Back in the pre-COVID-19 days, it wasn’t unusual for a lot of us to eat more than a few meals out every week, be it the neighborhood deli or a drive-thru breakfast or a grab-and-go salad at lunch, and then maybe a dinner or two with friends, especially on the weekends. Well, as we all know, the pandemic brought that routine to an abrupt end, forcing many folks back into their kitchens, some for the first time in a quite a while. And that’s not a bad thing.
But, if you’re not a natural in the kitchen or you’re short on space or you’re feeling pressed for time, it’s easy to slide back into old cooking-averse habits. So how about simplifying the process, and dare we say it, idiot-proof cooking at home? Here are a few tips on how to do just that, and a few good reasons why you should:
Don’t just feed your body – nourish it.
Since long before the pandemic upended our routines, I’ve always advocated for home cooking, encouraging all of my patients to prepare the majority of their meals at home. It’s simply the best way to truly eat well, versus fast food, ‘fast casual’ and ‘family style’ joints where the focus is on corporate profits, not your health. When you make it yourself, you don’t have to worry about the chef dousing your food — probably genetically modified and pesticide-loaded to begin with — in salt, sugar and cheap industrial oils. When you’re your own top chef, you’re ensuring there will be no culinary surprises, weird additives or allergens that can make you fat or ill. You’re in control of quality and quantity. And when you DIY it with fresh, local and/or organic ingredients, each bite delivers loads of bio-available, health-supporting nutrients. Not a lot of traditional eateries can say that.
Think of your kitchen as a fountain of youth, health and feeling good.
Taking charge of what’s in the kitchen, and what you put on the plate, will start to improve your overall health almost right away. Cooking at home will also help you and your family keep weight within a healthy range – something we should all be focused on. And, with so many studies demonstrating the correlation between weight gain and eating out, the less one does it, the better, assuming you wish to avoid joining the ranks of the more than 90 million American adults with obesity, and struggling with the diseases that accompany it, like diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke and heart disease.
Cooking at home makes cents.
Besides supporting healthier numbers on the scale, cooking at home is money in the bank. Take the dollars saved and re-allot some of that cash for foods with real nutritional benefits, like grass-fed and pasture-raised animal products; organic and farmers’ market produce or membership in a CSA (community supported agriculture) whose produce supports both the growers and your health. Another benefit of cooking at home? It’s an easy way to spend time with the kids, de-mystify the act of cooking, get them involved in the process and teach them a valuable life skill while you’re at it – so everybody wins.
Save your time and your sanity.
Truth be told, cooking at home does take a bit more time and effort than tapping a few buttons on a take-out app. But the benefits are legion, right up there with what good sleep, exercise and stress reduction provide. Here are a few ways to make sticking to a home-cooking groove easier, faster and more enjoyable:
1) Shop across platforms.
To avoid spending time at the checkout counter potentially exposing yourself to spreaders, many of them asymptomatic, order pantry basics and staple food items online. For more perishable items, place orders for curb-side pick-up or, if feasible, have groceries delivered. For produce, head to outdoor farmers’ markets and smaller independent local grocery stores that you can get in and out of more quickly. Pick up meats at a local butcher and/or local or on-line small batch producers, buying smaller amounts of the highest-quality grass-fed and pasture-raised animals and sustainably sourced fish.
2) Book your cooking time.
As life starts to get busy again, cooking at home has the potential to fall to the bottom of the to-do list all over again. Don’t let it! If busy weeknights make home cooking tough to maintain, embrace meal planning and cooking in advance. Plot out meals for the next week or even the next month if you’re feeling ambitious. Use the plan as the roadmap for your shopping list, pick up what you need and commit to spending a few hours making meals and freezing them in advance, so all you need to do when the time comes is heat them up.
3) Build a foundation, then your repertoire.
If you’re a cooking newbie, start by lowering the bar. Forget fancy or complex, meals just have to be nutritious, so use recipes that require fewer ingredients. Look for ones that are heavy on the healthy, non-starchy veggies – and make them a few times to get the hang of it. With that foundation, you can build out your repertoire from there. For inspiration, search online for simple recipes with phrases like ‘quick,’ ‘easy,’ ‘7-ingredient,’ ‘5-minute recipes’ and so on. Over time, as your skills and confidence grow, you can add more spices and more ingredients and create more involved meals.
4) Cook faster or go slow.
The Insta-Pot and the classic Crock-Pot – one is very fast, the other is intentionally very slow – are both excellent vessels for virtually effortless cooking of animal proteins, soups and stews. All you need to do is load in the raw ingredients, set the time and temperature, hit the ‘on’ switch and, when time’s up, start plating.
5) Use tools that save time.
It’s easier to win the battle against time if you’re armed with the right tools, but no need to go overboard on every gadget you see at the homewares store. As with your food, keep the equipment simple. Among my top kitchens must-haves:
- Mandoline– with attachments, to chop, slice, shave and spiralize veggies in seconds.
- Stack & Steamer pot– for making larger batches of soups, with an attachment for steaming veggies.
- Blender – you can go for the stick-style immersion which enables you to puree soups in the pot, or pick up a more traditional, multi-purpose, counter-top blender.
- Chef’s knives – a good paring knife, plus a chef’s 3-piece knife set, will handle just about all your everyday cooking needs.
- Chopping boards – pass on plastic and pick up two bamboo chopping boards, so you can use one for veggies and one for fish/meat/poultry.
- Cast-iron skillet:for safely sautéing and cooking proteins and vegetables.
BONUS ITEM: Consider a ‘Microplane Glove,’ particularly if you plan to do a lot of slicing with a mandoline or super-sharp chef’s knives. This inexpensive mesh glove will minimize the finger-cutting risk.
6) Prep your own fridge buffet.
Don’t feel like prepping weeks’ worth of meals? Then skip the recipe route altogether and simply create an in-home version of the traditional salad bar, so you can grab pre-prepped ingredients and assemble a quick, healthy meal anytime. Wash your veggies, prep them, and store in the fridge in similar-sized glass containers that stack easily in your fridge – so you can see what you’ve got. For example, keep a stash of washed and prepped leafy greens, shaved Brussels sprouts, cherry tomatoes, peppers, scallions, celery sticks, carrots, onions, garlic, onions, feta cheese, beans, cilantro, etc., at the ready, so all you need to do is assemble, add an (optional) animal protein or fish, and voila, dinner is served.
7) Create a freezer flavors buffet.
Only have a few minutes? Then focus on a few choice taste-makers, prep them and freeze them. So, chop up and measure out portions of raw onions and peppers and freeze in airtight containers. Sautéed onions are freezable and fantastic to have on hand to jazz up just about any dish. For pesto and roasted or sautéed garlic, freeze them in ice cube trays, then decant the ‘cubes’ into an airtight container and freeze until needed.
8) Choose healthy ‘convenience’ foods.
There’s nothing wrong with time-saving short cuts, as long as they’re healthy ones, so keep a supply of organic ‘convenience’ foods on hand to make meal assembly quick and easy. A few handy basics: frozen organic veggies like spinach, broccoli, kale and cauliflower; pre-washed, fresh organic leafy greens; organic beans, sardines and wild salmon in BPA-free cans; capers; olives, kimchi, sauerkraut, nuts and seeds, just to name a few. And, to top it off, add apple cider or balsamic vinegar or lemon juice, plus some healthy fats like extra virgin olive or coconut oil.
9) Bowling for a healthy meal.
Meals don’t get much simpler than soup – one more virtually recipe-free way to feed yourself quickly. Start with a pre-cooked protein, roasted veggies, and some spiralized veggie ‘noodles’ – and top with a homemade broth or a prepared, organic bone broth. For a heartier, creamier, more filling soup, add pureed veggies and a few scoops of chia seeds.
Enjoy your many meals to come, and keep on cooking at home!