Week Four: The Dying Art of Home Cooking

Cooking has been a specifically human activity ever since our ancestors learned to control fire. In fact, we are the only species on the planet that makes the effort of preparing food before eating it. In the 17th and 18th centuries, cooking was elevated to a work of art. In particular, French chefs in the service of the aristocracy developed cooking techniques so sophisticated, they remain en vogue today. The invention of fine dining, also known as “gourmet” or “haute cuisine,” dates back to this period. Today’s culinary achievements may be just as impressive, but they are mostly confined to the high-end restaurant industry and certain “reality TV” shows.

The dying art of home cooking
Everyday home cooking, on the other hand, is going out of fashion. Fast food, pizza, takeout and frozen dinners are increasingly replacing meals made from scratch. With their ever tighter schedules, it is understandable that people try to cut corners wherever they can. It is hard to put a decent dinner on the table after long hours of work, commute and a thousand other odds and ends cramped into the day. With ravenous family members counting on you to perform miracles in the kitchen night after night, it can be tempting to just wing it once in a while.

Cooking is neither rocket science nor hard labor
So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that cooking is often considered a chore, if not a nuisance. That is a shame, because the ability to prepare your own food is not only a useful skill, but also an important part of a healthy lifestyle.

It is a myth to think that all cooking comes down to hard labor. There are plenty of recipes available for quick and tasty meals that can be followed with only a minimum of effort and skill. What matters more are the ingredients you choose and also the cooking techniques you apply. The best ingredients can be ruined with a heavy-handed cooking style.

Stock up on healthy staples
Another problem that often stands in the way of home cooking is planning – or rather lack thereof. Many people are too busy to even think about making dinner – until they are on their way home. Once they get to the supermarket, they are in a rush, which leads them to making spontaneous decisions.

Keeping your kitchen or pantry stocked with healthy staples is a good way to avoid bad choices. Make lists of essential ingredients you can use for most meals and work from there. Once you have established an inventory of your standard items, you can organize a spreadsheet, or something to that effect, to help you keep track as your provisions get used up and need to be replaced. Click here for a list of staples you may want to include to get started.

Choose quality over quantity
An important part of healthy cooking is that you do your own food shopping. I do mine. In fact, it gives me great pleasure to visit my local farmers’ market or the produce department of my neighborhood grocery store. I love to touch, squeeze, smell and taste fresh vegetables and fruits and especially bread that just came out of the oven.

I highly recommend using fresh, seasonal and locally grown ingredients as much as possible. Produce that is certified “organic,” of course, is preferable, but the price difference to the regular version may be a consideration. Ideally, packaged food in jars, cans and other ready-to-eat items should be reserved for emergency situations (such as power outages or unannounced overnight guests).

When you enter the supermarket or grocery store, start out in the produce section. Fresh vegetables should be included in most of your meals. You can confidently indulge in locally grown items, such as lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, potatoes, green beans, broccoli, zucchini, bell peppers, etc., especially while they are in season. Don’t leave the produce section without picking up some seasonal fruit. Apples, pears, oranges and bananas are usually available throughout the year, although prices may be higher in the winter months.

You next stop should be the bulk food section. Always keep sufficient supplies of rice, dried beans and lentils. They can be served as healthy side dishes and go with almost all meals.

The center aisles are typically reserved for processed foods. Here you find condiments, dried goods, boxed cereals, etc. Typically, these items have a much longer shelf life than fresh foods, so stocking up beyond immediate use is safe.

In the refrigerated section, you find perishable foods, such as dairy products like milk, fresh eggs, yogurt, cheeses, etc. as well as lunch meats and fresh pastas. Buy these items as needed and always check the expiration dates.

The meat, poultry and fish counters are kept separate in most supermarkets and they provide customer assistance. Look for the freshest items, especially when you buy seafood. Don’t be shy to ask questions about quality and freshness. Even the places of origin and farming methods can make a difference. These foods are quite costly and the quality should justify the price.

Always read the “Nutrition Facts” labels
When you buy processed foods, you should always read the Nutrition Facts labels which are typically displayed on the back side of the packages. Many processed foods contain ingredients you should be careful about, or at least be aware of. For instance, it is advisable to avoid items with excessively high levels of sodium (salt). You can compare brands and pick the ones with the lowest amounts of sodium per serving. Also, watch out for “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated oils,” also known as “trans fats.” Food manufacturers have begun to phase these out, and for good reasons. Regrettably, the deliberate use of many other less-than-desirable ingredients, like “high-fructose corn syrup,” “artificial coloring” and “sweeteners” (to name a few), is still very common in most processed foods.

Choose lighter cooking techniques
As I mentioned before, the benefits you can expect from healthful ingredients can easily be offset by careless cooking methods. In most cases, however, making improvements can be quite easy. Here are a few random examples you can implement right away:

Go easy on cooking oils and fats! They can add tremendous amounts of unnecessary calories. Use Teflon® or other non-stick cooking ware. You can also add chicken- or vegetable stock to prevent burning. Cut back on deep-fat frying and sauteing. Steam, bake, grill or poach the same foods instead. Hold all buttery and creamy toppings. Apply salad dressings, dips and sauces sparingly. You may not think of these as foods, but they add up and you must include them in your calorie count.

Whenever you have a choice, buy items that are labeled “low-fat” “or nonfat” instead of the regular versions. The Nutrition Facts labels will tell you about the differences, which can be considerable.

These are just a few random suggestions. There are many more simple ways to make your cooking leaner and more condusive to your health.

Leaner and lighter is better
In your pursuit of a more healthful eating habits, you don’t have to stick to a strictly vegetarian diet plan. If you like meat or fowl, you can continue to enjoy it. But, again, a few precautionary measures can make a big difference. For instance, you should remove the skin from all poultry before you cook it. The white meats are less fatty and therefore preferable to the darker parts. If you serve beef, lamb or pork, trim off as much fat as possible, also before cooking. You may even savor a slice of bacon now and then, but make it extra lean Canadian- or turkey bacon.

Snacks in between meals can be made leaner too. For instance, if you serve tuna or chicken on sandwiches, go with the varieties that are packed in water instead of oil. Skip the mayonnaise and substitute it with cranberry sauce or mustard.

If you have a sweet tooth, you are not completely out of luck either, as long as you turn to better alternatives. For example, granola bars are preferable to candy and chocolate. Nonfat frozen yogurt is nicer to your waistline than ice cream. Air-popped popcorn beats popcorn done in oil. Juices made from real fruit are by far healthier than sugary sodas. Even a cold beer on a hot summer afternoon can be alright, as long as it is “lite.” (Why are you guys laughing?)

Make time for eating and savor the moment
In our fast-paced culture, most folks are quite oblivious to their eating habits and treat food like fuel to keep going. But taking time to enjoy a tasty meal can be a much more satisfying experience. So, if you are a fast eater, force yourself to eat more slowly. If you eat too quickly and absentmindedly, you won’t be able to keep track of the amounts of food you consume. Also, don’t eat while you work, drive or do other things that can distract you. Keep in mind that it takes about 20 minutes for the stomach to signal to the brain that it is full. If you eat faster than that, you will literally be “stuffed before you know it.”

And yes, you still need to watch your portion sizes, even when you are having a really healthy meal. Bigger is not necessarily better, no matter what you put on your plate.

In a nutshell…
Healthy cooking does not have to be boring or leave your taste buds cold. Instead of choosing foods you don’t really like, you can improve the nutritional value of your favorite meals by choosing better ingredients and using smarter cooking methods. I tell all my clients that the best way to go on a diet is to work on the quality and taste of their food.

There will always be occasions when pizza or takeout are the most practical choices to feed hungry mouths as quickly as possible. These occasions have their place in life and shouldn’t be frowned upon. However, they are supposed to be the exception, not the rule. On a regular basis, there is no substitute for freshly prepared, wholesome food – not only for better taste, but, more importantly, for the benefit of your health. Continue to Week Five »

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