With most of us having to meet more demands than ever before any convenience or luxury that makes our life easier, less complex, and less stressful is relished in. There’s no better example than fast food.
When I talk about fast food I don’t just talk about the stuff you can get through a window. I’m also talking about stuff that comes in a box, wrapper, or some other package that can be opened and consumed, or heated and consumed in a matter of minutes – sometimes seconds.
What’s happened is that cooking and preparing meals has become almost obsolete. It’s just easier, convenient, and less stressful to go pick something up, Or to open a wrapper and engulf.
In todays article I wanted to discuss with you the lost art of cooking. By far the email I receive the most has to do with how to cook healthy meals.
- There’s not enough time
- I don’t know what to make
- I don’t know how to cook
If this sounds like you then do me a favor. Put on your apron (if you don’t have one that’s cool too. Just wrap an old bed sheet around you and pretend) because it’s about to get messy up in this piece!
The beginner’s guide to cooking healthy is going down like Charlie Brown.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO COOK HEALTHY MEALS?
Well, in a very twitterish 140 characters or less definition.
Cooking healthy is preparing real food in a way that promotes internal and external health.
Cooking healthy doesn’t need to be difficult, complicated, time-consuming, or confusing. In fact, it never EVER should be. You have too much other stuff on your plate (no pun intended) to worry about. The what, how, and why of cooking doesn’t need to be one of them.
Cooking healthy should be an enjoyable experience not a stressful one.
WHAT DO I NEED TO START COOKING HEALTHIER?
You can start cooking healthy immediately after reading this article. You’ll only need two things to get started:
- The right tools
- The right food
THE RIGHT TOOLS:
You can’t cook a healthy meal if you don’t have the right materials to do it with. Because this is the beginner’s guide to cooking healthy lets K.I.S.S it and keep it super simple.
1 to 3 Non-stick pans: I say 1-3 so that you can easily cook in batches or a variety of foods at the same time in order to save on some time. Make sure they have lids.
Spatula and Large spoon: Both for mixing and serving meals.
All purpose knife: You most likely already have an assortment but make sure a very sharp 8-inch knife is on hand. It will probably cut tough meats like steak and be able to gentle dice soft foods like tomatoes with equal effectiveness. Make sure to dry it off immediately after cleaning to avoid wear and rust on the blade.
1 Large pot: For chili’s, soups, and various broths. Also a great way to cook up a load of veggies.
Spice rack: Essential for adding variety and flavor to meals. Try and favor whole spices above ground ones as they last longer. Keep them stored in a cool area and away from heat. Heat causes them to go bad quickly. Spices should be calorie free, contain no additives, and no extra sodium. Garlic should be garlic, fennel should be fennel, and cumin should be just cumin.
You don’t need an actual spice rack. It’s more just the spices themselves. You can see a list of must have spices here.
Cooler, Insulated bag, or large grocery bag: You can usually get insulted bags at Trader Joe’s for as little as 5 bucks. This will help keep food both warm and cool if necessary. If you are just carrying food for the day a simple bag will do. You can even use an old Trader Joe’s bag to carry your Tupperware for the day.
Kitchen shears: A good pair is a plus but I have honestly used a pair from the dollar store with pretty good success. They make it easy to cut up chicken, bacon, pieces of beef, and fish. Hey can also be used for veggies and fruit.
Glass containers: Use glass containers for storing leftovers. Make sure they come with a sealing lid. Glass containers actually keep food fresher than do plastic ones. They’re also much healthier if you have to reheat food in the microwave.
Tupperware:If you’re like most you probably have a job to get to. Although bringing a couple hot plates of food to work might be awesome it’s probably in your best interest to store them in Tupperware for the day.
Optional but highly recommended:
Crock pot or slow cooker: You can get all of your cooking needs met with the gear above but a crock pot has saved my life many times. Ok, not literally saved my life but it feels like it. With a crock pot you can throw in all of your goods and let it sit on it’s own for a couple of hours. More on how to prepare meals with a crock pot later in this article.
THE RIGHT FOOD:
You’ve got all the tools you need. Now it’s time for the food you’ll need.
If you’ve never performed a kitchen makeover before I highly recommend that you read this post before moving on with the rest of this article. Actually, I DEMAND that you do it. If you don’t I’ll fight you 🙂
Seriously, the biggest reason most people fail when it comes to making healthy nutritional changes is this.
They never change their environment.
If food is around it will eventually get eaten. Ice cream, pizza, cheese-its, pastries, juice, alcohol, you name it. At some point or another it will find it’s way into your belly. Don’t believe me, then just ask this guy.
After performing a kitchen makeover you’ll need to stock the fridge, freezer, and pantry with more real food.
So, ummmm – Justin. What the heck is real food?
It depends on who you ask. A vegetarian might consider real food one thing, a vegan another, and a Twinkie and coke lover even another.
But to me I consider anything with one ingredient or not created by man to be real food. Now I do realize that some of our foods can be a little tainted (covered in this post) so please take that info into consideration.
A few examples of what I mean by real food.
- Grass-fed beef (1-ingredient…beef)
- Wild Salmon
- Broccoli (1-ingredient… broccoli)
- Sweet Potato
Now this one gets a bit tricky because most of the extra healthy fats you can consume are typically manufactured and packaged with a label on them. It’s best to avoid oils with modifiers like “interesterified,” “hydrogenated,” “modified,” and “partially hydrogenated” on the label.
- Olive oil
- Coconut oil
- Avocado (1-ingredient…avocado)
- Nuts and seeds (in moderation – 1-2 handfuls per day)
- Loose leaf tea
You won’t see any labels on the items mentioned above that contain these common additives to our food (and if you do run)
- High fructose corn syrup
- Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
- Sodium benzoate
- Titanium dioxide
- Interesterified fat
- Red #3, Red #40, or some other color and number
Real food simply has one ingredient… what ever the heck that food is and that’s it. Real Food Is…
- Whole, unprocessed and unrefined: If it comes in a box or a bag, don’t eat it.
- Pasture-raised, grass-fed, and wild: These foods are higher in healthy omega-3 fatty acids, lower in toxin producing omega-6 fatty acids, and more nutrient dense
- Local, seasonal and organic: 25% higher in 11 essential vitamins and minerals (1)
- Download this FREE resource: The Limitless Real Food Chart.
HOW TO COOK LIKE A CHAMP…OR NINJA
Recipes need not apply. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good recipe. I’ve made plenty of Stephanie’s amazing meals, Marla is a go to food maven I refer to often, and I actually created a recipe of my own (mostly by mistake).
But for the beginner cook it’s best to simplify the process to save yourself some time, energy, and confusion.
Simply take one protein source (ex: grass-fed beef), a healthy cooking oil (ex: coconut oil), a solid carbohydrate source (ex: spinach, asparagus, peppers), and add a few spices.
- Turn the stove to medium heat
- Add 1-4 tablespoon of cooking oil (choose from this list) or roughly 1 tablespoon for every 4 ounces of protein.
- Throw in your favorite protein source (roughly the size of your palm or hand)
- Cover and let simmer
- Add in spices
- Distribute and enjoy
I’ve found that most people are more likely to stick with their nutrition plan if they have 5-6 simple and healthy recipes they can prepare, enjoy, and eat over and over again until they get tired of them and need to switch it up.
Here’s a simple Chili recipe that can be cooked in bulk and eaten at anytime.
HELP! I JUST DON’T HAVE TIME TO COOK
The hard truth is no one has time to cook. No one has time to do anything really. The key to making time for something is to make it a priority.
COOK IN BULK:
Don’t you date tell me you don’t have enough time to cook or prepare healthy meals for yourself on your family. It really doesn’t require a ton of time. Take a look at your schedule and pick 1-2 days a week where you can dedicate 60-90 minutes of time to prepping food.
I use Sunday morning and Wednesday evenings myself. Every Sunday I wake up and dedicate about 60-90 minutes of preparing enough food to last me until Wednesday night. I make 3-4 meals for each day (12-16 for the 4 days) leading up to Wednesday night. Then on Wednesday night I prepare meals that will last me through Saturday evening. Come Sunday the process starts all over again.
You’ll only need to dedicate 2-3 hours of cooking time per week. There’s a good chance you already spend that time cooking dinner each night, driving to a place to eat, waiting for your meal. Eliminate all that time and focus instead on cooking twice a week in bulk.
Some other ways to CREATE time to cook:
- Do it while you’re netting the flix 🙂
- Do it while you listen to an audio book
- Do it first thing in the morning
- Do it as the last thing at night
Look at how you’re spending some of your down time at home. Can you cut checking email, Facebook, or Twitter?
Can you dedicate one day only to house chores, laundry, and running errands as a way to open up time to prepare healthy meals?
Just like exercising you’re going to have to dedicate time to preparing food.
HOW TO COOK VEGETABLES
Preparing your vegetables can be extremely time-‐consuming and if you catch yourself at a time when you’re starving it can be a real pain in the ass.
At times like these, you can always go for frozen or canned vegetables. By keeping a substantial stock of them always on hand, you can avoid the mistake of not including them in your diet. When fresh vegetables are absolutely impossible, frozen ones work just as well. They also make irresistible and easy to make snacks, which can put you on track for consuming healthy snack food.
Breakfast Customization: Your habit goal is to include a serving of veggies with each meal or snack. You can easily consume one to two in your morning breakfast. Add your favorite complimentary vegetables in your morning scrambled eggs. There is nothing better than having the most important meal of the day sprinkled with little packages of energy, nutrients and long-‐term health.
If You Can’t Eat It, Then Drink It: You can also consume vegetables in the form of a beverage. All it needs is a superfine blender and thirty seconds of your time. You can conjure up your own recipes with the vegetables you love, or surf the online world for others’ experiences in this regard. If cleaning and cutting them is too much trouble, simply put them in the blender, flavor it and enjoy a tasteful beverage full of nutrients and life.
Here’s a favorite green smoothie drink of mine from the good woman over at PaleOMG.
Cook Your Vegetables: If eating raw vegetables is unbearable, it wouldn’t hurt to cook your vegetables slightly. There are several ways to cook your vegetables without destroying their nutritional content.
Steaming: It’s better to steam the vegetables as compared with boiling. Boiling can allow nutrients to seep out into the water, which is often wasted after boiling. On the other hand, steaming locks the nutrients inside the vegetable pieces. Moreover, it takes fleeting minutes to do so. Cutting up the vegetable in bite-‐sized pieces can hasten the process. The best way to enjoy your vegetables without oil.
Sautéing and Stir-Frying: A little oil will not hurt as long as it is from a healthy source like coconut oil, grass-fed butter, or olive oil. Cook the vegetables on low flame (sautéing) or high flame (stir-‐Frying) till the desired tenderness has been reached.
Cooking your vegetables can help out your digestive system. The human body is not engineered to digest a lot of roughage that accompanies the vegetables. Eating too much raw veggies can cause bloating and gas problems (YIKES). Cooking the vegetables will allow the cellular bonds to be broken, promoting digestion and absorption of these nutrients inside the human body. This means, contrary to popular belief, all vegetables are not meant to be consumed in the raw form.
Vegetable Sauces: You can use vegetable sauces as dips and with pastas. Use any of the zillion recipes to build your perfectly tasteful sauce and enjoy it with healthy sidelines. The smooth creamy texture of blended vegetables topped with flavorings can help you get into the vegetable regime in an effortless way.
Tomato dressing (Makes 1 1/2 cups)
- 1/3 Cup fresh tomatoes
- 1/2 Cup Flaxseed oil
- 1/2 Cup Lemon juice
- 1 garlic clove
- 1 onion, chopped
Hire a Chef: If you can’t do it yourself, you can hire a chef to do it for you. Rest assured, if you find the difficulties a viable reason to skip your vegetables, it won’t be long before you will be forced to hire a chef, a nutritionist and build a panel of specialist doctors for your different ailments. Spending thousands for something you could have avoided with a hundred. If this option still looks far-‐fetched to you, think again!
You can also dictate your likes and dislikes so the week ahead is free from food crisis. If you can’t manage your vegetables with your busy schedule, pay someone else to do it for you.
The chef, however, needn’t be very personal. You can search around for affordable restaurants that offer a healthy, vegetable filled dining experience with customizations (if necessary).
One last thing to remember is in addition to all the pointers mentioned above, there is one thing you need to be careful about. Use up all your vegetable preparations within 1 to 2 weeks. If you choose to chop your vegetables and freeze them, make sure your stock finishes within a week or two. You would not want to consume age-‐old spoilt veggies.
HOW TO COOK PROTEINS
Roasting: A cooking method that requires only the meat and a small amount of oil. It’s a dry heat method, and it’s usually done over a heat source such as a fire or electric grill bars. The amount of time it takes to roast a piece of meat depends on the meat itself – the cut and its size will define whether it should be slowly roasted on a lower temperature or quickly on a higher one.
Pot-roasting: It’s a cooking method best used on large cuts of meat. You can brown the meat first in some oil, and then put it in a pot with previously browned vegetables, without adding any oil. You can also pot-roast meat in a pressure cooker.
Braising: A cooking method that works great with cuts that aren’t very tender. The meat is cut into serving portions, browned a bit – although this is not necessary and then put in a pot on top of a lot of vegetables. Some water is added, and with the lid covering the pot, slowly cooked at a low temperature.
Pan frying: Quick and not at all dirty, pan frying is ideal for smaller, tender cuts. A small amount of oil or fat is heated in a pan or a wok before adding the meat, and that’s pretty much it. The meat is fried quickly over a hot temperature. If you add veggies and some liquids, it’s called stir-frying, and it’s a simple way to prepare a great meal.
Barbecuing and grilling: These are dry methods of preparing meat by exposing it to a heat source without adding any water, oil, or vegetables. The heat source – a grill, or a barbecue, needs to be at full power when placing meat above it, under it, or between two heat sources. This method is best suited for tender cuts.
Which one should I choose?
First off, you’ll probably want to try all the listed cooking methods and those that are not on the list at least once. That way you can see which method works best in which situation and with which cuts.
For a beginner, or someone who’s experienced but wants to prepare a healthy meat-based lunch in 15 minutes, pan-frying would probably be the easiest and most convenient method.
Here’s a quick guide for an easy lunch:
- Put oil in a skillet or wok.
- One or two tablespoons of coconut or olive oil will work well.
- Place beef, chicken or another meat into the wok or a skillet
- Sauté the meat for a few minutes
- Mix in your favorite vegetables of choice. Make a great stir-fry using cauliflower or broccoli.
- Stir it around a few times.
- Let it cook for 5-10 minutes, until the veggies and meat are cooked to your liking.
- Eat and Enjoy! It’s as simple as that.
The beauty of this method is not only that it’s almost as easy as making a sandwich, but it’s a method that can be used for different kinds of meat and different vegetables. That way, you can keep it simple but still manage to have a different meal every night if you want to. And not to mention that it’s really hard to get things wrong with this method and accidentally make an inedible meal.
That sounds like a monotonous diet!
It doesn’t have to be – there’s a lot of space for variety even when sticking with just one preparation method. But yes, one single cooking method does go well with a reduced variety diet. In such a diet, you’ll probably end up eating at least one similar meal a few times per week. You can also eat just a few food items in different ways day after day, but then you’ll need to find different preparation methods, and that kind of ruins the point of making eating as monotonous as possible.
And if I don’t enjoy cooking?
Well, there are some things you can do to increase enjoyment in the process of preparing food. First of all, you need to be mindful of everything that happens after preparation – you prepare the food, enjoy eating it and then have to wash your dishes. While eating is great, doing the dishes isn’t, but it still has to be done.
- Listen to music while prepping food
- Throw on the game or a movie
- Include those you family or other ones you love in the process and get a conversation going
- The last tip is – prepare food that you like, allow yourself to experiment from time to time, and don’t be afraid to fail.
- Is it cooking you don’t enjoy or the cleanup?
HOW TO COOK WITH HEALTHY FATS
It’s important to know the facts the more you know, the better choices you’ll be able to make. When it comes to cooking fat the choice should almost always be saturated (or solid at room temperature).
Let’s start with seed oils. They are rich in monounsaturated fatty acids and polyunsaturated fatty acids. To understand why that makes them a less desirable choice for cooking, when compared to saturated fats, you need to know one important fact – unsaturated fats are less stable than saturated options.
What that means is they are more prone to having their chemical structure damaged by things like heat, light or even air. A great example of this would be the tinted glass bottles that are used to store olive oil, which has the worst ratio of quality and reputation. The colored glass is used to protect the olive oil, which is not rich in saturated fats. Another example of common unsaturated fats are vegetable oils, some of them will turn rancid if they’re left in air for extended amounts of time, like soybean or corn oil.
This is an important factor to remember when shopping for a fat or oil. There is a wide selection of refined seed oils that are praised for their high smoke point, which means they can be heated to a greater temperature when cooking with them. Although a high smoke point is a good thing, it shouldn’t be used to determine the quality of the oil or fat. Saturated fats are still better than unsaturated, regardless of the high smoke point.
That’s all very nice to know, but how about some examples of fats that are good for cooking?
There are plenty of good fats to choose from. We’ll start with the best two – ghee or grass-fed butter and coconut oil.
Ghee is butter that has gone through the process of clarification. The clarification process, in short, removes pretty much everything from the butter except the fat, most of which is saturated.
Coconut oil is composed of 90% saturated fat. And that’s not a small percentage – you’ll rarely see a higher concentration. And the fats that are among that bunch of saturated fats have some other great properties, like being anti-fungal, anti-viral and anti-bacterial. It’s also a great fuel for your body.
Another option is lard, or more precisely, leaf lard – lard taken from around the kidney and loin of a pig. This type of lard is often desirable because it has the least porky taste.
Duck fat is another great fat which is an abundant source for saturated fats and has a high smoking point.
And how about fats that are not so good for cooking?
Fats that are not good for the body include refined oils and most vegetable oils. There are also some man-made trans-fats out there that you have most likely seen. Some popular brands are Crisco, Smart Balance, Margarine and I can’t Believe It’s Not Butter. These products have trans-fats which are very damaging to the body and have been linked to health problems.
So how do I use the good fats?
Now, you already know that higher smoking points mean higher cooking temperatures so coconut oil works great.
Browning is a cooking method that uses a high temperature to make meat become brown quickly. A high smoking point is required, so use ghee instead of butter. Browning is also the first step of pan-searing, with the second being cooking the meat in a pan within a pre-heated oven for a short amount of time.
Pan frying can be done with grass-fed butter, but you have to be careful not to overheat it because again, the lower smoking point. Pan frying some veggies for a few minutes is a great way to make them crisp and tasty. You can also use duck fat for frying – especially when frying something that takes a bit more time to cook, like sweet potato fries.
A general rule is that grass-fed butter works better as a coating over fish or meat when baking them in the oven. It is also tasty and safe used in slow cooked meals– think stews and pot roasting.
And what about food that contains fat?
Omega-3 fats are the most famous of all fats. Eating foods that contain these kinds of fats is good for you, and fish have more of them than pretty much any other food choice. The fattier the fish, the better (think wild caught salmon).
Egg-yolks are also full of good fats, and they’re one of the best things you can eat for breakfast. They can also be added to sauces and dressings and used to prepare a wide range of meals.
Last but not least make sure to take advantage of the healthy fats guide which can help you to decide which fats are best for you, which ones to cook with, which ones not to.
WHAT IF I COOK FOR MORE THAN 1 PERSON?
I’m a single dude which makes getting my chef on pretty easy. The only critic I have in the kitchen is me, myself, and I.
Some of you might have a significant other, family, or kids that you’re preparing meals for. If they’re following the same nutrition plan as you this makes life easy. However, such is not always the case and you may find yourself making one meal for yourself and another meal for your loved ones. Here’s what you can do:
LET EVERYONE KNOW HOW IMPORTANT THIS IS TO YOU
Explain how a healthier version of yourself will not only benefit you but them as well. Ask for their support and if they’re interested joining you in your epic quest of fitness.
IF THEY’RE NOT INTERESTED OR NOT SUPPORTIVE
Ask them if they’d be willing to prepare their own meals for a period of time to help elevate some of the stress on your shoulders as you try to build healthy eating habits. Teach them how to cook (or have them read this article) if they aren’t sure how to do so.
ASK EVERYONE WHAT THEIR FAVORITE MEALS ARE AND TRY PREPPING HEALTHIER OPTIONS
Here are a few great resources that might be able to help you with specific meals or ethnic cuisines.
YOU’RE THE ONE COOKING. SO YOU GET TO DECIDE WHAT’S GOBBLED UP
Sorry everyone else, if you’re not willing to support me then you’re on your own (tough love).
BREAK EVERYONE IN SLOWLY
Ask the family what some of their favorite veggies and sources of protein are. Start introducing these foods and healthier options one at a time. Maybe every Monday prepare a healthy dinner. Then in two weeks make Monday and Tuesday healthy dinner nights. Be sneaky and don’t even mention anything. See if anyone notices.
ANYTHING ELSE I SHOULD KNOW?
I wanted to leave you with a few final tips that I guarantee will have you cooking like Bobby Flay in no time.
The crock pot will make your life EZ-PEEZY. Using a slow cooker is the ultimate food prep hack. Clear space on an even surface in your kitchen. Make sure that nothing is close by as the sides of the cooker will get warm.
Prep all of your food (meat, veggies, etc…) Fill the slow cooker so that it is about 1/2-3/4 full of food. If you’re adding liquid to it only use enough so that it covers about 1/2 of the food. Put on the lid and make sure that it is on nice and snug – a tight seal is important.
Temps on a slow cooker are usually the same (210 degrees) the settings just indicate how long it will take for the temperature to reach 210. A low setting usually means it will take about 8-10 hours until your food is done with medium and high setting about 4-6 hours.
- Cook fish in parchment paper or foil to seal in it’s juices
- Sauté veggies in low sodium broth to add some flavor
- Onions, lemon juice, and herbs will add variety to any meal. Use them often.
- If you love chips – Make kale chips
- If you eat cottage cheese put it in a strainer first and rinse of the lactose for a lower calorie, lower sugar, awesome snack.
- Add nuts, seeds, and fruit to salads to liven them up a bit
- Apple cider vinegar on salads as well for some variety
Are you confident you can create time to let your inner chef out? Still struggling to finds ways to prepare healthy meals? Post to the comments below and I’ll help you out.