This past weekend I experimented with an old childhood staple: Hamburger Helper. I cooked the Cheeseburger Macaroni blend, using a pound of ground beef and whole milk. I housed the whole thing and eating it felt equal parts good and disgusting. It was a great way to get a bunch of beef in me quickly, but I don’t think I’m going out of my way to do that again.
Part of that is I don’t eat as much processed food as I used to, let alone not nearly as much as most people. So my system doesn’t agree with a lot of it as much as the next gut.
On average I eat clean from food that’s whole and/or prepared at home at least 80% of the time. While I’m not opposed to delicious processed food like pizza, hamburgers, donuts, chips, etc, I mostly cook whole food from scratch, or eat food that’s lightly processed… like a can of sardines in oil or frozen meat in a bag (i.e. the food had to be cut and then processed into the can, but it’s basically in its native form rather than blended with 75 chemicals).
I have cleaned up my diet gradually over the last few years. Even now I can say there’s room for improvement, and if I want to move into that room I’ll give it a shot. I have a set of rules that I settled into following over the last few years: Whether or not I set out to follow them on day one, I found over time that they suited me well as habits, and so they became rules to live by.
I bake and boil everything that’s cooked. No frying.
Ask my parents: I LOVE fried food. It’s a blessing I haven’t had daily ready-access to it because I’d probably be 500 pounds or dead right now from addiction to it.
I still love it. I just don’t eat it that often. I’ll have it now and then as a treat, or when I’m back in Vegas visiting my family. And, most of all, I don’t fry anything at home.
This isn’t necessarily some health-kick rule that I elected to follow. I actually have two practical reasons why I don’t fry food at home.
- It’s messy. Fried oil splatters everywhere during cooking, even with a splatter screen. You leave yourself a mess of oil and other debris that you have to clean up. I don’t have time or patience for that.
- The only oils I cook with don’t fry well, and the only oils that do are bad oils I won’t eat. I’ll get into the oils I cook with in a bit, but neither of them have high flash points, meaning they can be dangerous to fry with. A lot of conventional cooking oils are bad for your health, and go figure all of them are recommended frying oils. No, thank you.
So, to cook food the way I like, I resort mainly to two methods. I bake and boil nearly all of my cooked food. Now and then I’ll simmer food in a saucepan or skillet, or heat it in the microwave. I also use a rice cooker for rice. But generally speaking my main cooking resources are hot water and the oven (and I guess the rice cooker is a form of boiling, if you think about it).
No fancy anything. Simple food cooked, in oil when applicable, with simple seasoning.
For someone who cooks a lot, I don’t have much of a personal cookbook. If I wrote one consisting of every useful recipe I knew, it would be a pamphlet that would be too offensively brief and basic to charge money for.
I bake food in oil until it’s palatably cooked. I boil food until it’s softened up enough to palatably eat. I season food to taste with garlic salt. The only garnish I put in a baking dish is oregano and garlic powder, maybe turmeric. The fanciest I ever get is a baked cut potato dish my mother taught me a couple years ago, and if in the mood I can garnish brown rice with some pretty good side items.
But I don’t get too crazy with cooking. It probably seems boring to an otuside eye, but I like the way I cook, and it keeps the food in a healthy, easy to quantify state.
That last point is important: I log every meal I eat, and knowing how much of what ingredient I used is important. Keeping cooking simple, or eating whole fruit, vegetables and other foods, makes tracking macros and calories easy.
It’s when you make some weirdo casserole with 20 ingredients, let alone going out to eat at a restaurant, that tracking your calories becomes difficult.
I only cook with expelled pressed coconut oil, and extra virgin olive oil.
Most other cooking oils present a variety of long term health concerns, while to this day extra virgin olive oil remains an antioxidant-rich recommendation.
However, most olive oils are fake olive oil, mixed with canola and vegetable oil by manufacturers and even many boutique olive producers to save money. There is a thin but sizable list of brands that have been verified as actual honest-to-goodness olive oil. I’ll join a growing bandwagon and recommend California Olive Ranch, which is a bit pricey but I’ve definitely noticed the difference. You actually notice the olives in this oil, unlike other brands.
As for coconut oil, it not only contains various healthy lipids etc, but is also a known antifungal. People even use it as a body cream! People who suspect they have candida or other similar gut issues, as well as any fungal-related infections, would do themselves good to incorporate coconut oil into their diets.
The less processed, the better. The best form is expeller pressed (not refined) virgin coconut oil, and it can be found at most organic-focused stores including Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. Look at the bottom of any jar and make sure there’s no distinct yellow deposit at the bottom (this indicates it’s been contaminated) before you buy.
I’ve been cooking with expelled pressed virgin coconut oil for years, and it’s my go-to cooking oil for most dishes. Sometimes I’ll even do faux-bulletproof coffee, and pour a tablespoon into a cup of black coffee. Granted, this is a come-and-go habit, and depends on what I’m doing for work at the time. But it can be used similar to how cream and butter is used.
I cook enough for one meal and eat exactly that. No leftovers.
I don’t do leftovers. Don’t get me wrong: If I end up with leftovers, I’m happy to eat them later. What I mean is I don’t cook more than I end up eating.
I know exactly how much I can and should eat for a given meal, and that’s what I prepare for dinner. I’d probably be a terrible cook for two: I know how much I can eat, but how much would the other person eat? Will I end up making too much or too little?
I do prepare big meals… and I eat the whole thing. I don’t worry about plate sizes or portioning or anything, because I plan that ahead of time. If I don’t clean the plate, something’s wrong.
Anyone can do this, though it takes trial and error (or preparing enough for leftovers!) to figure out exactly how much food you can typically expect to put down in a meal.
Dishes must take no more than one hour to prepare.
I’ve got enough other stuff I want to do (like write this post!). I don’t want to spend hours fumbling at the kitchenette over a complicated recipe or assembly of food. I also don’t want to wait forever for a meal to be ready once I’ve decided to cook a meal.
From the moment I fire up the oven until the moment I put a plate full of prepared food on the table shouldn’t take longer than 60 minutes. No recipe I’ve attempted has survived without taking less than a hour to cook. Not to stand over and physically prepare, but to go from nothing to finished product. This includes oven time.
If nothing else, once I’ve decided I need to eat a full meal I need to get to eating as quickly as reasonably possible.
- I often eat after workouts, and you have a limited window for maximum nutrient absorption.
- Going too long between getting hungry and finally eating does mess with me physically in a variety of ways.
- And again, I’ve got finite time to do various things, so I want to get to eating as efficiently as possible.
Thus nothing I prepare takes more than a hour. Most of my typical meals take about 50-60 minutes to cook.
Bonus Tip: Does your stovetop get hot when you use the oven? Do you plan to boil a dish along with your baked dish? Get a head start on boiling water by filling your pot with water and sitting it on the unlit stovetop after you’ve put your other dish in the oven. The heat from the oven will conduct into the water pot, giving you a bit of a head start on warming the water before you turn the stove on to boil.
Bonus Tip #2: If you’re going to boil water, fill the pot with HOT water rather than cold water. It saves time on heating the water to a boil. I find it amusing how often I see people pour cold or even chilled water into a pot for heating or boiling, given the objective.
I’m always washing dishes.
I have two plates, one set of flatware, one bowl and one of each pan. I don’t own a dishwasher (and after decades of hand-washing dishes I’m not sure I could ever handle living with one).
You’re either going to wash dishes after cooking or wash dishes before you need to cook again.
Bonus factoid: Did you know that you’re technically supposed to replace your dishwashing sponge once a week? That probably seems excessive to almost everybody. Even now I maybe swap mine out once a month. I haven’t died yet doing so, obviously, so that’s probably okay. I don’t mind using mass produced brands but I’m partial to Twist.
So that’s my approach to cooking. I may share dishes some time down the road, but again I’m not a particularly creative cook and chances are good you’d find my recipes boring compared to what you’re used to.
However, I feel like the principles above may be worth considering and giving a shot. Some of them may help you improve your diet and allow you to more consistently cook healthy, easy to prepare meals.