There’s no getting around it: If you want to eat healthier, you’re going to have to cook. At least a little. And, yes, often.
When people ask me about the way I eat or how I feed my family I continually hear people say, “Well, I’d like to eat healthier, but I can’t cook.” Or even worse, “I don’t cook.” As though this is an insurmountable obstacle, like, “Well, I’d like to be able to draw with my right hand, but I’m left-handed.” And even then, if you were determined enough to draw with your right hand, I’m sure you would find a way.
Let’s be honest here: Saying that you can’t heat healthy because you can’t cook is an excuse. A cop-out. It’s a barricade you put there yourself. Whenever I hear someone tell me that they can’t cook it’s all I can do to keep myself from saying something quippy, like, “Yes, well, Bobby Flay/Paula Deen/The Pioneer Woman/Emeril Lagasse/your-favorite-chef-here wasn’t born with a spatula in his/her hand. At some point they had to learn, too. If you can’t cook it’s only because you haven’t taken the time to learn.”
OK, enough with the snark. I get that cooking can be tricky and time-consuming and seem totally overwhelming if you’ve never cooked a dish in your life. I’m not saying it’s the easiest thing in the world; what I am saying is that if this is your excuse for not eating better, it’s not a very good one — because anyone can learn how to cook. You may not be the next Giada de Laurentis, but if you get in the kitchen and give yourself a chance, you can figure this out. Yes, even those of you who feel so helpless in the kitchen you can’t even crack an egg. You got this. I promise.
The good news is you don’t have to be a pro to make a decent meal at home. And to help you get started, here are 25 of the best tips, tricks, methods, and ideas for making cooking a whole heck of a lot easier. I’ve scoured the web for the most helpful tidbits and compiled them here for you, for everyone from the kitchen newb to the culinary master. And if I’ve left something off, please leave me a comment and share your wisdom.
Organize your work space. From eatingwell.com: “Create a well-lit, clutter-free prep space in your kitchen that has space for your cutting board, ingredients and a bowl or two. Keep knives close by. And position a garbage can, trash bowl or compost bin within arm’s reach so you can get carrot peels, onions skins and so forth out of the way. (Of course, your space may be constrained, if you live in a tiny apartment, for instance, so improvise where necessary!)”
Shop smart. From eatingwell.com: “Half the battle of getting dinner on the table quickly is making sure you don’t have to go to the supermarket every other day. The best approach is to make a weekly plan of what you’re going to cook, consult your recipes and write a detailed shopping list. You can make your trip to the store as quick as possible if you organize your list by aisle. Try breaking it into these sections: produce, meat & seafood, dry goods, freezer, dairy, refrigerator, bakery and deli.
Keep a well-stocked pantry. From eatingwell.com: “When you’re making a shopping list, and as you cook and use up ingredients, keep your pantry in mind. If every time you reach the bottom of a bottle of soy sauce you always jot it down on your list, you won’t come up empty-handed the next time you’re about to throw your ingredients in a wok for a stir-fry.” And from pilatesnutritionist.com: “Any chef has a well-stocked pantry, so they can whip together a quick meal with only a few perishable ingredients. Consider having onions, garlic, sweet potatoes, and winter squash on hand (those don’t need to go in the refrigerator). A can of tomatoes is a few steps away from being a delicious marinara sauce or a bowl of tomato soup (jarred marinara sauce is also a great time saver). Coconut milk can make a quick curry (or filling smoothie if it’s that kind of a night). Olive tapenade, sun-dried tomatoes, and pesto make a flavorful topping for cooked meat, spaghetti squash, zucchini noodles, or even salads. Have chopped spinach ready in the freezer when you’ve forgotten to pick up fresh greens that week. Keep ice cubes of homemade stock handy for making quick sauces or soups.”
Read the recipe. From eatingwell.com: “When you’re ready to cook, take a moment and read your recipe. Though you may want to dive right in without reading, you’ll save time in the end, and probably do a better job, if you know what to expect. Of course, we’re the first to say that you should have fun and experiment in the kitchen; try using different ingredients, add more of something you like or skip something you don’t. But for sure success, follow the recipe and keep in mind the subtle conventions of recipe writing.”
Prep like a pro. From eatingwell.com: “If you’ve ever watched line cooks in a restaurant then you know that the secret to how they churn out all those plates of food so quickly is that all their ingredients are prepared, organized and ready to go when they get an order. Chefs call this idea of having all the ingredients ready “mise en place.” Translated literally, it means everything in place. This is a great way to approach cooking at home, too—once you’ve read your recipe, head to the refrigerator and cupboards, pull out all the ingredients you’ll need and set them up next to your work space. If it’s going to take you a little while to chop and prep, then leave your meat in the refrigerator until closer to when you’re ready to put it in a pan. As you prepare ingredients, if you don’t have enough room to keep them organized in little piles on your cutting board, transfer them to small bowls. We like to use the glass ramekins that you can pick up at most supermarkets for prepped ingredients.”
Chop quickly. From eatingwell.com: “Nothing slows you down more in the kitchen than dull knives. Invest in a good chef’s knife and paring knife. Then buy an inexpensive hand-held knife sharpener—these can cost under $10—and take just a couple swipes of the knife through the little V groove before you get to work. You’ll be slicing through the skin of ripe tomatoes like it’s nothing. Also, if your chopping skills are slow and clunky, spend some time watching the pros on TV and mimic how they do it. You may not get as quick as they are, but you can certainly pick up some of their technique, speed things up and be safer.”
Organize your fridge into “food zones.” From buzzfeed.com: “Having an organized fridge wil help you save time when you’re cooking, and save you money when things don’t get hidden in the back and go bad. Create food zones like the ‘sandwich zone’ and the ‘leftover zone’ to help keep things easy-to-find.” And from tidymom.net: “It might seem silly to have zones in your refrigerator, but this is helps me not only remember where things belong, but it’s helpful to other family members and guests who are helping out in the kitchen. You can even use actual labels for the shelves so everyone should know where things go. … Another idea is to use bins or plastic baskets to organize items by group. For example, you can keep your entire sandwich making condiments in a bin and when it’s time to make sandwiches, you can pull it out and have everything handy for all preferences without having to open the refrigerator several times.”
And don’t forget the pantry. From womanandhome.com: “Fill your cupboards in organised zones. Put baking items such as flour, sugar and baking soda together on a shelf; pasta, rice and pulses together; teas, coffees and so on. Avoid putting strongly flavoured foods, such as exotic spices, on a shelf next to delicately flavoured items, like tea or flour, or you’ll contaminate their flavours.”
Keep your cutting board in place. From thekitchn.com: “Even if you’re just prepping dinner, a cutting board that slips around as you chop is risky business.” To keep it from slipping, try a damp towel or paper towel: “Get the towel wet and then wring out as much water as possible. Lay it under your cutting board to create traction between the board and the counter. Thin, cotton towels work best for this; thicker towels are too spongy and can make the board rock while you’re chopping.”
Schedule grocery shopping trips. From pilatesnutritionist.com: “Those post-work trips to the grocery store are inconvenient, especially when you’re battling rush hour traffic to go out of your way for yet another stop. Inevitably, shopping right after work means you’re hungry and hungry shoppers are more likely to splurge on convenience foods and snacks. Ease that temptation and shop only once or twice per week so you can get home sooner and spend less time running around town. If you frequent a farmers’ market or receive a farm box, you can plan your menu around what’s in season.”
Cook in batches. From pilatesnutritionist.com: “One of my favorite ways to save time in the kitchen is to cook in bulk. It virtually halves the time you spend standing over the stove. Imagine having a pre-made dinner ready to go right when you get home. Sounds pretty tempting, so let’s pretend you’re cooking for a dinner party, even if it’s just you (or your family).”
Make friends with the slow cooker. From pilatesnutritionist.com: “a slow cooker is a fantastic option when you’re too busy to cook. Obviously it’s not something you can start at dinner time and expect to eat that night (unless of course, you want to eat dinner at 1am…), but with a little planning, you can have dinner ready right when you open the front door! Soups, casseroles, chili, pulled pork, beef roast, even a whole chicken can be cooked in a slow cooker! When searching for recipes, choose ones with simple ingredients and real spices (no cans of condensed soup or flavor packets). I promise you, with the low and slow cooking, the simplest of ingredients turn into some amazing flavors! Often slow cooker recipes are large enough to provide leftovers, too.”
Embrace leftovers. From pilatesnutritionist.com: Leftovers are a busy person’s best friend. Cook once and eat three or four times? Sign me up! Of course, not everything is delicious leftover. Cooked fish is better off made into fish cakes or added to a salad than reheated. Leftover cooked greens can be mushy. Salads that are pre-tossed with dressing get wilted and slimy. But many things are delicious leftover. Soup, chili, roasted curried cauliflower, Asian beet slaw, cooked meats, and casseroles are all fantastic the next day. Some dishes even taste better when the flavors have had a chance to meld.”
Buy what’s in season. From pilatesnutritionist.com: “When you shop in season and particularly at farmer’s markets, you can find much lower prices. Buy tomatoes in the Summer, buy butternut squash in the Fall, buy kale and beets in the Winter, buy fresh lettuce and snow peas in the Spring. I’ve lived all over the country in areas with both temperate climates and extreme winters. Sometimes you have to settle for frozen spinach or canned tomatoes, and that’s ok. Embrace what’s available locally. Know that no matter what, eating vegetables now will save you a lot more money in health care costs.”
Have the right equipment. From deliciousfoodgallery.com: “When it comes to pots, the essentials are a skillet, a Dutch oven, a wok, a roasting pan, casserole dishes, a slow cooker and salad bowls. Cutting boards are here as well. Tools such as a ladle, locking tongs, a spatula, a spoon and a whisk will definitely make your cooking easier. Always have a good chef’s knife, for example the one with 8 to 9 inch blade and a thick bolster. The major step in making cooking easier is having essential equipment. It is really not wise to load up your kitchen with dozens of pots and kitchen tools which can only make your kitchen overcrowded.”
Think up some themes. From metroparent.com: “Feel like a short-order cook? In today’s families, one kid goes vegetarian, another is vegan, one loves chicken nuggets and French fries – and inevitably there’s a dieting parent in the mix. How do you cook one meal that serves every family member? Think in terms of themes.” Try a Mexican night, make-your-own pizza night, potato or salad bar, breakfast for dinner, or all things Asian. “Any of these options provides enough variation to please every family member without sacrificing flavor, taste or creativity. Even better, all of these themes (and others, too) are easy to fill with veggies and don’t have to be elaborate.”
Use the microwave. From metroparent.com: “As a father, chef Jeff Sharrow “turns to the microwave for help steaming vegetables, cooking potatoes or otherwise creating a health-conscious family meal without strain and stress. ‘You can steam all kinds of vegetables in the microwave by simply putting the vegetable in there and covering a little bit with water in the bottom – you retain nutrients that way,’ he says. Plus, you can use the cooking liquid as a soup base or to saute with. Baked potatoes take five to nine minutes to soften in the microwave. Sharrow likes to coat with a thin layer of vegetable oil and wrap in plastic to retain moisture.” For a healthier potato, here’s my tip: Skip the oil and the plastic — wrap the potato in a damp paper towel.
Use a dump bowl. From theartofmoseying.com: “Get out a big bowl from the cupboard and toss all food scraps and trash in it. It will save you time from running back and forth from the trash can, and it will maintain your focus on the process of prepping and cooking. It will also make you realize how much trash you create each meal, which will inspire you to compost, and make the world a better place.”
Embrace the mundane. From keyingredient.com: “Don’t fear the pedestrian tasks. Find pleasure in peeling a carrot. Enjoy each step. You’ll be rewarded with more delicious food and you’ll also find delight in the process. Which will make you a happier person. This applies to all things in life, not just cooking.”
Prep your pans. From keyingredient.com: In addition to “mise en place” and prepping all of the edible ingredients, it’s helpful get your hardware ready too. Start with a hot pan even if the recipe doesn’t say so. Instead of adding oil to a cold pan and then heating it up, allow the pan to get warm before you put anything in it, even oil. You’ll get better coloring, your food will cook faster, and it will absorb less oil.
Be satisfied with simple foods. From perfectformuladiet.com: “You don’t need an elaborate, multi-course meal. This time-consuming approach is fine for special occasions, such as birthdays or Mother’s Day. The rest of the year you can train your taste buds to be happy with a couple of foods per meal. In fact, one-pot meals (such as soups or stir-fries) are ideal. Sandwiches and wraps are filling, inexpensive, and easy-to prepare meals and snacks as well.”
Learn to love cooking, or at least enjoy it. From perfectformuladiet.com: “Cooking is more fun when it’s your choice, and not something you feel forced in to. … Cultivate cooking time as relaxation, or even a form of meditation. Focus on the task at hand to forget the stress of the day or upcoming events. Listen to music or a story while you prep the food. Enjoy the aromas, colors, and textures of beautiful whole plant foods. Sample the foods as you cut and cook them. Sniff spices before you sprinkle them into whatever is on the stove.”
Cook with family or friends. From perfectformuladiet.com: “This is a great opportunity to socialize, cooperate on a common task, and spend quality time together. Food prep goes way faster when the tasks are shared. Even kids can help out — and they will learn to be more independent in taking care of their health as they grow when you set such a good example.”
Serve the smart way. From parentdish.com: “A big part of keeping a meal easy is serving it in an easy way. Before I was in the food business, I would serve dinner the old-fashioned way. Everything was put into bowls and either arranged on a buffet or brought to the table and passed around for people to help themselves. … Now, instead of passing all those bowls, I arrange Greek lamb with yogurt mint sauce down the middle of the platter, tomatoes roasted with pesto down one side, and couscous with toasted pine nuts down the other. If it’s just a few people, I’ll serve everyone at the table; if it’s a big party, I’ll serve it from a buffet in the kitchen or the sideboard in the dining room. It’s easier to assemble, easier to serve and when everyone goes home, there’s only one platter to clean up!”
Keep your knives sharp. From modernlifeblogs.com: “When you cut with a dull knife, you have to exert more force. When you exert more force, you tend to not have as much fine control — which means your knife could travel to places to you didn’t intend and hurt things that shouldn’t be hurt. A sharp knife, on the other hand, cuts easily, which means you are in complete control and can cut exactly what you want to cut. So sharpen those knives and be in control — accidents happen when you lose control.”