The single biggest hang up to creating a healthy meal at home isn’t a shortage of equipment or desire. In fact, most homes have more than enough food on the shelves and plenty of room in the fridge. Where I find many individuals come up short is their lack of proper preparation.
My tenure as a Boy Scout taught me to “Be Prepared!” in every circumstance and situation. Although you’re not camping or orienteering; week in and week out, you need to navigate the domestic destination known as the kitchen. It’s easy to find yourself thinking, “I don’t have the ingredients, and even if I did, who has the time!?!” Well hang in there. By applying and enlisting a few of these easy pointers, you’ll be consistently putting balanced meals on your table in no time.
1. Glass Storage Containers
A plastic commodity once traded in the living rooms of grandmas, aunts, and moms, these kitchen must-haves are evolving into upgraded glass models with silicone lids, coming in all shapes and size. Why am I so obsessed with storage containers? Well for starters, they’re multi taskers. Not only do they hold your food in a portable vessel, but that vessel is also microwave safe, dishwasher safe, and stacks well inside your cupboards/drawers. You have one piece of equipment that can hold precut veggies prior to meal creation, keep the leftovers fresh in the fridge until second consumption, reheat those same veggies at lunch the next day, AND act as your dinnerware to boot!
Recommendation for Storage Containers:
I’m a big fan of the Pyrex company because of their variety and durability, you can buy a set or individual pieces to suit your needs.
2. Prep your Starches and Carbohydrates in advance
Without diving into a much larger conversation about nutritional recommendations, let’s operate on the premise that an active individual in a modern agricultural society (hint, hint, that’s probably you) is going to include some form of carbohydrates in their week’s meals. Things like rice, quinoa, pasta, and potatoes are easy to add to meals on the fly when they’re prepared in advance.
Something I’ve put into weekly practice is cooking several cups of rice and after cooling, placing it in one of my glass storage containers, making an easy additive to a lunch or dinner. I usually only create three to four days worth of rice or quinoa to keep taste and texture of my starches optimal. Potatoes can be finicky compared to other veggies, with a shorter shelf life after skinned and cut. I’ve combated this by making a large batch of sweet potato purée or mashed potatoes, giving me an instant, flavorful side dish, ready to be doctored up with seasoning to match the rest of the dish.
3. Pre-Cut Veggies
Vegetables. You know you need them, but they are easily left out of dishes made on the fly or after a long day at work. While frozen packages are certainly an option, I’ve always enjoyed the customizable aspect of working with fresh. The morning of my desired meal (or night before), I can deconstruct the vegetable the way I want to, matching a variety of cooking styles.
For instance, if dinner’s feature is grilled chicken, the morning of I’ll remove the ends of some asparagus and break down a head of broccoli for roasting on the grill alongside the chicken. Another example from our kitchen is taco/fajita night. In the evening prior we’ll cut up our onions and peppers, sometimes pre-making guacamole or pico salsa if the ingredients are on hand. This way, when it’s quittin’ time, the only thing that remains is a much smaller amount of cooking with next to no prep work.
Of course, all of this vegetable work can be avoided if you choose to capitalize on the ready-prepared veggies at your local supermarket. You can usually find them along the refrigerated sidewalls in the produce section and although they come at a higher expense, they are always a better option than going without.
Recommendation for Veggie Prep:
To make your life easier, you need a chef’s knife and a good paring knife. I personally love the shape and versatility of a santoku knife. Additionally, a couple sizes of cutting boards are essential to preparing vegetables. Remember that the knife you’re using should always fit diagonally on your cutting board for optimal working space.
4. Leverage the Slow Cooker.
Hailed as a foolproof cooking method, this “set it and forget it” accessory can be found in most American kitchens, yet only a minority of individuals actually use them. I’m not talking about making cheese dip for the superbowl, I’m talking about walking through the door at the end of the day and the entire house smells like carnitas awaiting your ravenous appetite. This can be your reality if you plan ahead.
Our family predominately uses the crockpot in two ways: frozen, complete meals ready to thaw AND tag team meal creations. An example for the first method would be a large batch of chili or soup du jour. Via stove top, pressure cooker, or even crockpot, I’ll make an absolutely massive amount of beef, veggies, seasoning, etcetera and then portion it out into gallon sized zip top plastic bags for the freezer. When we’re in a pinch, or really craving chili, I’ll remove the contents of the freezer bag into the crockpot, setting it on low for 3-6+ hours (depending on size of dish).
For the second method of tag teaming an original meal creation, you’ll need a roommate, partner, spouse, or a crockpot with a timer. I’ll routinely dump the ingredients into the slow cooker for say… Korean BBQ Short Ribs, sometime in the late morning. Since my partner in crime gets home before I do, she can monitor its process, adjusting the temp to “keep warm” when things are looking done. My plan for when my current crockpot “dies” is to upgrade to a model with a timer function, similar to that of a delayed start coffee maker. With a delay timer, one can perform the whole process single handedly, timing out meal doneness within minutes of arriving home.
5. Utilize Store-Bought Flavor Enhancers
My culinary hero Alton Brown would be griping at this tip, however I often find it hard to authentically source and grind your own herbs and spices each and every meal. I suggest finding flavors you enjoy and repeat them routinely. I love pesto. For me, it makes way more sense to buy Costco’s Tub O’ Pesto, adding it to my chicken pasta or sausage dishes, than spend the time pressing garlic and de-stemming basil.
Nowadays it’s easy to find salsas, dips, sauces, and prefab spice concoctions that can be added to dishes. Sure beats constantly measuring and pairing your own! It is this way that lunch for the week can consistently be chicken, veggies, and rice, yet range in flavors from cajun, to mediterranean, to italian. One thing to note though is when seeking out flavorful combos, make sure to check the ingredients list and see if a majority of the items are actual flavor enhancers. Corn meal, cellulose, and other additives, aren’t inherently evil, but why pay for “fillers” when you’re seeking out flavor.
6. Always Cook 2x the Amount
Leftovers, it’s what’s for Lunch. Purely for the sake of saving a few bucks at that midday meal, our house has relied on the magical powers of leftovers to sustain our lunch breaks. I am one of those people that given the option, would/could eat Chipotle every single day. I shamefully admit that many Chipotle employees have come to know me by name over the years. Fortunately, a few years ago, we made the economic decision to start doubling our dinner recipes, creating easy meals for the day after. Now the good folks at Chipotle only know me by face, not by name, a step in the right direction.
Taylor’s standard Chipotle Order (in case you were wondering):
Burrito Bowl: Extra rice, extra extra fajitas, chicken, corn salsa, green (medium) salsa, cheese
7. Batch Cook your Proteins
Finally, I leave you with the recommendation to cook your meats in large quantities. This tip isn’t inherently different from the prefab starches suggestion, but when cooking meat there’s much larger versatility. The benefit with grilling a dozen chicken breasts, slow cooking an entire pork shoulder, or broiling a bunch of steaks is the ability to freeze. Unlike starches, protein do a remarkably good job of keeping fresh in the freezer, even after being cooked.
That all sounds good, but what about training or working directly with a fitness professional?
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