When I counsel a patient about healthy eating, the first question I ask is how often do you cook at home? When someone doesn’t cook as often as they might want to, why not? Inevitably, it comes down to time. One of my favorite experiences to share is that I might not cook every day, but I always cook on my work days. It seems counterintuitive, that I cook on my busiest and longest days.
There are a few reasons why I do this.
1. Cooking is meditation- this is Me Time. While I encourage my kids to experiment in the kitchen on less busy days, on an evening after a long day at work, only I am allowed in the kitchen for dinner prep. This is relaxing. (And if you want to turn cooking into a mindfulness exercise, here are some tips.)
2. Cooking is faster than eating out- And tastier. And healthier than takeout. And less expensive. I also know that if I am preparing the meal, I will like what I’m eating.
3. Cooking at home allows for family meals. Much has been written about the physical and psychological health benefits of families eating together. There is no better place to do this than in the family kitchen.
But how do I do this? The short answer is MEAL PLANNING. How long does this take? Not very long at all. On a Saturday or Sunday morning, I spend 10 or 15 minutes planning dinners for the week, at least through Thursday. Then I do a survey of the pantry and refrigerator to check which ingredients I need for the week, and what needs to be tossed from the refrigerator. (At this time I also include on the list items which are needed for breakfast and lunch.) I will then organize the list by the markets I’ll need to go to, and then get everything in one shopping trip. There may be one item or two that I’ll need to purchase fresh later in the week, but this method saves hours during the week and truly allows for home cooked family meals at least 4 nights a week, more if there are leftovers.
As for the pantry, if you are new to cooking or not that organized, you may be looking for a primer on how to stock your pantry. These are some pantry basics I encourage you to stock:
1. Pasta, rice, grains, noodles
2. Salt and a black pepper grinder
3. Vinegar- I have every vinegar under the sun, but most versatile would be apple cider, rice or red wine vinegar.
4. Cooking oil (such as canola) and olive oil
5. Canned Tomatoes
6. Spices- most essential are red chili flakes, black pepper in a grinder. I have tons more but without these two, it’s difficult to cook.
7. Canned fish- this is not only economical and shelf-stable, but can be a great flavor enhancer. Think sardines, anchovies, tuna and salmon, all great sources of omega-3s.
8. Dried and/or canned beans and lentils- these are extremely versatile and provide an inexpensive and terrific source of fiber-rich plant protein. Think black beans, white beans, chick peas and more. Try to buy no salt added if you’re buying canned.
9. Soy sauce, preferably low sodium, this adds “umami” to any dish, not just Asian dishes.
10. Nuts, seeds and nut butters- these can be used not only for snacking, but for adding crunch and protein to salads, for making pestos, and adding protein to smoothies and cereals.
With a well-stocked pantry including the above basics, you can easily put together a meal without a trip to the market. Better yet, if you have a few minutes, I’d advise a quick trip to a produce stand or supermarket to stock up on some fresh vegetables and fruits and herbs, and then you’ll be able to enjoy a fresh meal that’s packed with flavor and nutrition.
To help you put this into action, let me share a simple but satisfying and healthy meal I put together from pantry staples, with a few fresh ingredients.
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The Doctor’s Spicebox Pantry Pasta with Cherry Tomatoes, White Beans and Sardines
Serves: 4 to 6
1/2 lb whole grain pasta
1 can sardines (can be omitted if vegetarian)
3 packed cups baby spinach
1 cup cherry or other fresh, local tomatoes, sliced
one can of white beans, such as cannelini, no salt added if possible, rinsed and drained
fresh mint, roughly chopped, about 3 tablespoons (may substitute basil or other herbs)
pinch of salt
freshly ground pepper to taste
optional: chile flakes
1. Cook pasta according to package directions, then drain.
2. Meanwhile, rinse and drain beans, slice tomatoes, and chop mint.
3. Combine cooked pasta with sardines, breaking up sardines with a fork into bite sized pieces, and use the sardine oil as dressing for the pasta. Toss with remaining ingredients, allowing spinach to wilt, and serve hot or warm. Store leftovers in refrigerator– this also tastes good cold.
Thanks for reading! What other pantry staples do you stock? What other meal planning advice are you seeking? Please let me know in the comments. Happy cooking!