I have received a couple of emails from readers asking for tips on how to start cooking more meals from scratch in their kitchen. I think one of the most intimdating factors for most folks is thinking that cooking from scratch is going to be a huge amount of time. I won't lie, you will have to devote some time to meal planning, grocery shopping, and basic kitchen prep work. But, once you stock your kitchen up with some basics and learn a few quick go-to meals for easy breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, cooking from scratch will hardly seem intimidating! Here are my top tips for making quick, healthy, and easy meals at home. Whether you are a kitchen newbie or an experienced home chef, hopefully this will inspire and enlighten you!
1. Keep a well-stocked pantry of grains
If you are new to cooking or are hoping to start preparing more meals at home, then cooking your own grains is an easy place to start. Go to the bulk bins at your local health foods store and stock up on some basics. I always keep brown rice, red and white quinoa, spelt berries, millet, rolled oats, and brown rice pasta on hand. Some grains take longer to cook than others (e.g. brown rice), which is why it is important to have a variety so that you can easily prepare something in 15 - 20 minutes (e.g. quinoa) if you don't have much time.
Grains are great for quick dinner items like thai quinoa salad, kimchi fried rice, millet and aduki bean salad, spicy tofu and spelt berries salad, pineapple fried quinoa, or simple rice and beans. Every Sunday evening I make a batch of brown rice and/or quinoa for the week. Having grains already prepared for the week makes weeknight dinner assembly a snap!
2. Have pre-cooked (or canned) beans handy
Beans and lentils are a wonderful protein-source for plant-based diets and I think they are an important staple in any kitchen. I prefer to cook my own beans rather than using canned beans because they taste fresher, have less sodium, and are more cost-efficient. I also like to cook my beans with kombu (edible kelp) because it helps to soften the beans while cooking, is a great source of trace minerals, and aids in digestion.
To help save time, I will cook several big batches of beans once or twice a month and then keep the leftovers in the freezer. Canned beans are also a convientient option if you don't want to cook your own. (If using canned beans, I recommend Eden Organic brand because they cook the beans with kombu and use cans that do not have BPA in the lining.) If you have ready-made beans available, then it is incredibly easy to add beans to any dish.
I recommend keeping your pantry stocked with at least some black beans (for burritos, tacos, or with a simple grain like rice), garbanzo beans (for pureed soups, salads, or a healthy hummus dip), black eyed peas (for salads and soups), red lentils (for dahl), and grey-green lentils (for lentil loaf or curry). Black-eyed peas and lentils cook up quickly so you don't have to worry about prepping them ahead of time.
3. Use herbs for flavor
Herbs are one the best ways to add extra flavor to your meals and take your cooking to the next level. Herbs are incredibly easy to grow indoors and make a great addition to any kitchen window. My favorites include cilantro, Italian parsley, mint, rosemary, sage, basil, and thyme. Once cut, I like to store my herbs in a small jar of water in the fridge to keep them perky and fresh for as long as possible.
If you don't have access to fresh herbs, then keep a variety of dried herbs on hand. Herbs will help you to add flavor and variety to dishes without resorting to using extra salt. Herbs also allow you to get more creative with your cooking and feel rewarded (and not punished) for eating healthy!
4. Freeze leftover bananas
Do you ever feel guilty while watching a pile of bananas brown on your counter? Well, say good-bye to your guilt! I always keep a well-stocked freezer of peeled, chopped, frozen bananas to use in smoothies or oatmeal for breakfast. Wait until your bananas are fully ripe (preferably starting to brown) before freezing them because that is when they are the sweetest and have the best flavor. Once you have a freezer stash of bananas, you are ready to embark on many green smoothie adventures and you will always have an easy and filling breakfast or snack at your fingertips.
5. Fall in love with salads
Salads are one of my favorite items to make because you can customize them in so many different ways and add your favorite toppings. If you constantly change up your ingredients then salads never feel boring. Plus, salads can be assembled fast!
Start with a base of fresh greens like baby kale, arugula, romaine, spinach, or leaf lettuce. Then add heartier vegetables like roasted squash, baked beets, roasted potatoes, or green beans. Then add your protein source: baked tofu, beans, lentils, you name it! Don't forget fun additions like nuts, seeds, avocado, or fresh fruit. And finally, finish it off with your favorite dressing. Some of my favorites salads are this hearty winter squash salad, fresh greens with green goddess dressing, spinach and kale salad with pear vinaigrette, green bean and potato salad with miso dressing, and this winter citrus salad.
What are your favorite tips for quick, healthy, and easy meals at home?