There’s no question that cooking your own food is better for you than take-out, and we’ll teach you how to do it well and easily.
Of course it’s easier to just pick up food from a drive-through, especially when you feel beat up from a long day at work and the thought of cooking is the last thing on your mind. But cooking doesn’t have to take a lot of time or effort, and it’s much better for you – not to mention it tastes better – than fast food.
Below, I’ll outline in detail the tips and tricks that have helped me make better food in less time.
And if you cook regularly, you’ll also find, or be reminded of, strategies that will help you spend less time in the kitchen, and make your time there more enjoyable.
Why Learning to Cook is Important
Your health is made up of a lot of things, but exercise and nutrition are the most obvious, and probably play the largest roles. Nutrition is a complex subject, but what’s certain is that what you put into your mouth on a daily basis does make a difference.
If you’re like most Americans, you probably don’t cook often, and wind up picking up fast food once or twice a week instead.
There’s nothing wrong with that, per se, but if you are trying to improve your health, it’s especially important to be aware of your lifestyle habits, so that you can make changes when necessary.
Like anything else, better nutrition comes from better habits, and when you get in the habit of easily cooking healthy meals for yourself, it’ll become a natural part of your life. When you don’t have to think much about improving your eating habits, you’ll free yourself up for spending time on the things that really matter to you.
Plus, it’s hard to beat the taste and satisfaction you get from a good, home-cooked meal.
How to Stock Your Kitchen for an Optimal Cooking Environment
Cooking doesn’t really require that much time, when you know exactly what you need to do (which I’ll describe in the next section), and when you have all that you need on hand.
First, a list of staples you should have on hand at all times:
- Meats, Poultry, Fish (fresh and/or frozen)
- Vegetables (fresh, frozen, and canned)
- Spices (salt, pepper, garlic powder, onion powder; you can also get some kind of seasoning salt, which usually includes garlic and onion powders)
- Oils (coconut, olive, canola – different oils are better used at different heat levels, check this chart for more information)
- Rice and Pasta (optional; personally, these are staples in my home, but if you don’t want to eat these, then don’t buy them)
Food safety is really important – the last thing you want is to give yourself food poisoning because you ate spoiled chicken unnecessarily – so it’s good to know how long each of these items will last in your pantry/refrigerator.
- Meats – In the fridge, steaks and roasts will last 3-5 days; Ground meats will last 1-2 day
- Poultry/Fish – In the fridge, 1-2 days
- Meats/Poultry/Fish in the freezer – 1-12 months (check this chart to see how long each item will last in the freezer)
- Vegetables – In the fridge, most veggies should be consumed within a week (you should wash and pat down veggies before putting them in the fridge); Veggies in the pantry (potatoes, gourds) can last up to two weeks
- Onions – 1 month
- Garlic – up to 2 months, if not cut
- Spices, rice, and pasta – These basically last forever
If you want to make sure you will cook more at home, the process needs to be relatively fast and easy to do. You aren’t making Thanksgiving dinner every night, so really there’s no need to spend more than 30 minutes at most preparing your food for the day, especially if you’ve planned beforehand.
Having these staples available and ready to use gets you more than halfway to your tasty home cooked meal.
- Go to the store or Amazon.com and buy this stuff.
- Remember to take out what’s in the freezer the night before and put it in your fridge to defrost.
The Quick and Dirty: 5 Ways to Make Every Meal a Winner
Cooking may seem daunting if you’ve never done it before, or if you’ve tried and failed in the past. But the following 5 tips will prepare you for making many easy and delicious meals.
1. How to Flavor Your Food
Salt, pepper, garlic, and onions.
These four staples add a tremendous amount of flavor to nearly every meal you will make. Knowing how to use them can turn an otherwise bland meal into a dinner where people will fight for seconds.
It takes about two minutes to chop up some onion and garlic.
For the onion, chop into smallish pieces by slicing it in half, then take one half and cut slices in one direction, turn it and make slices in the other direction. Don’t worry too much about how big or small the pieces are, just make them all about the same size and you are good.
The garlic is the same, but the the smaller the pieces, the more flavor will come out.
- Start a pan with just a tablespoon or two of the oil of your choice.
- Turn the burner to medium and let it heat up for a couple of minutes.
- Then throw in the chopped onions and garlic, and turn down the heat a little.
- Cook for a few minutes until the onions soften and start to “sweat.”
Then, you’ll either throw your protein in this same pan, or save this mixture to add to whatever you choose to cook in the next step. Add your salt and pepper to the proteins now, start conservatively and add more later (you’ll figure out exactly how much to spice your food the more you cook).
There are a lot of other ways to flavor your food, but these are the easiest steps to take, and your food will be quite tasty with just these basics.
2. How to Make Your Meats
There are many ways to cook animal proteins, and the method you use depends on the kind of protein you choose and what kind of dish you’d like to make.
But don’t let things get complicated. Let’s just talk about two ways that will make it easy to do every day.
- Sautéing/Frying – The onion/garlic tip above will come in handy with this method, since you’ll already have the pan heated up, and the flavors will already be seeped into the oil. Ground beef, steak, pork chops, chicken, fish, all of these will taste great made this way.
- Ground beef: Cook and stir until you see there’s no more redness
- Steak: Up to an inch thick, 5 minutes per side. > 1 inch – 7 to 8 minutes per side. This will make a medium done piece of meat. Cook a bit less for a redder, bloody steak, or more if you want to ruin the meat.
- Pork chops: Up to an inch thick, 6 minutes per side. > 1 inch – up to 8 minutes per side. Meat should be slightly pink. 145 degrees if you have a meat thermometer.
- Chicken: Up to an inch thick, 6 minutes per side. > 1 inch – up to 8 minutes per side. Cut into it and the juices should run clear. If this a bone-in chicken, cut into next to the bone to check for doneness.
- Fish: Up to an inch thick, 5 minutes per side. > 1 inch – 6 to 8 minutes per side. Use a fork to check the fish, the flesh should be flaky when you cut into it all the way through.
- Baking/Roasting/Broiling – This is probably the simplest method of cooking meats and fish. All you have to do is turn the oven to the desired temperature, put the meat in an oven-safe pan and stick it in the oven until it’s done. If you aren’t comfortable with how to tell if the protein is done (as detailed above) it’s a good idea to purchase a meat thermometer (you can purchase a digital meat thermometer for under 10 bucks, online or at any major retail homegoods store).
For eggs, the easiest methods are frying and boiling.
- Frying – Just scramble up the eggs before adding to a heated pan, then stir in the pan until no longer runny.
- Boiling – Put eggs into a pot with just enough water to cover the eggs. Bring to a boil, then turn off the heat and cover the pot. Set a timer for the desired amount of time (4 minutes for soft-boiled, 6 minutes for medium-boiled, and 10 minutes for hard-boiled), then drain and run under cold water before peeling.
3. How to Prepare Your Vegetables
There are many, many varieties of vegetables out there (far too many to list in a post like this). Some are better raw, some are better cooked one way than another.
If you’re not already familiar with how to prepare specific types of vegetables, there may be some trial and error involved. For the most part, though, there is room for error with most types of vegetables, with the exception of root vegetables, which are almost never eaten raw.
Just like with meats and fish, the following list is probably not exhaustive, but it includes the easiest methods of preparing vegetables:
- Sautéing/Frying – Chop your vegetables fairly small (about 1-inch cubes are good), then add to your pre-heated pan with your sautéed onions and garlic. You can add any other seasoning or sauces you like, and cook until the vegetables are soft.
- Baking/Roasting – Coat an oven-safe pan in oil, then add the vegetables of your choosing. Most vegetables are good when roasted at about 350-400 degrees (Fahrenheit). Cook until you can easily pierce the vegetables with a fork, or maybe a bit longer if you like your veggies crispy.
- Raw – Of course, some vegetables are great eaten raw. Simple salads are super easy to prepare, and can be dressed however you prefer.
- Steaming – Add one inch of water to a saucepan, then insert a steaming basket (you can buy one of these online or at the store for under 10 bucks). Bring the water to a boil, then add your chopped vegetables. Cover the pot and reduce the heat to medium. Steam until tender (3-15 minutes, depending on the particular vegetable).
4. How to Make Stuff Ahead of Time
We’re all busy –
…life gets hectic
…a meeting runs over and you don’t get home until 9pm
…your kid has the flu and you have to take him to the doctor.
These things happen all the time, and when they do, the last thing we want to do when we get home is start chopping onions. That’s when having food prepared ahead of time comes in handy.
Many people find it easier to spend 2-3 hours on Sunday preparing food for the week, than spending 30-60 minutes daily preparing their food. It comes to about the same amount of time, but this way, when you get home from work, your food is ready and waiting for you. There’s something freeing about that.
When using this method, it’s a good idea to stick to foods that freeze well, since you don’t want to be eating 5-day-old chicken on Friday. Better to freeze it right away so that it’s as close to fresh as possible.
Here are some specific tips on making food in bulk:
- Make 2-3 times the amount you’d usually make (so if you’d usually make one pound of chicken breast or ground beef, you’ll want to make at least two).
- Allow the food you make to cool down completely before putting into containers/bags for freezing.
- Once the food has cooled, put whatever you’ll eat over the next day or so into the fridge, and everything else can be prepped for freezing.
- Airtight containers and ziploc bags work best for freezing. When you put food into a Ziploc bag, make sure to press as much air out of the bag as possible before closing. This prevents the food from getting freezer burned.
- It’s a good idea to label your containers and bags of food so you know what’s inside (many foods will look quite a bit different when frozen), as well as what date it was made.
- Throughout the week, you can take out a container or bag of food out of the freezer and reheat by either microwaving for a minute or so (this is not recommended with Ziploc bags, but is fine with containers made from a thicker plastic that can withstand the heat), or dumping the food into an oven-safe container and heating up in the oven for a few minutes (this method will obviously take a bit longer, but works just as well).
- Some foods that freeze really well include: Almost all cooked meats, baked items like soufflés and breads, soups and sauces.
- Some foods that DO NOT freeze well include: Most types of cooked fish, leafy greens, eggs, rice.
5. How to Use Kitchen Technology
Thankfully, we live in an era where there is no shortage of tools and appliances designed to make our lives easier.
You have better ways to use your time, so don’t be afraid to use as many of these tools as you like:
- Microwaves – Yup, you read that right. This is literally the fastest and easiest way to cook anything. Some people are opposed to microwaves for various reasons, and that’s fine. But if you’re not one of those people, and you’re short on time, microwaving is a perfectly suitable method of getting your food cooked. The only thing I’ll mention is the texture from microwaving might not be quite right for certain vegetables, but for most, it’ll do the trick just fine.
- Slow Cooker – Slow cooking is a great way to prep your food and then leave it to its own devices while it’s cooking. You can put something in the slow cooker right before bed, and wake up to a fully cooked meal. Or you could set it up before you leave for work, and by the time you come home dinner is all ready.
- Rice Cooker – Rice doesn’t take a very long time to make even in a regular pot, but a rice cooker is a bit quicker, and ensures your rice will come out perfect without you having to worry about keeping an eye on it.
- Blender – This is probably self-explanatory, but blenders are great for anything from smoothies to soups, and are a great addition to your kitchen appliance repertoire, if you like those sorts of foods.
My No-Fail Chili Recipe
You don’t have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to cooking. Recipes are a great guide, and having a good half dozen go-to recipes is the best way to make sure you’ll decide to cook instead of having that regrettable convenience store hot dog.
This is one of my favorite easy meals that really can’t be messed up.
Ground Meat Chili
- 1 pound of ground meat (chicken, beef, buffalo – whatever meat you like)
- 1 teaspoon of salt
- 1 teaspoon of black pepper
- 1 tablespoon chili powder
- 3/4 teaspoon cumin
- One onion, chopped up
- 4 to 6 cloves of garlic chopped up (cloves are the pieces of garlic that come apart when you break the “head” up)
- 8 oz. can of tomato sauce
- 15 oz. can of diced tomatoes
- 15 oz. can of kidney beans
- Cut the onion and garlic as described above and prepare in a medium sized pot.
- Add the meat in and cook until no longer pink.
- Stir in the cans of tomato sauce and tomatoes, and chili powder, cumin, salt, and pepper and turn the heat to med/high until it starts to bubble up.
- Turn the heat down to low and cover for an hour. Stir every 15 minutes or so.
- Uncover the pot and add the beans, then turn the burner up to medium again for 5 minutes and keep stirring.
- Turn the heat back down to low and let sit for another 10 minutes.
This is one of my go to meals and provides a great hit of protein in an easy one pot dinner. Add in some vegetables or rice (my favorite) on the side and this is a complete meal without a lot of hassle.
This is also a perfect recipe to cook ahead of time and freeze.
You also have the option to do just the first part of cooking the onions, garlic, and meat ahead of time and refrigerate or freeze. Then just heat up on the stove and add the other ingredients to finish making the meal.
Make Cooking a Regular Part of Your Life
One of the first steps to eating better is knowing what you are eating, and when you prepare and cook your own food you automatically take care of that. So knowing how to cook is an important skill in taking care of yourself.
Cooking doesn’t have to take a lot of effort, especially once you get in the habit of doing it often.
Like other habits, it can take some time to make it a natural part of your lifestyle, but if you set up your conditions to make it a relatively easy habit to build, you’ll have a lot of success in the long run.
In one of our most popular episodes of the GMB Fitness Skills Show, we interviewed James Clear, an expert on habit formation. He shared some great insight on the best ways to break old habits and build new ones. If you want cooking, or any other lifestyle change, to become a part of your life, I recommend giving that episode a listen.