Home-Cooked Food for a Busy Lifestyle

The key to disease-free longevity and keeping off the weight over the long haul is training the connections between the stomach and the appetite center in the hypothalamus to be satisfied with a nutritious, tasty meal of moderate portions.

This is best accomplished by eating exactly what you like, the way you like it, and when you’re hungry, especially when it is cooked with fresh ingredients and love. We’re talking home cookin’! But restaurants are making it big serving us bigger portions of rich food.

The ancient Sanskrit medical texts collectively known as Ayurveda describe the digestive fire as that which burns the fuel we eat, breaking it into its constituents and transforming it into tissues and energy, i.e. the enzymes, acids and alkali that constitute our gastric juices. These texts prophetically recognized the importance of the emerging science of chronobiology dealing with biological rhythms, correlating the strength of the digestive fire, known as agni, with Old Sol, the great fire in the sky.

The digestive fire is low in the morning and evening and strongest at noon. As such, there is an ancient logic behind the rest of the world’s tradition to take the main meal at noon. In France and Quebec, known for their appreciation of good cuisine, the noon meal is called dinner, to dine, contrasted with lunch, which implies a mere trifle. Supper comes from souper, to take soup, which, chronobiologically, is an appropriate evening fare. After all, we rarely need many calories to get through an evening, and something light and liquid, like soup, is rapidly cleared by the stomach, making it unlikely to trigger the frequent midnight lament, “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.”

A good lunch, on the other hand, is the ticket to opting for something light in the evening. For too many working people, however, lunch is a hot dog crossing Wall Street, a sandwich at one’s desk, a cold pizza delivered to the office, or frozen corn and canned tuna at the company cafeteria. No wonder we want a big, stick-to-the-ribs meal in the evening. But that’s just what it does. So let’s rethink the three meals, finding wholesome recipes for anyone needing to watch their weight, sugar, fiber, salt or cholesterol, and with the criteria that they can be prepared in less than five minutes and use only one pot for easy cleanup.

When you hear the cereal marketers from Cedar Rapids and Kalamazoo tell you that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, don’t fall for it unless you are a lumberjack. The stomach, having been empty all night, is quite easily satisfied with meager fare. That’s good news for the majority of North Americans to seriously restrict calories in these days of abundance and an increasingly sedentary lifestyle. Here is a wonderfully nutritious menu for the entire day that is easy to digest.

Breakfast — Stewed Fruit

  • 1 apple and/or pear
  • 1 handful of raisins, or other dried fruit
  • Optional sweet spices

Chop the fruit into quarters or eighths and simmer it for 5-6 minutes in a small pot, adding a few tablespoons of water, raisins and optional spices like a clove (helps mucus), cinnamon (good for cholesterol) or nutmeg (settles the brain activity). It doesn’t need to be cooked thoroughly, just tender, and sugar isn’t generally needed. Eat it warm, adding a handful of granola or muesli if desired, or even a dollop of yogurt or cottage cheese. The logic behind stewed fruit is that it is easy to digest while the fire is low, and aids elimination (the basis behind the “apple a day”). From a scientific perspective, apples and pears contain soluble fiber (pectin), insoluble fiber (cellulose), flavonoids with their oxygen free radical absorbing capacity, and trace minerals.

Lunch — Kicheree Thermos Flask Meal: A Complete, Hot, Tasty Feast

Kicheree is the ideal lunch for anyone who wants to eat well at work while avoiding cafeteria and restaurant food. Because a grain with a legume constitutes a complete protein containing all eight essential amino acids the body cannot manufacture, plus fiber and all your vitamins and minerals in the fresh vegetables, this satisfying dish can be taken day after day, swapping different legumes, spices, and vegetables for variety. In fact, a good part of the world eats grains and a legume as their staple, as in bean burritos or black beans with rice. With practice, you will find that it takes only 5-10 minutes out of your morning, less than the waiting time at the restaurant. And it saves $6 a day or $1500 a year for both you and your spouse, about what you’ll get from Social Security.

  • 1/4 cup yellow split mung beans, small red lentils (masoor dal), or small brown lentils (all available at whole food stores, or at Indian and Mediterranean groceries).
  • 1/4 cup basmati rice, less if watching your weight
  • 1/2 to 1 cup fresh vegetables cut into small pieces to fit into a thermos
  • Whole or ground spices to taste (salt, pepper, cumin, ginger, turmeric, curry powder, etc.)
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil or clarified butter (ghee)
  • 2-3 cups boiling water
  • A half quart to one quart wide mouth thermos

Boil the water in a teakettle while you chop the veggies and then sauté the spices in a 2 quart pot for 15 seconds in the oil or ghee. Add the washed mung beans, rice and chopped vegetables to the pot. Cover with the boiling water, and boil for three to five minutes. While still boiling hot, quickly pour the mixture into the thermos (you may need to ladle it in, but don’t let the mixture cool). Close the thermos quickly and leave it closed for two to four hours. Your lunch will cook and be fresh and tasty, the vegetables just slightly crispy when your digestive fire is ready for something hot.

Notes: Either try this for the first time at home on a weekend or take some lunch money on your first attempt. The biggest mistakes are choosing large beans that require a long cooking time, putting the mixture too cold into the thermos, or having an inefficient thermos. You may need to experiment with quantities and cooking times to get the best result. The cooking time in the thermos depends on how well your thermos retains heat and the type of lentil. If you take a late lunch, only two minutes cooking in the pan may be required. If you will take your thermos feast within 2 to 3 hours, then five to ten minutes may be needed.

Since mung dal and rice swell up substantially, you will need a generous amount of water to get to get the proper consistency. It is traditional to have a soupy kicheree, and much better than having undercooked rice and beans due to lack of liquid. Firm vegetables like carrots need one to two more minutes of cooking with the rice and dal, while leafy greens like spinach can be added just before pouring the whole mixture into the thermos.

You can substitute black beans and large green lentils for the smaller beans, but they should be soaked overnight and will need extra cooking in the pot. This is a meal you can make for several people at the same time. With a piece of fresh fruit and cup of yogurt, there are almost no missing nutrients.

Supper — Simone’s Five-Minute Soup

Let’s learn to cook supper. In most two-breadwinner households, this meal has to be quick, light and easy to clean up. I recommend my French-Canadian mother-in-law’s soup: she cooked for eight kids. My wife is so good at it, she has soup on the stove and is already on the floor doing her evening yoga before I have even finished unloading the car.

  • Fresh vegetables
  • Olive oil or clarified butter
  • Spices and herbs
  • Water

Bring the teakettle to boil while you rummage through in the fridge for your favorite vegetables including (especially) tomatoes, asparagus, broccoli, green beans and zucchini. Pick veggies of all different colors for broad spectrum, free radical scavenging and a dramatic visual effect. Chop them while you are sautéing leeks, scallions or onions, and celery in the bottom of a two-quart pot. Throw in the vegetables and add the boiling water. If desired, add a handful of pearl barley or small brown lentils as well as spices, especially fine herbs, plenty of black pepper and a little salt. Cover the pot and let it simmer while you practice your 15-20 minutes of evening yoga or meditation. Soup’s on! At the last minute, add tender vegetables like spinach, bean sprouts, cilantro or zucchini, or perhaps a handful of rice vermicelli.

When you are done enjoying this complete meal, throw the leftovers away. Good nutrition is more than just enough of the right vitamins. It involves biological intelligence — vital force, also known as prana — a value that is lost when food turns stale. With practice, it will only take five minutes of your time to make something equally fresh tomorrow, and you deserve better than soggy veggies. You wouldn’t return to an eatery that served you yesterday’s soup, and you should be chef of the freshest food in town.

Master these three simple recipes, and as long as you keep the ingredients on hand, you will never hesitate to make your busy family a satisfying, healthy meal.

Jay Glaser, MD is a board certified internist in Massachusetts.