Make fast food the healthy way

You’ve been rushing around the shopping mall in your lunch hour and have more to do than just eat a leisurely lunch. You’re ravenous and you’re tempted to grab something greasy from the mall. Don’t do it. There are healthier alternatives that are just as fast.

Lunch on the run

Assuming for a minute you haven’t had time to pack a decent lunch and bring it from home (more on what that might be later) and you do happen to hit a shopping centre around the time your appetite hits you, there are a few good choices you could make.

The penultimate Japanese fast food is a superb lunch option and, contrary to popular belief, is not only about raw fish. You can have a filling lunch with a variety of sushi that doesn’t include raw fish. But if you do like your fish, the fat you get from sushi is good omega-3 stuff. The veg and seaweed selections have minimal fat, but if you have a long afternoon ahead of you it might be wise to choose something with protein, be it fish or tofu, to keep you going longer and ward off the three o’clock chocolate bar craving.

And should you choose nori rolls, the seaweed wrapper will supply a dose of iodine, which is lacking in most modern diets, as well as a blast of other micronutrients. Iodine is vital for growth, brain development and thyroid function. Nori also contains calcium, zinc, iron and vitamins B12, A and C. According to scientists at theUniversity ofSouthern Maine in theUS, nori can lower cholesterol and reduce risk for certain cancers.

Doner kebab
Another decent option is a roll from the kebab shop: very thinly sliced lamb rolled in warm pita bread slathered with homous and loads of tabouli salad is quick, healthy and undoubtedly filling. Homous is made from tahini (sesame paste), chickpeas, garlic, lemon juice and olive oil, so it’s high in iron and folate and contains vitamins B6, C, E and K as well as omega-3. The chickpeas make it a good source of protein and fibre and it also provides calcium, iron, magnesium and zinc.

You might have to step outside the mall to find this sustaining fast food. This Vietnamese staple is a large bowl of delicious broth with your choice of protein (beef, chicken, seafood or tofu), to which you add fresh, fragrant herbs, bean sprouts, chilli and lemon juice. Lurking in the bottom of the bowl is a hefty pile of rice noodles. But if you don’t have the time to eat in, pick up a few ricepaper rolls: simply cooked prawns, rice vermicelli and salad in rice noodle wrappers with a sweet, peanutty dipping sauce.

Dinner on the table

So you’ve made it through lunch and, if you’ve been smart when the mid-afternoon munchies hit, you’ve gone for an apple, a banana, a couple of mandarins or some nuts, but now you have to get dinner on the table. Managing this task is much easier if your pantry is always stocked with a few key items: soy sauce, capers, anchovies, dried herbs and spices, lentils, pasta, rice, olive oil, canned tomatoes, chickpeas. And you should always have frozen peas, yoghurt and stock.

If you don’t have one already, do yourself a favour and get a pressure cooker. It will change your life. Here’s an example of the difference one can make. On your way home pick up a slab of pumpkin (already peeled and chopped if you’re really rushed) and a crusty loaf of bread. Sauté some chopped onion, garlic and maybe some celery in olive oil in a saucepan or a pressure cooker. Throw in the chopped pumpkin and stock to cover, then put the lid on and simmer until the pumpkin’s tender. That might take 30­–40 minutes in an ordinary saucepan but only about 7 minutes in a pressure cooker.

Puree the mixture with an immersion or stick blender thinning with milk, water or more stock if necessary. Season and serve with the bread, a dollop of plain yoghurt and some chopped fresh herbs. You can fiddle with this recipe, replacing the pumpkin with lentils and tomatoes or even using canned lentils.

Fish is the ultimate fast food, taking only minutes to cook an average fillet. A quick dinner for two that can easily be expanded starts with placing leaves from a bunch of bok choy and a handful of green beans on a plate. Top them a with couple of fillets of snapper drizzled with a mixture of a tablespoon each of soy and rice wine, sliced garlic and ginger. Put the whole lot, plate and all, into a bamboo steamer and steam for five minutes. Divide between two plates and serve with boiled rice.

If you have to do takeaway, how about a bought barbecued free-range chicken with salad or bought tabouli and baba ganouj with some good flat bread? Other reasonable options are Thai or Vietnamese stirfries and salads, Chinese soups or grilled fish and salad — it’s simply a matter of running the ingredients through your mind before you order.

There’s also a number of pre-cooked and packaged organic soups, risotto and curries, as well as jars of ready-made organic pasta sauce, now widely available in supermarkets, small chains and delis. Some can be a little on the bland side but it’s easy to boost flavour with a few extra ingredients of your choice, such as some quickly sautéed mushroom and fresh asparagus in a risotto, or chilli, herbs and yoghurt in a soup.

Make the most of leftovers, too. If you’ve roasted a leg of lamb on the weekend, the next evening toss the chopped leftover lamb with a can or two of drained, rinsed chickpeas, a bunch of chopped parsley, six sliced shallots, a cup of caramelised onions (make this while the lamb’s roasting), balsamic vinegar and olive oil for a sustaining salad that works just as well for dinner as it does for lunch.

A word on takeaway chicken, meat and anything with egg: elsewhere in this book we recommend organic, free-range and pasture-fed, but until the whole world goes organic, free-range and grass-fed, we have to compromise. Either that, or never eat anything cooked outside the home.

Still, it’s always good to enquire about the provenance of food. At least ask whether the chicken is free-range, even if you have no intention of buying it. They may scoff and complain about how much they would have to charge, but the more people ask (and don’t buy when the answer is no), the more likely shops, cafes and restaurants are to make improvements. Especially if a lot of us indicate we’d be willing to pay a little more for better food. Then we must put our money where our mouth is.

Faster pasta

Pasta makes a lightning-fast homecooked meal and there are some organic brands commonly available that taste much better than the ordinary stuff.

With tuna & capers
Cook 300g angel hair pasta, drain and moisten with olive oil. Sweat a finely slice red onion in olive oil and add the juice of a lemon, a tablespoon of capers, salt and pepper. Toss 200g thinly sliced raw tuna and 2 tablespoons of finely chopped parsley through and serve with the pasta. The tuna cooks gently in the heat of the pasta while you toss a salad to have with it.

With peas & pancetta 
Chop one large onion and cut a few slices of pancetta or prosciutto, or 2 rashers of good bacon into small pieces. Sauté together in a little olive oil. Add 1½ cups chicken or vegetable stock and ground pepper and simmer until the onion is very soft. Meanwhile, cook some shell or bowtie pasta and when it’s almost ready, throw 1½ cups of frozen peas into the stock mixture, bring back to the boil and spoon over the pasta so it is swimming in it. (Don’t add the peas too early or they’ll lose their flavour and colour.) Serve with grated parmesan or grana padano and a leaf salad.

With sage & burnt butter
Buy some good gnocchi and pick or buy some fresh sage leaves and chop them into strips. While the gnocchi is cooking in a pot of boiling water, melt about 2 tablespoons of good butter in another pot and heat it until it starts to burn and turn a nutty brown. Throw in the sage leaves, then pour into the cooked gnocchi and toss. Serve with some grated or shaved parmesan and a leaf salad.

With pesto 
Put in a blender a handful of toasted pine nuts, ½ cup of olive oil, 2 cloves of fresh garlic roughly chopped, a little flaked sea salt and blend for just 30 seconds. Then add the washed and torn leaves from a bunch of basil, 2 tablespoons of coarsely grated parmesan (or half each of parmesan and pecorino) for a very short time, maybe 10 seconds just to blend it through to a paste (pesto). For a rich-tasting variation, add 6 or more semi-dried tomatoes, but use less salt. Mix it through cooked spiralli pasta. Serve with extra grated cheese. (You can also add slices of cooked chicken well-coated with the pesto.) Pesto keeps well in the fridge for adding to soups, salad dressings and bread.


Stephanie Osfield

Stephanie Osfield

Stephanie Osfield is an award-winning freelance health journalist. She is an advocate of nutritional medicine and specialises in all aspects of health, from exercise and disease prevention to stress, depression and women’s health issues.

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