How to cook quick and healthy meals in 5 easy steps
In recent years, our relationship with food has changed. These days people are much more likely to eat out or buy ready made meals than to cook from scratch. There is a time and a place for convenience foods, and that is NOT on your plate every day of the week. I want to spread the word that cooking healthy meals can be tasty, quick and easy if you know how to do it.
1. Keep your pantry well stocked. There are certain things that you should always have in your pantry. This will vary depending on what you like to eat, but I recommend the following: onions, garlic, canned tomatoes (diced), canned beans (like kidney beans), pasta, rice, olive or vegetable oil and herbs & spices (chili powder, oregano, basil and parsley). This will give you the basis for a pasta dish with tomato sauce, chilli with rice, and many different side dishes.
2. Pick out your recipes beforehand. When I first started doing this it seemed crazy to cook from a recipe every night, but it takes all the guesswork out of cooking. For me it also meant that I started using new flavour combinations and cooking different cuisines, so it made my food a lot more interesting to eat. I have a food magazine, BBC Good Food, that I get most of my recipes from, although I also get recipes online (www.bbcgoodfood.com is my favourite) or from cookbooks I own. I pick recipes that take under 30 minutes to prepare and cook, are easy to make, and are low fat/calorie. If you're trying to be healthy, pick recipes that show the fat and calorie content, and keep it under 20g of fat and 500 calories per serving whenever you can. If you're not keen on using recipes all the time, just plan to cook dishes that you know how to make that contain lean meats and a good variety of veggies. Midweek cooking is one area where the "keep it simple, stupid" (KISS) principle works perfectly. In order to make cooking from scratch a sustainable part of your lifestyle, make it as easy on yourself as possible. Aim for recipes with around 5 ingredients or less.
3. Make a list. Spend a few minutes writing your shopping list before you do your weekly grocery shopping. Making a list and sticking to it will save you money in the supermarket and make preparing your meals much easier. You may want to keep your list flexible, especially in the summer when lots of fresh produce is available. I often write down "green veg" or "meat for stir fry" so I can pick the best (or best value) product available. If you don't want to make your own list then there are also some other options you can consider. There are many websites out there, like www.epicurious.com and www.mealsmatter.org, that are free to join that allow you to select the recipes you like and will compile the shopping list for you. Just pay attention to how many servings each recipe makes - you may need to adjust your quantities accordingly.
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4. Get your ingredients prepped before you start cooking. The chefs call it "mise en place" but whatever you call it, it's just good sense, especially for beginner cooks. Even if you ignore all of the other steps, definitely follow this one. Read your recipe before you start cooking, and make sure you get all your veggies chopped and have all of your ingredients ready for when you start cooking. Don't think that you're going to be able to cook more efficiently by chopping while you're cooking. If you're like me, you'll probably just burn something or stress yourself out by trying to do too much at once!
5. Have a backup plan. There are some days when things just don't turn out how I expected. Perhaps I forgot to take the meat out of the freezer, I just don't feel like making the recipe I chose, or I just don't have the time or energy to make even a 30-minute meal. Having leftovers in the freezer is a good backup plan - whenever I make soups, stews or sauces, I always make extra and freeze it. I also have at least one vegetarian meal a week, so that can save me when I forget to take the meat out of the freezer. If your backup plan is getting takeout/delivery, then try to keep your portion sizes as small as possible - save some for lunch the next day.
Cooking quick and healthy meals really is as simple as this. If you can follow these steps, then you can cook delicious meals every night of the week with little more effort than microwaving some frozen ready-meal. It's so satisfying to be able to cook for yourself and your family - not only does it mean you know exactly what you're eating but it also makes other people happy. With the added bonus of decreasing your grocery bills and maybe even the number on the scales, too.
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