Hippo Manchester
October 6, 2005

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Have a Happy Meal and a happier wallet

Quick foods that don’t come from a drive thru

By Michelle Saturley  msaturley@hippopress.com

Studies show that eating together as a family is beneficial for both kids and adults. It promotes good eating habits for kids, and it’s a great way for parents to spend some time with their kids. But where do you find the time? After a hectic day at work and school, it would be great to just go home, kick off your shoes and relax around the dinner table, but for most of us, there’s still another shift to go: homework, activities, sports, lessons, and finally, a mad dash for dinner.

Sometimes, eating together as a family consists of shoving the contents of a Happy Meal in your children’s faces on the way from one place to the next, leaving you feeling bloated, unsatisfied and covered in grease. It can also get expensive over time.

There has to be a better, healthier way to dine together. But how, exactly, do you wedge a quick, easy, affordable meal into your breakneck schedule?

Shopping ahead

It takes a little advanced planning but creating fast, healthful meals at home can be done. A few staples you should always have on hand to make the preparation and cooking time faster and easier include instant boil-in-bag rice; frozen pre-cooked chicken and shrimp, bags of shredded cheese and pre-washed, pre-cut vegetables. Those bagged salad greens can be a lifesaver when you’re in a hurry. Canned tomatoes and frozen vegetables should be a permanent fixture on your grocery list, because they can be so versatile in everything from soups to pasta dishes to stir fry dishes.

Cooking equipment can also make life easier. My husband bought me a food processor last year, and it was one of the best things he ever gave me. I use it for salads, soups, pies and everything in between. It’s also a good idea to invest in a vegetable steamer. Not only is steaming a fast way to cook vegetables, but they will taste so much better and retain more nutrients than boiled vegetables. A wide variety of pasta can also be great for quick side dishes, and it cooks in 7-12 minutes. You should always keep an array of spices in the house, because they add flavor and presentation points to even the most hastily thrown-together meal.

Swap out for health

Sometimes, the difference between a fast food and a quick healthy meal is simply making a few substitutions in your ingredients. Let’s take the Happy Meal, for example. Instead of a processed, fatty hamburger, greasy fries and a soda, use lean (80 to 95 percent) hamburger, served on a whole-wheat hamburger bun, with a side of oven-baked fries and a glass of milk. Total prep time for hamburger and fries: 15 minutes. Total cooking time on burgers: 8-10 minutes. Total cooking time on fries: 20 minutes. You can spend the same amount of time waiting in line at the drive thru. It’s the same meal, but much happier for everyone.

Oven-Baked Fries

2 baking potatoes, unpeeled

1 tablespoon olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Prep: washing and cutting potatoes: 5-10 minutes.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Coat a cookie sheet with nonstick cooking spray. Slice baking potatoes lengthwise into 1/2-inch slices. Cut slices into French fry shapes. Brush potatoes with olive oil. Season. Place on cookie sheet and bake for 20 minutes turning once or until brown and cooked through. Makes 4 servings.

Ziti Toss with Cheese

1 medium red onion, thinly sliced

1 medium red or green bell pepper, cut into strips

3 tablespoons water

1/4 cup sliced green onions

1 can whole tomatoes, undrained

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley, divided

1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil, divided

12 ounces ziti

1/4 cup diced part-skim mozzarella cheese

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Prep: Slicing vegetables, boiling water: about 10-15 minutes.

Place pan with water (for pasta) on high heat. Spray a large non-stick skillet with cooking spray. Heat over medium heat. Add the red onion, bell pepper and water. Cover and cook for 3 minutes. Add green onion. Cook for 2 minutes. Transfer the mixture to a plate. Add the tomatoes with liquid and half the herbs to skillet; break up tomatoes with spoon. Simmer for 10 minutes. While tomatoes are simmering, cook pasta to taste (7-10 minutes), but do not add salt. Drain pasta in a colander but set aside 1/2 cup of pasta cooking water. Place pasta in a large bowl. Stir in onion mixture, tomatoes and enough of the pasta water to thin sauce. Stir in mozzarella, sprinkle with remaining herbs and Parmesan cheese. Serves 4.

Chicken Teriyaki

3 tablespoons sesame seeds

2 tablespoons reduced-sodium soy sauce

2 tablespoons honey

1 teaspoon oriental sesame oil

1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger or 1/4 teaspoon dried ginger

1 clove garlic, minced

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

4 skinless, boneless chicken breast halves, cut into 1-inch chunks

Green onions for garnish

Prep: cubing chicken, slicing green onions: 5-10 minutes.

In a medium bowl, combine sesame seeds, soy sauce, honey, sesame oil, ginger, garlic and pepper. Mix well. Set aside 2 tablespoons of the mixture. Add the chicken cubes to the remaining mixture and stir until well coated. Preheat broiler. Remove chicken from marinade mixture and place on broiler pan. Broil chicken 5 inches from heat, basting with reserved marinade once, until meat is no longer pink in the center, about 10 to 12 minutes. Garnish with green onions and serve. (For a side dish, use boil-in bag rice, which cooks in about 5 minutes.) Serves 4.

Grilled Shrimp and Sausage

1 pound large, pre-cooked shrimp, with tails intact

1/2 pound turkey sausage, cut into 1-2-inch slices

1-2 medium red bell peppers, cut into 1-inch squares

1/2 cup medium yellow bell pepper, cut into 1-inch squares

1/2 cup sliced mushrooms

For marinade:

1 2/3 cup reduced sodium chicken broth

1/4 cup olive oil

2 teaspoons fresh rosemary or 1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary

1 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 teaspoon salt

Fresh rosemary for garnish

Prep time: prepare marinade, cut vegetables and sausage: 15 minutes.

Combine marinade ingredients in a shallow glass dish. Reserve 2 tablespoons of marinade. Add shrimp to marinade in dish and stir until well coated. Preheat broiler or grill. Thread skewers with shrimp, sausage and vegetables. Grill or broil kebabs 4 inches from heat, basting with reserved marinade and turning once. Cook for 8 to 10 minutes. Sprinkle with rosemary before serving. (Serving suggestion: boil-in bag rice, about 5 minutes.) Serves 6.

Fast and healthy takeout

There are times when you don’t even have time to turn on the stove, let alone make a meal. Fear not — that doesn’t have to mean fast food hell. Here’s a roundup of restaurants that offer takeout that won’t give you intestinal distress or elevated cholesterol levels.

• Black Forest Café, 212 Route 101, Amherst, 672-0500

• The Daily Count, 49 E. Pearl St., Nashua, 578-0752

• City Room Café, 105 W. Pearl St., Nashua, 882-5016

• Quick and Healthy Café, 12 Edward Lane, Merrimack, 424-1278