Does Healthy Cooking have to be Complicated?

By , SparkPeople Blogger
As my kids get older, I find myself focusing even more on meal planning.  I want my kids to try a wide variety of foods.  I don’t expect them to like everything I cook, but I want home cooked, healthy meals to be second-nature to them.  Growing up, my mom was (and still is) a great cook.  She was always trying new recipes, and now I’ve become just like her.  My husband commented the other day that “you never know what we’re going to be having for dinner” because I’m constantly mixing things up.  Granted, I’m just like my mom in that I don’t deviate from recipes.  Someday I’d love to learn to really cook, where I can throw together a bunch of random ingredients in my refrigerator to create a delicious meal.    But I’m not at that point yet.
I try to choose recipes based on a number of factors:  the number of ingredients involved (if there are a bunch of items I’d have to get at the store or I’ve never heard of some of them, I’ll probably stay away from that one), time to prepare (with little kids it’s got to be something I can put together quickly), how healthy it is (I stay away from dishes with lots of creamy sauce, fried foods, etc.) and whether or not I think my kids will actually eat it.  I try to plan my meals a week at a time, and then grocery shop for the ingredients all at once.  It’s quite a production to get all three of my kids in and out of car seats and walking around a grocery store, so I don’t want to have to do all of that just to pick up some spices for tonight’s dinner.
Recently I read a review of a new book called “An Everlasting Meal:  Cooking with Economy and Grace” by Tamar Adler.  Her premise is that cooking does not have to be complicated, and with a few basics (like a pot of boiling water, some fresh vegetables and a chicken) you can create good food.    She encourages people to spend less time stressing out about how to cook food, and more time enjoying it.  For instance, she suggests buying a large amount of fresh vegetables that are in season, preparing them all at once, and then using those as ingredients in dishes throughout the week.   This helps avoid wasting vegetables that turn brown in your refrigerator before you have a chance to use them.   She suggests that cooking shows on T.V. are one example of how the average person has been intimidated into thinking that cooking has to be complicated. 
I like the idea that cooking can be simple.  My preference at this point is to choose simple recipes instead of trying to create dishes from scratch.  But either way, I’m still creating healthy meals for my family to enjoy. 
Are you interested in learning to cook healthy dishes without spending all day in the kitchen?  Check out SparkPeople’s Healthy Cooking Challenge, 10 Easy Ways to Lighten Up Any Recipe, and SparkRecipes, where you can search for recipes based on a variety of factors, including preparation time.  
Do you cook a lot at home?  Why or why not?  Do you have any tips for those just starting out? 

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RYCGIRL 10/17/2020
thx Report
ELRIDDICK 10/7/2020
Thanks for sharing Report
DEE107 9/7/2020
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MUSICNUT 11/28/2019
Thanks for the great article! :) Report
Grandma could cook up a storm. She would be breathing hard but see through everything. Report
I love to make recipes that have a few ingredients and easy to make. Report
I too prefer simpler dishes, although now retired there are days when I'm in the mood to make something more complicated that I can also have for leftovers. Report
Absolutely great Report
I enjoy simple and uncomplicated Report
healthy cooking is just as easy to do as unhealthy cooking. it is the ingredients that make it good or bad Report
I learned to cook from my Mom... who seemed incapable of sticking to a recipe... she had to give it her own twist. She has passed that on to me, and my nieces. LOL. I can remember growing up that we might the same leftovers for three days in a row but every meal was different. But it was almost never complicated. Just a simple addition of fresh herbs or vegetables, and it was something new and different. Report
I like using the BBC Good Food series of little cookbooks. They are quite straight forward and only tend to have a handful of ingredients in each recipe. BBC Easy Cook magazine is also good for quick and easy weekday recipes. Healthy cooking can be very straightforward, if you have fresh meat and vegetables and a few things in the storecupboard. Report
I learned to cook at age 8, the Girl Scout "Cook" badge was the first badge I ever earned. Today I still make most of our meals. My one tip is to feel free to substitute, whenever it makes sense. Unlike baking, which really is applied chemistry, cooking is very forgiving. You don't have parsnips? substitute carrots. You don't like kale? substitute spinach. I make what I call "Refrigerator Soup". I dump all the dribs and drabs of leftovers in a pot, add some canned beans and herbs and I have a delightful soup. Herbs can be intimidating, but it really comes down to what you like. Try different combinations and see what appeals to you and your family. Also, our tastes change over time. So something that didn't work a couple of years ago, might work now. Finally, sometimes we just think we don't like something, so introduce the "banned" food in a different recipe or different form (diced instead of slices, cooked instead of raw), but don't make a big deal about it. I've found that my picky husband will eat things that he doesn't like, if they are disguised. Report
Congratulations - you've hit on the secret that the big food companies and the celebrity chefs are trying to keep from you: cooking is easy! Learn a few simple tricks (like how to cut up a chicken) and you'll not only make healthier meals, you'll save money, tons of it, without ever using a single coupon. We cook 6-7 nights a week and pack lunches daily - it takes only a little skill/practice and a little planning. If we would spend 1/2 the time in the kitchen that we spend watching tv/playing video games/social networking, we could all do this! Report
I used to eat out a lot... now 90% of my meals are homemade. I pack my lunch and have dinner home on most days! I save more ... and savor the food more! Report
The number one thing you need when you are cooking is faith in yourself.

A recipe is exactly like an equation in Algebra or a step in a chemical experiment. The best thing is, you can do ALMOST anything and nothing will blow up in your face!

For someone just starting out, make sure you have all of the ingredients, prep them and put them into small bowls and simply go from one step to another. I managed restaurants for 20+ years, and when I was training a new cook, I had each step written large on a 8.5 x 11.5 piece of copy paper and posted it where he or she could easily see it (I used 36 or 48 point type). At the end of the step, I had a picture of what it should look like.

The more you practice cooking, the more you will start to get a feel for what three ounces of this is compared to three ounces of that. For instance, three ounces of lettuce looks massive compared to three ounces of beef.

If something calls for a pinch of this or a dash of that, don't worry about the size of your thumb and forefinger. A dash is just enough so if you were a magician and threw it into a fire, you would momentarily get a flash of green flame.

If you are making something with an ingredient you can't stand, try this experiment:
Slice a yellow onion, then taste it - keep that taste in your mind. Take a small pan, spray well with cooking spray and cooked the remaining onion over a medium heat until the onion starts to look clear, and browning. Remove the onion, let cool, and taste. You'll have a totally different, sweet tasting onion.

If you are still concerned, ask a friend if they've made the dish. They will tell you their opinion. If you try a recipe from Spark, read the comments.

Those people who added or subtracted or substituted ingredients - ignore. Read what the people who followed the recipe say. Remember, if you substitute Cole-slaw for onion, whatever you're cooking will taste totally different than the recipe.

I've been cooking for over 45 years. What started me was I found out if I ate out every night, my need for nutrition outran my finances.

My mom cooked American meals that were outstanding and mu god-mother cooked Sicilian dishes that were out of this world. I learned how to prepare some other dishes by asking girlfriends for copies of their recipes.

Back in the dark ages, chefs were generally considered the only men who would not burn boiling water. When I wanted to make a BIG impression on a lady friend, I'd have another couple over and I'd fix Beef Stroganoff. It is a recipe with a secret ingredient that I haven't shared with anyone but my DW (she was really impressed I could do more than grill), my oldest son's wife and my youngest son (I didn't give the recipe because she gave off strange vibes and I didn't trust her, I'm glad I didn't). EVERYONE who we've made it for tells me it is THE Best they've ever tasted.

I give it to them, but at the bottom of the ingredient list are the words:
We eat most of our meals at home so our fridge is usually stocked pretty well with fresh ingredients and our pantry with a variety of spices. When we do go out to eat it is very difficult to find a restaurant that beats the quality of what you get at home. I would recommend that a beginner cook would find it helpful to purchase a basic cookbook that explains how to do each recipe and provides pictures of the finished product. We rarely have processed food in our home. Report
I used to hate cooking, but since trying to eat healthy, I've found I like cooking, as long as it's simple and delicious. Thanks for a great blog!

I love cooking healthy meals. Those cooking shows mentioned help to inspire my son to try cooking. One chef on a cooking show we watched mentioned that cooking shows are for entertainment, not to teach cooking. Since my son started sharing the cooking, we removed 95% of prepared, boxed meals from our menu. Instead of using Hamburger Helper Beef Stroganoff, we made our own and it tasted better than the premixed.

I also love They have a nice ingredient search engine that allows one to key in items than want to use or want to avoid to search for recipes. The issues I have with SparkRecipes is the intense focus on low calorie, low fat, and substitutes. I have no health restrictions and am not dieting. I would find SparkRecipes more helpful if I knew how to unconvert them. Report
We almost always cook at home as we love our fresh veggies. I also like trying new recipes when possible and preparing food on the weekend to eat during the week. My tip for beginners? Get a cookbook, preferably one with pictures (like the SparkPeople Cookbook), leaf through it, pick a dish to make, and dive in! Report
I hate to cook. Report
I have found healthy cooking a necessity for a healthy lifestyle and it got easier and easier with each week. I constantly read (still finding ways to be honest) new ways to cook better. Report

I cook for myself and my partner and her son even though we do not share a house. To not cook from scratch is to not enjoy food. Shared food is one of the most complete ways to bond. Not cooling from scratch dooms you to an over budget grocery budget and a mediocre tasteless diet. You can cook from scratch in a thirty minute time frame. Check that convience food it may take the same if not more time than fixing the same from ingredients. Report
I do not have little kids, but working 40 hours, an on-call job, being married, and working on my health, I too look for simple healthier recipes for the most part. I find I am enjoying cooking more as I find recipes that pique my taste buds.
For people just starting to make homemade food, I would say keep some basic protein that you like in the house. Also, some basic herbs/spices such as garlic, onion, thyme, oregano, paprika. Even a dash of some dried parsley can add a special touch to a dish. Report
It has to be simple to fit it in with everything else that a Mom has to do! Good for you to keep trying! It's hard to add something new when that means giving it your undivided attention :) I would love to add something new to the mix but haven't found anything that is a crowd pleaser yet.....except baked fish...why??? Who knows... Report
Not sure what your dish is missing? Get a taste then hit your spice rack, sniffing until you find what works. And don't forget condiments. A small squeeze of mustard or splash of vinegar can sometimes and a wonderful dimension of flavor. Report
The one I made tonight is a staple in our house. It's on sparkrecipes. Easy chicken and wild rice. I do use the cream of chicken and water that is suggested in the notes. Takes 3 things from store, 5 min to put together, 45 min to.bake.
Check out and search the healthy, or made over meals. I like they are usually easy, quick, and come with nutritional info. Report
I'm a pretty good cook...perhaps a little too good. I love to cook. I can just open the fridge and whip something up. But I did not learn to cook in a healthy way. So although I love to use spices I also love to use butter and oil and bacon :-). Unfortunately my healthy cooking repertoire is pretty non-existent. So when I open the fridge to whip up something healthy, I end up coming out with something simple and not always satisfying. But I'm working on it. Report
When I was very young, we lived in an extended household with my grandmother and grandfather, my aunt and uncle, and of course, my parents and myself. Everyone was a great cook and everyone had one thing they truly excelled at. I never formally learned how to cook from any of them but when I moved out on my own, I had clearly paid attention to flavor because I was able to cook certain things from scent memory. I routinely create meals that I throw together from whatever I happen to have lying around the house. The trick to keeping them healthy is to always have healthy ingredients on hand and to keep both your pantry (non-perishable food items) and refrigerator (fresh food items) stocked. Report
A lot of my recipes are from my mom, & I think sometimes my throw-together-ingredients-meals are influenced by her, too. My dad had a very physical job, & he could put away 2 plates by the time I finished with one, & so I also cook in quantity, but then we'd all rather have fresh than frozen meals, so if it's more than dinner & next day's lunch, it's wasted. Both of my parents came from farm backgrounds, & so it seems like many of our meals were full of carbs & heavy. Meat & potatoes & breads. I'm trying to get away from that for the sake of my kids, but I do need fast & easy recipes with simple ingredients, & so far, I haven't found many honestly tasty ones that are also healthy. Report
I share the sentiments of the author. I cook weekly, but sometimes I get tired of it. Thankfully I usually cook too much for a week and have some stuff in the freezer that I can go to for those times. My only tips is just do it. As all things, it gets easier with time. Be patient and don't get discouraged if a recipe doesn't turn out perfectly. Report