Cooking at Home: Meal Preparation Tips
Americans are spending more money eating away from home than ever before. In fact, Americans now spend just about half of their food dollars at restaurants, up from only 25% in 1955, according to the National Restaurant Association. But research has shown that eating out frequently, particularly fast food, is associated with a number of health issues, including obesity, insulin resistance, and increased risk for cardiovascular disease. As a result, many people have become more health conscious with their food selections and are even considering a return to home cooking.
Many people find the transition from eating out to cooking at home challenging for one big reason—time constraints. If you are working two jobs or have an on-the-run lifestyle, you may think that you will not have the time or energy to cook a meal at the end of the day or to prepare food for the week. However, by learning a few cooking tips and tricks, you can turn a multihour cooking ordeal into a quick meal that will enhance both your health and wallet.
Certain tasks can significantly lengthen or shorten the time you are in the kitchen. This handout focuses on food preparation and will provide a number of methods, substitutions, and low-cost options that you can use to make quick, tasty, and healthy meals at home.
Learn to use a good, sharp chef’s knife
A typical chef’s knife is about 8″ long, has a curved blade that can rock back and forth on a cutting board, and becomes wider as it approaches the handle. This type of knife can handle most food preparation needs, from slicing vegetables to mincing garlic. By keeping the knife sharp, you will ensure that you do not have to waste time making the same slice twice, such as peppers or onions that never fully separate when you cut them.
With the right knife, mincing garlic or ginger becomes a snap. Place the garlic or ginger under the wide end of the knife while it is resting on the cutting board. Then press down on the knife directly above the garlic until you feel it crush under you. Try not to bend the blade while doing this—just press firmly, straight down. Then you can rock your knife back and forth over the crushed garlic a few times until it becomes minced. This process takes about 30 seconds!
Consider using a mandoline (not the instrument)
If you chop large quantities of fruits and vegetables, a mandoline can quickly slice or julienne many vegetables in a matter of minutes. A mandoline is composed of a plastic or metal rectangular piece embedded with a sharp blade, costing around $30-$50. You repeatedly slide the vegetable across the blade to create uniform slices that a knife cannot match.
You must use caution when using a mandoline because the sharp blade can cause injury. Most home versions contain a hand guard that you attach the fruit or vegetable, so your hand does not get near the blade.
Prepare and cook big batches
Most of the extra time spent cooking usually revolves around getting everything ready and cleaning up, not cutting up an extra piece of chicken or carrot. So try making a large batch of a recipe that you like, so you can eat it a few times that week for lunch or dinner. Preparation only takes a few extra minutes, and you will save tons of time later in the week when you are busy or hungry.
If it takes you 1 hour to make a four-serving batch of chili or stir-fry, you will get four meals that week at an average time of 15 minutes/meal.
Think about tomorrow
If you are cutting up fresh fruits or vegetables tonight, consider preparing some extra now and placing it in a plastic container for tomorrow. For example, if you cut up half a cantaloupe, you can bring some leftover melon to work the next day or have it around the house the next evening when you are in the mood for something sweet and healthy!
Wash your produce the quick way
Salad spinners and colanders are your best friends for washing produce. Salad spinners and colanders allow you to wash and drain off your fruits and vegetables very quickly. A good salad spinner costs about $20-$30 and can dry your greens in seconds. A colander, often used for draining pasta, allows water to flow through the bottom, rather than a regular bowl that just holds the water. A colander helps you quickly rinse away any residues or dirt that that is on your produce.
Think about paying a little extra for convenience
When choosing whether to purchase a prepared or prepackaged item, you need to weigh the additional cost of the item vs the time saved. For example, paying $3 for $.50 worth of chopped peppers and onions maybe is not worth the 1 minute you will save chopping. However, you may find value in paying an extra $1 or $2 to buy a big bag of prewashed and cut lettuce, which allows you to make a salad in half the time.
References and recommended readings
CBS News, Business. Americans eating out less: restaurant traffic has fallen for two straight years, according to market research firm. Available at: http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2010/09/14/business/main6865857.shtml. Accessed October 14, 2010.
National Restaurant Association. 2010 restaurant industry pocket factbook. Available at: http://www.restaurant.org/pdfs/research/2010Forecast_PFB.pdf. Accessed October 13, 2010.
Pereira MA, Kartashov AI, Ebberling CB, et al. Fast-food habits, weight gain, and insulin resistance (the CARDIA study): 15-year prospective analysis. Lancet [serial online]. 2005;365:36-42. Available at: http://minority-health.pitt.edu/archive/00000470/01/Fast-food_Habits,_Weight_Gain,_and_Insulin_Resistance.pdf. Accessed October 13,2010.
Contributed by Jason Machowsky, MS, RD ACSM-cPT
Review Date 11/10