Plan ahead: Master meal prep for stress-free cooking
Being kitchen savvy means planning and preparing ingredients ahead of time. Doing meal prep on the weekends or in batches saves time on busy weeknights. Pre-chop vegetables like carrots, bell peppers and broccoli and store them in sealed bags or containers in the refrigerator for up to 1 week. Cook a big pot of grains like rice, quinoa or barley. Portion into containers and refrigerate for up to 5 days. You can also marinate meat, poultry or tofu overnight.
Prepping ahead allows you to get dinners on the table quickly on busy weeknights after a long day. When it’s time to cook, you simply have to assemble and reheat. Another benefit of meal prep is reducing food waste since ingredients are washed, chopped and ready to go. An estimated 40 percent of food in America goes to waste each year costing approximately $1,800 for a family of four. Planning meals for the week based around items already on hand in your kitchen and prepping a little bit each day can help reduce excess food ending up in the trash.
Advance prep may seem time-consuming but even preparing a few ingredients ahead of time can make cooking less stressful. Start with easy tasks like washing and chopping veggies for snacks and salads or cooking a double batch of whole grains to use in multiple meals. As you get into the habit, add more to your meal prep routine each week. An organized, well-stocked kitchen and a little advanced planning make home cooking efficient and enjoyable.
Spice up your life: Experiment with flavors and herbs
Adding fresh or dried herbs and spices is an easy way to enhance the flavor of your food without adding extra calories, fat or salt. Many spices and herbs have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties as well. Experimenting with different spices and herbs from around the world is a great way to experience new flavors and add interest to your meals.
Start with the basics. Focus on versatile spices used in many cuisines like black pepper, basil, oregano, rosemary, thyme, cinnamon, cumin and turmeric. Buy small bottles of spices and herbs you haven’t tried before like nutmeg, coriander or paprika. Add a pinch at a time to dishes until you get a feel for the flavor.
Create flavor profiles. Group spices that are commonly used together in certain cuisines. For Italian, try basil, oregano, rosemary and thyme. For Mexican, use cumin, chili powder, paprika, oregano and cilantro. For Asian-inspired dishes, blend ginger, turmeric, garlic and soy sauce. Mix and match within flavor profiles to create unique spice rubs and blends.
Infuse oils and vinegars. Place whole spices and herb sprigs into bottles of olive oil, sesame oil or vinegar to create flavorful infusions to use in stir fries, salad dressings and marinades. Try peppercorns, bay leaves, rosemary and thyme in olive oil and chili peppers, cinnamon sticks and whole cloves in vinegar. Infuse oils for 1 to 2 weeks and vinegars for 3 to 4 weeks before using.
Table 1: Common Culinary Herbs and Spices
| Herbs| Spices| Cuisines|
|Parsley|Paprika| Middle Eastern|
Using fresh herbs and spices in cooking is an easy way to make healthy, homemade meals more flavorful and exciting. Experiment with different spices and blends to find flavors your love. Discovering how simple spices can enhance natural ingredients may inspire you get creative in the kitchen.
Get organized: Keep your kitchen clutter-free and efficient
A clean and organized kitchen makes cooking and baking more enjoyable and efficient. Start by decluttering your counters and cabinets. Get rid of or donate unused and mismatched containers, tools and pantry items. Invest in matching, coordinated sets of containers, tools and other items if needed. An organized kitchen with everything in its place allows you to quickly find what you need when cooking and avoids wasting time searching for things.
Designate zones. Divide your kitchen into work zones for different tasks like food prep, cooking, baking, dish washing. Keep tools, appliances and ingredients within easy reach of each zone. Having a spot for everything streamlines cooking tasks and makes cleaning up after meal much faster as you know exactly where everything belongs.
Use vertical space. Install wall racks, magnetic strips, cabinets and shelving to keep items off your counters. Store knives, utensils, pots and pans on a wall rack. A wall-mounted magnetic strip is great for keeping knives and tools within easy access. Open shelving gives you space to display aesthetically appealing bowls, linens and serve ware.
•Use matching containers. Invest in lidded, airtight containers in a uniform style to store food staples and leftovers. Label each item with contents and date stored. Keep a permanent marker in your kitchen to easily label and date new items before storing. Matching, clearly labeled containers make it easy to spot what you need at a glance.
•Do a weekly deep clean. Pick a time each week to thoroughly clean your kitchen. Wipe down cabinets and appliances, mop floors, empty the refrigerator of old leftovers and scrub down sinks and countertops. Take out recycling and compost and wash linens. Having a routine weekly deep clean of your kitchen keeps it hygienic and clutter-free, so you feel motivated to cook healthy homemade meals.
Keeping your kitchen clean, organized and equipped with the proper tools makes cooking at home an enjoyable, stress-free experience. An efficient kitchen setup saves time and prevents distraction or frustration while cooking and baking. With everything in its place, you can focus on experimenting with new recipes and enjoying meals with friends and family.
Cook smarter: Save time and energy with kitchen hacks
There are many clever shortcuts and techniques you can use to streamline cooking and make time in the kitchen more efficient. Learning a few kitchen hacks will give you more confidence in the kitchen and help overcome the perception that cooking homemade meals has to be complicated or time-consuming.
Use tools efficiently. Find ways to use tools for multiple purposes. A vegetable peeler can peel more than just potatoes – use it on cucumbers, zucchini, carrots and apples too. Measure and scoop ingredients with the same utensil. Use tongs or a wooden spoon to whisk eggs or pancake batter in a bowl.
Prepare ingredients swiftly. Use a knife to cut corn kernels off the cob instead of a corn cutter tool. Use kitchen shears to quickly chop fresh herbs and green onions. Use a spoon to peel ginger by scraping off the skin. Mash avocados or bananas with a fork instead of a blender or food processor. These simple techniques minimize the need for specialized tools and save time.
Cook components together. Roast vegetables at the same time you bake fish or chicken. Cook a pot of grains to use in multiple meals like oatmeal, rice, polenta or quinoa. Double or triple recipes for dishes like casseroles, soups, stews and baked goods that you can enjoy all week or freeze portions for up to 3 months. Cooking components in large batches saves energy and time in the kitchen.
•Keep tools and ingredients within easy reach. Store tools, appliances and ingredients near the area you typically prep and cook. Keep items used for baking separate from savory cooking tools. Having frequently used items at your fingertips allows you to work efficiently without having to search cupboards for things.
•Learn proper food storage. Understanding how to properly store produce, leftovers and prepared ingredients helps minimize food waste and ensures ingredients stay fresh, safe to eat and ready to use when cooking. When storing food, label and date items and rotate perishable goods to use within recommended time frames. Proper storage is a useful kitchen habit that saves money and ensures you have ingredients on hand when needed.
Developing efficient cooking techniques and habits allows you to prepare home cooked meals even when time is limited. With a few essential tools and tricks, cooking can be quick, low-fuss and rewarding. And the more you practice, the more efficient and “kitchen savvy” you will become.
Eat the rainbow: Optimize nutrition with colorful produce
A diet rich in fruits and vegetables has significant health benefits. Produce provides fiber, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients vital for health. Eating a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables every day is an easy way to get the diversity of nutrients your body needs.
Different colors of produce represent different types of beneficial compounds. Red and pink fruits and vegetables like tomatoes, red peppers and strawberries contain lycopene, an antioxidant that may help lower risk of some cancers. Orange and yellow produce such as carrots, squash, oranges and lemons are high in nutrients like vitamin C, vitamin A and zeaxanthin, which is good for eye health and skin.
Green vegetables such as leafy greens, broccoli, spinach and kale are packed with folate, vitamin K and lutein. Blue and purple fruits like blueberries, blackberries, plums and eggplant contain anthocyanins, antioxidants that may boost memory, coordination and mental health. White produce such as bananas, mushrooms, cauliflower and onions provide manganese, B vitamins and antioxidants.
•Fill half your plate with produce. Aim for filling at least half your plate with fruits and vegetables at each meal to get closer to the recommended amounts. Have a salad, vegetable side dish, fresh fruit or smoothie with meals. Snack on raw veggies, fruit and nuts. Adding extra produce whenever possible optimizes nutrition.
•Discover new favorites. Try fruits and vegetables you rarely eat or ones you’ve never had before. Some options include artichokes, plantains, rutabaga, pomegranate, persimmons or starfruit. Keep sampling different colorful produce until you find some new favorites to add to your regular diet.
•Keep produce visible. Keep a bowl of fresh fruit on your counter or table where you can easily see it. Rinse and prep veggies as soon as you get home from shopping so they are ready to eat. You are more likely to eat produce when it’s washed and visible instead of stored away in the refrigerator.
•Plant a garden. Growing some of your own produce is rewarding and a great way to try new fruits and vegetables. Even a small container garden can yield tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, carrots and strawberries. Homegrown produce also tends to be more nutritious since it’s fresher.
Eating more whole fruits and vegetables in a variety of colors is one of the simplest things you can do to optimize health and nutrition. Discover new produce favorites and find creative ways to add more fruits and vegetables to each meal and snack. Your body and mind will reap the benefits of a diet rich in colorful produce.
Waste not, want not: Reduce food waste and save money
It’s estimated that up to 40 percent of food produced in the United States goes to waste. Reducing household food waste not only helps the environment, but also saves money and resources. Developing better meal planning strategies, proper storage techniques and creative ways to use up leftovers minimizes excess food waste and saves hundreds of dollars per year.
Plan meals ahead. Make a meal plan each week based on items you already have. Check what you have in the pantry, refrigerator and freezer and plan meals around ingredients that need to be used up. Buy only what you need for the meals in your plan. Planning ahead reduces impulse purchases that may lead to wasted food.
Practice FIFO. Follow the “first in, first out” rule when storing perishable foods like produce, dairy, meat and leftovers. Place newly purchased items behind items already in the fridge or pantry. Use up items with the closest expiration dates first to minimize waste. Clearly label leftovers with contents and date stored.
Use up leftovers creatively. Incorporate leftovers like rice, beans, pasta and veggies into quick lunches like burritos, soups or stir fries. Turn leftover meat into sandwiches, wraps or tacos. Use excess broth or stock to make gravy or soup. Mashed potatoes can be turned into potato pancakes. Getting creative with leftovers prevents waste and saves time cooking new meals.
Donate excess food. Donate unopened pantry items or excess produce from your garden to local food banks, shelters and soup kitchens. many also accept frozen meats, bread, packaged snacks and dairy products. Donating helps those in need in your community and keeps good food from going to waste. Check with places near you about rules for donating perishable and nonperishable goods.
Compost food scraps. Start a compost pile or bin if possible for food scraps like fruit and vegetable peels, coffee grounds and eggshells. Composting food scraps and organic yard waste produces nutrient-rich fertilizer for gardens and reduces landfill waste. Many communities also offer composting pickup services to collect food scraps from residences.
Reducing household food waste has significant environmental and economic impacts. Developing smart meal planning and storage habits, getting creative with leftovers and composting excess food scraps are simple and effective ways to cut back on waste and save money. Small changes can make a big difference in conserving resources and stretching your grocery budget.
Treat yourself: Indulge in guilt-free indulgences and desserts
It’s perfectly fine to treat yourself in moderation. Depriving yourself of occasional indulgences and sweets is unsustainable in the long run and can lead to feelings of guilt and decreased willpower. Finding healthier ways to satisfy your cravings in appropriate portion sizes lets you enjoy life’s pleasures without guilt.
Eat sweets in moderation. Allow yourself small amounts of treats and desserts a few times per week. A moderate portion of ice cream, a few squares of dark chocolate or a small slice of cake won’t derail your healthy diet. Practice mindful eating by savoring each bite to feel fully satisfied with less.
Make healthier versions. create healthier homemade versions of your favorite treats by reducing sugar, using natural sweeteners and adding nutrition. Frozen yogurt dipped in chocolate, fruit crisps sweetened with maple syrup, black bean brownies and banana nice cream made from blended frozen bananas are all healthier treat options.
Share with others. Split desserts with family or friends when dining out. Choose two or three small plates from the dessert menu for the table to share. At home, cut slices of cake, pie or bar cookies in half to keep portion sizes appropriate for one or two people. Sharing dessert spreads the enjoyment and prevents overindulging.
Out of sight, out of mind. Avoid buying sweets to keep in your home or bringing home doggie bags of desserts when dining out. Out of sight means out of mind – if treats aren’t right in front of you, you’re less likely to crave or overeat them. For the occasional indulgence, pick up a single-serve treat that you can fully enjoy and that leaves no leftovers.
•Drink water. Staying hydrated keeps you feeling full and reduces your cravings and appetite. Have a glass of water before, during and after a sweet treat. Waiting a few moments after drinking can allow you to realize you feel satisfied and forgo or save the rest of the dessert for later.
Occasional indulgences in moderation are part of maintaining a balanced diet and healthy relationship with food. By choosing healthier options, practicing portion control and listening to your body’s cues of fullness, you can enjoy desserts and treats without guilt. Find what works for you to establish a sustainable approach to sweets that keeps you happy and feeling your best.