Time to Cook

Cooking at home is one of the most reliable ways to shift your life in a healthier direction. But where does a busy person find the time? Here’s how you can make good food, fast.

Babs Didner never learned how to cook. She grew up the youngest in a large family in which her mom and oldest sister ran the kitchen. “I was always totally intimidated by cooking,” says Didner, 50, a school administrator in Austin, Texas. So as an adult she turned to frozen dinners — when she wasn’t ordering takeout or dining at a local restaurant. Then, a few years ago, she and a friend found their way back into the kitchen as part of an effort to improve their diets.

“My friend Michelle loves to cook, so we’d get together and she’d explain cooking basics to me while we fixed our food,” says Didner. “Sometimes we’d follow recipes, but she knew how to cook without recipes, too, and she’d explain ways to do that, like how to thicken a mixture or what spices went with what type of food.”

Armed with some basic cooking skills, Didner made a discovery: She enjoys cooking. “It’s more relaxed and more fun” than buying prepared stuff, she says. “And it’s cheaper and healthier, too.”

Didner’s experience represents an evolution common among many who never used to cook and now do. When you feel short on cooking knowledge or long on other obligations (work, the kids’ soccer schedule, your yoga classes, the laundry), home cooking can feel like an ambitious, unrealistic proposition or even an impossible luxury. But when you head to the kitchen with some essential know-how, fresh perspective and a few insider tricks, cooking can become easier and more rewarding than you ever thought possible.

Here’s how to get from the former perspective to the latter, and start feeding yourself and your loved ones better in the process.

Weigh the Tradeoffs

It’s easy to see how eating out becomes our default dinner plan: When we get hungry, we want food now. So we head to a nearby bistro or pick up the phone to order takeout. We spend nearly half our food dollars each year on dining outside the home, according to the National Restaurant Association. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) projects that we will continue to increase the dollar amount we spend dining out by 10 percent each year through 2020.

This reflex to dine out doesn’t just drain our wallets. It can also sabotage our health. Whether we’re eating fast food, gourmet sit-down or takeout, we’re likely to ingest more saturated fat (including trans fats), sugar and salt than we would in our own home cooking. A USDA multiyear analysis (from 1977 to the mid-1990s) found that the amount of saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium in away-from-home meals increased in each subsequent year.

Another USDA study reported that, ounce for ounce, foods eaten away from home are more calorie dense than foods prepared at home. And the Washington, D.C.–based Center for Science in the Public Interest recently reported that even “healthy” items at popular casual-dining restaurants were anything but. A vegetarian burrito, for instance, averaged 1,140 calories and 2,610 milligrams of sodium; a chicken-and-broccoli pasta dish oozed 126 grams of fat.

Start Where You Are

“Take one baby step, and you’ll be so pleased that you’ll be inspired to do more,” says fresh-food enthusiast Nathan Lyon, host of A Lyon in the Kitchen on the Discovery Health Channel.

Lyon knows plenty of people who were intimidated by the kitchen until they learned some cooking basics. Once newbies learn a few simple techniques, he says, “they start to feel really empowered by their new skills and the control they have over what they’re putting into their bodies.”

Here are three easy steps toward getting past kitchen jitters and into the flow of healthy home cooking:

1. Learn the basics
Brushing up on fundamental food-prep and kitchen techniques goes a long way when it comes to streamlining your cooking efforts. Knowing things like basic knife skills, how hot pans should be, and at what point certain types of ingredients or flavorings should be added can make the difference between a disappointing or delightful kitchen experience.

And you can learn the basics without a huge time or energy commitment. Try partnering with a friend or relative who loves to cook, as Didner did. You can even make the exchange more enticing by offering a trade. “One of my farmers’ market customers is a yoga instructor who mentioned that he’d love to learn how to cook,” says Lyon. “So I taught him how to make homemade butternut-squash ravioli with marinara sauce, and in return, he taught me some yoga.”

Cooking classes can also help you develop your culinary skills. Many high-end markets and food co-ops offer evening or weekend classes on everything from how to chop vegetables and roll your own sushi to speeding up prep time and cooking with seasonal foods.

And don’t overlook the value of quality cookbooks. “Pick a cookbook that appeals to you, one that includes some cooking basics,” advises Mollie Katzen, noted whole-foods chef and author. Her own oeuvre of cookbooks includes the original Moosewood Cookbook (Ten Speed, 2000) and The Enchanted Broccoli Forest (Ten Speed, 1983). One of her recent books, coauthored with Harvard University’s Walter Willett, MD, is Eat, Drink and Weigh Less: A Flexible and Delicious Way to Shrink Your Waist Without Going Hungry (Hyperion, 2007), a how-to on whole-foods cooking for weight loss.

Other good primers with a whole-foods focus include Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything: Simple Recipes for Great Food (Wiley, 2006); and The Healthy Kitchen: Recipes for a Better Body, Life and Spirit by Andrew Weil, MD, and Rosie Daley (Knopf, 2002).

Once you’re armed with a little knowledge, you probably already have all the cooking utensils you need to start experimenting, says Lyon. “I make a point of not using anything on the show that an ordinary kitchen wouldn’t have,” he notes. “And I only have one outlet in my kitchen.”

But Lyon does have a few high-quality pots and pans, several good knives, and a hand mixer, spatula and cutting board. As your expertise grows, he says, you can add tools that help speed up and simplify your time in the kitchen, such as a food processor, which is useful for chopping and blending ingredients.

Your foray into the kitchen will also benefit from setting some goals. “Most people who aspire to cook more don’t lack recipes; they just lack a plan,” says Katzen. That plan needn’t be elaborate or ambitious, she notes.  It might be something as simple as: “I’ll cook supper once a week,” or, “This month, I’ll try a whole grain or vegetable I’ve never tried before.”

2. Carve out some time
Cooking at home is a lot less time consuming than we’ve been led to believe. Former University of California, Los Angeles, anthropologist Margaret Beck, PhD, recently showed that preparing a whole-foods meal takes about the same time as heat-and-serve cooking with convenience foods.

Beck videotaped families in Los Angeles as they prepared dinner. Families using convenience foods often made more-elaborate dinner offerings or prepared separate items for each family member. In one example, a family’s meal of bread, cheese, greens, salmon, edamame beans and tomatoes took the same time to get on the table as another family’s meal of microwaved barbecued ribs, macaroni and cheese, prebagged salad, bagged dinner rolls, and cookies and ice cream for dessert.

Keep in mind, too, that cooking includes downtime. You may need to start a dish an hour before you want to eat, but once you get the ingredients going, you’ll have some time to relax or get something else done while it cooks. Many recipe books help you plan by spelling out “active time” and “total time” for recipes.

You can also save time by cooking large amounts of a main ingredient and then dressing it up in different ways throughout the week. Katzen will cook a big pot of a grain such as millet or quinoa and then “have it for supper with onions and greens, and the next morning I’ll have it again with blueberries and walnuts.” (For more on quinoa, see Inspired Kitchen. )

Also consider prepping your vegetables in advance, rather than doing so just before each meal. “As soon as you get home from the market, cut them up and blanch them in hot water for just a few minutes and put them in containers in the refrigerator or freezer,” suggests Katzen. Later, you can sauté, roast or grill them in a variety of recipes. An added bonus? The veggies won’t get droopy if you don’t use them right away.

A full pantry is also a time saver. When your cupboards and fridge are well stocked with healthy ingredients that you use regularly — olive oil, canned tomatoes, frozen fruits and veggies, eggs, tofu, garlic and onions, whole grains, canned or jarred beans, hard cheeses — you’ll face fewer last-minute, time-guzzling trips to the store.

When your shelves do need replenishing, you’ll save time by planning a menu for the week ahead — before you hit the market. That way, you can get what you need in one visit, rather than running to the store every few days.

If you do start cooking and find you are missing something, try entering the missing ingredient with the word “substitute” into an Internet search engine. You might be surprised by how easily you can replace a missing ingredient without compromising flavor or nutrition.

3. Build in pleasure
Basic skills and kitchen efficiency are great, but they don’t necessarily make cooking fun. For some of us, cooking has always felt like a drag, no matter how much we know or how convenient it is. Are there creative ways to make cooking feel more inspired and joyful, even for the cooking averse?

Anna Lappé, coauthor with Bryant Terry of Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen (Tarcher, 2006), suggests making prep time an opportunity to socialize. You can invite family and friends to help prepare food — and then to enjoy the results. “I’m a firm believer in having guests arrive when the food is in mid-production,” says Lappé. “You can use the extra hands to put on the finishing touches and save you time in the process.”

Or start an informal supper club. One group of four families Lappé knows rotates meal making, so each family enjoys a freshly made meal delivered to its home three times a week. The entire group also converges for a weekly potluck.

And then, of course, there’s always the romantic dinner for two. As Lyon attests, knowing how to make mouth-watering and healthy foods can be good for your social life. “When you know how to cook well, it can make quite the impression,” he says.

In the end, however, cooking at home is its own intrinsic reward. It is a gift that keeps on giving — nutritionally, economically and emotionally. “Making food at home becomes a nurturing activity,” says Lyon. “It shows that you care for yourself, your family and friends, and your community.”

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Helen Cordes is a freelance writer in Georgetown, Texas.

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