How to eat healthily if you don’t like cooking

Niamh Hennessy
Lead Dietitian, Cromwell Hospital
06 October 2021
Next review due October 2024

There are lots of reasons you might not want to roll up your sleeves and cook a meal. Maybe you’re too busy, too tired or just don’t like it! Even people who enjoy cooking have days where they can’t face creating a meal from scratch. Here are my top tips to help you eat healthy when you’re not making your own meals.

a woman at a salad bar

Can you eat healthy without cooking?

If you don’t feel like cooking, or can’t face the kitchen, it doesn’t mean you have to miss out on healthy, nutritious food. You can still get a healthy balanced diet from pre-made and packaged food if you read the food labels. For example, if you’re buying pre-made and packaged foods, it’s important to know how to read the ingredients and nutritional labels on the packet. That way you can make an informed decision on what to buy.

Know your pre-made and packaged food labels

Some pre-made and packaged foods will be labelled as being low in salt, fat or sugar. These can be healthier choices.

  • Low salt means there are 0.3 grams of salt or less per 100 grams of the food.
  • Low fat means there are three grams of fat or less per 100 grams of the food.
  • Low sugar means there are five grams of sugar or less per 100 grams of the food.

Here are a few things to remember when checking the labels on packaged food.

Traffic light labels

Some food packets have traffic light labels on the front. You can use these to get an overview of how nutritious the food is. They list how much fat, salt and sugar is in the food by using the traffic light labels for each of these ingredients. For example, the ingredients are put into red (high), medium (amber) or low (green) categories. They also list how many calories are in the food.

Try to choose foods with more green categories than red wherever possible.

Ingredients lists

Ingredients are listed in order of how much of them is in the food. For example, if sugar is the first ingredient named, that means the food contains mostly sugar. So, it might not be the healthiest option.

Remember that there can sometimes be lots of other names for some common nutrients. For example, sugar may be listed as dextrose, maltose, sucrose, syrup, molasses, fructose, glucose or invert sugar.

Choose healthier convenience foods

With so many of us leading busy lives, there are more and more convenience foods popping up on our supermarket shelves.

These often have a bad reputation for being high in calories, fat, salt, sugar and unwanted additives. But there are lots of healthier convenience foods available too, so it can be helpful to know what to look for. Some great options include:

  • microwaveable pouches of wholegrains like brown rice and quinoa
  • tinned pulses like lentils or chickpeas
  • ready-made salads
  • chopped and ready-to-cook vegetables (both fresh, canned and frozen varieties)
  • bake in the bag or tinned fish
  • vegetable soups (look for low-salt varieties and avoid cream-based ones)

Snack healthy

Most snacks don’t require any cooking at all. If you get hungry, try not to reach for processed or sugary foods like chocolate or crisps. Instead, choose healthy snacks such as:

  • fresh fruit
  • chopped vegetable sticks and hummus
  • a small handful of unsalted nuts and dried fruit
  • low-sugar cereal bars
  • low-fat and low-sugar yoghurts

Make healthy choices when eating out or ordering in

If you’re eating out a lot, or ordering takeaways, try making healthy choices where you can. The following might help.

  • Think about where you’re eating and pick a healthier cuisine over fast-food outlets and ‘all you can eat’ buffets.
  • Swap add-ons like fries or garlic bread for a healthy side of mixed salad or steamed vegetables.
  • Choose sugar-free and low-calorie soft drinks or water over fizzy or alcoholic drinks.
  • Choose grilled, baked or steamed dishes instead of deep fried, creamed, buttered or battered options.
  • Enjoy fish, seafood or chicken rather than red meat dishes.
  • Don’t choose your food when you’re already too hungry. You might be more likely to order a large, unhealthy meal and lots of sides. It might also help to have a look at the menu online beforehand and decide what to order in advance.
  • Wait a little while before having dessert to allow your main meal to reach your stomach and register that you’re satisfied. If you still fancy a sweet treat, opt for a sorbet or fruit salad. Or share a dessert with a friend.

Create your own smoothies

Smoothies are a great way to get vitamins and minerals into your diet without having to cook. They can make a great breakfast or snack. There are lots available to buy, but they’re also quick and easy to make yourself.

Blend together some fruits and vegetables and add your favourite milk or yoghurt. You can also add nuts, nut butters and seeds to add some proteins and healthy fats.

Remember that one small glass (150ml) of smoothie counts as a maximum of one portion of your 5-a-day, even if it contains more than one different type of fruit or vegetables. Limit yourself to one smoothie a day.

Make cooking as easy as possible

If you do decide to get in the kitchen, making a healthy, home cooked meal doesn’t have to be difficult. There are lots of recipe books, websites and apps filled with quick and easy meal ideas for you to try.

Start with something easy that doesn’t need lots of ingredients, equipment or time to make. You can also use frozen or pre-chopped vegetables to make it even easier. One-pot recipes, pasta bakes and casseroles can be a great place to start.

Make the most of any time you do spend cooking by making big batches so there’s always some leftover for another meal. For example, if you’re making a casserole or stew, cook two or three servings so you have some ready for the week ahead. You can also freeze any leftover portions of your meal so that you have something ready to grab when you need it.

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Niamh Hennessy
Niamh Hennessy
Lead Dietitian, Cromwell Hospital

    • Food labelling: nutrition information: Food Fact Sheet. British Dietetic Association., published August 2018
    • Salt: Food Fact Sheet. British Dietetic Association., published June 2020
    • Fat facts: Food Fact Sheet. British Dietetic Association., published January 2018
    • Sugar: Food Fact Sheet. British Dietetic Association., published March 2017
    • Food labelling: nutrition information: Food Fact Sheet., published August 2018
    • Food labelling and packaging., accessed 5 October 2021
    • Healthy snacks: Food Fact Sheet. British Dietetic Association., published September 2018
    • Fruit and vegetables – how to get five-a-day: Food Fact Sheet. British Dietetic Association., published August 2020
    • Eat well, spend less: Food Fact Sheet. British Dietetic Association., published April 2021

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