The Importance of Home Cooking

People nowadays are spending less and less time cooking at home.  This is connected with a decrease in the nutritional value of one’s meals week to week.  Not only are home cooked meals healthier for you and your family, but they are also easier on your budget.

A snapshot of my semi-stocked pantry.

Home cooking is a win-win, as the Director of University of Washington’s Center for Public Health Nutrition states, “by cooking more often at home, you have a better diet at no significant cost increase, while if you go out more, you have a less healthy diet at a higher cost” (University of Washington, 2017), yet less of our meals are cooked at home.  

Dining out adds novelty and excitement to eating.  A lot of people may think that their skill at cooking is limited to only a few dishes which, repeated week after week, do not seem so appealing.  Dining out gives you the option to eat cuisines and dishes that are unfamiliar and exotic.

Skill, therefore, prevents a lot of us from cooking at home.  Many recipes are overwhelming and contain so many ingredients to wrap your head around.  Not to mention the difficulty in finding some of those ingredients and, once purchased, finding other uses for them.

Time presents another hurdle to home cooking.  One 2013 study found that on average, Americans are only willing to spend about an hour a day on cooking (Smith, Ng, Popkin, 2013).  After dedicating a large portion of your day to work and getting a workout in, the last thing you want to do is spend an additional hour or two “working” in the kitchen.  Not to mention the cleanup.  Having to do the dishes after cooking a meal is the worst!

Skill and time may keep a lot of us out of the kitchen, but the benefits of becoming a confident home cook outweigh the challenges.  

When you cook something yourself, you can add anything to it you want and cater it to your exact tastes.  The more you cook a particular dish, the more it becomes your own as you are able to add your twist to it, making small changes each time.  Once you become confident cooking for yourself, you can start sharing your food with others. For me, there is nothing more rewarding than sharing food with someone and having them be as excited about it as I am.

Cooking at home is easier on your wallet and your waistline.  Consider the average cost of a meal at a restaurant. A 4-6 ounce hamburger with a handful of fries or a side salad will usually come out to around $12.  Yet a pound (16 ounces) of ground beef at the store is around $4.99, that could make two burgers (at least). Plus a $2 pack of eight buns, various toppings (that get more than one use out of them).  Add a potato or two for $1 and you’re looking at less than $12 to feed the whole family.

The health benefits can be seen as twofold.  Without even trying, home-cooked meals are associated with diets lower in calories, sugar and fat (University of Washington, 2017).  Foods that are eaten at restaurants often contain a lot of “hidden” calories for the sake of increasing flavor. For example, there is probably butter on the bun, mayonnaise sauce and the burger itself could be cooked in a pan with vegetable oil.  All of these unnecessary additions skyrocket the fat content.

Additionally, cooking at home gives you the opportunity to completely tailor your meals to your dieting goals.  If you have ever attempted to track your macros and calories using an app such as MyFitnessPal, you already know how hard it is to estimate the calories in a restaurant meal.  When cooking at home, you know EXACTLY what you are putting into your food, and what you are putting into your body.

In the kitchen, I challenge myself to make great tasting food without unnecessary “cheat” ingredients such as extra oil or sugar.  This usually requires a little creative problem solving but the benefits are well worth it.

There is also another benefit that a lot of people do not consider.  Once you become comfortable in the kitchen (and maybe find someone to clean up for you…) cooking can also be very therapeutic.  For me, after working in stressful restaurant kitchens for years, I didn’t think I would be able to find cooking relaxing. Yet you can really lose yourself in your cooking once you become passionate about it.  Besides, how many other tasks yield immediate benefits. After 20 to 30 minutes in the kitchen, you have a tangible, delicious meal in front of you.

So how do you start?  If you have never cooked before, I would suggest starting small.  Buy a pack of chicken breast and a few dry spices. To use them as a marinade, simply mix with a little salt.  Basil and oregano for a classic Italian combo, paprika and cumin for latin flare or ginger and a soy sauce for an Asian touch.  Let the flavors set in the fridge for a couple of hours or overnight.  Dry spices add little to no calories and offer near infinite combinations so they are a great way to start.  

For vegetables, the oven and grill are your best friends.  Start with asparagus, as this requires the least amount of preparation.  Break off the lighter green ends and toss in a little fat-free cooking spray or olive oil, salt and pepper and throw on the grill until charred and tender.  Don’t have a grill? No problem!  Simply utilize your ovens “broil” setting.  This can be done with pretty much any vegetable, and whenever I prepare vegetables this way for a crowd, everyone wants to know what the secret is.  Sometimes keeping it simple brings out the best flavor!

Another good thing to master is the art of making rice.  It may sound simple, but you’d be surprised at how many professional cooks I have trained who can’t make a good pot of rice, so if you can get this down it is no small feat!  The trick is rinsing the rice a few times to remove the excess starch. You can do this over a fine mesh sieve or simply fill the pot with water, swirl it around and then carefully pour the water off.  Follow the water to rice ratio on the package as it can vary by style.  I would suggest making at least 2-3 cups and saving the leftovers for later!

To help you all on your cooking journeys, I hope to continue sharing and promoting healthy recipes with the goal of demystifying specific recipes and cooking in general.  The best advice I can give is to put care into whatever you make. You can cook a two-ingredient recipe with care and it will taste better than anything else.  Fitness and food are intricately linked, and gaining the ability to cook the meals your body needs for quality fuel will help you reach your goals faster than any other factor.  

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Our Favorite Fall Comfort Food

Since we are well on our way through the fall, and many places are already seeing an inch or two of snow, we are all craving foods that will comfort us and keep us warm

For a lot of people, the first thing to come to mind when thinking of comfort foods is not the most healthy.  Dishes with fattier cuts of meat such as brisket (think a Reuben sandwich) or pork shoulder (think pulled pork) and lots of butter (think mashed potatoes).  Not to mention pizza or mac and cheese, dishes we are tempted by year round. In moderation, these are all ok. Most of these dishes are connected to a memory of childhood or a favorite restaurant or holiday and a single bite can take you right back to that moment.

Soups are a great way to bridge the gap between unhealthy comfort foods and foods that may fit more easily into your personal diet goals. Be warned, however, soups can lie on either end of the spectrum. Clam or corn chowder and broccoli and cheddar soup can be deceiving as a lot of that delicious flavor comes from the use of lots of cream, butter and/or cheese.

This is another instance where homemade is always the way to go.  When you cook something yourself, you can add anything to it you want and cater it to your exact tastes.  This can seem intimidating at first but the payoff, in the long run, is well worth it. The more you cook a particular dish, the more it becomes your own as you are able to add your twist to it, making small changes each time.  Once you become confident cooking for yourself, you can start sharing your food with others. For me, there is nothing more rewarding than sharing food with someone and having them be as excited about it as I am.

Butternut squash is one of my favorites and its arrival just in time for winter could not be better.  This squash is naturally sweet and contains a lot of Vitamin A and potassium. All it takes to draw out the natural flavor is some time roasting in the oven.

By minimizing the use of butter or oil, we can cut down on a lot of the fat that can be found in pre-made or restaurant versions of this soup.  For this reason, I have also made milk or almond milk optional. If you like the added creaminess, you can add as much or as little as you want, or omit it entirely.  The hardest part about this recipe is peeling the squash itself. If you are confident with a knife you can go that route, as in the video below, or to be safe a vegetable peeler will work just fine.  Once peeled you will need to scrape out the seeds with a spoon and cut the remaining squash into roughly 1-inch cubes.

While you are cutting the squash, you can have the oven heating up to around 350ºF.  Once you have the squash cubed throw it in a bowl and spray it down with some nonfat cooking spray (feel free to use olive oil or coconut oil if you would like), just enough to coat the squash.  Toss it around with some salt and pepper and now it is ready for the oven.

To save time while the squash is roasting, you can get your onion and garlic diced up and ready to go.  The size of the cut isn’t incredibly important here, as everything is going to end up in a blender at the end anyway.  After about half an hour you can start cooking the onions, as the squash should only take 30-45 minutes. Heat a tablespoon of oil in a pot and allow the onions to cook down.  Once the onions are soft add the garlic, I wouldn’t recommend adding the garlic at the same time as the onions, as it will cook faster and burn, adding a bitter flavor.

When the squash is “fork tender” (meaning there is no resistance when pierced with a fork or knife), add it to the pot and stir it around with the onions to combine.  You can now add the stock or water. This will allow the squash to cook down a little more and make it easier to blend in the next step.

Now its time to break out the blender or food processor.  One note on which one you use: there is a trade-off. The food processor will break everything down a lot easier than a blender, but the blender will yield a smoother soup.  Depending on the quality of the blender, you may have to continuously shut it off and stir things around to make sure everything is blending consistently and use smaller batches.  I just set a mixing bowl or another pot on the side to separate the blended from the unblended.

Once blended, you can serve immediately if it is still hot, or allow it to cool down before putting it in the fridge to enjoy throughout the week on those especially cold nights.  I would recommend hiding it in the back where no one else can find it!

See the full recipe here!

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Three Holiday Health Tips

Its that time of year again.  A time to take a break from the day to day.  To spend time with family and friends. To take a vacation, maybe?

This is also a time when many of us are pressured to indulge.  Maybe you have been good about eating and getting enough exercise for the last few months.  Whether or not this is the case, holiday parties can seem like a minefield of bad choices we must face, and sometimes avoiding the bad choices we are confronted with becomes punishment in and of itself.

Cookies and cakes are the food we typically associate with the holidays

The month of December has other stressors as well.  You might happen to be one of the 107.3 million other Americans who will travel for the holidays (USA Today, 2018).  Travelling makes it extremely difficult to balance out healthy meals and to find the time for exercise. If you’re stuck with a four hour layover, your healthy options are limited to just about none.  It is just as difficult to bring your own food if it is not properly packaged. Who wants to take the time preparing meals for a day of travel, just to have them end up in the TSA office trash bin.

There are ways to combat the flood of unhealthy options that surround us.  Below I have three tips that I try to keep in mind throughout the year and especially during the holidays.  Think of it as altitude training:  If you can stick to these rules during the holidays, the rest of the year will be a breeze!

•  Rethink holiday food.  For most, the holidays offer an excuse to indulge, but we all know better.  It is time to move away from the typical spread of cookies and chocolate and start bringing healthier dishes to the table.  Do you have a famous french onion dip that everyone will be expecting? Swap out the sour cream for fat free greek yogurt! I’ve found grilled or broiled vegetables are always an unexpected hit.   Simply drizzle with a little olive oil, salt and pepper and cook until tender and a little charred. You would be amazed at how many people I have turned on to brussels sprouts with this simple preparation.  You may be surprised at how many people you can turn on to the healthy alternatives you bring to the table as well.

Roasted brussels sprouts with almonds and lemon zest

Another piece of advice I think really works:  when you’re at a holiday party, hang out near the veggie platter.  That way, when you are tempted to munch, your closest option will be much healthier, which should also help fill you up to avoid some of the more tempting sweets.

•  Stay Active.  Whether you like to jog, ski or lift weights, whatever keeps you active during the winter, stick to it!  As it gets colder and darker it gets that much easier to resign ourselves to stay indoors where it’s nice and warm.  However, getting in those workouts will balance out that one cookie or that extra slice of cheese you might sneak during the holiday party.

Exercise can also be hard while travelling, and many gyms will have different hours during the holidays.  For this reason it is a great idea to have an outdoor activity you enjoy doing, or a workout you can do in your home with minimal equipment (hoping to post some workouts this week!).  If you are travelling try to stretch in between flights, especially the lower and upper back, hamstrings and hip flexors as these are typically most affected by extended periods of sitting.

•  Don’t wait until New Years Day to start your resolution.  We’ve all been there.  On December 20th you decide you are going to make healthier decisions for the new year.  Now you have a free pass until the 1st, right? Wrong! Start now and you will feel much better throughout the holiday.  Start making it to the gym, cut out sodas and high calorie drinks. Theses small changes will put you ahead of the game when the new year rolls around and you will be ready to conquer.  You might even be able to recruit some friends or family to join you!

The holidays should be an enjoyable time with family and friends.  If these habits are adopted not just for the holidays, but every day, you might find your willpower is a lot stronger than you  thought. Give yourself more credit! Once these small tricks become habits of daily living, healthy choices become second nature.

Happy Holidays!

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Healthy Brunch Decisions

We’ve all heard it:  Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.  It’s been repeated to us so many times throughout our lives that I don’t think we even take it seriously anymore.

Scientifically, breakfast is defined by the American Heart Association (AHA) as the first meal of the day eaten within two hours of waking up (Summit Medical Group, 2017).  If you continue reading, you will find that it can be so much more! Eating breakfast has been connected to having a lower BMI (body weight to height ratio), consuming less fat throughout the day and better mental performance (Rush University Medical Center).  The thought process here is that by consuming a well-balanced meal bright and early in the morning, you are setting yourself up for success throughout the day. This jump starts your body’s metabolism and allows it to start burning calories, rather than immediately going into conservation mode, which would make you feel tired and groggy (and for a lot of us, hangry).  It has also been shown that people who skip breakfast are almost five times more likely to become obese (Piedmont Healthcare). This may be due to the fact that if we do not take the time to eat breakfast while we can, we will simply graze on unhealthy foods until we can finally take the time to sit down and eat lunch. In addition, if you skip out on breakfast you may find it harder to take in all of the desired macronutrients and micronutrients throughout the day which, depending on what your goals are, could make them harder to achieve.  So we get it. There’s a lot of pressure on breakfast to be awesome.

For most of us during the week, there’s just plain everyday breakfast.  Simpler, easier and more efficient. According to an ABC poll, in America, that means a bowl of cold cereal or, only marginally more exciting, a plate of bacon and eggs (Langer, 2005).  It’s no wonder the American staple in almost any diner is two eggs your way, bacon, sausage or ham and your choice of toast. While this may seem like a well-rounded breakfast (albeit lacking in any fruits and vegetables whatever), it is certainly not receiving any creativity points.  On the flipside, however, it IS much easier to control what you are eating when things are kept simple. For some, if you’re counting your macronutrients and/or calories, this means weighing out every aspect of your breakfast. For others, it can mean choosing a healthier portion of fresh fruit and low-fat yogurt.  Either way, there is certainly an argument to be made for simplicity.

Somewhere in between breakfast and dinner, there’s a random meal.  Lunch is usually pretty unexciting, just there to help us survive until we can get home and have the dinner we’ve been waiting for all day.  This can vary from person to person and culture to culture. Some people place more emphasis on lunch than dinner, and some simply eat it as a large snack while working away at their desks.

The classic American Breakfast

Then on the weekends, something magical happens.  Breakfast and lunch unite forces and become something almost unrecognizable.  Brunch. Brunch manages to defy the stereotypes of both breakfast and lunch. Throwing caution out the window, becoming at once wildly more creative and, dare I say, fun.  It is also one of my favorite meals. I would eat “brunch” foods for breakfast every day of the week if I had the time. Despite its questionable health qualities, or lack thereof, brunch has the potential to offer the most savory, comforting foods of any meal.  So where did brunch come from anyway?

As with anything supernatural, there are multiple stories of origin.  The first combination of breakfast and lunch started with the upper class in Great Britain, where after an early morning hunt a decadent spread of breakfast and lunch foods would be laid out to be feast upon (Butler, 2014).  While the actual content of this meal may not have been what we identify as brunch today, the idea was the same. An array of comfort foods to provide an abundance of calories for the rest of the day, and perhaps some relief from the previous night’s debauchery.  The term brunch was first used in 1895 in an article by British author Guy Beringer titled “Brunch: A Plea”. In it, he states, “In the first place, [brunch] renders early rising not only unnecessary but ridiculous… You are, therefore, able to prolong your Saturday nights, [and] the fear of the next morning’s reaction.” and that, “brunch is cheerful, sociable and inciting.  It is talk-compelling. It puts you in a good temper…” (Beringer, 1895).  Who knew the Sunday Scaries, and their apparent cure, dated all the way back to the 1890s.

As for what we can expect on the brunch table today, any number of waffle and pancake flavors from pumpkin to lemon-ricotta.  Benedicts doused in creamy hollandaise sauce with the traditional ham or even fresh crab. Biscuits in savory sausage gravy, or perhaps some fried chicken between them or accompanied by more waffles and drizzled with maple syrup.  Avocado toast. And don’t forget the eggs– frittatas, quiches, omelettes. The list goes on, and the beauty is, each dish has infinite variations per the chef’s’ whim. And of course, we can’t forget the bloody marys and mimosas!

A fresh take on breakfast

Just how healthy are most brunch dishes at your average restaurant?  Not very. All that flavor is derived from adding extra butter, oil and sugar to those delectable dishes.  Believe me, I’ve spent years serving brunch to the masses. Aside from eggs and meat, most brunch plates contain little to no protein and if there is a protein present it is usually in the form of a fatty cut of meat.  This, combined with a lack of fiber, can skyrocket blood sugar. For example, one single waffle could come in at up to 500 calories or even more if it is drowned in syrup. While eggs benedict may seem like a classy choice, it typically contains around 1,000 calories.  Biscuits and gravy? Upwards of 1,200 with two biscuits (Smith). While these are of course ballpark estimates, it should be pretty obvious that to enjoy brunch guilt-free, we need to find some healthier options that are still flavorful.

That’s where we come in.  As someone who loves brunch, and who also tries to maintain a healthy diet, I’m always looking for ways to cut calories while navigating the menu.  One easy go to–eggs. The simpler the better. Most restaurants allow you to build your own omelette with your choice of veggies, protein and cheese.  You could even do two plain eggs with toast and a side order of potatoes. If you’re craving a benedict, have the hollandaise on the side so YOU can control how much you add.  Are pancakes your guilty pleasure? Look for whole grain or buckwheat options that will contain more fiber, protein and micronutrients. As for the guest starring drinks, alcohol is always going to add on empty calories.  A bloody mary could easily add up to 200+ calories. A mimosa may be a little less, however, with around 100 calories.

A spread with shakshuka and common condiments

Cutting calories at a restaurant is always going to be tough, and seeing what your friends are ordering only makes it harder.  Even though the kitchen strives to send out each dish the same every time, the truth is you never know exactly how much butter or oil is going into a pan to fry a couple of eggs.  When cooking at home, however, you have complete control over everything that goes into a dish. A brunch at home can be even more fun (and more affordable, both financially and nutritionally) than going out.  My top pick for a healthy brunch? Shakshuka. Shaka-what? Shakshuka is a  Mediterranean dish I have recently fallen in love with for its bold flavor and versatility. It is also very easy to make! From a base of garlic, onions and tomato sauce a spicy and savory breakfast meal can be made.  Once you have the flavor of the sauce to your liking with a mix of cumin, cayenne and chili powder, you can add almost anything. For example, spinach can be cooked in for added nutrients. Whole eggs are then dropped into the tomato sauce and slowly poached to perfection. A dish for one, with two eggs and about a cup worth of tomato sauce is only around 250 calories and can be easily scaled for bigger groups if you have a large enough pan!  I like to accompany this dish with a few small pieces of toasted crusty bread to make it a little more filling and to soak up the delicious sauce of course.

Another crowd-pleasing dish is a frittata.  Think quiche without the buttery flaky crust.  Frittatas are also very customizable, easily utilizing any vegetables you have left in the fridge. Once you have it mastered, prepare to amaze your friends.  A little butter or fat-free cooking spray, about 6 eggs and some milk and cream and you’re on your way to fluffy frittata perfection. I personally like to start with a base of garlic and onions for flavor.  Then, any number of fresh vegetables can be added and sauteed until just wilted (after a few tries, you will be able to easily eyeball how much vegetables to add per amount of egg) before the eggs are added, stirred together and then baked until just set and slightly browned.  Cut into 6 pieces and depending on the vegetables added, each slice comes in at around 105 calories. This leaves a room for a mimosa after all!

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