“I’d love to cook healthier food…but it’s so expensive!”
“I just don’t have time to cook healthy meals from scratch.”
It’s not earth-shattering to think about buying in bulk or shopping the sales, so Jonny and I spoke a lot about the many places people “pad” grocery expenses with convenience foods and empty calories. (Did you realize that the emptier the calories, the more hungry you will be and the more food you will consume?)
We also talked about the precious commodity of time and the challenge many people face when trying to find the time to cook from scratch, especially families that have children at home. I’m no gourmet cook. In fact, my daughter wins the prize in our house. But over the years, I have learned a few tricks that help me eat healthfully in a short amount of time. Here are my favorites…
1. Use your salad spinner to store your lettuce. I hate making salads, but I love eating them, even for breakfast sometimes. I don’t buy prewashed boxes of mixed greens because they often end up slimy. And I don’t care if the package says “prewashed”…I still wash them because prewashed salads are commonly implicated in food-poisoning outbreaks. Instead I buy leaf or romaine lettuce, and rather than store them in the vegetable drawer, I remove the leaves right away and rinse and store them in a salad spinner. While the lettuce won’t last for weeks stored like this, it will last quite a few days.
2. Salad made easy part two—chop extra vegetables. When chopping veggies for salad, go overboard and chop too much. Once the knives and cutting boards are out, it doesn’t take much longer to slice a whole cucumber than it does to slice a quarter or a half. These can be stored in a container for a few days…or do what I often do and just throw them in the salad spinner with the lettuce. The spinner provides enough moisture, while the basket keeps leaves and veggies from sitting in water so they don’t wilt or get slimy.
3. My mother-in-law’s “planned overs.” Many people don’t like leftovers, but my mother-in-law reframed them as “planned overs”—simply make extra. Somehow planning extra doesn’t feel Iike the apology that leftovers does. Now that doesn’t work for everything, but casseroles, stews, bean salads, taco meat and more can be easily and deliciously eaten in the days to come. Some foods, such as beef stew and pasta sauce, actually taste better once they have had some time for the flavors to meld together.
4. A roast chicken in every refrigerator. Roast chicken was one of the first things I learned to cook because, as a child, I often had to put the chicken in the oven for dinner while my mother was still at work. Chickens are among the easiest things to cook but one of the most annoying to clean up. Thankfully, the grocery stores have solved that problem with a never-ending supply of rotisserie chickens available. Double time-saver: Do not put the chicken in the fridge to serve later. Instead, take the meat off the bone while it is still warm. It is far easier to do that, and you get more meat out of the chicken. Slicing a cold chicken makes it difficult to get into all the nooks and crannies.
Fun fact: At $4.99 for a three-pound chicken, Costco chickens are dirt cheap and have no antibiotics, hormones or steroids.
5. Chicken made easy #2: For those who say it takes too long to cook and prepare chicken breasts—not so fast. Got a vinaigrette salad dressing? Either home-made or bottled? Good! Put the chicken breasts in a plastic bag…pour in salad dressing…and let it sit overnight. The next day, put the chicken in a baking dish for 15 to 20 minutes at 450°F. Super-easy! You can even bake veggies at the same time either in the same pan or in a separate one. Simply toss them with oil, garlic, salt and pepper…or even a little of the same salad dressing
Here’s an extra time-saver: Don’t waste time rinsing your chicken when you take it out of the package. According to Dr. Richard Besser, president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and former head of the CDC, rinsing chicken actually can spread germ-filled droplets around the kitchen. Save yourself time, and save your family some risk…don’t rinse that chicken.
6. Get a rice cooker. I always found rice very difficult and messy to cook. The pot would boil over and make a mess on the stove, and the rice had to be watched constantly. It was incredibly annoying and a huge waste of time to have to babysit the pot. After 25 years of marriage, my husband mocked me when I came home from Walmart with a $15 rice cooker a few years ago. But it is my new BFF in the kitchen. I sound like a commercial if I say it’s easy and the rice is perfect every time…but it’s true. Measure the rice. Add twice as much water or bullion. Push go. Walk away until you’re ready to eat 20 minutes later. You can use it for any grain that cooks like rice, including quinoa.
7. Buy good knives and sharpen them regularly. I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to cut with poor-quality or dull knives. It’s an absolute struggle. On the flip side, if you’ve ever cut with a well-sharpened knife that has heft and feels good in your hand, it makes the task sooo much easier. It shocks me when I am working in friends’ kitchens—even those who are very good cooks—and they have poor-quality or dull knives. Buy a few good knives, and keep them sharp. You don’t need a whole block of them…but a six- or eight-inch chef’s knife and a good paring knife will go a long way. Electric sharpeners can cost hundreds of dollars, but manual ones can be found for less than $50. They are worth the investment. You really will be amazed at how effortless slicing and dicing can be when you use good knives.
One more bonus tip—which has nothing to do with time or money, but it’s one of my favorite and most useful kitchen tips. Should you cut yourself in the kitchen, sprinkle cayenne pepper on the cut to stop the bleeding. I’ve done it many times…it works. No, it doesn’t sting…too much. Don’t have cayenne? Black pepper will do.
Now go out there, and cook something delicious.
Sarah Hiner, president and CEO of Bottom Line Inc., is passionate about giving people the tools and knowledge they need to be in control of their lives in areas such as living a healthier life, the challenges of the health-care system, commonsense financial advice and creating great relationships. She appears often on national radio and hosts the Bottom Line Advocator Podcast, where she interviews leading experts to help people be their own best advocates in all areas of life.