If one of your goals for 2020 is to adopt better eating habits, you’re not alone. Along with exercising more, it tends to top the list of New Year’s resolutions each year.
However, for most of us eating better just feels, well, really hard to do. But, in truth, it doesn’t require a radical shift like going Paleo. In fact, one of the simplest and most powerful changes you can make: Cook more at home.
Yes. And it doesn’t mean that you have to conjure up elaborate dishes like the ones you see on Top Chef or resort to expensive food delivery services like Blue Apron.
We interviewed Katherine Deumling, founder and CEO of Cook with What you Have, and Lauren Chandler, a cooking instructor at the National University of Natural Medicine in Portland, Oregon, to find out their secrets to throwing together healthy meals from scratch—all week long.
1. Don’t “Recipe Shop”
It sounds counterintuitive, but following a recipe to the letter is not the quickest way to become a confident home cook. “Running to the store last-minute for ingredients because you’re following a recipe precisely is a kill-joy,” Deumling says. Plus, it’s more expensive because you’re buying hard-to-find ingredients that you probably won’t use again, and it increasing food waste because you’re not cooking up what you already have on hand.
2. Stock the Pantry
If you want to make endless variations of healthy dishes for you and your family, having a well-stocked pantry and fridge is key. Deumling recommends breaking it down into categories: dry goods (lentils, beans, rice, grains), condiments (soy sauce, toasted sesame oil, vinegars, oils, miso, Sriracha, etc), essential flavor-boosters (lemons/limes, fresh ginger, garlic, onions, capers), and fresh herbs and vegetables. If you eat dairy, stock up on eggs, milk, cheese, and butter, and if you love gluten, stock up on bread and tortillas.
4. Let Fresh Herbs Shine
One of the secrets to adding immense amounts of flavor and nutrition to any meal: Using fresh herbs. “People think of herbs as expensive and wasteful, but they can provide inspiration for the whole meal,” Deumling says. She also encourages home cooks to use the whole herb, including the stem. “I chop up the cilantro and parsley stems to add crunch,” says Deumling. If your herbs are about to go bad, Chandler advises whipping up a quick sauce: “Throw them in the blender with olive oil and garlic, and they will last longer.”
4. Think in Terms of Templates
Chandler teaches students to think in terms of templates. The quesadilla is a great example. You can mix and match ingredients, depending on the season and personal preference. In the fall, for example, she uses caramelized onions, smoky cheddar, and slices of Honeycrisp apple. In the winter, she’ll tend more towards beans and hardy vegetables like butternut squash. This flexibility works for other dishes, as well, such as fried rice, stews, and stir-fries.
5. Love Your Leftovers
One of the tenets of Deumling’s “Cook with What you Have” philosophy is making more than you need for one meal so you’ll have plenty of leftovers. Take beans: Deumling advises cooking twice as much and then freezing some (with the water you cooked them in) so you always have beans at your fingertips for rice bowls, stir-fries, hummus, or burritos. She also freezes rice. “If I know I have a quart of rice in the freezer and a flavorful tahini sauce in the fridge, dinner is ready,” she says. “It’s the difference between getting takeout and throwing some veggies, beans, herbs, and a sauce onto the rice.” Deumling’s ebook “Love your Leftovers” is full of great ideas about how to re-imagine leftovers throughout the week—from red lentil dal to tomato and eggplant curry.
Following these simple habits will revolutionize your cooking, and soon you’ll be turning out dishes like lemony carrot salad and Jamaican rice and beans with greens. So go ahead and hack your fridge!