By Patti Hatzistavrakis
One thing I think every person on the planet can agree with is the shear busyness of life. Life pulls us in all sorts of directions; some people work to provide for themselves and their families, some stay home to care for children or an elderly loved one. But one thing is true; we all need to take care of ourselves if we are to live long, happy, productive lives.
When I began the journey to change my eating habits from mostly prepared foods to 90% homemade, I realized that the planning and preparation of food was taking up most of my free time. Now, three and half years later, I’ve come to learn that this food fuels my life and that planning and preparing food is something that cannot be hurried. It takes time, practice and commitment.
Taking a few minutes to plan and prepare before cooking can save time, save money, build cooking skills and increase the healthiness of meals. All of which can enrich life in so many ways. I’d like to share some of my tips for planning and preparing healthy homemade foods as efficiently and as easily as possible.
I find it most time effective to shop for groceries once a week, so I visit my local farmer’s market and favorite grocery store to get everything on my list. Purchasing a variety of in season fruits and vegetables, grass fed meats and eggs, as well as whole grains allows me to quickly pull meals together all week by simply mixing and matching the ingredients.
Once home from grocery shopping, I clean and store all of the food I just purchased. Vegetables and fruits are washed and trimmed, meats are separated into “meal sized” portions, and dry bulk items are transferred to mason jars. Everything is now ready to eat (or cook) as soon as I want to incorporate it into a meal. This saves me time throughout the week.
To save money, I stock up on the most utilized items. Dry/bulk beans and grains are usually less expensive than their canned counterparts and can be healthier as well. Canned beans, for example, may contain BPA from the can’s liner. Some research has linked BPA with certain cancers, diabetes and reduced fertility. Whole chickens and turkeys are carved into portions and frozen for later use. Breast meat is a wonderful and healthy “lunchmeat”, while the dark meat is perfect grilled or baked for dinners. Every part is utilized, including the bones. We make bone broth to use throughout the week for making quick soups and cooking grains.
Other pantry staples I find useful include: Coconut oil and Ghee for sautéing, seasonings such as sea salt, cumin, turmeric and oregano to spice up meals, Olive oil and coconut vinegar to create salad dressings, and dairy products, like cheese and yogurt, to accent meals.
Each day (usually for the next day), I decide what protein, vegetable(s) and grain I’ll make for dinner. Next, I can settle on ingredients for breakfast and lunch, varying the protein, vegetable and grain selections for each meal. This helps incorporate a wide variety of nutrients into the diet on a daily basis. Once all ingredients have been determined, I take inventory and begin thawing proteins or soaking beans, if needed. Then, at meal time, I simply have to finish prepping and cooking the ingredients.
A few things I also keep in mind to make meal time less stressful include:
Time: Determine how much time is available at meal time to prep & cook. This helps establish the cooking method and prep time required. Baking a whole meal requires less “hands on” time, but more actual cooking time, vs. sautéing an entire meal takes more “hands on” time but less actual cooking time. One pot meals or roasting a full meal in the oven can save time both in prep and clean up.
Age: Rotating stocked items is the best way to minimize waste and ensure high nutrient content. Produce should be eaten in the same week that it was purchased. Frozen items have a longer shelf life, but can still get freezer burnt if stored too long. Dried items like grains and beans are also best when fresher.
Experiment: Serving what the family likes is the best strategy to making meal time successful, so try introducing unfamiliar foods with favorite items to gain more acceptance. This experimentation keeps meals interesting and can lead to healthier meals over time. I would never have known the joy of roasted cauliflower if I hadn’t paired it with beets and sweet potatoes (two of my favorites) as an example. Also, try out new ingredients, like quinoa flour or coconut sugar for baking. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t but it’s important to learn how ingredients work together in the pursuit of making more nutritious meals.
Mix & Match: Based on the above, what fits best together? There are so many ways to combine ingredients, spices, sauces and cooking methods that it’s easy to stay interested in the wholesome food being prepared.
Culinary Skills: Overtime, I’ve learned to chop vegetables, prepare and cook whole chickens and season appropriately. But I didn’t always have those skills. I kept working at it and learned from those who would teach me. Feeling comfortable in the kitchen is half the battle.
Practice safe cooking: Know and adhere to cooking times and temperatures. Undercooked meat has been linked to disease and sickness. Pasta and rice can become starchy (and less healthy) if overcooked. Overcooked vegetables contain very few nutrients.
Fear Not the Leftover: Leftovers are a busy person’s best friend. Last night’s chicken can become a sandwich or salad, or even mixed with leftover grains and some fresh veggies for a quick weeknight meal. Day old roasted veggies can accompany a couple of organic eggs for a quick and nutritious breakfast or lunch. I also like to accumulate leftovers to make a “Last Minute” meal, for those days that just get away from me.
Take a break: There are days where I really don’t feel like cooking, or I’m craving my favorite ethnic food. So, I take a break. I don’t beat myself up, but rather, I enjoy it thoroughly.
Don’t forget dessert: I can never forget about my sweet tooth, so I keep a variety of flours and sugars in the pantry. Every week I make cookies, brownies, fruit sorbet or whatever we are hungry for. It’s better to have something healthy on hand than ransack the grocery store bakery at the last minute.
Eating healthy is a priority for me because it helps fuel my active, healthy lifestyle. Because it is a priority, I make time everyday to plan, prep and cook most of my meals and desserts from scratch. I save time by streamlining shopping trips, focusing on mix and match ingredients, washing and prepping veggies ahead of time and by cooking more than is needed to ensure having leftovers. I save money by buying in bulk, properly rotating foods and utilizing leftovers. Stress is reduced by knowing that I always have plenty of mix and match ingredients on hand, which also allows me to keep meals interesting and diversely nutritious. Food is one of the most enjoyable parts of life which is why I’ve made the choice to eat home cooked, nutrient-dense, delicious food everyday AND enjoy the process!
Patti Hatzistavrakis writes from her Puna home.