How To Cook Without Recipes, Part 2

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I was not prepared last Sunday, when my kids asked “Mom, what’s for breakfast?”

We had made the long drive home from Vero Beach, FL the day before, and I completely forgot that we had taken most of the food with us on the trip. For the first time in a long while, our cupboards were bare, the fruit bowl was empty, and my kids were hungry.

Before I got crazy healthy, I probably would have told my kids we were out of food, and should just walk to the Chick-fil-A down the street. Or I might have driven to Einstein’s Bagels and brought back an assortment of bagels and cream cheese. That would have seemed faster and cheaper.

But now I that I understand the importance of eating nutrient-dense foods, I actually prefer to stay home and get creative with what we have on hand. I’ve learned that it can actually take less time to prepare and serve real food, than it does to eat out. And that eating healthy food doesn’t necessarily cost much more, if I am smart about how I stock my pantry.

That morning, I did find some frozen fruit and gluten-free bread in the freezer, and organic peanut butter in the fridge. Breakfast ultimately consisted of fruit salad and toast with peanut butter. Not my best creation, but it did the trick, no one seemed to mind, and it taught my kids to make healthier choices.

This is a great example of why it is important to keep healthy essentials on hand, so we don’t have to fall back on fast food when we get in a bind. In my experience, I can always create a healthy meal when I keep my fridge and pantry stocked with:

  • cooking supplies
  • fresh produce
  • grains
  • beans
  • nuts
  • frozen fruits and veggies
  • organic meats, dairy and eggs
  • supplemental foods

Keeping these foods on hand has greatly improved our diet in recent years. Below is more about why I think they are essential.

Cooking Supplies

Cooking supplies are products that I absolutely have to have to be able to prepare whole foods. This includes oils, spices and sweeteners. This will mean different things to every cook, but personally I rely on:

  • high heat oils, such as coconut, grape seed, sunflower and safflower
  • fresh onion and garlic
  • sea salt
  • cracked black pepper
  • sweeteners, such as honey, maple syrup, coconut water and stevia
  • spices such as cinnamon, cumin, cayenne, turmeric, basil, mustard seed, rosemary, ginger, and taco seasoning
  • acids, such as fresh lemons and limes, and a variety of vinegars (my faves are balsamic, apple cider vinegar and rice vinegar)

There’s no real trick to learning to work with these items…it just takes practice. With a small investment of time, these staples can help greatly improve the quality and variety of the foods we serve.

Fresh Produce

There are so many things we can do with fresh produce, that I never imagined before I got crazy healthy! It takes practice to learn, but it’s definitely worth the time investment.

Here’s how I like to use fresh produce to feed my family:

  • stir frys
  • veggie burgers
  • soups
  • veggie pastas
  • quinoa salads
  • taco salads
  • fruit and veggie plates
  • smoothies

We eat these dishes more than anything else, so I get a little panicky when run low on produce.

When I shop, I usually just buy what looks good, and figure out what to do with it when I get home. I’m not much of a planner, so this works for me. For those who are planners, however, I recommend researching which foods are in season, and building a list around them. Your food will taste better this way.

Some fresh foods are easier to prepare and serve than others. I try to have a balance of what I consider fast foods, such as apples, bananas, berries, carrots, sugar snap peas, etc. in the house at all times. At least 30% of our diet consists of foods that can be washed, chopped, and served without modification. It took a lot time, patience, and positive feedback to help my kids learn to appreciate eating this way, but nowadays they seem to really enjoy a veggie plate for snack and chopped cucumbers (for example) in their lunch.

Foods that are denser, such as broccoli, kale, sweet potatoes and brussel sprouts make up another 20% of our diet. These foods are more labor intensive, so I usually save them for dinner. Roasting veggies is really simple, once you get the hang of it, so that’s how I usually prepare these foods. For more on this topic, check out my article, Roasted Veggies The Crazy Healthy Way.

Because I spend more time preparing dense veggies, I almost always make twice as much as we need for dinner, so we can have leftovers the next day.

Whenever possible, I boost my family’s intake of veggies by adding them to foods that might not otherwise contain veggies. For example, when I make turkey burgers, I process whatever veggies we happen to have in the house, and add them to ground turkey. Our turkey burgers are usually 30% veggies, 80% meat. I think they actually taste better this way!

Grains

Whole grains are rich in fiber that helps us feel full, and phytonutrients that are essential to good health.

My favorite grains are oats, quinoa and brown rice, so I always keep them on hand. It takes about 20 minutes to prepare rice and quinoa, so I recommend prepping these foods before prepping other foods. When I prepare rice and quinoa, I double the recipe. This helps me make two meals in almost half the time.

Oatmeal cooks a little faster, and is a great, hearty breakfast. I usually add sea salt, maple syrup, cinnamon, raisins, and walnuts to ours. Cherries and pecans are another great flavor combination. We use gluten-free oats, but steel cut oats are also a healthy option.

Beans

Beans are healthiest when prepared from scratch, but most have to be soaked for a good while before cooking. Because I am not much of a planner, I end up using packaged beans more often than not. However, in an ideal world, I would soak my beans the night before, and we would have beans prepared from scratch. The one exception to this rule seems to be lentils (let me know if you know of others!). Lentils cook almost as fast as rice, so we eat these beans most often.

I keep a variety of canned beans in the pantry at all times. We eat more canned black beans than anything else, but chick peas and kidney beans help me create variety in our diet.

Nuts, Dried Fruit, and Nut Butters

My family eats a lot of nuts, dried fruit and nut butters. My kids love to make their own trail mixes, and I love to make sauces and nut butters with nuts, sea salt, and coconut water. Soaked and processed cashews are also a great dairy substitute for sauces (more on this topic in my article, The Incredible, Edible Cashew).

Nuts and dried fruits are great snacks, especially when we are in a rush. I keep them in a convenient spot, so I can grab them as we walk out the door to soccer games and other family outings.

Nut butters, either made from scratch or purchased, are an excellent addition to smoothies, and a great complement to fresh fruit. My absolute favorite snack is strawberries with peanut butter…try it sometime and you’ll see why!

Frozen Fruits and Veggies

Flash frozen foods can be almost as healthy as fresh foods, and can make great additions to salads, salsas, soups, burgers, and dips. I use frozen organic corn in my veggie burgers, and add frozen mango to salsas. No one ever notices that I used frozen instead of fresh.

Frozen fruit can be a quick and easy snack for kids. My kids love frozen cherries and frozen pineapple for breakfast and snack.

Frozen foods,such as peas, edamame, and corn, can also be great time savers. On the nights that I make a labor intensive main dish, I try to serve a combination of fresh and frozen veggies as a side.

Organic Meats, Eggs, and Dairy (optional)

Dr. Joel Fuhrman, my favorite nutritionist, says that animal products should comprise 10% of less of our diet. We have followed this rule for over a decade, and although it was difficult at first, it has made a huge difference for my entire family. My kids and husband eat more meat than I do, but we all keep it under 10%. I think eggs are ok once in a while, but we don’t have them very often because three of us are extremely allergic.

Supplemental Foods

Supplemental foods are foods that are not necessarily healthy, but necessary to save time, create balance in our diet, and make sure no one feels deprived. Some of the foods I use the most are:

  • gluten-free breads for sandwiches
  • ketchup and mustard to pair with veggie burgers
  • gluten-free flour for pancakes (these work great as chicken sausage wraps, too!)
  • gluten-free pastas
  • canned soups and chilis (I buy organic brands, such as Amy’s, and add fresh garlic, onion and veggies to boost flavor and nutrient content)
  • pesto and marinara sauces
  • packaged dips (such as Trader Joe’s Pineapple Salsa and Eggplant Garlic dip)
  • mini chocolate chips to add to trail mixes and top peanut butter and banana bowls
  • gluten-free baking mixes, such as Pamela’s Cornbread Mix and Vanilla Cake Mix (you can make them from scratch, but these are great time savers!)

Again, these foods count toward the overall 90/10 ratio that Dr. Fuhrman prescribes, so if we are eating a lot of supplemental foods, than we cut back on meats and dairy.

The bottom line is that keeping our pantry stocked with essential foods is a one of the most important practices in learning how to cook without recipes. I hope this information helps you think differently about how you shop for, and prepare healthy meals.

In my next post, we will talk about Step 3 in learning to cook without recipes: learning how to work with what we have on hand. In the meantime, follow “My Crazy Healthy Life” on Facebook, for daily inspiration and tips, and let me know if you have questions or comments about this series! I always love hearing from you!

Photo: eatingwell.com

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