The Beginner’s Guide to Cooking Healthy
It would be nice if a personal chef followed you around all the time, ready with healthy, delicious meals at all hours of the day. But unless you’re Oprah (or someone equally flush with cash and prime real estate), that’s probably not going to happen anytime soon.
Luckily, it isn’t hard to create your own meals at home. Cooking for yourself offers its own brand of satisfaction, especially once you get past the basics and start branching out into delicious, unknown territory.
For now, we’re going to focus on the building blocks that can help you start out right. After you master these steps, you can move on to bigger, better menus.
1. Basic Tools
If you’re not a pro in the kitchen yet, you might need to hit the local thrift store or supermarket for a few items. If you can afford to purchase cookware from Williams & Sonoma that will last you a lifetime, go for it! Otherwise, you can start small. At the very least you’re going to need:
- One straight-edged kitchen knife, such as a santoku or a small cleaver, 5-8” long (look for at least 18/10 carbon stainless steel, or ceramic)
- Cutting board, made of nylon, plastic, or wood– not glass
- 3-quart, or bigger, saucepan with fitted lid
- 6-quart, or bigger, stock pot with fitted lid
- 8-inch, or bigger, frying or saute pan, with lid (cast iron is wonderful)
- Baking sheet
- Mixing bowl, 10” or bigger (plastic is fine for now)
- Measuring cups and spoons
- A couple of plastic or glass containers with lids, for leftovers
- 2-3 wooden spoons
- Flat spatula or turner
Other items that aren’t exactly necessary can be added as you feel ready:
- A rice cooker, which is a must if you build your diet around rice or quinoa
- A crock pot, great for a hot meal at the end of the day, with very little prep
- 9×13 Pyrex or ceramic casserole, for pot roast, roast chicken, or casseroles
Once you can cook a few of these, you’re well on your way to culinary independence! Cultures across the globe have always relied on a few basic foods for sustenance. Most of them are heavy on the carbs, which have taken a hit in the health ratings over the past few decades. However, nutrition experts agree that you can still build a solid diet around simple foods, such as:
- Rice or quinoa
- Whole grain pasta or bread
- Beans and lentils
Here are a few general guidelines for each. For more specific instructions, check the label or consult a good book, such as Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook, which has been saving lives since the 1950’s.
There are over 40,000 varieties of rice in the world, but a few general rules apply to almost all of them.
- One cup of dry rice will usually net you about 3 cups of cooked rice, so portion carefully.
- The general cooking ratio is 1 cup rice to 1.5 cups water. Some varieties, like medium grain sushi rice, require ¾ cup rice to 1 cup water. Others call for 1 cup rice to 2 cups water. Just read the label, and you’ll be fine. Later you can learn the easy rice cooker method, and just pour water to the line that corresponds to the number of cups of rice you’re using.
- NO PEEKING. Rice needs total secrecy to steam up into starchy goodness. If you open the lid too soon, the steam will escape, and you’ll end up with a crunchy mess. Patience, young padawan.
- To wash or not to wash? That depends on how and where you were raised. Some people insist on washing, and others have never even considered it. You won’t get food poisoning from unwashed rice. But washing does remove a lot of the starchy coating from the grains, which makes the final product taste lighter and less sticky. If you do choose to wash, it’s a very simple process. Just measure the rice into the pan or cooker bucket you plan to use, then cover with water. Stir vigorously with a clean hand. Pour out the starchy water. Repeat 2-3 times until the water is almost clear. Then pour in the measured cooking water and start.
If you can cook rice, you can cook quinoa. You’re golden. Go for it. Plus, quinoa makes perfect leftovers for lunch. Mix it cold with a drizzle of olive oil, and add veggies like corn, tomato, avocado, and peppers. For added flavor, cook your quinoa in low-sodium broth instead of water.
Whole Grain Pasta
If you want your dinner quick and easy, pasta is your new best friend. The grocery store is full of shapes and colors and brands. For the healthiest route, choose whole grain varieties. But if you just have to have the white stuff, make sure to check your portion sizes. Those calories add up quickly. A few tips:
- Make sure the water is boiling rapidly before adding the pasta. Throwing your pasta in too soon will mess with the texture and cooking times.
- Do not cover the pan.
- Use plenty of water. Pasta isn’t something you want to squeeze into the pot.
- Follow the al dente cook time on the package, not the longer, mushier time (unless you’re into that). And always taste-test before you drain, to make sure it’s soft enough.
- Drain immediately after time is up, and after you’ve confirmed with a taste test. If you leave it sitting in the hot water, you’ll lose the texture you want.
Most people outsource their bread-making to a local bakery or a far-off factory. When you’re focused on learning to cook, that’s probably a good idea. But for the future, keep in mind that making your own bread is not as hard as you might think. Once you’ve learned the main moves and understand how the dough is supposed to feel and act, you can bake pretty much anything (and totally wow your friends).
Simple as it is, bread-making is a skill best learned in person. Call your grandmother, or a baker friend, or a local home-ec teacher, and apprentice yourself for an afternoon. You need to feel the right temperatures, the proper elasticity and softness, and get to know the timing first hand.
If you can’t find a real, live human to follow around the kitchen, don’t despair! Many people have learned the art of bread-making from books and videos, with great success. Just be sure to give yourself plenty of room for mistakes, and keep trying.
Beans and Lentils
Legumes take time, but they’re worth it. These powerhouses pack in proteins, nutrients, fiber, and carbs in one small serving. Here are a few tips for best results.
- Prepare. It’s super easy to cook beans and legumes, but many of them need to soak or simmer for a long time. Be sure to read the label the night before, so you can plan accordingly.
- Use add-ins. Beans provide a wonderful palette for other flavors, like garlic, onion, peppers, cilantro, parsley, bay leaves, and celery. Mix and match, and play with add-in times, and find the combinations you like best.
- Don’t stop too soon. Some beans can cause intense stomach discomfort if they aren’t cooked long enough, so be sure to follow directions.
Unless you’re rocking a vegetarian lifestyle, much of your protein will come in the form of eggs, meat, fish, and dairy products. To get you started, these are a few simple ways to prepare juicy, healthy protein dishes.
A whole, roast chicken can last for several meals. Meat and veggies one night, tacos or wraps the next, soup after that. And it is oh-so-easy to make. Try it once, and you’ll be hooked. The key is a very hot oven and fast cooking.
- Purchase a whole chicken, either a roaster or a fryer.
- Set oven temperature to 500 degrees.
- Grease a 9×13 pan with butter or oil.
- Wash and dry the chicken, removing any giblets or packaging from cavities.
- Salt the inside, and rub the outside with oil, salt and pepper.
- Place chicken in the greased pan, and set in the center of the oven.
- Bake about 1 hour for a 3 lb chicken, or 1.25 hours for a 5 lb bird.
- The chicken is done when the legs move freely in their sockets, or when you can cut into the thigh and see clear juices.
- CHEATER TIP: For foolproof, always juicy chicken, even if you overcook, just add ¼ inch of water to the pan before you throw it in the oven.
Simmered Chicken (or Pork, or Beef Cuts)
This is an easy method for quick, juicy, smaller cuts of meat. Use it when you’re adding meat to a pasta sauce or curry, or just plating it on top of your rice.
- Set burner to medium-high heat.
- Heat oil in a frying pan or saute pan, enough oil to cover the area where the meat will rest.
- Add thawed meat: cuts of beef or pork, chicken thighs, breasts, or filets.
- Season the top side with pepper and salt, and maybe some cumin, if you like.
- After a minute or two, flip the meat to the other side. Season again.
- Now add about ¼ inch of liquid: water, broth, or wine.
- Cover the pan tightly.
- Turn down the heat, to low or medium-low. Then wait.
- Cooking times vary depending on the thickness of the meat. For a thin, boneless chicken breast, you’ll need about 8-10 minutes. For thicker cuts, you may need to turn it over, halfway through the simmer time.
- When the meat is done, remove it from the pan and slice into serving-size pieces.
- If you’re making a curry or tomato sauce, start it in the same pan you just used to cook the meat, and use the brothy-watery juices as the base, for tons of flavor.
- When it’s almost ready, add the meat into the simmering sauce, then remove from heat and serve.
Easy Oven Fish
The simplest way to cook a fish is to pan-sear it in a frying pan, with a little oil and seasoning. But if you want an easy, one-dish meal, try the following:
- Place the whole fish, or a large filet, on a length of greased aluminum foil.
- Add salt, pepper, lemon, garlic, anything you like to flavor your fish.
- Throw in some spinach leaves, or asparagus, or fresh green beans.
- Wrap the foil around the ingredients, end to end, to create a somewhat water-tight pouch.
- Set on a baking sheet in the oven to steam at 375 degrees, for around 30-45 minutes.
- Open the packet carefully, and let steam escape.
- Voila! You’re a culinary genius. Serve with pride.
Yes, you have to eat them. Do right by them, and you may even grow to love your greens. These days you’re bound to find plenty to like at your local market: fresh spinach, kale, collard greens, asparagus, brussels sprouts, artichoke, celery, green beans, bok choy, peppers, corn, tomato… All fresh and ready from the neighboring county, if you’re lucky.
Here are a few hints to make veggies less of a chore:
- A sturdy, straight-edged knife is a must. This is one of those times when quality matters. If you’ve ever tried dicing a pile of potatoes with a flimsy steak knife, you already know this.
- Always wash your veggies.
- Frozen can be as healthy, or healthier, than fresh veggies. They’re picked at the height of ripeness and flash frozen, with all the goodness locked in. Fresh veggies are often picked before they’re ripe, and get trucked around for days or weeks before they make it to your table.
- Don’t overcook your greens. Many can be eaten raw, and others only need blanching, or just a few minutes in the heat.
- Try throwing a handful of spinach into your sauce or curry at the last minute, rather than cooking it separately. It’s lightning quick, and very tasty.
Good snacks have the power to save you from the perils of fast food, especially when you’re far away and tired. And they only take a few minutes of preparation. These are a few good ones to keep around:
- Homemade granola: So easy to make. Just drizzle whole oats (and nuts and seeds, if you like) with a little honey and oil, and toast in the oven until it’s crunchy. Carry it in a small container in your lunch bag with a cup of yogurt and a spoon. Or press it into bars with just a little more honey to hold it together.
- Trail mix: Concoct your own out of raw or toasted nuts, seeds, and dried fruit like raisins, cranberries, pineapple, or apricots.
- Veggie sticks: Cut up celery, carrots, and cauliflower into manageable spears or halves. Dip them in nut butter or a yogurt sauce.
- Fruit: The easiest of all the easy/healthy snacks! Just toss an apple in your bag. Or an orange. Or a banana. No fuss required.
Get in the Kitchen and Go!
Doing is learning, people. And you won’t get good at cooking until you start trying it out for yourself! So gather friends, conduct experiments, watch a cooking show, and most of all, enjoy yourself. You have the power to make your meals amazing, inexpensive, and healthy to boot.