So you are hungry and you have a few things on hand, but don’t know if they go together. Oh, and you don’t have a ton of time or energy to make this meal happen…
This scenario is familiar to most of us, right? When I ask my cooking class students about what they do next, the answer is nearly always ‘reach for Google, type in key words according to the ingredients on hand’ or reach for a cookbook. Makes sense.
So into the internet/research vortex we go! Now we are searching keywords and trying to sift through thousands of recipes… ones that look like what we want to eat, that fit our time- line (which is imminent dinnertime usually), fit into what we know is healthy (I usually skim over and look for processed/canned foods and then move on if these ingredients are not easily substituted with healthier ones.)
Endless internet and cookbook searches for ‘what’s for dinner’ is actually one of the biggest time-sinks. It can also be endlessly frustrating… trusting some recipe, posted by a stranger- that you are making for the first time- while hungry- better hope it works out! By trying out random recipes, you are not developing skills, learning techniques or becoming a better cook.
The Fall of Home Cooking (and Healthy Eating)
In generations past, learning to cook was a survival skill, it was also a way of keeping culture and family/community alive and of saving your family money. It was learned, both actively and passively, by watching our parents and grand-parents in the kitchen. We would develop fond and lasting memories of smells and tastes, and then get curious and learn how to re-create them.
Sadly, most people now do not feel confident in the kitchen, especially now that we are a few generations into the food culture of processed, fast and ‘convenient’ foods. Some people never grew up in a place where healthy, home-made meals were the norm. Many people even have developed those fond and lasting memories of processed foods! (Which can then take some serious adjustment to develop a taste for wholesome, healthy food!)
How Good Cooks are Made:
- Be joyful and relaxed in the kitchen. Much of what I love doing is to teach people (or help them remember) this. When we feel pressed for time, stressed about not having a plan for dinner, not having all the ingredients on hand to make the thing we want… that is when the joy is sucked out of our work. And we make decisions to eat less-than-ideal foods and meals to fill the gap. Whether it is ordering in, thawing some frozen ‘food’ in the microwave or just snacking instead of eating proper meals, this all adds up to what your diet is composed of, and ultimately negatively affects your health and the ‘food culture’ that you create in your life.
- Make healthy, home-made food versatile and convenient. To combat the all-too-common scenario of feeling the time-crunch an then getting lost in the recipe research vortex. We need to be able to whip up something vibrant, tasty and healthy in a few minutes.
- Think like a chef! The best chefs that I have ever worked with were not those who could follow a recipe. They were inventors of recipes! They were masters at using what is on hand to create something spectacular. But everyone starts from somewhere, so I noticed that there are patterns to how chefs put together new recipes. Get comfortable with one recipe or technique, and you can start switching out ingredients, until you have infinite variations on food themes. Like pasta, or grain salad/side dish or soup… learning a few basic formulas and ‘flavour-friends’ gives you the ability to create lots of variable, tasty and healthy dishes. I call these ‘Recipe Skeletons’.
Check out my Whole Grain Salad Recipe Skeleton.These make great weeknight dinner sides. Paired with a protein or even a stew, they make a complete dinner. Many an be served warm or chilled, and leftovers pack up nicely in lunches. They hold up for at least 4-6 days in the fridge.
The one pictured above is a variation on the ‘festive quinoa salad’ theme. ( I replaced whole barley with quinoa)
The formula goes as follows:
Grain I switched out quinoa for whole barley (which takes longer to cook, but I soaked it for a few hours beforehand)
Vegetables try raw, grated, roasted, grilled…
Fruit (optional) dried fruit like dried cranberries, or fresh citrus pieces etc…
Protein nuts, seeds, beans, lentils
Dressing healthy home-made dressing, like the flax-lemon dressing in the recipe skeleton
Herbs and/or greens make all the difference! Try chopping up some cooked kale, raw arugula or liberal amounts of parsley, cilantro, dill etc.
Keeping this recipe skeleton on hand, feel free to create your own recipes, write them down to repeat winning combinations, or make every new grain salad recipe a new creation.
I have found that having a big batch of this all-in-one, very veggie, protein and grain filled salad helps keep me on track with healthy eating during a busy week!