I love my husband. Seriously, he’s perfect, and I am blessed. But we haven’t always seen eye to eye on food. You see, he has this silly idea that eating is not merely for consuming sufficient calories to power one’s body through another day, but for enjoyment. I mean, the guy likes to read menus for fun! You know the kind I’m talking about, with the “succulent, juicy” this and the “drizzled, encrusted” that. Sometimes I wonder whether there isn’t really a Frenchman hiding inside that seemingly Scots-Irish exterior of his.
But seriously, I wish I had more of my husband’s attitude towards food. Whether by nature or nurture, I have always tended to see eating in a more utilitarian light, as something I need rather than want to do. Why spend more time on it than absolutely necessary? Get it over with and get on with the rest of life.
Yet food is one of God’s good gifts, one he meant for us to enjoy. Otherwise, why would he have given us such a wide array of textures, flavors, and colors from which to choose? Why would he have fashioned bodies that actually need culinary variety to properly function? Why would he have created the cacao tree if he didn’t intend for us to make chocolate from it?
No, my husband is right. God wants us to enjoy our food, and it’s worth taking more time and spending a little more money to do so. Right now, as I try to ignore the disaster that is the 2016 presidential election and look for non-political ways to improve my life, seems a great time to make some changes.
It helps that with two children in college and only one, a soon-to-be-teenager, left at home, I am finding a little more time on my hands. If you want to join me in trying to enhance both the nutritional and aesthetic quality of your food, here are a few suggestions to get started.
1. Plan Ahead
This is the key strategy, and one I am not very good at. When your life is in overdrive, meal planning goes down on the list of priorities, and my life has been in overdrive for the last 20 years. So my default menu has been those things I know how to make and shop for without looking at a recipe book (thanks, mom).
This approach can get you in a rut, and in my case, it definitely has. To get out of the rut is going to take some forethought and deliberation. It’s not just a matter of making a menu plan for the week, but also building time into each day to execute that day’s, or even the next day’s, menu.
I know this seems elementary, but for someone whose routine has been not to think about what I’m going to make for supper until about an hour before I’m making it, meal planning is a whole new world. Here’s a site that lays out an organized approach to what is unfamiliar territory for some of us.
2. Shop Online
This is related to No. 1. As a committed bargain shopper, I have been known to go to three or four vendors to complete one week’s shopping. Combine multiple stops with the time spent studying ads and clipping coupons, and the shopping alone can require hours to complete. Recently, though, I have started doing a portion of my grocery shopping online.
I tried it many years ago when Peapod was just starting out, but cost and selection were deterrents. These days online grocery shopping is becoming much more common. I have primarily been doing mine through Walmart Grocery, which charges no fee if you pick up your order yourself. My local grocer also offers online shopping and pickup, but with a fee that puts me off from using the service.
Simply replacing one of my regular stops with online ordering and pickup saves a significant amount of time, however. Instead of sitting with a cookbook, generating a paper shopping list, and going to the store to wander the aisles looking for ingredients, I can add items for a recipe I have chosen to my online grocery cart for later pickup. This saves huge chunk of time I can reallocate for meal planning and cooking.
3. Start Small
If you’re not an experienced chef, it can be intimidating to ponder changes in your approach to cooking. As with anything, significant change does not happen overnight. If you have been in the habit of not cooking much, it is probably unrealistic to decide that tomorrow you will start preparing every meal from scratch with only organic, non-processed ingredients.
Instead, resolve to improve one meal, such as supper, two to three times per week. The rest of the time, stick with what you are accustomed to doing. Once you’re comfortable with the initial change, try another.
As you look for new recipes, keep it simple. If you’ve been accustomed to eating Pop-Tarts for breakfast, fast food for lunch, and Stouffer’s lasagna for supper, deciding that next week’s menu is going to include Boeuf Bourguignon and Baked Alaska is probably not the way to go. Instead, pick up a cookbook, such as “Six Ingredients or Less” (one of my favorites!), that specializes in easy-to-make, low-stress recipes using everyday ingredients. Browse its pages and come up with several dishes that sound appealing and that you can realistically envision yourself making.
4. Don’t Kill the Vegetables
I am convinced that one reason American kids hate their vegetables is that American parents are so bad at cooking them. The default for most of us as we try to get through our frantic, overscheduled days is canned or frozen veggies. But not only do fresh vegetables retain more nutrients, they taste so much better.
Have you ever eaten broccoli steamed or boiled from frozen? Now, have you ever had it grilled or stir-fried? There is no comparison. Moreover, cooking from fresh doesn’t have to take any longer, especially if you buy the vegetables prewashed and cut (I know that costs a little more).
Here are a few easy recipes that yield much better-tasting vegetables than you can get from a bag or a can:
Stir-fry broccoli. You can make it even easier by skipping the sauce and just seasoning the broccoli, when it’s done, with soy sauce or salt and pepper.
Grilled asparagus. Truly, the best way by far to cook asparagus. If you don’t want to mess with the grill, you can roast the asparagus instead. But not too long! Limp asparagus is just wrong.
Roasted butternut squash with rosemary. To add a little interest to this dish, replace half of the squash with beets. Mmmmm.
5. Use More Whole Foods
The whole food (or real food) movement has been around for some time now. In short, it advocates eliminating processed food from one’s diet (to the extent possible). Processed food consists of anything that has been altered, for consumption, from its original, natural state.
It has been estimated that more than half of the American diet is not merely processed, but “ultra-processed.” Processing not only removes nutrients, it introduces other ingredients that may not be particularly healthy, and generally makes food less flavorful. Anything you can do to cut the amount of processed food you are eating will make for a healthier, more enjoyable diet.
A few easy changes to get you started are avoiding HFCS (high-fructose corn syrup), replacing bad fats with good ones, and eating as many raw foods as possible. Learn more here.
6. Get to Know Your Crockpot
Crockpots are not just for soups and stews. Crockpots are for everything: pork ribs, chicken breasts, roasts, breakfasts, and even desserts. What I love most about my crockpot is the ability to put something on to cook, forget about it, and come back to find it all done six to eight hours later.
The trick, once again, is planning ahead. You will need to set aside time in the morning or the night before to prepare whatever you are making, but you will recover that time later when you get home to a hot, ready-to-eat meal! To get started, buy yourself a good crockpot recipe book, something like “The Slow Cooker Bible” or “Fix-It and Forget-It.” Or check out this list of crockpot recipes using only three ingredients.
7. Grow Some Herbs
You will be amazed at the difference a well-placed fresh herb can make to the flavor of a dish. But fresh herbs at the grocery store can be expensive, and you may find they get old before you can use them all. So grow your own instead.
They are generally hardy, easy-care plants that even the most challenged gardener can have some success with. Favorites in my house are mint, basil, rosemary, and parsley. Once you get used to the flavor of fresh herbs in your food and drink, you will not want to go back to the dried stuff. You can also cut some sprigs and put them in a pretty container for a fragrant and attractive centerpiece or other decorative placement.
A few months ago, some out-of-town friends visited and took us out to eat. During the meal the subject of cooking came up, and the wife asked what I like to cook at home. Before I could answer, my 12-year-old piped up to say, “Oh, my mom doesn’t cook—she just buys things at the store and heats them up.”
Feeling somewhat indignant, I countered with a list of things I don’t merely “heat up” but cook from scratch: “What about the chicken and dumplings? What about the chili? What about the meatloaf, deviled eggs, potato salad, pesto, and tabouli?” Upon reflection I realized, though, that with fewer people to cook for and a lot of significant life changes the past few years, I have resorted to even more “heat-and-serve” options than in the past.
I have resolved to change that, not only for my family’s health but for our quality of life. There’s so much ugliness in the world over which I have no control. What my family eats, though—that’s an area over which I can have a positive influence. Who knows: maybe in time I’ll even enjoy the dramatic menu readings. Wish me luck!