Tips and shortcuts to help you eat well when you can't be bothered cooking after work

Healthy pasta bakes, like Adam Liaw's mushroom and spinach stroganoff pasta bake, are your friend.
Healthy pasta bakes, like Adam Liaw's mushroom and spinach stroganoff pasta bake, are your friend.  Photo: William Meppem

Cooking can be hard. Particularly when you've come out of two years of intermittent lockdowns and are still living through one of the most severe health crises of our time. Which is perhaps why a tweet I haphazardly flung into the universe about not being able to summon the energy to cook after physically commuting into the office struck a chord with people. I received many tips and hacks, many more expressions of people experiencing the same struggle.

Pumpkin and chickpea casserole is a nutritional and affordable one-pot. 
 
Pumpkin and chickpea casserole is a nutritional and affordable one-pot.   Photo: William Meppem

Anecdotal evidence isn't the only thing underlining our collective inability to cook at the moment. An UberEATS report from March 2021 revealed that Australians were spending 210 per cent more on food delivery than before the pandemic, even as in-venue dining returned.

This is at odds with the significant shift in how people fed themselves while in lockdown. Research showed that as people spent more time at home and less time doing everything else that a regular life entails – socialising, exercising, commuting to the office, recreational activities – their food consumption became more sustainable and healthier. They ate more fruit and vegetables, bought local, reduced their household food wastage, improved their culinary capabilities, and used online deliveries not for readymade food, but groceries.

This phenomenon certainly bore out in my own life. With a sudden surplus of time, I devised meal plans that I never would have followed in the past, repurposed leftover ingredients in improvised meals, and elevated the drudgery of the weekly grocery run into an occasion worth dressing up for.

The freezer is your best friend when you're simply too tired to even fry an egg.

So how do we get back to feeding ourselves in a sustainable and fulfilling manner? According to Sisi Jia, an accredited practising dietitian at The University of Sydney's School of Health Sciences, the odds are stacked against us.

"The cost of living is rising. Healthy groceries like fresh vegetables are at an unattainable price. The burden of preparing and cooking meals is dissuading people from feeding themselves in a rewarding way.

"Depending on where you go, the price points when you get takeout can be cheaper than fresh produce. In this food environment, it's easier to access unhealthier food than it is to access healthier food."

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Jia's colleague Dr Stephanie Partridge, a Senior Research Fellow and an accredited practising dietitian, says people's inability to cook is a reflection of a "strange, new working environment".

"During lockdowns, we were working longer hours and this hasn't gone backwards. It's fine to be exhausted – an inability to cook is a reflection of the other parts of our lives. Ask yourself: can I cut back on work now that I'm commuting into the office and leave slightly earlier so I have more of the day to myself?"


Keep spinach in the freezer for stand-by meals like this spinach and walnut pesto pasta.

Keep spinach in the freezer for stand-by meals such as this spinach and walnut pesto pasta (recipe here). Photo: William Meppem

Tips and tricks to cook more

As the replies to my tweet attest, the freezer is your best friend when you're simply too tired to even fry an egg. Bulk cooking meals that freeze well – lasagne, pasta sauces, soups and stews – is a common tactic. The slow cooker was touted more than once as a life-saving appliance, particularly in winter. 

Meal kit delivery services – like Marley Spoon, HelloFresh and Dinnerly – are a great option for people who don't have the ability or time to prepare meals, saving the time expended for meal planning and grocery shopping.

Partridge, who has studied meal kit delivery services, weighs up the nutritional properties and convenience of these meal kits.

'We've found they're pretty good with vegetables, carbs and protein per serve. They're generally healthy meals. These services are not for everyone, however, because it's costly per serve. It's often cheaper to buy these ingredients yourself and prepare them yourself, but the time saving is something you have to weigh up for your household."

Jia uses the weekend for meal planning and bulk cooking.

"On a Sunday afternoon, I'll make a healthy pasta bake with lots of vegies that will reheat well throughout the week. Another idea I have is a shepherd's pie – it's slightly involved so I make it on a Sunday, but it keeps for ages. Sometimes I'll also use the weekend to make a soup, keep it in the fridge and on weeknights, I'll add noodles and vegies," Jia says.

As for weeknights, Jia recommends marinating meats the night before you go to work and stir-frying them with seasonal vegetables and potatoes when you return from work. This tip can be extended to pre-preparing any meal the night before, from soups and pastas to risottos and fried rice. Partridge swears by one-pan and one-pot meals.

Stir-fries, like Adam Liaw's chicken and broccoli hokkien noodles, make great midweek meals.

Stir-fries, such as Adam Liaw's chicken and broccoli hokkien noodles (recipe here), can be thrown together in a flash. Photo: William Meppem

Many people swear by a few dependable recipes they can cook on autopilot in a pinch.

And keep it simple – store-bought pasta, stir-fries, eggs on toast with accompaniments, frozen chips and vegetables with sausages or chicken tenders, and build-your own burrito or poke bowls are a few of the common dishes people subsist on.

Avail yourself of pre-cut vegies or mixed bags of greens.

And feeding oneself takes a village when times are tough – cook meals for neighbours, family and friends when you're able to, and enjoy the reciprocity when you're unable to.

With cost of living increases impinging on household budgets, Jia and Partridge recommend bulking up meals with frozen and canned vegetables – which have the same nutritional properties as fresh vegetables – and canned pulses. Jia regularly adds frozen spinach to her pasta sauces, while Partridge often throws canned chickpeas into her one-pan meals.

When we return home from an arduous day at work and it'd take more time to order takeaway than cook, Jia says it's important to remember how rewarding cooking yourself a meal can be.

"One of the barriers is thinking or feeling like cooking is tiring or not worth the effort. But cooking can be enjoyable and should not be seen as a chore, but as a fulfilling or productive activity. Cooking is essential to our health."

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Jia recommends some good old-fashioned bragging on Instagram to show off the fruits of your labour.

But implementing sustainable habits takes time, and Partridge's gentle reminder to take it easy on ourselves is an important one.

"Being fed and having food to consume is the most important thing. Don't be too hard on yourself. Try to do half a week to start off with, work on keeping that habit up and build on it slowly. Cook food you really enjoy the taste of."