CHAPTER
18

Let’s Get Cooking

In This Chapter

  • Where will your next meal come from?
  • Stocking up for quick meals
  • How to prep food efficiently and with ease
  • Which cooking method is fastest?

Do you always find at the end of a long day you have no idea about what to make for dinner? You’re not alone. It would be nice if your personal chef had a beautifully prepared and healthy meal on your table when you arrived home. But if the likelihood of having your own personal chef is slim to none, then you’re going to have to make do by yourself.

In this chapter, we’ll show you what you need to get a nutritious meal on the table in 30 minutes or less, simply by using a little organization and planning. We also give you some tips for keeping your kitchen organized and well supplied.

Meal Planning Made Easy

Today it seems that everyone is short on time and many lack direction when it comes to planning healthy meals. As with any new project, you must start at the beginning. You need to be gentle with yourself, and know your limitations and capabilities. You also need to establish realistic goals or you’ll be setting yourself up for failure. Meal planning actually can be made simple—you only need a plan of action.

Think Seasonally

The first step in meal planning is to think what healthy foods are in season. What fresh foods are being harvested now? What have you seen in the sale ads, in stores, or at the local farmer’s market? By shopping seasonally, you’ll save money and the produce will be at its peak of flavor.

It’s helpful to get a seasonal produce calendar and keep it nearby for meal planning. Many produce calendars that are specific to your region can be found online. The following list provides a few top contenders for each season:

Spring: Asparagus, broccoli, lettuce, peas, onions, and turnips

Summer: Peppers, strawberries, summer squash, tomatoes, and eggplant

Fall: Winter squash, chard, brussels sprouts, cranberries, and beets

Winter: Oranges, kale, cabbage, parsnips, bok choy, and cauliflower

Finding the Time to Cook

To eat healthier, you must find the time to cook. Begin by evaluating your weekly schedule. Are there days that are more generally demanding than others? Do you have a meeting or activity that typically runs late? Which days do you have more time to devote to being in the kitchen? Answering these questions will help you budget your time and decide when you need to have ready-prepared foods on hand to create a nutritious meal in minutes.

Meal Solutions

In some cases, your schedule may be so overbooked that you need to call in a support team. You may need to recruit family members and assign them a day or a meal to cook. There are also options available for meal delivery services, which are shipped right to your door with all the ingredients to make a complete meal. Cooking classes also are available in some areas and you can make a week’s worth of meals to take home to cook (or reheat and serve). If you’re looking for a solution that takes even less time, there are companies in some cities where you can choose from a variety of nutrient-controlled breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and snacks you can take home and reheat.

Grocery stores are even trying to help consumers eat better, too. You can purchase a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables washed, sliced, diced, and ready to use. Many stores have elaborate ready-to-eat food counters with everything from fresh salads to home-style soups. Their consumer-friendly vegetables can be real timesavers in the kitchen.

FOODIE FACTOID

In 1940, Irving Naxon invented what we now refer to as the Crock-pot, or slow cooker. It was originally called the Naxon Beanery. This kitchen appliance is very popular with those who don't like to spend a lot of time over a hot stove.

Kitchen Organization

One way to gobble up your time is to cook in a poorly organized kitchen. If you have trouble finding a square inch of usable work surface in your kitchen, you need to spend a couple of hours getting organized. Ideally you should remove anything that doesn’t belong in the kitchen. Next evaluate the equipment on the counters, peek in your utensil drawer, and review your pot and pan storage. Is what you use most often where you can easily access it? If not, reorganize it so the most used items are located front and center.

A Well-Stocked Pantry

At least once or twice annually, you should sort through your pantry, whether it be a cabinet or a few shelves. Organize your items into stations, such as canned goods, baking supplies, spices and condiments, pasta and rice, snack foods, breakfast foods, and so on. It’s also a good idea to invest in either plastic or metal shelf risers to allow you to double your space and be able to actually view your supplies. The following table provides a great start to a well-stocked pantry.

Basic Food Pantry

Canned Goods

Dry Goods

Flavorings

Black beans

Brown rice

Salt

Pinto beans

Jasmine rice

Pepper

Garbanzo beans

Spaghetti

Italian seasonings

Green beans

Angel hair pasta

Curry powder

Green peas

Macaroni noodles

Cinnamon

Corn

Couscous

Coriander

Diced tomatoes

Quinoa

Cumin

Whole tomatoes

Oats

Red pepper flakes

Tomato sauce

All-purpose flour

Chili powder

Tomato paste

Whole wheat flour

Soy sauce

Chicken stock

Brown sugar

Ponzu

Vegetable stock

Sugar

Mustard

Roasted peppers

Baking powder

Mayonnaise

Soups

Baking soda

Ketchup

Chocolate chips

Salsa

Shredded coconut

Olive oil

Tofu (shelf-stable)

Canola oil

Additional items, such as onions, garlic, and potatoes, should be kept in a cool, dark place like a pantry. Keep these items in a separate bin for easy cleanup.

From this basic pantry list, you should be able to put a meal on the table in 30 minutes or less. Additionally, you need to keep your refrigerator and freezer stocked with the following basics:

Cold Storage: Butter, shredded cheese, eggs, milk or milk alternatives, lemons, limes, and oranges.

Freezer Storage: Lean proteins such as flash-frozen chicken breasts or fish fillets, and ground meats such as turkey, chicken, beef, and pork.

Creating Your Meal Plan

If meal planning is new to you, you’re going to want to ease into it. Start with a goal of planning meals for two or three days per week. Ideally you’ll cook twice and plan to have sufficient ingredients to create the Day 3 quick-assembly meal that requires no cooking or just a simple reheat.

Follow these 10 steps to planning your meals:

1. Decide which days you want to have meals for and write them down on a notepad or dry erase board in your kitchen.

2. On your list, separate each day into breakfast, lunch, dinner, and two snacks.

3. Decide on a protein source for each main meal and write it down.

4. Look at your seasonal produce guide and select fruit and vegetables for each main meal.

5. Research recipes online to get ideas for your key recipe ingredients and print out the ones you need. Also look at the sale ads or what’s available at your local farmers market.

6. Determine what foods you can cook extra amounts of that you can repurpose for the next mealtime. For example, if you grill chicken on Sunday, can you grill an extra piece to add to your vegetable salad at lunch the next day?

7. Review the meal plan and recipes to ensure it makes sense for your week time-wise and for your skill level.

8. Round out your meals with additional whole grains, fruits, and vegetables to create a well-balanced meal. Make sure each meal is colorful.

9. Create your shopping list. Write down all the ingredients required in your recipes, then verify what you have in stock.

10. Go shopping, and when you return home put everything away promptly.

Meal planning will take some getting acquainted with, so be sure to allow yourself a little extra time to get into a routine. If you try to do too much too fast, it could be a bit overwhelming and you might get discouraged.

Food Prep Made Easy

Now that your kitchen is well organized, it will be a joy to get to work. As you review your meal plan, think about your meals and recipes and ask yourself if there are certain tasks you can prepare ahead that will save you time later when you’re cooking meal. For many people, it’s the chopping of produce that’s daunting. You can do up to a week’s worth at a time of durable veggies and store it in the fridge. You can also use a food processor or purchase vegetables prewashed and prechopped. Another great timesaver is to always cook and freeze extra rice or whole grains to pull out for use in another meal.

What’s the Best Way to Cook?

Depending on your recipe, there’s more than one way to cook your dishes. Which method you use depends on your personal style and how much time you have. Just about every method can be an everyday healthy way to cook, with only one exception—frying.

Sautéing

French for “jump in the pan,” this quick-cooking method is great for getting the meal on the table fast. To use this method, add a little oil to the pan, and heat until it begins to shimmer. When the oil is hot enough, you’ll hear a sizzle when you add the food to the pan. Sautéing is a great method for cooking just about anything that’s tender and needs a short amount of cooking time, such as vegetables and thin pieces of meat or fish.

Grilling

Outdoor cooking and barbecuing has always been popular, but it’s also a great way to add additional layers of flavor to foods. While it does require a little bit of setup, the payoff is worth it. The most important step is to first oil down the grill grates with vegetable oil to help prevent your food from sticking. Next, heat your grill to medium high heat. Lean meat like chicken is a great choice for the grill. Pat the chicken dry and lay it out on a sheet pan. Season it and place the sheet pan on the grill with the lid off and cook the chicken to an internal temperature of 165°F. It’s imperative to use a digital meat thermometer to end up with moist and juicy chicken that’s thoroughly cooked. In the last 10 minutes of cooking, brush on your favorite sauce.

Vegetables are also delicious when grilled. The key to grilling vegetables is to ensure the pieces are large enough to turn over with the tongs and that they aren’t so small they fall through the grate.

FOODIE FACTOID

The safe minimum food temperatures for protein foods are:

  • Chicken breast: 165°F
  • Hamburger: 160°F
  • Beef steak: 145°F
  • Fish: 145°F
  • Pork: 145°F

Steaming

There are many ways to steam foods in your kitchen. You can steam on the stovetop in a pan filled with a little water and a metal or silicone steamer insert; in a bamboo steamer over a pot; in a microwave steamer tray; or in an electric steamer that can cook multiple layers of foods. Whichever one you own is a great way to cook food fast and retain nutrients. Steam is hotter than air, so it takes less time to cook, too.

Using a microwave steamer at work is a great way to cook a hot meal fast. Because it adds moisture to the food, meat proteins don’t get as tough during the cooking process. Be sure to microwave your foods to 165°F for food safety.

Baking

Baking is a dry-heat cooking method. Heat is transferred from the outside of the food to the inside. Convection baking incorporates a fan to circulate the air evenly around the food, so it provides excellent browning and cooks it faster. When converting recipes between the two types, reduce the temperature of a convection oven by 25°F since it cooks faster. Because cooking time is less, be sure to keep a close eye on your recipe. Baking is a great all-purpose way to cook everything from chicken and fish to casseroles and muffins.

Frying

Frying is also a dry-heat method because the food is submerged in hot oil. It works by heating the liquid in the food into steam. When fried foods are cooked at the proper temperature, they don’t absorb much fat. However, improperly cooked foods will act as a sponge and absorb excess oil. It’s important to maintain the correct frying temperature to prevent prolonged cooking in the oil. The general frying temperature is about 350°F. This is not the healthiest cooking method to use, but it does make foods crispy.

Sous Vide

Sous vide (under vacuum) is one of the newest and coolest cooking techniques. Vacuum-sealed food is cooked in a temperature-controlled water bath over many hours at a low temperature. It produces perfectly cooked moist and tender food. However, this method isn’t for everyone, as it takes a long time to cook and the units can cost upwards of $400.

Order’s Up

Now that you’ve spent the day preparing and cooking foods for the week, what are you going to do with it all? It’s time to get it packaged up for easy eating. Gather all of your supplies such as your measuring cups, scale, containers, labels, and a marker, and get ready for the week. One thing to consider is how you’re going to reheat the food. You also need to look at the order in which you intend to eat your week’s worth of prepared foods. Plan to eat the more delicate items or those that begin to lose their texture the first few days and save the more durable items like stews for later.

A large piece of chicken breast is going to dry out before it gets evenly heated throughout. The solution would be to preslice it before putting it into your microwave-safe container. It would also be helpful to add other ingredients (side dishes) with a little moisture. Try to keep everything about the same size piece-wise so the foods will reheat evenly.

Some recipes don’t require any cook time and are ready to eat. However, think about if you make a fruit parfait with yogurt—you’re going to need different containers to prevent the granola from getting soggy. The same is true for salads—keep the dressing on the side and mix it right before eating. A little bit of thought and planning on the front end will make eating a joy.

Portion Sizes

As you compose your balanced meals of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and lean proteins, make sure to weigh out foods on your scale or use your measuring cups to get just the right size portion. Allow yourself a little extra time for this step. After you’ve practiced packaging your meals a few times, you’ll be able to identify correct portions on sight.

Leftovers

How long should you keep leftovers? Well, it depends on the food. Most prepped or prepared foods can be kept for 7 days in the refrigerator. Now that doesn’t mean it will be at its peak flavor or texture at Day 7, it simply means it won’t make you ill.

If you pack your lunch, use freezer packs in your lunch tote to keep it cool. Food should never be left out for more than 2 hours in the danger zone between 40° and 140°F. If you end up not eating your packed lunch that day and it remained unrefrigerated in your lunch tote, you need to toss it out. Be food safe and don’t risk getting sick over it.

The Least You Need to Know

  • Meal planning should be fun. Don’t be afraid to seek out help when it comes to meal preparation. It’s a great way to involve the family.
  • A organized and well-stocked kitchen with the right tools makes cooking a lot more fun and saves time.
  • Choose the best way to healthily cook your meals.
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