Are you making resolutions this year? I’d like to address one that’s frequently on peoples’ lists, eating better. Whether it’s to lose weight, gain weight, improve one’s overall health, or have more energy, one of the ways to achieve any and all of those goals is to eat better. Easy enough to say, but where does one begin?
Aside from making better choices when eating out, the most important thing you can do is make more meals at home. I mean really making meals, preparing them from scratch. Too difficult, too time-consuming, too… too what? Here are some suggestions that will make it easier.
First and foremost, learn to cook if you don’t know how. Take it a step at a time. Find a course, or ask a good cook you know to show you how to sauté something. Once you know how to sauté chicken, you can apply the same technique to beef, pork, fish, and vegetables. There are a ton of dishes you can make with this one technique alone. Then you can move on to roasting, grilling, frying, braising, etc.
Lower your expectations. I don’t mean in terms of quality, I mean in terms of your expectations as to what constitutes a meal. You’re not in a restaurant, so don’t try to recreate that experience at home. Leave the exotic cuisines to your favorite ethnic restaurant. One course is plenty; maybe you don’t even need two side dishes. Collect easy recipes. Some of my favorites are much simpler than their taste would lead you to believe.
I keep recipes in three places, and copies of the ones I make most often I keep on 8″ x 5″ index cards near the kitchen. These are a cinch to post at eye level on a cupboard. That keeps the counter clear and the recipe easy to refer to.
Plan menus so that something’s cooking which doesn’t require the cook’s attention. A chicken or pork roast can be cooking away in the oven while you’re tending to other things on the stove top. While making one meal, make a lot of things like rice and potatoes that will reheat well for another meal. Then a portion of that can go in the oven while you pan-broil a steak a day or two later. Half the work for that next meal is now done.
Make sure your tools make being in the kitchen a pleasure. Sharpen your knives – along with your hands, knives are probably the single most essential kitchen tool. When I see people struggling to slice vegetables or cut up a chicken, it’s clear they’re not enjoying themselves. Hurting yourself with a dull knife also takes the fun right out of cooking. Trying to fry something in a skillet that’s too small will frustrate and slow you down. Get a bigger one. Have a range of pots and pans in sizes to suit your needs, and have enough of them.
Clear the counter so you have room to work. Remove anything from the kitchen you don’t use or don’t use often. There are so many single-use appliances we seem to collect that seemed like a great idea at the time. But really, do you need a hot dog steamer when you can heat them in a pan that’s also good for lots of other kitchen tasks? The ice cream maker – when was the last time you made a batch? The bread maker? You get the idea.
Have a system and label herbs and spices so you locate them readily. It never occurred to me that a kitchen wouldn’t have its own peppermill. If you have to hunt one down in the dining room, you’re wasting time. Get one that lives in the kitchen so it’s at hand when needed. Need a little flour for making sauce or dusting chicken before it goes in the pan? Keep a small container of it in with the herbs and spices; then you don’t have to wrestle out the big one you use for baking.
Do your mise en place. That is, assemble, measure, and prep all your ingredients before you begin cooking. It will save a lot of time and you won’t find halfway through making dinner that you’re missing an essential ingredient.
Stock the pantry with items that make it easy to assemble a meal. That’s a subject for a column by itself, but in addition to shelf-stable foods like beans, tomatoes, and pasta, always have eggs in the fridge. Omelettes are a great nutritious quick meal. I ate them for supper many nights when I was in night school and love them still. Different fillings prevent boredom from setting in.
Clean up as you go along. A friend whose family was in the restaurant business once told me that 75% of cooking is doing dishes, and it’s true. So have a pan of warm soapy water ready to receive utensils and pans as you finish using them and save yourself scrubbing time. Load the dishwasher as you go; keep the sink and counters clear.
Here are a couple of tricks I use to cut down on cleaning surfaces. One is to slide a piece of butchers’ paper upright between the stove and the counter or flat on the counter next to the stove top. It’s amazing how much spatter happens around a stove and with this little ploy, wadding up the paper and tossing it is all that’s required to clean it up. If you’re frying something? A piece of newspaper on the floor in front of the stove will catch any drips or spills.
Of course, if you really don’t have time to make the effort yourself, you can hire a personal chef. Then all you have to do for a healthy, delicious home-cooked meal is tell the chef your preferences, and let him or her plan a menu for you, shop, prepare, package the meals, store them, and clean up the kitchen. Your only task is to heat and enjoy. (As I’m a personal chef myself, I can’t resist throwing this last option out there.)
However you choose to do it and for whatever reasons, eating food prepared at home can help you with your New Year’s resolution to eat better.