As a society, how we prepare meals has changed over the years. Thanks in part to longer commutes, busier schedules, bulk purchasing, and increased takeout options, we also have a decreased desire to cook.
“Food has become an afterthought for most people,” says Cory Gheen, MS, RD, assistant professor of Nutrition and Dietetics and Chef at Loma Linda University School of Allied Health Professions. “We eat because our body is telling us that we must stop and eat in order to keep going. So that’s what we do — we stop, eat quickly, and move onto the next thing we need to do.”
Thankfully, even as society continues to operate with an “on-the-go” mentality, and meal-delivery options are at our fingertips, we can still see food in a health consciousness manner. “Does it take more effort to eat well? Yes, but in the end it’s worth it,” Gheen says. “You have to remember, we can conveniently eat healthy in the same way we can conveniently heat up a microwave pizza.”
From finding the right knife to creatively stretching a base meal, Gheen helps celebrate National Nutrition awareness month and provides kitchen tips to make healthy food options convenient for you.
- It all starts with a good knife. A good knife is an essential tool for preparing all aspects of a meal. From cutting fruits, dicing vegetables, or thinly slicing herbs, a versatile knife is the first thing you should invest in, according to Gheen. “If there is one piece of kitchen equipment you should invest in, it should be a good kitchen knife,” Gheen says. “A good knife has high carbon steel, is well balanced, and has handle comfortable for you. Just keep it sharp, and you’ll only need to buy a knife like this once.” Gheen recommends starting with an 8-inch chef’s knife because of its versatility.
- Get that fresh flavor by grinding your spices. Nothing is worse than reaching for a spice in the cupboard to find that it is so old it has no taste, resulting in an impromptu trip to the store to buy another overpriced pre-ground spice that will expire in three months. Instead, Gheen recommends purchasing a spice grinder and grinding fresh spices as you need them. “It’s absolutely a stark difference. Whole spices keep much longer than pre-ground spices,” Gheen says.
- Avoid buying bulk whole wheat flour. It’s no secret that whole wheat flour is a healthier flour. In whole wheat flour, the germ and oil within the whole wheat berry have not been removed leaving more vitamin and fiber content. Unlike white flour, this isn’t something you can buy in bulk from your local Costco and use whenever for your baking purposes. Gheen notes that when the remaining germ and oil are exposed to air, they quickly degrade and turn rancid. “If your whole wheat flour is old and goes rancid, it will have a bitter taste. So, buy a small amount, as you need it, and use it soon.” Gheen also notes that while wheat flour can be frozen to prevent it going rancid, freezing it degrades the gluten and will make the flour weak and less able to rise properly.
- Frozen doesn’t mean forever. Who hasn’t been guilty of making a few extra dishes, freezing it and finding it a few months later frost-bitten at the bottom of the freezer? Like all food, items in your freezer also have a shelf life. “So many people think ‘I’ll put this in the freezer’ and it’ll stay forever,” says Gheen. “That’s just not the case. Food can become freezer burnt no matter how well packaged.” The food itself won’t spoil if freezer burn occurs, but it will lose overall quality and palatability. Gheen also notes it’s important to not freeze your food items in one large container. “For example, if you want to use any small portion you have to thaw all of it and either cook it all or refreeze some, neither of which are great options. I always recommend separating into small portions before freezing so it can be used individually as needed.”
- Find a process that works for you. Time is always of the essence. While some spend a weekend afternoon preparing a whole week’s worth of meals, not everyone can. According to Gheen, the trick is a little forethought. “Have meals in mind for the next 2 to 4 days and try to overlap ingredients. This can help save time and money. “For example, if you know you’re going to use carrots several times that week, why peel some and put the rest in the fridge? Instead, peel and cut them all at once, set aside what you’re going to use and zip-lock the rest so they’re ready to go when you want them later.” Similarly, Gheen suggests thinking ahead when you cook. “If you made the time to cook a great dish, make a little extra, and package it for the next day’s lunch. Rather than spending 20 minutes preparing separate lunches I spent two minutes getting ahead.” Gheen also suggests anytime you have a food product that will keep a little longer; such as baked pasta, chili, or soup, make a large batch, pack into meal ready portions, freeze some and put others in the fridge for later that week.
- Be creative with the foods you’ve already made. Let’s be honest, we’re spoiled with a variety of food options. The need for something different all the time never dissipates, but few have the time and creativity to prepare a different kind of lunch and dinner every day. The trick is finding a middle ground with how you repurpose your meals. “As a chef, I detest eating the same food in more than one meal,” Gheen says. “Whenever possible you’ve got to think ‘what else can I do with the same food product I made once’ and turn into two, three, even four different meals in different forms. Leftover rice from dinner, for example, could be made into cream-of-rice cereal for breakfast the next morning, and mixed into a soup for lunch, and then into fried-rice for dinner.”
- Know your variables. One of the most frustrating aspects about cooking is following a recipe verbatim and getting terrible results.“I always tell my students that just because someone wrote a recipe, doesn’t mean that when you execute that recipe you are using the same ingredients, same kitchen equipment, or cooking in the same way,” Gheen says. “There are so many variables that you just can’t follow a recipe verbatim. You have to cook with all of your senses.” A couple of tips:
• There is generally about a 20-degree swing in temperature for different ovens, which can create very different results. Get an extra oven thermometer so you know for sure what temperature your oven is at. You need to watch and test to bake perfectly, don’t just set a timer and expect the product to be done.
• Taste as you go. It’s easy to follow a recipe, but how it tastes to you and how it tastes to someone else is different. Tasting allows you to season to your liking.
• Pallets. Everyone’s capacity to taste (sweet, sour, salty, bitter and unami) is a bit different. When cooking for those you don’t know, be mindful of differences in pallets, and use neutral flavor combinations. Also, don’t be offended if someone reaches for the salt!
- Salt isn’t always the solution. When cooking, if something tastes off or if it seems like something is missing, we automatically reach for the salt “The idea that salt will add more flavor is a common fallacy,” Gheen says. “What salt does is bring the flavors that are already there together and helps them taste harmonious. It marries all the tastes together in a way that seems richer or adds more depth.” Ultimately, salt won’t add more of whatever your recipe is missing. “Sometimes a dish may need to be more sweet or more savory, or it may even be too sweet and need acidity.” Gheen says. “When tasting you have to resist the urge to reach for salt. Be aware of all five tastes and identify which one is lacking or out of balance."
As National Nutrition Awareness month comes to an end, take this opportunity to continue growing your cooking skills and make healthy choices. To learn more nutrition tips or try out quick, wholesome meals, check out Chef Cory Gheen’s recipes on the Loma Linda University School of Allied Health Professions online cooking show “Live It: In the Kitchen.”