Wednesday, January 4, 2012

How's that resolution going?

Cross posted at Salt & Nectar today.

To be perfectly honest, I don't make resolutions. I'm a stubborn Taurus and don't like being told what to do (or when to do it.) But whether or not you agree, I know how many people struggle with changing their eating habits this time of year. I'm not a dietician, and I'm definitely not a fitness guru. But I have learned some things over the years about making meals easier, healthier, and more interesting, and the Sarahs asked if I'd share some pointers.

Honestly, the easiest and most effective way to eat more healthful food is to cook it yourself. That way, you control everything from the ingredients to the portion size. So go buy yourself a cute apron, wash your hands, and let's do this.

For all of you "I hate cooking"/"I'm a bad cook"/"I have no idea where to start" non-cooks:

First of all, stop being afraid of the kitchen. For a lot of people, cooking is really intimidating—but it doesn't have to be, I promise. It also doesn't have to be time-consuming. I know a lot of people see cooking as a chore, but I really enjoy it. I see it as a way to get to eat exactly what I want while feeding the people I love. And take it from me—you don't have to be a world class chef to put something awesome on the table.

I think the best way to start is with a great cookbook. When I was in college, my mom bought me a chicken cookbook with 200+ recipes from different cooking styles and regions. I swear it changed my life. Go to a bookstore and browse the cooking section-flip through any that look interesting and see what you think. If you like soup, get a soup book. If you're into Italian, pick up a basic Italian one. Celebrity chef books can be great for beginners, too. Just be sure you see some recipes that sound fantastic but look doable.

Oh, and get your hands on a copy of The Joy of Cooking. It's got everything you will ever need to know in the kitchen, from what temperature you bake a potato at to the best way to cook an omelet. (Or you can always consult Google. Don't underestimate the power of the internet when it comes to cooking.)

Basically, just dive in. Start with the easy stuff, and always read the directions before you start. And remember: cooking is not an exact science. If you take a bite (always taste while you cook!!!) and you think it would be better with some pepper, add some pepper! If it's a stir fry that looks great except for those carrots you just can't stand, don't use them! Once you get more comfortable in the kitchen, you'll start realizing what flavors go well together, and which you prefer, and you can start experimenting more and following recipes less exactly.

Feeling pretty confident in the kitchen, but tend to get bored with your standard repertoire?

Make an effort to try new ingredients.
Take a walk through the produce department and make a list of items you've never used. Never tried sweet potatoes? Break out a cookbook or fire up Google/online cooking sites and search "sweet potato recipes." Pick a couple recipes that look good (and are very different-you may end up not liking sweet potatoes as a sweet mash, but may love them with some salt and cumin as fries) and/or have good reviews and give it a shot.

Sit down and plan some meals-variety is key. On most Mondays, I sit down during my lunch break and decide what I'm going to make for dinner that week. If I get stuck coming up with ideas, I start surfing cooking sites to see if anything strikes my fancy. Once I've got a meal or two down, I switch it up for the other nights. If it's red meat for Monday night, I search for a vegetarian recipe to try on Tuesday. Maybe something with pork on Wednesday, chicken something on Thursday, and some sort of pasta on Friday...I find when I keep it interesting, cooking stays more fun. It also keeps your family on their toes. No one likes eating spaghetti every single Tuesday night.

Keep in mind that reusing ingredients can be really helpful when meal planning. Basil, for example, is often used in Italian dishes and in Thai dishes, so you won't waste the extra if you use it on two different nights.

I also really like to use one or two main ingredients within a full meal to tie it all together. If you stuff a chicken breast with herbed goat cheese and sun dried tomatoes, serve it with a salad of mixed greens, goat cheese, sun dried tomatoes and balsamic. It's easy and you'll save money.

Just remember: keep it simple, and don't be afraid to try new things. You'll no doubt have some meals that go straight in the garbage, but you'll more often have some that become automatic favorites—make sure to always, always write those down.

Happy New Year!

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