When we discuss traditional diets and lifestyles, fresh ingredients and the importance of eating meals together are both at the top of the list. But the act of cooking itself comprises another major component of good habits practiced by healthy populations around the globe. So crucial, in fact, Michael Pollan made a four-episode miniseries that highlights this art of cooking.
In its simplest sense, cooking connects us to the food we eat, preserves the techniques that societies have developed over generations, and provides an incredibly enjoyable activity. That is, if you know a thing or two. And while getting into the kitchen is one of the best ways to take control of your health, many novice cooks quit before they learn to love cooking. One burnt dish, or one lack-luster attempt, can be all it takes to dishearten a novice chef.
Cooking doesn’t have to be complicated, and we called upon our nutrition experts to prove it. Find out what these cooking and health connoisseurs recommend to help beginner cooks ﬁnd the conﬁdence, and basic skills, to start whipping up healthy, hearty meals — and loving every minute of the process.
Ask the Experts, Cooking 101
Invest Some Time. Tired of the same recipes? Looking for inspiration? Upgrade your culinary intelligence one step at a time. Start by investing time in meal planning. Stock your kitchen with essential ingredients that allow you to whip up healthy meals in less than 30 minutes. Watch cooking videos, step out of your comfort zone and be adventurous. Cooking at home can be a rewarding endeavor and life-long pursuit. The more time and eﬀort you invest, the greater the success.
– Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, director of nutrition for WebMD, webmd.com/kathleen-m-zelman
Start Small. Cooking is my therapy and it’s a great tool to have in your toolbox when you need a moment of zen. Focus on getting comfortable in the kitchen ﬁrst, then conquer your fears and have at it. The beauty of cooking is that you can really make a dish your own by using your favorite spices and herbs. One of my favorite recipes is this simple Buﬀalo Chicken Grain Bowl (courtesy photo below) that you can whip up in under 15 minutes using what you have on hand. My philosophy is good food doesn’t have to take hours to prepare, it just needs to be tasty, delicious and nutritious.
– Elizabeth Shaw, MS, RDN, CLT, Nutrition Communications Consultant & Owner of Shaw’s Simple Swaps, author of the Fueling Fertility Book 2017, Freelance Writer for Fitness & Shape.com
Start in the Freezer. No one wants to spend hours in the kitchen trying to get a meal on the table. One of the easiest ways to make cooking easier — and faster — is to set your freezer up for success. In addition to stocking it with lots of quick prep ingredients like frozen peas and kale, ﬁll it with single serve portions of frozen grains. Just whip up a big batch of quinoa, brown rice, barley or farro and divide it into single serve containers or baggies. That way you’ll always have whole grains on hand for a super quick side dish or to toss into soups and salads — and one less ingredient to cook.
– Karen Ansel, MS, RND, author of the Healing Superfoods for Anti-Aging: Stay Younger, Live Longer (Hearst, 2017), www.karenansel.com
Stir-Fry It Up. Start by making some really simple dishes that have a few basic ingredients, and by learning basic cooking skills, such as sautéing, stir-frying, baking, and roasting. A good stir-fry the best starter recipe because it’s a really easy cooking technique, and once you have it down, you can stir-fry just about anything. One of my favorite stir-fry recipes, this Stir-Fried Thai Sorghum Bowl (courtesy photo below) features whole grain sorghum, tofu, and lots of vegetables with a Thai sauce. It is so ﬂavorful, easy and it’s a one dish meal, too. You can get this meal on the table faster than ordering and picking up take out.
– Sharon Palmer, RDN, The Plant-Powered Dietitian, author of Plant-Powered for Life and The Plant-Powered Blog, nutrition consultant for Oldways, www.sharonpalmer.com
BONUS: Simple Step by Step Stir-Fry
Be sure to have some cooked grains on hand — either cook some brown rice, quinoa or sorghum, or use precooked grains — then sauté this combination: Seasonal chopped vegetables (use frozen for a shortcut), a healthy protein source such as cubed tofu, and some seasonings, such as soy sauce, garlic, ginger. Cook in a large sauté pan or skillet until it’s tender — then serve with the grains. You have a one-dish meal in no time. You can use this formula for so many ﬂavor and ingredient combinations.
Make a Plan. Take 10-20 minutes every Sunday to map out the week’s meals and do your grocery shopping. I created a free printable Meal Planning Worksheet to help people do this. As you’re planning your meals, build in a night for leftovers and a night for going out or getting take-out. With the remaining ﬁve dinners, be sure at least one of those dinners is very easy, like a simple pasta or a meal you have in your freezer. When you have a plan for the week and know that you have everything you need, your stress melts away and you can feel conﬁdent that you have things under control!
– Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, author of Cooking Light Dinnertime Survival Guide, RealMomNutrition.com
Read Up. The best way for beginner cooks to conﬁdently dive into the kitchen and begin creating healthy meals is to bring an experienced chef with you. While this may sound daunting, it really isn’t. My favorite healthy chef is Ellie Krieger. She is a nutrition guru, mother, and culinary whiz who has created cookbooks to help folks who are time-impaired yet want to easily master weekday meals. Her cookbook, Weeknight Wonders, is full of fabulous recipes with the guidance you will need to comfortably tackle Healthy Cooking 101.
– Joan Salge Blake, MS, RDN, LDN, clinical associate professor for Boston University, salge-blake.blogspot.com
Batch Roast Veggies. Most people have a hard time ﬁtting in their vegetables. By batch-roasting your veggies once a week, you have multiple servings of vegetables to use all week. Simply buy a variety of fresh vegetables, such as asparagus, sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, peppers, onions, broccoli, and cauliﬂower. Cut into 1-inch pieces, toss with olive oil, a sprinkle of salt and pepper and any other spices you have on hand, then roast in the oven at 450 degrees for 15-20 minutes (thicker veggies may take a bit longer). Roasting brings out vegetable’s natural sweetness, so this is a good recipe for anyone who says that they don’t like the taste of vegetables. Use the roasted vegetables all week: toss in with salads for lunch, pair with lean protein for dinner, or scramble with a few eggs for breakfast.
– Alissa Rumsey MS, RD, CDN, CSCS, owner of Alissa Rumsey Nutrition and Wellness Consulting, www.alissarumsey.com
Take the Easy Route. My tip for beginner cooks is to take advantage of the many healthy convenience foods on the market to make food prep easier. Pre-cooked lentils, cottage cheese, corn tortillas, all-natural enchilada sauce, frozen tri-color pepper strips, and pre-shredded reduced fat cheddar cheese all come together quickly to make this hearty, vegetarian Lentil Enchilada Bake (courtesy photo below) that will feed a family of four for two nights.
– Janice Newell Bissex, MS, RDN, Culinary Nutrition Consultant and Author at www.JaniceCooks.com
Bookmark Some Go-Tos. Find a few good online resources for simple recipes. For example, I would never use recipes from Bon Appetit (too complicated and too many ingredients for me) but I often go to Cooking Light or EatingWell and look for their easiest recipes. Slowly build up your repertoire of recipes. I keep a ﬁle of recipes that I like that I constantly go back to.
– Julie Upton, MS, RD, CSSD, Appetite for Health, co-author of 101 Fat Habits & Slim Solutions, appforhealth.com
Single-Serve Grains. A great kitchen hack: You can freeze cooked brown rice (and other grains) for a quick healthy impromptu meal. Cook 4 cups of brown rice. Cool. Divide and put equal amounts in Ziploc bags, and ﬂatten each one to the size of a paperback book. Stack the bags and freeze. Dinner in a snap.
– Louisa Kasdon, CEO & Founder Let’s Talk About Food LLC, www.letstalkaboutfood.com
All About the Veggies. My number one tip is to make veggies “the star of the show” in any meal and whenever possible. That means anything from stuﬃng veggies into sandwiches, adding extra servings into sautés, soups, and omelets, plus pasta dishes. My recent trick for adding in extra plants at dinner is making veggie rice. I’m obsessed with new pre-riced veggie products (in the frozen section!) on the market now, but I also love ﬁnely chopping up cauliﬂower, cabbage, broccoli, sprouts, and sautéing in sesame oil with sesame seeds, scrambled egg, and spicy sriracha cashews and a sprinkle of coconut ﬂakes (plus whatever spices I’ve got on-hand). It makes for a ridiculously good “fried rice” that you eat on its own, or add leftovers to a can of beans, served with sweet potatoes or squash, or with a piece of ﬁsh for a super ﬁlling meal (courtesy photo below).
– Jaclyn London, MS, RD, CDN, Nutrition Director, Good Housekeeping Institute, @jaclynlondonRD
Laser Focus. If you are just starting to get comfortable in the kitchen, start by focusing on cooking one component of the meal and look for healthy shortcuts for the rest. Also, ﬁnd recipes with ingredients you are comfortable working with. For example, if you are making a new salmon recipe, try preparing the salmon (my favorite is almond-crusted with lemon and garlic) and ﬁnd simple short cuts for the sides — like a microwavable whole grain like quinoa and steamed vegetables. When you start getting more comfortable in the kitchen, create that same recipe then add in a garlic-roasted broccoli recipe. Once you feel like a pro in your kitchen, whip up the almond crusted salmon, roasted broccoli, and a rosemary, cranberry quinoa. Now your whole meal is homemade, simple, and healthy.
– Julie Harrington, RD, Registered Dietitian and Culinary Communications Consultant, RDelicious Kitchen
Two Words: Fresh Herbs. Nothing ups your game in the kitchen more. Using fresh herbs in your recipes ramps up the ﬂavor eﬀortlessly — it’s like your dinner on HD. You can taste the life-force in them and they feed right back to you. Bonus points — grow one or two herbs in pots, snipping only what you need. It’s like free food.
– Ellen Kanner, Soulful Vegan writer & recipe developer, author of Feeding the Hungry Ghost: Life, Faith and What to Eat for Dinner & e-book Beans: A Handful of Magic, Huﬃngton Post’s Meatless Monday blogger, soulfulvegan.com
BONUS RECIPE: Sage-Scented Dandelion Green and Mushroom Risotto
Sultry like risotto and greater than the sum of its parts, this dish, made with brown rice comes together quicker than risotto and without all the stirring. Rice may be cooked ahead. (Courtesy photo above.)
1 cup brown rice (or brown and wild blend for fun)
2 cups vegetable broth or water
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 onion, sliced thin
pinch red pepper ﬂakes
1 pound mushrooms, sliced thin
½ cup white wine
1 bunch dandelion greens, chopped
1 handful sage leaves, coarsely chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
A drizzle of truﬄe oil to ﬁnish, if you’ve got it
Bring vegetable broth or water to boil in a medium-sized pot. Add the rice, cover and let simmer for 30 minutes,or until grains are plump and tender and has sucked up all the liquid. Set aside (or, if you like, prepare a day or two ahead and keep covered and refrigerated).
From here on in, everything goes quickly. Heat olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat.
Add the garlic and onion and pepper ﬂakes, which should sizzle in the oil. Reduce heat to medium and cook, stirring, until vegetables soften and turn translucent, about 7 minutes.
Add the sliced mushrooms, stirring for a few minutes, until they darken. Splash in the wine and deglaze any crusty bits that stick to the bottom of the pan. Then cover and reduce heat to low. Let vegetables cook and mellow for 15 to 20 minutes.
Remove the lid. The mushrooms and wine will have produced some self-created broth. Excellent. Bring heat back to medium-high. Add the dandelion greens by the handful. Stir until the greens wilt but are still a deep and lovely green, no more than 5 minutes.
Tip in the rice and chopped sage leaves. Fold to combine. Season generously with sea salt and pepper, and a gilding of truﬄe oil, should you have such a thing.
Savor the Pleasures of the Table. I have always been a believer in simple cooking techniques. I like my food as unaltered as possible, preferring uncomplicated techniques like steaming fresh vegetables or poaching ﬁsh to baking, frying, or whatever else more creative people than I can come up with. I also try to follow my own motto, “eating lighter is eating smarter,” and usually leave out sauces, dressings, and other condiments that may add a bit of ﬂavor but many more unnecessary calories and substances I don’t know anything about. Even making the simplest dish gives me great pleasure when it is to be shared with people I love. Enjoying a glass of wine while stirring a pot or assembling delicious treats before gathering at the table — you can’t get that from unpacking a box, no matter how well appointed it may be.
– Timi Gustafson, RD, LDN, FAND, health counselor, book author, columnist, and founder and President of Solstice Publications, L.L.C.
Start Slow, Then Grow. It’s my top advice when you’re new to the kitchen. Don’t feel pressured to try an overly complicated dish right away. Instead, ﬁrst master a basic technique, such as perfectly cooking basmati rice. Once you have that recipe down, build on it by mixing in favorite ingredients, exploring new cuisines, or simply pairing it with other easy recipes like leftover chicken and fresh ﬁgs (swap rice for barley), or parchment packet ﬁsh and veg (grilled or baked – both dish-free!). Other beginner’s tips: always remember to read a recipe through and gather ingredients before cooking, be patient, and be willing to mess up now and again – it’s (a delicious) part of the fun, and it’s how we grow!
– Heather Goesch, MPH, RDN, LDN, nutrition consultant and food blogger at Heather Goesch Nutrition, contributing author to Food & Nutrition Magazine, www.heathergnutrition.com
One Pan, No Problem. Cooking a home cooked meal can intimidate most, but with one pan and an oven you can create a hearty, healthy meal in minutes. Baking your lean meat along with your vegetables is an easy tip and tasty dish with very little cleanup. It’s a great way to encourage novice cooks to love cooking. Enjoy this One Pan Chicken Dinner.
– Kathy Siegel, MS, RDN, CDN, Managing Partner & Communications Director, Triad to Wellness Consulting, triadtowellness.com
Don’t Sweat the Small Stuﬀ. Realize that mistakes are bound to happen. Hey, I’ve been cooking since I could stand at the kitchen counter, but I still burn stuﬀ, mess food up, and cut my ﬁngers. Read cooking magazines, look at recipes online, get as comfortable as you can with which ingredients go together and how they’re typically prepared. There is no such thing as perfection — just get in the kitchen and do it. I think you’ll surprise yourself with what you can actually do! And it gets easier over time, a lot easier. Try my recipe for One Pan Roasted Chicken with Pan Gravy — it’s completely simple, you can’t mess this one up!
– Abby Langer, RD, owner of Abby Langer Nutrition in Toronto, Canada
No-Cook Cooking. For our clients who have little experience in the kitchen, we recommend that they start with no-cook recipes ﬁrst. Recipes for overnight oats, smoothies, and salads require assembling, measuring, and chopping — the foundation for executing more complicated dishes. Creating these simple, delicious recipes can boost conﬁdence and fuel a client’s interest in cooking more. Here are three places to start:
Don’t Make It a Chore. Sometimes it’s all about mind-set. I recommend starting on a day where you have ample time. Then pick a fun recipe that isn’t too hard, but is something you want to try. Then, gather up friends or family or just some great music and get cooking. No pressure involved, just consider it a fun activity. Need inspiration? You can try my recipe for Baharat Bean Toast with Fried Egg — it sounds fancy and complicated, but it’s super easy and really delicious!
– Sara Haas, RDN, LDN, Dietitian and Chef, www.sarahaasrdn.com
Build Oﬀ Your Skills. Learn to master a basic skill such as sautéing a boneless, skinless chicken breast, and use that as a springboard for creativity. You can ‘accessorize your breasts’ for a down-home night with a simple marinara or barbecue sauce; elevate the ﬂavors with a Mediterranean-inspired recipe with capers and lemon; or take your chicken to Thailand with a quick pan sauce made with peanut butter, rice wine vinegar, tamari sauce, sliced mushrooms, and scallions.
– Carolyn O’Neil, MS, RDN, author of The Slim Down South Cookbook and ONeilOnEating.com food blog
BONUS RECIPE: Taste of Thai Chicken
After sautéing chicken breasts and setting aside, stir sliced scallions and sliced mushrooms into the pan. Remove from pan, and stir in tamari sauce (a slightly thicker soy sauce), rice wine vinegar, and a teaspoon of peanut butter. Add the scallions and mushrooms back to the pan and the chicken breasts to warm. Serve with steamed brown rice.
From The Dish on Eating Healthy and Being Fabulous! by Carolyn O’Neil MS, RD and Densie Webb PhD, RD