Healthy Choices with Liza Baker: Grow your cooking practice

As a proponent of cooking from scratch at home, I was pretty happy to come across a report indicating that Americans do still prefer to cook at home.

I do have to note that this article came out in February 2020, and since then, I’ve heard a lot of people complaining about how the pandemic forced them to cook a lot more, so I remain unconvinced about the veracity of these findings.

As the lockdown restrictions are eased (maybe?), home cooks are getting some relief from having to cook 3 meals a day, 7 days a week—if they want it. I’m curious to see what percentage of us have developed a cooking practice that will continue after the lockdown and whether we’ll go back to spending more money on food prepared elsewhere than on ingredients we cook ourselves, a phenomenon that was identified by the USDA Economic Research Service in May of 2015.

For health, financial, and environmental reasons, my family committed early on to cooking from scratch and eating at home most of the time. For the past two decades, we have averaged one meal out a week, which turned into one night of ordering out to support our local independently-owned restaurants during the lockdown.

My life is simpler now with my husband in Hong Kong, my daughter in Germany, and only my son left at home with me. I still cook at home most of the time, and with a teenage boy in the house, I can’t say my grocery bill has gone down much!

I am comforted by the fact that it’s still cheaper to cook at home: when we do order out, the bill can be really off-putting for just two of us since he usually needs two entrées to satisfy him.

And I totally understand how difficult it is to cook every night of the week—or three times a day every day of the week—particularly as parents have had to take on the roles of teachers, phys ed instructors, school nurses, and lunchroom attendants in addition to working full time from home!

If the lockdown helped you to develop a practice of cooking at home that you’d like to take into the future, here are some tips on how to make that work smoothly.

Always cook for more than one meal

The big (not-so-)secret to my Fl!p Your K!tchen® meal planning system is to always cook for more than one meal—and I mean always.

If you’re saying “I don’t have time,” I warn you that I’m hearing “I don’t prioritize that,” and that’s a whole ‘nother conversation we can have some other day.

Our weeknight dinners generally take 45 minutes to an hour from starting to cook to cleanup being done, and we usually cook enough to have leftovers for lunch and/or to incorporate into another meal.

You can cook for more than one meal by:

  • Doing some cleaning and chopping of veggies for the week
  • Cooking some basic sauces ahead of time
  • Cooking more than one batch of a dish
  • Really using your freezer to your advantage

Cook only one meal

When our kids were young, we didn’t cook separate meals for each person, and that continues to this day.

We try to ensure that everyone had at least one thing they like at each meal. It’s kind of like that great advice for toddler parents: think of it as a balanced week, not a balanced meal.

So if someone doesn’t like the meat that’s offered, there are enough vegetables and carbs to make a meal. The next day, we might make a protein that individual likes but a starch that someone else likes, etc.

Empower your kids early

If they really don’t like anything on the table, there are usually leftovers in the fridge. Even young children can learn to reheat foods safely.

Alternatively, they can be taught young to make simple meals based on whole ingredients. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Or cheese and crackers. Or yogurt and fruit.

Older kids can move on to foods cooked on the stove, such as grilled cheese sandwiches, quesadillas, scrambled eggs and toast—no need to buy boxed mac and cheese or frozen meals.

And yes, if they dirty dishes while cooking, they have to clean up after themselves.

Belly up to the bar

We are all used to the idea of a salad bar, and I encourage you to think about other dishes that can easily be “personalized:” you’ll get a lot more buy-in when everyone creates their own meal, even if they’re not actually cooking it.

And this approach is particularly good for mixed-diet families, in which some members have food restrictions or preferences that others don’t share.

The key to setting up the bar is to have a base plus a few toppings available, and here’s where the leftovers come in super handy!

Our favorite bases are:

  • Soupy noodles
  • Cold noodles
  • Baked or mashed potatoes
  • Chili or Tortilla soup
  • Grain bowls
  • Tacos
  • Burritos
  • Nachos
  • Pizza crusts

Depending on the base, toppings normally include:

  • 1–2 types of protein (ideally, leftover cooked beans, tofu, shrimp, fish, poultry, meat—and eggs are quick to cook if you need to improvise)
  • 3–4 types of veggies (can be raw or cooked—ideally leftovers and including at least 1 dark green leafy)
  • a chopped fresh herb (cilantro is a huge favorite at our house)
  • some cheese (grated or crumbled, mild or marvelously stinky, depending on your audience)
  • some chopped chili peppers if you have some fire-eaters
  • some condiments (salsa, marinara, salad dressing; fermented veggies get you extra nutrition points!)
  • some crunch (nuts, seeds, and bacon)

Of course, this is only a healthful approach to meals if you remember a few cardinal rules:

  • Focus on whole foods
  • Omit highly processed foods
  • Make vegetables the largest part by volume.

Because loading up on the condiments and bacon is akin to going to a salad bar and picking only the tuna, macaroni, and potato salads, slathering them with dressing, and wondering why you’re not losing weight.

If “the bar” is not a place you often go when meal planning, try it out! I’m linking here to a downloadable recipe for Buddha Bowls to get you started.

WLAA health columnist Liza Baker is a health coach, cookbook author, blogger, podcaster, nonprofit consultant, and woefully underpaid COO of a busy family of four spread across the globe. Liza lives in a half-empty nest in Ann Arbor and is passionate about health and happiness, education and empowerment, SOLE/SOUL food and social justice.