Goals for so many of us include eating healthier, cooking more at home, eating out less, making meals the whole family enjoys, and in general having better food habits.
One of the best ways to maintain health, both physical health and mental health by being able to foster bonds with those we live with, is to eat at home. I am excited to share with you the ways that cooking has been an everyday part of my life and how I’ve made that happen. For reference, all of the recipes detailed in this article are available in this google document if you want to print any out in an easier format.
Why cook at home?
This Eating Well article explains why cooking at home is better for your body with multiple details. It references this study from Johns Hopkins University which reveals how people who cook at home eat healthier overall even if they’re not trying to lose weight. Those articles mostly discuss physical benefits.
Eating as a family also has enormous benefits for social and emotional health. This interview through the Harvard EdCast Podcast goes into detail about the benefits of eating communally, something that seems to be rarer in many metropolitan areas where after-school activities and work schedules can prevent connections among families. Multiple studies are referenced also in this article in Parents Magazine supporting the benefits of eating at home.
Personally, I love cooking and baking. I grew up in an environment where my mom cooked almost every single night. We had homemade bread around for the holidays and other times if she was up to it. There often were chocolate chip cookies or banana bread around for the taking. I remember taking snickerdoodle cookies into my 4th-grade class one day, and everyone loved them so much that my mom made copies of the recipe and handed it out to my class in the cafeteria.
1 C butter
1 ½ C sugar
2 ¾ C flour
2 t cream of tartar
1 t baking soda
¼ t salt
Mix the butter and sugar together with a beater. Mix in eggs. Mix dry ingredients together (flour, cream of tartar, baking soda, and salt) then add into the butter, sugar, and egg mixture gradually.
Mix in a small bowl:
2 T sugar
1 T cinnamon
Roll the cookie dough into 1 inch balls and roll them in the sugar and cinnamon mix.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Place on ungreased cookie sheet for 8-10 minutes.
Luckily for me, I picked up on these habits. Whenever I share that I cook almost every meal and eat out usually one meal per week, many neighbors and colleagues are in disbelief. Even more so, they are in disbelief that I’m happy with this arrangement. I love cooking and while I know not everyone finds it as relaxing or enjoyable or relatively easy as I do, I think there are ways to make it easier and more enjoyable. That’s what I want to share with you in the hopes that the burden of cooking is lighter, yet you can still glean the benefits of it.
Each strategy below is a direct response to a protest I hear from people whenever I talk about cooking or baking with a colleague, friend, or neighbor.
Protest #1: I’m not a chef. I just can’t come up with good ideas. I can’t plan that many good things.
Solution #1: Relax your standards to a level no one else will notice but you.
If you’re a member of the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club or you heard me on Episode 240 of the Truth for Teacher Podcast, you’ll know about the Big 5. This phrase comes directly from the Big 5 Tips for Teacher Productivity. In chatting with other people, they often dismiss their cooking abilities as simply not good enough to cook at home. There are many things you can do with a minimal level of skill in the kitchen.
A friend of mine is a mother of 4 (all of whom are fairly picky although some are more limited than others) who consistently cooks the same set of 5 meals every single week. On Mondays, they have a meal such as mac and cheese and apple slices. Tuesdays they do chicken nuggets and fries. Other nights are buttered pasta and veggies, breakfast for dinner (pancakes), grilled cheese, pizza, etc. She cooks what they will eat and the routine of planning simplifies her life.
She usually makes a modification for herself such as putting the chicken tenders she made for the kids over a salad for herself. She does not post these meals on social media or search for new recipes constantly. I know from talking with her that this was not her vision. She truly saw herself as the one who would make more elaborate dinners and roasts on Sundays, and this is not her reality, but she is successful with cooking dinners for her family.
Her success is in the consistency of her meal prep. No one is analyzing those meals or comparing them to the vision she had when she was younger, and she can feel good about the fact that she is preparing food for her family that they will eat and that’s working for their life. If you’re thinking that someone is judging you for how you feed your kids because it’s not a plate of rainbows, take a deep breath and remember that no one is looking over your shoulder to rate your meal. Relax your standards to a level that no one else will notice but you.
Protest #2: I can’t cook. I know nothing. I didn’t grow up with a parent who cooked.
Solution #2: Know how to do essential skills. Practice how to prepare a bunch of simple things.
Although I’ll be sharing a bunch of recipes below, the secret to my success (I think) is not following a recipe or making an official meal from a recipe each night. Cooking is really just a rearrangement of multiple different ingredients and skills.
Here are some essential skills to know how to do in a kitchen:
- Season food with salt and pepper
- Boil pasta
- Hard boil eggs, fry eggs, scramble eggs
- Chop an onion
- Chop vegetables
- Saute chicken breast
- Saute onion and ground beef
- Roast vegetables in an oven
- Use a meat thermometer to check done-ness
- Keep surfaces clean and separate (separate raw meat and veggies for example)
Once you know how to do basic preparation, you can follow a multitude of recipes if you want to venture out and you can rearrange the same dish in countless ways.
Let’s take pasta dishes, for example.
You can change a pasta dish in so many ways:
- Change the sauce (tomato, alfredo, pesto, lemon cream, butter, and parmesan)
- Add vegetables (peas, spinach, broccoli, edamame, bell peppers)
- Add meat (chicken, ground beef, salmon)
- Change the pasta itself (use half zucchini noodles/half linguini, change the noodle type, use an alternative pasta, etc.)
From the same basic preparation of boiling water to make pasta, heating up some vegetables and sauce in a saute pan, then mixing the pasta with a little bit of pasta water into the other ingredients, you have a different dish almost every time. You get lots of variety at the table even though the procedure for preparation is the same.
Here is one vegan pasta recipe I enjoy that could be easily modified.
Roasted Cherry Tomato and Asparagus Penne
12 oz cherry or grape tomatoes
2 t thyme
1 t salt
½ t sugar
8 oz asparagus cut up into 2-inch pieces
1 lb penne pasta (or rotini, etc)
2-3 T Olive oil
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
- On a large sheet pan, place the tomatoes and asparagus with olive oil, salt, thyme, and sugar. Toss to coat. Place in the preheated oven and set a timer for 20 minutes.
- Place a pot of boiling water on the stove. Salt liberally. Once boiling, cook the pasta according to package directions.
- After the pasta is cooked, reserve 1 C of pasta water. Drain the pasta.
- Check the tomatoes and asparagus for doneness. If the tomatoes are starting to burst, it’s ready. Place them back in for 5 minutes or so if they need longer.
- Pour the tomatoes and asparagus into the pasta once finished cooking. Stir everything together, bursting the tomatoes to create a sauce. Add some pasta water to add to create the sauce. Drizzle with olive oil to finish.
- Optional modifications: add leftover chicken, cook shrimp with the vegetables in the second half of time in the oven, add slices of sausage, and use fresh spinach instead of asparagus at the end which will wilt when stirred in the pasta.
Protest #3: I don’t mind cooking, but I hate shopping.
Solution #3: Have a set grocery list that meets those stock preparations.
I keep my grocery list in the Notes app on my phone with checkboxes. I check it off when I get it at the store and I’ll uncheck it when I’ve used up enough to need it at the store again. When I’m at the store, I just buy the things that are unchecked. If you’re making similar types of meals and rotating through those on a weekly basis (see more about that below), you can keep your list pretty much the same all the time.
Modify your own list to suit your own tastes and what you keep around most often. Here are a few ideas to get you started.
Protest #4: You probably have all the gadgets and use all this fancy stuff. I don’t have time for that. I don’t even know what the things I have are for.
Solution #4: Have a small set of tools that make cooking easy to do. Get rid of (or set aside) anything you don’t know how to use.
I think this is not a huge stumbling block for most people. Most people have sheet pans, frying pans, and some pots, but if not, get those few things. The biggest thing I’ve seen that gets in the way is not having sharp knives. If you are struggling while cutting meat or vegetables, you need to sharpen your knives or just buy some new ones. You can get decent knives at the grocery store for a great price. You do not need to invest in the best of the best; just get something that will make it easier for you to do the job of cooking.
Also, above I mentioned using a meat thermometer to check for done-ness, so a meat thermometer can be a great tool especially if you’re not sure when something is cooked until you’ve already cut into it. This gets easier to tell over time the more you cook, but if you’re less experienced, purchasing a meat thermometer for $10 online will give lots of peace of mind that you’re cooking meat thoroughly and safely.
Here’s a short list:
- Large frying/saute pan
- Large sheet pan
- Large pot for soup and boiling pasta water
- Cutting boards (at least 2)
- Sharp knives (large chopping one often labeled “chef’s knife”, serrated knife for meat, a smaller paring knife for small fruits and vegetables)
- Cheese grater (a box grater with zester and large and small size holes is perfect)
- Colander for pasta or rinsing vegetables
- Vegetable peelers (for root vegetables such as potatoes and carrots)
- Meat thermometer
- Spatula (flexible rubber for softer things and harder plastic for sauteing/flipping)
- Large plastic spoon for stirring
- Measuring cups and spoons (more for baking; I rarely measure things when cooking)
- Rice cooker (makes this task a million times easier)
- Electric mixer (handheld works great!) for baking tasks
Protest #5: I am not creative enough to come up with all those ideas. My family would get bored if I cooked all the time.
Solution #5: Have a rotating list of meals that everyone (or mostly everyone) likes.
Routine is often welcome. If you’re eating seasonally, then every few months you can also change the fruits and vegetables that are offered, have more soups in the winter, more grilled meats in the summer, etc. It might surprise you how little variety is needed.
As I mentioned in the first part of my post, consider a weekly rotation of meals that works for you. I am including 6 themes with the idea that one night is likely to be leftovers or dining out. I find having theme days like this allows me to plan meals on a weekly basis more easily since I can always swap my pasta and salad nights depending on my mood or time. This also keeps more variety for me than choosing to have the same meal every Monday which I personally enjoy.
The added benefit of these meal themes is limiting the dishes. I hate doing dishes, luckily my significant other does them and doesn’t mind. Still, I don’t like to have a ton of dishes and containers around anyway.
For pasta dishes, I typically need a pot to boil water and a large saute pan. For oven meals, 1-2 sheet pans are great. I love extra large sheet pans where you can do half of a meal on one side and half on the other. For crock pot meals and soup, hopefully, it’s just the crock pot or large pot you’re using. By repeating the same types of meals over and over, you can keep using the same materials to cook and reduce the accumulation of different types of dishes constantly.
Below are some recipe ideas for each category or theme I’ve listed.
- Spaghetti and Meatballs (see below for my favorite meatball recipe)
- Chicken and Alfredo Pasta (use pre-made alfredo sauce and rotisserie chicken to keep this fast; add vegetables such as frozen broccoli or spinach for greens)
- Roasted Cherry Tomatoes and Asparagus Penne (earlier in the article)
- Shrimp Scampi (see next section in the article)
- Beef Stroganoff (below)
1 lb. ground beef
4 slices of bread ripped up and soaked in a little milk until soft
grated parmesan cheese (couple handfuls)
2 cloves garlic
1 tsp oregano
salt and pepper (½ tsp each)
Mix everything together and form into balls. Add breadcrumbs if too wet. Fry in oil in a saute pan until brown. Turn as each side gets brown.
8 oz egg noodles
1 garlic clove
1 T paprika
1 medium onion, chopped
2 T oil
½ lb. – 1lb. ground beef
1 can or box of cream of mushroom soup
6-8 oz mushrooms, sliced (can add more if you use less beef)
Heavy whipping cream, plain yogurt, or sour cream
- Put water on to boil. Salt liberally.
- Brown garlic, onion, and beef in a large saute pan.
- Add the salt, paprika, and mushrooms. Add cream of mushroom soup and simmer. Cook on low flame under boiling point for about 10 minutes.
- While it is thickening, cook egg noodles in the now boiling water.
- Mix into the beef mixture ½ C sour cream or greek yogurt or ¼ C whipping cream. If using whipping cream and it is not creating a thick enough sauce, add 1T flour to thicken.
- Serve the beef stroganoff over the noodles
Note: While traditionally this uses sour cream and much more of it, I have found multiple substitutes work to create a creamy enough sauce while limiting calories.
Stovetop Meal Ideas
Tacos (don’t be afraid to rely on spice mix or taco sauce – I like the brand Frontera)
Peanut Thai Salmon (below)
Shrimp Fried Rice (many recipes are online and you can just mix the rice with any frozen vegetables you want along with soy sauce and oil to toast)
Pork Chops and Spanish Rice (you can buy rice mixes with seasoning which are typically prepared
Peanut Thai Salmon
Salmon (about a 4 oz portion for each person)
Edamame (frozen and shelled is best)
Pappardelle egg noodles (often come in little nests; fettucini is also fine)
2 Tbsp Soy sauce
1/2 cup Peanut butter (preferably smooth)
1-2 Tbsp brown sugar (or other sweeteners)
1 tsp ground ginger (you can buy it in a jar and it will keep in the fridge a long time)
2-3 garlic cloves, grated
3 Tbsp sesame seeds
Salt and pepper
Optional: chili garlic sauce or red pepper flakes or sriracha
- In a large saute pan, put some oil on medium heat.
- Place the salmon skin side down in the pan with some oil. Season with salt and pepper and cover with a lid.
- Place salted water in a pot to boil.
- Prepare the Thai peanut sauce in a small bowl by mixing together the peanut butter, soy sauce, brown sugar, ginger, and garlic. If it is too thick, you can add a little warm water or vinegar or lime juice if you like more acidity. Feel free to taste and add more sweetness or saltiness as you prefer.
- Add the frozen edamame to the pan with the salmon and let them cook in the pan. If the salmon is thicker, flip it to cook the top some, and then you can flip it back skin side down later. Leave the top off unless it looks as though it needs much more time.
- Cook the pasta according to package directions once the water is boiled.
- Take the salmon out and set it aside. (the other option is to break it up and just mix it all together)
- Put the pasta into the pan with the edamame. Add the peanut sauce. Stir everything to coat. Add most of the sesame seeds into the mixture.
- To plate, put the edamame and pasta mixture in a large, shallow dinner bowl. Then, place the salmon on top and sprinkle it with sesame seeds and any extra sauce if you happen to have some.
Sheet Pan/Oven Meal Ideas
Roasted Vegetables with Decadent Chicken (below)
Baked Herbed Salmon and Rice (tuck the salmon in an aluminum foil pocket with a little oil and any herbs you like such as rosemary or Herbes de Provence)
Lemon Infused Fish and Rice (layer lemon slices over a white fish such as haddock or tilapia with salt and pepper. Savory leaves are a nice touch if you can get them. Other herbs are also great)
Homemade Fries and “Fried” Chicken (below)
Breaded Asparagus with your choice of meat (bake asparagus with ½ parmesan and ½ breadcrumbs on top)
Roasted Vegetables and Decadent Chicken
Decadent Chicken Breasts
Mix ½ C mayo and ½ C parmesan cheese. Spread on top of chicken.
Shake breadcrumbs on top of the mixture.
Bake 350 for 40-50 minutes.
For roasted vegetables, chop into 1” cubes any kind of vegetable that works for you such as potatoes, carrots, squash, zucchini, broccoli, etc. Roast for up to 45 minutes (especially for potatoes) at 400.
Homemade Fries and “Fried” Chicken
Chicken legs and/or thighs (or another part of the bird with skin and bones) – enough for 1-3 pieces per person depending on the cuts chosen
3 cups Flour (approximately)
Buttermilk (can use an egg with some milk instead in a pinch) – 2 Cups (approximately)
Salt and Pepper
Potatoes (1 per person)
Safflower or Canola oil
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Pat dry the chicken with paper towels.
- Pour some flour into a large Ziploc bag or large, shallow bowl/container. Add salt and pepper and any other seasonings you might like such as thyme or paprika.
- Also prepare another shallow container with buttermilk.
- Toss the chicken in the flour to coat.
- Then, put the chicken in the buttermilk to coat. Let any excess drip off.
- Place the chicken back into the flour and toss to coat again.
- Coat a large sheet pan with oil (preferably safflower or canola which can tolerate higher temperatures than olive oil but olive oil is okay or a spray can of oil is fine) and place the chicken in the oil. Roll the chicken around a little to lightly coat it with oil.
- Put the chicken in the preheated oven with a timer for 45 minutes.
- Cut up the potatoes (typically ½ – 1 potato per person) into wedges or small fry sizes.
- Place the potatoes on a large sheet pan ensuring one layer of fries. Toss to coat in olive oil. Season with salt and pepper and any other seasonings you like such as rosemary or paprika.
- Place the potatoes in the oven. When you do this, turn the chicken. Hopefully, this is about ⅓-½ way through cooking time.
- Turn the fries when there are about 10 minutes remaining so that another side can get browned. Test the chicken and adjust the timing accordingly. They can be removed as the fries keep cooking and rest outside the oven. Breasts will take longer to cook while legs will take less time.
Crock Pot Ideas
Taco Meat (makes it easy to prep ahead)
Chicken Noodle Soup (below)
Barbecue Pork or Chicken (this is great to make sandwiches)
Beef and Potato Stew (use a large piece of beef such as a chuck roast and place on top of large carrot chunks, celery sliced in 2-inch pieces, quartered potatoes, add salt and pepper, and cook up to 8 hours)
Moroccan Stew (below)
2 t curry
2 t ginger
1 t cinnamon
2 t cumin
½ t paprika
½ t turmeric
2 cans chickpeas
2 cans tomatoes
4 C vegetable stock
2 T lemon juice
salt and pepper
2 zucchini chopped
2 cans kidney beans
Onions and oil and spices first
Then add everything else
Low 6 hours
Possible toppings: dried fruit, olives, yogurt, cilantro, hot peppers
Chicken Noodle Soup
1 onion chopped
3 carrots, sliced
3 stalks of celery, sliced
2 garlic cloves
4 C chicken broth/water
1-2 chicken breasts or 4 thighs (depending on size)
½ t salt
¼ t pepper
1 C egg noodles added towards the end
Can be done on the stovetop (sear chicken first then add vegetables then broth) or in a crock pot
Curry Chicken Salad (below)
Egg Salad (I like to add paprika with onion, mayo, celery, and paprika)
Pasta Salad with Spinach and Arugula (I like to use a salad dressing such as lemon juice and olive oil or mustard and white wine vinegar and olive oil and orzo for the pasta)
Bowtie Pasta Salad with Hard Boiled Eggs (I love ranch dressing or poppyseed dressing and romaine lettuce for this salad)
Curry Chicken Salad
Amounts can be easily adjusted to suit your desires.
2-3 C cubed cooked chicken
5 oz can, sliced water chestnuts
1 T curry powder
⅔ C mayonnaise
1 t salt
1 t soy sauce
½ C sliced almonds
½ c chopped celery
½ C halved seedless grapes (apples are a good alternative as well)
Buttermilk Pancakes (recipe below)
Whole Wheat Oatmeal Pancakes (recipe below)
Omelets (Cook the filling separately and keep the heat low for the eggs)
Egg Sandwiches or Egg Burritos (so many ideas for this to swap out bread, cheese, meats, etc)
Cinnamon Rolls or Biscuits and Scrambled Eggs (I love using Annie’s cinnamon rolls or biscuits that are easy to pop in the oven and serve with eggs in any style)
Crepes with Fruit and Yogurt (easy recipes online, never worry about the first crepe being bad)
1 ¾ C flour
1 t salt
1 t baking soda
2 C buttermilk
2 beaten eggs
Beat eggs into the buttermilk then add to dry ingredients. Do not overmix.
Cook on medium-high heat using butter.
Optional: add blueberries, chocolate chips, or serve with maple syrup or jam.
Whole Wheat Oatmeal Pancakes
In a bowl, combine: 1 C regular or quick oats
1C whole wheat flour
¼ C wheat germ
1t baking soda
¼ t salt
1 T brown sugar
In another bowl, combine:
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2 C buttermilk
4 T canola oil
Add all at once to dry ingredients and stir until well blended.
Cook at 325 degrees. Good with vanilla yogurt and fruit on top.
Protest #6: I make the plans but then I’m too tired to do it. I end up wasting food.
Solution #6: Have backup meals that are easy and require little effort.
These backup meals are actually faster than ordering take out or even delivery of something. These options are always available for me so I know that I can rely on them if I’m too tired to make my original plan, running behind on time, or had to rearrange for any number of reasons. The best way to ensure the default is cooking vs. the default being to dine out is to have backup plans in place.
My backup meals include:
- Omelets (you need eggs, milk, cheese, and then it’s great to have some veggies or lunchmeat/breakfast meat to mix in based on preference)
- Frozen ravioli with pasta sauce or just olive oil and parmesan
- Shrimp scampi (below)
- Macaroni and cheese from a box (often I’ll add fresh spinach or leftover ground beef or peas)
- Salad Mixes (I’ll sometimes add a hard-boiled egg or leftover chicken or steak)
- Sandwiches (I like grilled cheese because I always have cheese and bread)
½ C butter (1 stick)
1 lb angel hair (or spaghetti or linguini)
2 or more garlic cloves
1 tsp oregano
½ tsp salt
¼ tsp pepper
Boil a pot of water. Salt liberally. While waiting for the pasta to boil, melt the butter in a saucepan. Add the shrimp, garlic, and seasonings. Cook the pasta according to the package directions. Drain the pasta and mix it into the shrimp and butter. Use some pasta water if you need to thin the sauce.
Protest #7: I’m trying to do too much at once when I cook. I can’t do it. And when I do it well, it takes me hours to follow the recipe I want.
Solution #7: Focus on the act of cooking.
Another Big 5 tip is to Avoid Multitasking unless the work is mindless. You may get to a point where some meals are fairly mindless or parts of meals like boiling pasta or waiting for something to cook in the oven is pretty easy. You can do other tasks while you wait for a timer or talk to your significant other or kid while you chop veggies.
Don’t let yourself set an expectation that’s so high that the house would have to be on fire for you to look away. At the same time, don’t assume you should be able to do all the things all at once. That is not realistic! Cooking takes time and focus and energy. It’s not something that can be done at the same time as a million other things. There is joy and satisfaction in completing a task.
Worry less about whether your meal is ideally healthy and focus on the fact that you made it. If you can’t tell by this article, I am obsessed with the Food Network and the Cooking Channel. One show I used to watch as a child (yes, as a child I loved watching cooking shows!) was Semi-Homemade with Sandra Lee. (This was 2nd in line behind Everyday Italian with Giada de Laurentiis).
The idea of semi-homemade was that it was still better to focus on making the meal yourself and eating with friends and family at a table than to make the default to eat out. It was better to bake your own cake out of a box and add your own little touch of decoration than to merely buy one. The personal touch mattered.
When you are trying to cook at home, especially after a period of not taking on that task, try to take steps toward semi-homemade. It’s okay to buy some things pre-made and make another part of it.
Protest #8: My food just doesn’t taste as good as a restaurant.
Solution #8: Season your food. Don’t be afraid of oil and butter, salt and pepper, herbs, and sauces.
This is my last addition because I know so many people who said that their parents didn’t cook that well. My dad used to hate spinach with a passion until he ate some that were salted and not out of a can. Restaurant meals have more fat/butter/oils, seasoning such as salt and pepper, and sauces or herbs. This often means those restaurant meals can have excess salt and butter, but it is acceptable that your meals at home have butter and salt. Just because you are trying to cook healthier at home does not mean you need to avoid all of those things.
If you think that all vegetables you make at home taste terrible, add a little butter and salt, and you might change your mind! Using frozen vegetables are as nutrient-rich as fresh, but sometimes the texture of fresh might win you over. Not everything you make at home needs to be the epitome of health. Your meal is very, very likely still going to be fewer calories than what you would eat out at a restaurant so don’t beat yourself up for not making an ideal meal.
Choose what you tell yourself about your meals. It is more important to be cooking for and with the family than it is to have the “ideal” meal. Consider the meal that’s best for you and your family, not an elusive ideal that might not even suit you!
Make your standard attainable by focusing on the goal of cooking vs. the goal of being the perfect chef. Focus on the process and that will achieve your goal.
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