This post was written by Chef Erica Wides.
Hungry? Of course you are, you’re a young human! So cook something!
Wait, what? You don’t cook? That’s ridic. It’s time to learn. I know it’s tough to think about cooking when that stomach starts to growl…so much easier to grab something at the deli, or from the freezer, amirite? There’s so much prepared food around us, 24/7, it makes cooking seem kind of pointless, huh? Wrong!
Cooking your own food is not only the best way to master what you eat, but how much you eat, let alone how much you spend on your meals. And, home-cooked food is generally better for you, healthier, and a lot less expensive than take-out or convenience foods. Plus, you’re cooking for yourself! Hello, independence? Hello, dinner parties? And, cooking is super sexy…(wink!)
“But I’m hardly making any money!” you cry, “and I have no time”, you moan…Uh, nope. Let’s rewind time. You think that while the pioneers were rolling across the prairie, avoiding bandits and buffalo herds, they said, “ya know, I don’t feel like corn mush and bacon tonight, let’s stop at Denny’s instead”? Or maybe your family is from a more recent wave of immigration--maybe they were tomato farmers in Naples? Think Papa came in from the fields one day and said “Eh, tonight, we just get a pizza and watch the moon come up”. Nope. They cooked! They had to, and believe me; they worked a lot harder than you, and had a lot less free time than you.
Now before I make you chart your hours spent online or watching TV, let’s discuss the most important aspect of cooking for yourself; planning. Planning a well-stocked pantry of staples means that when you come home hungry and tired, you don’t just eat four bowls of cereal.
Staples. That’s the key. Not the kind you steal from your office, the kind you stock your kitchen with. You need a strong fortress of staples to fight off the hunger marauders. Canned beans and diced tomatoes, boxed chicken stock, pasta, brown rice, and grains, canned fish like sardines and salmon, frozen spinach, frozen fish filets and chicken parts. All are staples. All will feed you; well, cheaply and healthily. Go shop. I’ll wait here.
Once you’re stocked, you need to learn some basics. Like how to cook rice and pasta, and interesting, more nutritious grains like quinoa, buckwheat or farro. Try to avoid white rice and pasta, they’re really not good for you, and you’ll feel better eating whole grains. Cook up a few cups of grains or whole-wheat pasta each week, then cool it down (don’t rinse!) and pack away in containers in the fridge. Seriously, you can do this in the 5 minutes it takes to find your remote and open Netflix.
Once your arsenal of grain is cooked, you can cook a fresh vegetable that you buy on the way home, or even a frozen one. I’m totally down with frozen veg, if it means you’ll eat veg! Blanch (boil in salted water ‘til tender) green stuff like broccoli, asparagus, green beans, broccoli rabe, etc., then dunk them in ice-water. This is called “shocking”, it sets the bright green color and keeps the vegetables from overcooking. Chefs do this. Drain the veg well and put them away too, in the fridge. Now you have cooked green vegetables to add to a salad, throw into pasta, eat with a roasted chicken, etc. The key is to have stuff DONE and ready so you can just grab it. It’s 45 more minutes on Instagram…or a fridge full of healthy, tasty food? You choose. Root veg can be chopped up, tossed with oil and salt, and roasted on a sheet pan at 400° until golden brown. Salad greens can be bought, pre-washed and bagged for big salad meals. I do that. It’s ok.
Now protein. Mix a can of black beans or chick peas, a can of diced tomatoes and a chopped red onion with a pinch of ground cumin and a splash of olive oil for the fastest bean salad ever, or heat it all up in a pot for the fastest bean soup ever. Or cook lentils, just like you cook pasta but for longer, and do the same thing. Add chopped carrot, celery, herbs, olive oil, and don’t forget the salt, food without salt tastes like…nothing. Toss in a can of salmon or sardines, too. Get those Omega-3s without taking out another loan. And embrace salt and fat, you eat less of them overall if you cook for yourself, so be generous. Butter makes vegetables delicious, so does olive oil. Fats are your friends. Embrace them. Use herbs, salsas, chutneys, etc. to jazz stuff up even more.
Look! You just made a meal! Good job, you! Now eat!