I didn’t really get into food and cooking until I moved away from home for university, but I fell in love with it instantly. In first year, my dorm room was across from the communal kitchen, and I remember making mile-high sandwiches, and “curries” that used a mixture of plain yogurt and curry powder as a sauce.
I didn’t realize that my knack for cooking was unusual until I’d moved into an apartment with three other girls, and one of my roommates always admired how “elaborate” my dinners were, while I thought my meal of baked fish, couscous and steamed vegetables was simple as it took less than 30 minutes!
As much as I love to eat out, it doesn’t take a dietitian to know that you can really bump up the quality of what you eat when you cook it yourself! This puts you in the driver’s seat in terms of the ingredients and cooking methods that you choose, and we know that many pre-made foods are stripped of nutrients and/or have a lot of extra sugar, salt and fat added in.
You don’t have to be a natural at cooking to make it look effortless! Here are some of my secrets:
Ugh. The dreaded P word. You may be thinking, what about the people who seem to be able to whip up a meal just with what’s in their fridge? Even though it’s not the “traditional” sort of meal planning, shopping in a way that ensures that you’ve got all your staples on hand can be considered a form of meal planning too. Meal planning can also be getting up in the morning and deciding what you are going to eat that day – the real purpose of meal planning is to just get you thinking about what you’re going to eat at a time when your brain rules, not your stomach. When you wait until your stomach rules, that’s when you’re more likely to just grab something quick and convenient, not something healthy and truly satisfying.
Feeling ready to dive deep into meal planning? Check out my step-by-step guide.
Like planning, prepping is all about putting in a little bit of time and energy when your brain rules, so you can save a lot of time when your stomach rules. While planning is more about thinking about food, with prepping, you actually get to work with it.
You may be surprised by all the prepping tasks that can be done ahead of time! It can be as simple as washing and cutting up vegetables and fruit or boiling eggs for easy grab-and-go snacks, marinating meats so that all you have to do is give them a quick sear in a pan or roast in the oven before eating, or designating a day in your weekend as “Prep Day” where you make full recipes that you can reheat throughout the week.
My Favourite Time-Saving Prep Tips
- Make Meal Prep Part of Your Grocery Trip Instead of shoving everything into the fridge after you do groceries, plan for some extra time to prep some ingredients before putting them away.
- Plan to Prep! Write meal prep into your meal plan – if you know you’re going to have a roast on Saturday night, make sure it gets taken out of the freezer on Friday night! If you’re grilling some chicken breasts, throw on a few extra for some planned leftovers.
- Prep Similar Ingredients Together It’s natural to want to prep ingredients by recipe, but if you already have your plan for the week laid out, batch similar ingredients together. For example, if you have two separate recipes that use onions, instead of cutting an onion, prepping some other ingredients, then circling back to cut another onion, cut them all at once then divide the amounts between the recipes later.
Go-to Meals & Meal Templates
Go-to meals are the ones that you can make off the top of your head, usually without a recipe. It’s always good to have a few of these in your back pocket so you can whip up a meal fast. My go-to meal is fried rice – all I need is leftover rice, eggs, veggies, sometimes meat, a little seasoning, and I’m usually set.
The Kitchn takes this idea a step further by coining the term “meal templates” – meal templates are like loose recipes, but instead of being specific about ingredients and measurements, the “recipes” are written in broad terms that keep them flexible and simple. For example, the “standard” meal template is usually meat, veggies (half your plate!) and starch, or another one of my favourites is noodle soup: noodles, broth, veggies and protein.
Taking advantage of kitchen gadgets can make things a lot simpler! Tools like a slow cooker or rice cooker save stovetop space so you can multitask. How to get the most out of some of the most popular mini-appliances:
Slow cookers are great because you can “set it and forget it” – dump in the ingredients in the morning, then come home to a warm, hearty supper. They’re also great for batch cooking/prep days as they don’t use any stovetop or oven space and don’t heat up the house. Freezer slow cooker meals are currently all the rage on Pinterest – prep all your ingredients in a large freezer bag, then all you need to do for a meal is thaw overnight and dump it all in the slow cooker in the morning. Easy.
Rice cookers are not just one-grain wonders! They can be easily used to cook any grain or bean, as long as you get the grain-to-water ratio right. There are many rice cooker cookbooks out there (including one by Roger Ebert!) that use the rice cooker’s “Keep Warm” function as a very weak slow cooker.
Pressure cookers are back, and they’re fortunately no longer the scary devices of past eras. Pressure cookers are perfect for shortening the cooking time of foods that normally take hours to soften and tenderize, like roasts or dried beans. The shortened cooking time can also help turn what would normally be a weekend meal into something you can whip up on a weeknight.
Blenders work best with liquids, so they’re great for smoothies, soups, sauces and dressings. Ultra-powerful blenders, like Vitamix, BlendTec or Ninja, can often do much more, like grinding flours or making nut butters, if that’s what you need. Bullet-sized blenders are great for making single servings, or doing smaller tasks like grinding spices.
Food processors are great for thicker sauces and dips, like pesto or hummus. Many of the popular “energy ball” recipes out there today are also made best in a food processor. If you find that you normally use the food processor for smaller jobs, like chopping or grating vegetables, then a small food chopper may be all that you need.
My Effortless Cooking Toolkit comes with the inspiration you need to simplify cooking:
- Theme Night Ideas: Overwhelmed by ALL THE MEALS that you can make? As mentioned in my healthy meal planning guide, set some boundaries by assigning theme nights. That way, instead of searching ALL THE RECIPES on Meatless Monday, all you need to worry about are the vegetarian ones.
- Meal Templates: Some of my favourite meal templates, as well as some adapted from The Kitchn
- Real Fast Food for Real Fast Meals Pantry List: Ideas for foods to keep on hand so that a quick meal is only minutes away!