It’s easy — almost justifiable — to head to the drive-thru or freezer section of the grocery store on days we’re so pressed for time that eating is relegated to little more than gleaning enough calories to power us through our next commitment. That’s when we need to remind ourselves of one of author Michael Pollan’s food rules: “Eat only foods that have been cooked by humans.” It’s worth including the addendum “but especially by you.”
Pollan is best known for giving us the dining mantra “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” But the author of some of our generation’s most important books about food production and eating has offered plenty of other wisdom worth gobbling up, particularly in his 2009 zeitgeist “Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual.”
Pollan pointed to the salt, fat, sugar, preservatives and unpronounceable ingredients that corporations use in the food we so often turn to for a quick hit of sustenance. And though professional chefs are humans, they tend to favor salt, fat and sugar in their creations, too.
Why We Need to Get Back Into the Kitchen
Picking up the spatula ourselves bodes well for our health. Cooking gives us control over what we put in our bodies. Problem is, we’re making fewer and fewer meals ourselves.
According to The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (2015-2020), about two-thirds (67%) of the calories consumed by the U.S. population are purchased at a store, such as a grocery store or supermarket, and consumed in the home. However, Americans have increased the proportion of food they consume away from home from 18% in 1977-1978 to 33% in 2009-2010.
Getting back into the kitchen would help our cause immensely. It was Hippocrates, the physician after whom all modern-day doctors take the oath to do no harm, who said all disease begins in the gut. Clearly, it’s been known for ages that cooking well and living well aren’t mutually exclusive. It’s the ultimate self care.
But if the stats above tell us anything, it’s that people are forgoing health for easy meals that require little ability to get from store to plate. The joy of cooking is either elusive come dinner time, or it’s the know-how that’s in short supply. To cook well, eat well, and ultimately live well doesn’t mean being well-versed in sous-vide, but it does start with being comfortable in a kitchen.
Tips and Resources for Cooking at Home
The basics anyone needs to turn raw ingredients into a healthy meal can be found in several places. Community colleges that teach culinary arts typically offer short continuing education courses covering specific topics, such as knife skills, bread making, how to prepare soups and stews from scratch, and making your own pasta.
A visit to the local library branch can help, too. Libraries have ever-growing cookbook sections and many are packed with information about kitchen and pantry basics in addition to recipes.
If finding time to get behind the burner is an issue, look for titles dedicated to ease and saving precious minutes. There’s no shortage of options that promise healthy meals in 30 minutes, made with only five ingredients, or done with minimal mess.
For more visual learners, a quick Google search will also lead to many online cooking tutorials. LEAFtv is an excellent online resource, offering tutorials for a range of cooking skills, including how to make an omlette and how to roast vegetables. The cooking skills range in difficulty but the goal is the same: empowering viewers, like you, to make a healthy snack or meal.
It’s also worth asking your family doctor for kitchen hacks. Though medical schools have typically fallen short on teaching nutrition, trailblazing medics are filling the gap by linking with teaching kitchens to help patients improve their health and quality of living.
Once you have a few basic recipes in your repertoire, it’s easy to play with ingredients; for example, any herb can be turned into pesto, and any vegetable can be made into soup or risotto. Frittata is another versatile dish, easily adaptable to whatever you have on hand.
The more recipes we read and try, the more adept we also become at recognizing less healthy ingredients and substituting them with those that have greater nutritional punch.
With that said, ingredients are just as important as knowing how to use them.
Pollan’s Food Rule No. 12 states “Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle.” Those centre aisles are the domain of highly processed foods while the outer edges are home to fresh food, such as fruits and vegetables, meat and dairy. Still, wherever you are in the grocery store, read the ingredient label on anything that has one.
The safest bet might be to get out of the supermarket altogether. Change the way you shop by joining a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) group, which is a seasonal share of vegetables from a local farm. Or head to a farmers market or roadside stand where you’ll find fresh ingredients waiting to be turned into something wonderful.
Making the Time to Cook
Next comes the most difficult part of all: making the time to cook. Dinner doesn’t have to take hours but it does require planning.
For some people, that could mean sitting down with those library cookbooks or LEAFtv dinner recipes, mapping out a menu for the week, then shopping accordingly. Just remember that menus aren’t carved in concrete. You might assign zucchini lasagna to Wednesday’s dinner slot when planning your weekly menu on Sunday. But come Wednesday, you might feel more like Friday’s warm mushroom and arugula salad. Give yourself the freedom to edit as you go.
Batch cooking is a busy person’s best friend. Cooking up large amounts of pulses, like chickpeas and lentils, cutting up vegetables and making a big jar of salad dressing, for example, leaves you with all the fixings for a healthy main or side for the week. Buy individual-sized food storage containers and do the assembly at one time so when the rush comes, all you have to do is open the fridge door for ready-to-eat meals.
It’s worthwhile investing in small countertop appliances to help with the cooking. Slow cookers and Instant Pots can be a dream kitchen assistant, especially for those who find stirring and watching pots and pans on the stove really isn’t their thing. Both of these small, timed appliances can turn out flavorful, healthy meals with little effort.
So what are you waiting for? The (not-so-) secret to living well can be cracked just a few steps away in the kitchen, where Pollan’s 63rd rule waits to be followed: Cook.