In praise of the lazy meal
Meals that make you feel good and give you some nutrition, but also are lazy as hell, are possible.
Eating is exasperating.
Not the act, but the planning and deciding. In the past I would have considered figuring out what to eat just for myself more vexing than being in a group chat of people figuring out where to eat, and we all know that scenario is pure hell.
Not anymore. I’ve fine-tuned a system wherein I don’t have to think very much about what to eat; I have few struggles about meal planning (I don’t even plan, really); what I eat makes me feel nourished, often happy; and grocery shopping isn’t a horror show but an autopilot errand that’s sometimes kind of pleasurable in its simplicity.*
This system is built on a foundation of lazy meals.
I don’t mean takeout or delivery—they’re fine, but the charges, waiting, and potential for disappointment usually aren’t worth it to me. My lazy meals do the job of keeping me satisfied in this bewildering plane of existence without the stress of a $9 delivery fee and a forgotten container of broth for my pho ingredients (this has happened to me. They forgot to bring the soup with my soup. I miserably heated up my dry brick of noodles with oil and went to bed with fury poisoning my blood).
Some things about me: I teach group fitness classes and lift weights a lot. I lost a lot of weight several years ago (more on that here; this will not be a weight loss-focused piece), so I’ve been asked quite a few times about what I eat. There have been assumptions that I must “meal prep,” or count calories or log things in apps, or spend hours chopping and cooking the “right” kinds of food per some diet. It is not so.
You’re more likely to find me eating half a package of deli turkey right out of the plastic, dipped with my bare hands into cheese spread, while dissociating in my kitchen as the Zoom meeting boots up. We’re all busy, life doesn’t care, and we’re here for a good time, not a long time. We need things that are low-effort and fast.
I’ve moved around a fair bit, so have encountered lots of different grocery stores’ offerings, and spent a few years as a very broke, very busy person who likes to work out and eat a lot. There’s been trial and error. Now I impart some of that knowledge—not for you to follow exactly, but for inspiration if you’re feeling stuck.
Also: I’m not an expert or a health care provider. I believe the idea of “healthy” food sneakily refers to “food that’s supportive of weight loss” and that can be a problem—what’s “healthy” for one person’s well-being, goals, lifestyle, physical conditions, etc. is different from another’s. These are just lazy foods that work for me and that I recommend based on the following principles, should you care to hew to the same:
The turkey sandwich principle
Most of my meals have a mix of protein, fat, and carbs—these are the macronutrients your body needs to function—plus something green and/or something fresh.
Think of a turkey sandwich: bread (carbs), turkey (protein), avocado/mayo/cheese (fat), plus lettuce and tomato, or eaten with a salad or vegetable. It’s ideal for me.
Why? It’s got my macros but isn’t such a large, carb-dominant, or fat-dominant meal that it’ll kick in a food coma and make me feel overfull and sluggish (and no, turkey doesn’t make you tired); the more foods you eat that are higher on the glycemic index, the more tired you might feel after eating, since they spike and drop your blood sugar. Eating them with lower-GI foods mitigates this effect. And: some carbs (like certain breads) are lower-GI than others. I stick with mostly those. (I’m oversimplifying this, and I don’t look up the glycemic index number of all foods. I just stick to the macro mix.) The “something green/fresh” helps me remember to eat fruits and vegetables.
This principle helps me choose meals that feel “complete.” I’d personally consider a bagel with cream cheese just as incomplete/a less-ideal meal choice as a solitary orange; the orange isn’t enough food, the bagel’s going to spike the blood sugar, both lack protein. Throw some smoked salmon, tomato, and capers on that bagel, or have the orange with a handful of nuts and a Chomps stick and baby, you got a stew goin’:
Large, carb-heavy, or fatty meals aren’t evil—I’ll eat them when I’m ready to rage with some ravioli and then melt into the couch. But during my typical days, I don’t have it in me to fight sleep at 1:30 p.m. I’ll be busy fighting it at 3 p.m., you know?
The kindergarten principle
I also like my meal ingredients to follow the “kindergarten principle”—if I knew about and understood them in kindergarten (blueberries, rice, butter, etc.), they’re a better bet for me than things like sorbitol or guar gum. I always read ingredients.
“Better bet” doesn’t mean some “anti-chemical” or moralistic ideal—I mean less likely to upset my stomach, which has become more delicate as I age. The franken-ingredients in many modern snacks and “health” foods especially mess me up. This is mostly a matter of personal preference and your body’s reactions.
[A note on disordered eating: Many lazy choices (pasta, frozen pizza, mac and cheese, etc.) aren’t on my list because they can be binge eating triggers for me. I eat them when I’m in a calm state of mind, when I can sit and slowly enjoy them without distraction—the things I’ve learned from managing binge eating disorder. I can’t do that every day, so I don’t eat them every day. They might be OK more often for you.]
A two-tiered lazy meal approach
I’m separating these meals and snacks into two tiers:
Tier 1 is the “truly lazy” zone—you can eat them right out of the package, or they require no kitchen implements beyond the microwave (in one case, a blender).
Tier 2 is the “that little extra” zone—you’re using one pan, you have to boil water or chop a thing (I’m sorry to this Twitter person!) but it’s not a Whole Cooking Event.
Vaguely “breakfast” foods:
(Your stomach doesn’t care about the concept of breakfast—eat chicken parm at 9:47 a.m. if you want—but you know what I mean…)
I’ll often eat several of these items at once. Many are just one part of a bigger meal.
Hard boiled eggs (Tier 1 = buy them pre-made in a pack; Tier 2 = boil them yourself)
I spread/dip hummus or baba ghanoush on mine, or sprinkle with Trader Joe’s Everything but the Bagel seasoning and sriracha.
Cottage cheese with fruit (pre-chopped, frozen then defrosted, or fresh), or Greek yogurt and fruit
You want whole milk, high-fat varieties. Low-fat cottage cheese tastes like milky playground tire mulch. I like this Good Culture brand.
Best “protein bar” on the market, in my opinion, if you need an “I have time for nothing” breakfast item. Doesn’t taste like chocolate-essenced clay, like others. They’re made of only fruit, nuts, and egg whites (hey, eggs for breakfast!) Buy boxes for value. Trader Joe’s has them for ~$1.99.
Frozen/microwaved breakfast burritos
I like Sweet Earth; the flavors sing and the size does not occasion the food coma.
Check the ingredients for the turkey sandwich/kindergarten principles.
“Breakfast ice cream”
OK, it’s just a protein smoothie. Have it whenever. I think it evokes strawberry ice cream. If you don’t, keep it to yourself. Let me have this.
True Nutrition chocolate protein (which is expensive, but it’s simply the best; I am suggesting emphatically that you not even bother with any other brand) blended thick with frozen strawberries and coconut water. Add chocolate pieces if you’re that bitch.
Overnight oats of any kind. The Pinterest girlies are not wrong about this one. Do them in a Tupperware if you don’t have an aesthetically pleasing Mason jar.
Microwaved oatmeal with fruit or nut butter on top
I like TJ’s Old Fashioned Organic Oats.
Hilary’s grain burgers/sausage patties
My favorite grain patty there is. Fried up in the pan with a fried egg on top. I eat this for dinner more often than breakfast.
Scrambled eggs on a carb
If you want to make Tier 2 lazier, get liquid eggs in a container. You don’t even have to crack them!
I season mine with salt, pepper, Italian seasoning or TJ’s Onion Salt, and sriracha, and dump them on pumpernickel or rye (my fave breads) or these Wasa rye crackers–I like really crunchy things and these get the job done.
Mashed avocado on a carb with a fried egg
(Or hard-boiled egg slices to make it easier.) Add tomato! Extra easy: pre-made guacamole from a container.
Lunch, dinner, snacks:
Dips for lunch/dinner! Trader Joe’s (are you seeing a theme?) dips and spreads—they’ve got artichoke, bruschetta, olive tapenade, etc.
Of course, you can buy any grocery store’s dips/spreads. If they’re oily, they could be a good fat source (check ingredients!) Hummus and bean-based spreads can be a good protein source.
Meal item idea: spread on bread of choice or your favorite crunchy thing, or dump on rice or a sweet potato; accompany with a protein.
The easiest sweet potato method: stab with a fork a few times, wrap in a wet paper towel, microwave for 6-8 minutes.
I put so many things on sweet potatoes cooked this way. Fried eggs, tuna salad (once the potato is cooled), chopped chicken sausage, etc.
Packaged smoked salmon
TJ’s has this great “Everything but the Bagel” kind. Most stores have their own. A little pricey, but that’s seafood for ya.
Meal item idea: I put some slices on top of crackers/rice cakes/toast and have with veggies.
Meal item idea: The easiest chicken salad. Get canned chicken (it exists, it’s not gross, and I understand why Jessica Simpson was confused re: Chicken of the Sea) and mix with mayo or avocado and spices. Put on bread or crackers.
Meal item idea: The easiest cucumber salad. Get Persian cucumbers (the little ones) and slice them up (you don’t have to peel them) and mix with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt, pepper, goat cheese/blue cheese/feta.
Meal item idea: Veggie quesadilla. One of my favorites. I tried these nut-based products based on this recipe and love the flavors:
Sauté kale (buy it bagged/pre-chopped) until wilted, drain of any liquid;
Spread cashew or other vegan cheese on two tortillas (I like these almond flour ones), top with kale;
Cook in an oiled pan until crispy on both sides.
Obviously, you can do this with regular cheese and tortillas for much cheaper.
Meal item idea: Turkey hash.
Pre-cook a sweet potato per the lazy potato method above.
Heat garlic in a pan with olive oil, then dump in a package of ground turkey. Once it’s almost browned, add spinach, the sweet potato in chunks, and tons of spices (I like this curry seasoning mix; Italian seasoning mixes also work).
General meal thought:
If you have a crock pot or Instant Pot, you know the deal–it’s thee lazy meal tool. There are innumerable recipes out there, but I’ve long been a fan of just buying a package of meat and one of those seasoning packets, then punting it all into the crock pot and waiting for tomorrow to arrive. If you think you “can’t cook,” get a crock pot. Cross my heart and hope to die. Here’s a $20 (!!!) one with 78% five-star reviews.
Products to look out for that you can use to build out your meals:
Packaged deli meats: turkey, chicken, roast beef, etc. I like Applegate.
Pre-cooked chicken, any kind really.
Lazy salad: Some lettuce comes in containers like this. I’ll put my protein right in the container + olive oil, balsamic, spices, etc., mix, and eat it right out of the container. No dishes! Instant leftovers container! Amazing!
Frozen shrimp; frozen cuts of fish like salmon.
Get cooked shrimp you can just defrost and eat, for ease. Olive oil + spices + a citrus, toss together.
Best salmon method (Tier 2): oil + spices, bake on a sheet pan at 425 for 12-15 minutes.
Tuna in cans or pouches. Mix with fat/spices, eat with carbs of choice or mix into a salad with butter lettuce/Bibb lettuce, citrus, olive oil, balsamic.
Frozen edamame—put in a dish with a bit of water and microwave for 3 minutes. Olive oil + salt.
Frozen veggie mixes—Whole Foods has great ones and they’re among the, like, 10 Whole Foods things that aren’t wildly overpriced. Check out the kale + bean one (on heavy rotation in my household), the European greens one, and the eggplant + pepper one. One pan, a few minutes.
Canned beans for bean salad. Toss with olive oil, vinegars, spices. Add cheese, mix with your cucumber salad. I’ve also mixed a can of beans with premade pico de gallo in extra-lazy moments.
Trader Joe’s kale chips for an extra-lazy serving of veggies. I also like their beet chips. Look in the grocery store for veggie chips that are actual dehydrated vegetables, not veggie “powders” made into new shapes.
Bagged baby carrots, snap peas, or peppers with hummus, or baba ghanoush, or whatever dip you like that you can buy in a container.
Microwavable veggie bags/microwave-in-bag veggies: Every grocery store carries these in the frozen section. A crock pot meat + these = lazy luxury.
Pre-packaged/canned beets. Add goat cheese, or slice on top of your lazy salad. Don’t sleep on beets with a little balsamic vinegar and salt.
Some frozen microwaveable bowls are really good. I love this one from Primal Kitchen. Just check ingredients for the turkey sandwich/kindergarten principles.
Frozen turkey burgers. Cook up in one pan from frozen. I like mine with lots of honey mustard.
A few sweet things that don’t make me feel sugar-bombed:
Perfect Bars, which are in pretty much every CVS and grocery store now—good protein, pretty high in fat and sugar from honey, but solid ingredients.
Mini chocolate or peanut butter RXBars. Half the size of the regulars.
My “breakfast ice cream.” Just had to mention it again.
Dark chocolate chips/chunks in Greek yogurt or cottage cheese. I buy plain, unsweetened, full-fat yogurt/cheese with minimal ingredients. If it’s too bitter I add stevia extract. (Some people balk at stevia as a “fake sugar.” I like it because if I want something a little sweet, I’d rather use a few drops of stevia than a tablespoon of sugar. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ I get the kind listed under “mediocre” here.
Applesauce with cinnamon.
Dried figs/dates right out of the package.
Bobo’s Oat Bars, also in CVS/most grocery stores. They’re super dense and filling. Good pre-workout snack, IMO.
The overarching lazy meal ethos:
There is probably some version of all the above for cheaper, or more to your liking for some reason, at your grocery store. You just have to know what’s there. See if you can find an occasion when you have a little more time to really investigate what they have. Note the things you really like and would buy again. Know where they are.
You can prepare and eat something exciting and intentional and precious, or you might just need to do the ol’ Grab Things to Insert Into Your Face.
Start compiling your list of personal “staples”—when I go to the grocery store, I blaze in and out. I grab my preferred proteins, my trusty snacks, my frozen stuff, my produce. The store is a familiar zone.
Get used to buying a lot of the same kinds of things all the time, but eating them (or cooking them when you feel like it) in different configurations. If I always have my trusted ingredients, I know I can throw something together in 10 minutes. I don’t plan meals—I just have the stuff I need for meals I know I like.
Bottom line: Food can be transcendent, a joy, a moment, an event. You can prepare and eat something exciting and intentional and precious, or you might just need to do the ol’ Grab Things to Insert Into Your Face. The things you grab can make you feel good, whatever “good” means to you.
Not every meal can or needs to be a journey of the senses, tenderly and serenely crafted in the sauté pans of a brightly-lit, aromatic kitchen. That’s not how most of us live. Meals might just need to be mostly practical, utilitarian, boring, and effective.
So: Have what you need on hand for the job. Eating is like brushing your teeth—you have to do it. You keep a toothbrush and toothpaste in your home so they’re ready for you to use. Food sometimes has to be the same way.
What did I miss? What are your favorite lazy meals and why? Let me know in the comments.
*It feels critical to mention that I shop only for myself. Everything is easier when your shopping list doesn't include the needs of other adults, kids, etc. Bear this in mind. As always: I'm playing this game on easy mode.