create a whole new one. The Deli makes this especially easy. For example, you can stuff the peppers with some quinoa pilaf, have a side of Emerald Sesame Kale, toast some of Nature’s Bakery’s pitas and add our hummus and your southwestern meal is now a healthy Middle Eastern theme. The same goes for the Quorn patties. We’ve cut them up and added barbecue sauce or spicy mustard on the side, paired it with the Deli’s creamy coleslaw and some pickles to quickly change Italian to a picnic theme. If you’re really short on time, I’d also recommend the Deli’s ready-to-heat-and-eat entrée items from our cold case, as well as the mini-meatloaves and the Florentine burgers as bases for a fast supper.

Learning curve

The key to all these meals is that we try to balance them out between healthy meals with veggies and proteins and meals with a little bit of rich comfort foods. There are numerous resources for learning what types of food to match in order to create a healthy, quick meal. While none of the above recipes are from any particular cookbook, they are all based on recipes we’ve found in them. Particularly good ones include the More-With-Less Cookbook of Mennonite recipes from Doris Longacre, Nikki & David Goldbeck’s American Wholefoods Cuisine, and just about any book by both Crescent Dragonwagon and Madhur Jaffrey. There is also a great selection available across from the salad bar—a nice place to do a little research while you shop. While there are varying degrees of difficulty in these books, all have good, easy, and easily adaptable recipes if you’re willing to take some chances.