Time to Cook!

SIMPLE AND EASY

How often have you had this thought? I’d really love to make a home-cooked meal to enjoy with my family, but I just don’t have time to stand at the stove and make it happen. If this is a frequent occurrence, you’ve most likely been duped by food marketers and media.

The processed food industry discovered decades ago that it could make a lot of money selling the idea that their products—frozen meals, canned soups, just-add-water noodle cups, and other “instant” meals—would give us more free time. And we fell for it hard. In 2016, Americans spent $372 billion on packaged foods. In truth, these foods do save a few minutes in the kitchen, but the small amount of time saved is not worth consuming foods stripped of most of their nutrients and laced with artificial ingredients, excessive amounts of sodium and sugar, and factory-made flavors.  

If the promise of time saving isn’t enough to keep us from our cutting boards, then the star-spangled food media scares us away. If you watch cooking shows, follow food blogs, or subscribe to food magazines, you’re aware that a lot of this food is unattainable without a team of chefs and food stylists. Complicated recipes using long lists of expensive and hard-to-find ingredients that take hours if not days in the kitchen are the norm. And we love to look at the vivid photography, watch the entertaining shows, and dream of making such spectacular meals ourselves. This is not cooking. This is competition fueled by chefs and food personalities to out-do each other and by our own desire to live vicariously by looking at their perfectly presented food.

There are times when cooking at home is not the best option. When you’re ill yourself, responsible for caring for someone else who is in poor health, when it’s Friday night and you’ve had an exceptionally rough week at work, or if you just want to go to a restaurant and have a good time with friends or family—absolutely let someone else man the kitchen. But if you make cooking for yourself and your family the norm on most nights, you’ll be healthier and happier.

Cooking a weeknight meal at home from fresh ingredients is possible in half an hour and it’s easier than you think. Here are some truths and tips about home cooking to inspire you to stock up, chop, sizzle, and savor in your own kitchen.

 

TIPS TO COOK AT HOME

Cooking at home is the best thing you can do for your health. Studies have shown that a healthy diet can prevent obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. And the easiest way to ensure you’re eating healthy is to take control of your kitchen and cook for yourself and your family. You’ll know exactly what’s in the food you’re eating and you—not the processed food industry—become the gatekeeper to your health.

There’s very little skill involved in cooking weeknight meals at home. If you choose simple recipes from a reliable source that you trust has prepared the dish and written the directions in a logical way, you’ll have success even if you’ve never cooked before. If you’re a beginning cook, it may take longer to gather the equipment you need, think through the recipe, and chop and prep ingredients. But, like any other skill, if you work your cooking muscle several times a week, you’ll pick up speed and confidence and soon you’ll cook with instinct without looking at a recipe.

You don’t need any fancy or expensive equipment.  With a couple skillets and saucepans in different sizes, a large rimmed baking pan, a couple large bowls, and a few small utensils like knives, spatulas, wooden spoons, measuring cups and spoons,  and a whisk, grater, vegetable peeler, can opener, and colander, you’re set to make almost any quick weeknight dinner.

Cooking is easier if you do some minimal planning. Nothing streamlines weeknight cooking like having food in the house and a plan for what you’ll make. Take a couple hours on the weekend to make a list of what you’d like to cook in the week ahead, taking into account nights when you’ve planned activities or dinner out. From this list, create your shopping list, including any pantry basics that you need. Go shopping, stock your pantry, and you’re ready to be a weeknight dinner warrior.

Shop smart and buy only what you’ll use. If you buy only healthy foods, you will eat only healthy foods. If you have trouble with temptation, don’t go down aisles with processed foods. When you can, buy organic foods to limit pesticides and growth hormones in your diet. To prevent wasting food, as close as you can, buy only what you’ll eat until the next shopping trip. There will be inevitable leftovers, but as you become more adept at cooking, you’ll learn how to use up foods during the week (use broccoli in a stir-fry and a slaw, roast a whole chicken for one dinner and use the leftovers in salads or sandwiches, use extra fruit to make smoothies, and turn extra veggies into a stir-fry).

Batch cook when you have time. If you have time on a weekend afternoon or a stress-free weeknight, make a big batch of soup, chili, or stew, separate it into portions and freeze. Or, mix up bean burgers or turkey burgers and freeze them with wax paper between each patty. Roast a turkey breast or a large salmon fillet to enjoy on the weekend, then have the leftovers in sandwiches or salads during the week. These instant options are great to have when you work late or you’re just too tired for more than 10 minutes of cooking.

Keep meals simple. Don’t try to recreate foods from your favorite TV chef or glossy magazine. Stick to the basics and don’t make more than you can confidently handle in one meal. Make a one-pan chicken and vegetable dish with a basic salad on the side. Broil some fish with olive oil and lemon and microwave a vegetable. Cook pasta, and while that simmers, make a super simple sauce to serve over it. Fresh fruit is a go-to healthy desert that requires minimal or no prep.

Who needs perfect? If your vegetables are not chopped to chef’s precision, the chicken is a little dry, the pasta is just slightly overcooked, so what? You’ve made an effort that comes from a place of love and generosity for yourself and your family, you’re spending time around the table with people you love, and you’re eating freshly made, healthy food that tastes better than take-out.

Find a few sources for recipes you love to cook. There are lots of great food bloggers, cookbook authors, and magazines who have the busy weeknight cook in mind and create quick, healthy recipes. Find a few that you click with who produce recipes that fit with your lifestyle. Whether you’re looking to explore new cuisines, eat vegan or vegetarian meals, or cook meals suitable for families with young children, you’ll find recipes to inspire you. Cooking Light and Eating Well are two fantastic sources with good-for-you recipes online and in their magazines and books. Three websites worth checking out for healthy weeknight cooking ideas are Naturally Ella, Figs in My Belly, and Sprouted Kitchen.

Attitude is everything. If your outlook on cooking is that it is drudgery, you don’t want to do it, or you feel put out, then it’s not a rewarding experience for you or your family. Be mindful of the magic of cooking and the gift that you’re giving to yourself and your family with every meal you create. Have gratitude for the farmers, truckers, and warehouse and supermarket workers whose hard work made it possible for food to get from the farm to your table. Be open to the magical transformation of food as it cooks. Foods as simple as baked potatoes, scrambled eggs, or dried pasta are wondrous as they change from raw to cooked. There are endless pleasures to sense and savor in cooking, eating, and sharing food with others, if you’re open and willing to look for them.  

 

Jackie Mills

Jackie Mills is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist who specializes in writing and recipe development for health advocacy groups, food companies, supermarkets, and publishers. She earned bachelor’s degrees in dietetics and journalism, both from the University of Kentucky, as well as two master’s degrees, in food science from the University of Maryland and in mass communications from Arizona State University. She is the author of 1,000 Diabetes Recipes (Wiley, 2010) and The Big Book of Diabetic Desserts: Decadent and Delicious Recipes Perfect for People with Diabetes (American Diabetes Association, 2007). She has served as project editor and writer for 18 Weight Watchers cookbooks and as the writer of Cooking Light Power Foods for Diabetes Cookbook (Oxmoor House, 2015).

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