How To Cook Without Recipes: Part 1

healthy-grocery-shopping1In my last post, I introduced the three simple steps that empowered me to learn to cook without recipes:

1. Learn how to prepare whole foods as close to their natural state as possible, to maximize their flavor and nutrient content.

2. Keep the pantry stocked with good quality essentials.

3. Get comfortable with working with what is available.

In the posts that follow, we will explore each of these steps in detail. This post will address the first step:

Learn how to prepare whole foods as close to their natural state as possible, to maximize their flavor and nutrient content.

Food is most nutritious when it is in the earth. As soon as it is picked, it starts to decompose, and lose its value. This is why it is important to buy local when possible, and try to consume the freshest, most recently picked foods.

This is why I always try to eat the freshest foods, as close to their natural state as possible. I choose local foods because they have been picked more recently than foods that have been transported from other regions. And I try to minimize chopping, cooking, freezing, and blending, because it breaks down valuable vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients.

It took me a while to get used to eating this way, but, with a little practice, I realized that cooking healthy dishes without recipes is often simpler than I think. Here are some of my favorite tips for success:

Make a date with the produce aisle.

So often, I am in a rush to buy groceries, and I reach for what is familiar. And as a result, I miss a lot of really wonderful foods. On the flip side, however, I have found that we eat better when I take time to explore what is available in the produce aisle. I discover new possibilities, and bring home a greater variety of foods, when I remind myself to stay in the moment, instead of rushing through my shopping.

I have seen many of my clients do the same thing, so I know it’s pretty common. This is why I decided to start taking my clients on grocery store tours. We meet at their favorite store, and spend time examining what is available. They are always amazed by how many fabulous foods they discover, that they would have otherwise missed.

When we take our tours, we examine the produce section methodically. We start at the front of the refrigerated section, at the bottom shelf. We move from one side to the other, and talk about every single item, its nutrient content, and how it might be prepared. After we finish the bottom shelf, we discuss each item on the next shelf. We continue this process, until we have explored every food available.

Afterward, we move to the non-frigerated produce (apples, oranges, etc.), and follow the same process.

The point of this exercise is to teach clients to think differently about shopping, and create new habits, that empower them to pick the best produce available. It also reminds me that, the more familiar we become with our options, the more likely we are to expand our cooking repertoire.

Learn how to pick the best quality foods.

After clients have reviewed what is available in both refrigerated and non-refrigerated produce, we return to our starting point, at the bottom shelf of the refrigerated produce. I remind them that fresh, ripe, local and/or organic foods are always highest in nutrient content. We talk about the importance of local and organic foods, and I remind them that some foods are more important to buy organic than others.

Research and experiment.

I try to pick one new food to try, each time I shop. It also helps to ask store employees about foods that look interesting, and ask for preparation suggestions.

When I have extra time, I browse the internet for interesting recipes. Not because I am going to make them, but because I can learn from them. I pay attention to which spices compliment foods I like, and try to get a feel for how much to use. After a while, I can identify common themes, and feel more comfortable with how much to add when cooking without a recipe.

It is also helpful to research food prep techniques, for the best ways to chop fruits and veggies. There are a lot of handy shortcuts, such as crushing garlic bulbs before peeling them, that save time and frustration.

Most of all, I remind myself to take chances. Experimentation is a valuable part of the journey in learning to cook without recipes.

Allow extra time to clean and prep produce.

Preparing fresh produce can be more time consuming than other popular methods of cooking. This is why I always add extra prep time into my cooking schedule. Otherwise, I take shortcuts that I hope will work, but usually don’t. I find that my dishes almost always turn out better, when I give myself enough time to prepare my foods properly.

Practice roasting, sauteeing and grilling.

At least half of what I serve my family is vegetables that have been roasted or sautéed. In my experience, this is how they taste best. Grilling is another option, but I find roasting and sauteeing to be much more convenient. Note that veggies are done when they are brightly colored, and still crunchy but soft inside.

Roasting is as simple as cleaning, and chopping veggies, tossing them with a little oil, salt and pepper, and cooking them in the oven at 375 or higher for 10-20 minutes (cooking time depends on vegetable density).

Sauteeing is as easy as cleaning and chopping veggies, heating some oil in a skillet, adding veggies, salt and pepper, and stirring frequently. Cooking time differs, depending on the size and density of the vegetables. Ten to 20 minutes is a good rule of thumb for sauteed veggies as well.

For grilled veggies, I toss them with a little oil, salt and pepper, and grill them in a grilling basket, or aluminum foil. Some veggies do ok directly on the grill, but most will need to be contained, so they do not get lost during the cooking process. Cooking time depends on the temperature of the grill, the size and density of the vegetable, but is usually 10 to twenty minutes.

Be a copy cat.

When I find a healthy dish or food item that I really love, I try making it at home! It’s usually easier than I think, and I learn a lot through these kinds of experiments.

A great example of this is how I learned to make garlicky kale, a few years ago. This is my favorite dish at our Whole Foods salad bar. Thankfully, they list the ingredients above each item, so it was easier to figure out the recipe. I bought everything I needed while I was still in the store, and the next day I had homemade garlicky kale for lunch (and I still make it quite often at home–it has become one of my “go to” recipes, especially when I feel like I might be getting sick.)

When I look around, I am reminded that there are a lot of really amazing, simple dishes that can be replicated at home with very little effort. This realization was, for me, one of the most empowering experiences in my adventures in crazy healthy cooking.

Give yourself grace.

Overcooking the broccoli really isn’t a big deal, in the scheme of things. It took me a while to accept this, but once I did, it became easier to learn from my mistakes. Just like like balancing on my yoga mat, cooking is most enjoyable when I surrender to the experience, instead of getting stuck in my expectations.

I hope these tips inspire you to get creative in the kitchen, in your pursuit of a crazy healthy life. In my next post, I will share a list of foods that are, in my experience, essential for learning to cook with ease.

I post additional tips and insight on the Facebook page for My Crazy Healthy Life, so please join me there, and follow this blog, as we continue this discussion. And feel free to ask me anything! I learn from you as well, and feel certain that together we can live our craziest, healthiest lives.

One thought on “How To Cook Without Recipes: Part 1

  1. I love that you take grocery store tours with your clients! Very cool. What a great way to promote smart habits. P.S. Thanks so much for the follow on All the Way Yoga…very much appreciated!


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