Today I’m going to talk about how you can cook and eat healthier using 3 tips to make cooking proteins and starches more automatic, easy and fun. This is Part 2 of this series, Part 1 was about prepping vegetables. Here’s a quick summary of Part 1.
Optimized Meal Planning Part 1: Prepare vegetables ahead of time
Prep (wash, trim, cut) the veggies for multiple meals – so you can just grab and cook at each meal
Mix and match from the different containers of veggies to allow for a variety of nutrients, colour, flavours and to suit your mood!
Use visual cues around the kitchen and in the fridge so healthy foods are more visible and easier to use.
Environment matters more than motivation. I invite you to watch “Optimized Meal Planning Part 1” for specific tips.
I grew up being a competitive athlete and eating unprocessed, home cooked meals. But in my teens and early 20s I was overweight. Being 35 pounds heavier than I am now, I was “heavy set” and “big-boned” despite following what appeared to be a healthy lifestyle. On my health journey, the changes I made to eating, had the biggest impact on my weight and health. My objective is to provide you with the practical tools you need to make healthy eating more automatic, easier and more satisfying to do.
Goals With vegetables, we’re often wanting to eat more volume and more variety. In contrast, our goals around proteins and starches may include: eating quality proteins (like wild-caught fish, grass-fed beef), higher fiber starches and consistently eating healthy portions. Of course we want to accomplish this with minimal time and effort and less cost and waste.
Challenges I don’t have any special cooking training or skills so trying to include variety in every meal (multiple veggies, proteins, starches) can feel overwhelming. I find it helpful to cook large batches of soups, stews or chili (or buy premade options) and freeze for later. But this strategy doesn’t work well for some foods like stir fry, some roasted veggies or baked meats with crispy skin. Most days I prefer to eat things that are cooked fresh.
Another challenge is wanting a couple chicken thighs to cook a quick stir fry but finding out that the 12 pack of chicken thighs have frozen into a solid brick. Thawing the whole pack takes so much more time and effort that I’m inclined to avoid using the chicken and might even give up on cooking the meal altogether.
Lastly, meat and fish tend to be the most expensive parts of our groceries, so we don’t want to eat more than we need and we don’t want any to go to waste. So how do we store and prepare these foods to address all these challenges?
Author of Atomic Habits, James Clear says “If you want better results, forget about goals; focus on systems instead.” Once we know our goals, our job is to design our environment to support these goals. Based on his Laws of Habits, here are three tips to design our kitchen for healthy eating and simpler cooking.
Make It Obvious Make the healthy choice, the most obvious one. Our actions are often driven by what’s the most obvious option. What we see matters! Grocery stores are strategically set up with this in mind. “Eye level is buy level”- higher priced or highest margin items are placed where we’re most likely to look. This is probably why ⅔ of what we buy in supermarkets, we had no intention of buying when we walked into the store! We can use this knowledge in a positive way too.
Keep it in the most accessible spaces
If you want to eat more fish, keep it in the most visible/accessible spot in the freezer
If you want to eat proteins at each meal, keep peeled boiled eggs, beans or cooked chicken in the fridge (in clear containers)
Store foods with portions in mind
Cut fish into individual servings before freezing
Freeze starches in individual portions (for example 1 cup portions)
Precooked starches like quinoa, rice, pasta, kept in the fridge – Keep a measuring cup (ie. ½ cup scoop) in the same container for convenience and so you’re aware of portion size
Prepare some non-starch “bases” of meals, for example cauliflower and cookable greens (that can be mixed with quinoa or pasta to increase the fiber)
Make It Easy Reduce the friction between you and the healthy option so future (healthy) actions are easier to do. We have to make a lot of decisions everyday and with every meal! Difficulty choosing healthy options is rarely due to lack of motivation, it’s more often due to a lack of clarity. Meal planning helps bring clarity and makes it easier to choose healthy foods.
Freeze in smaller portions, individual pieces and in a thin layer when possible
Freeze bacon slices individually or in pairs so you can remove just the number of slices you need – even if you use all of it, the cooking process is much faster if the slices can be separated while frozen
Freeze ground meat in a thin layer so it thaws quickly when needed
Freeze pieces of chicken separately so you can take only the pieces you need
Label the frozen foods or organize the freezer in different sections for different categories of foods for example, meats, fish, starches, premade dishes
Have some prepared meals in the freezer ie. soups, stews, chili
Make It Appealing Healthy cooking needs to be attractive, satisfying and fun.
Have a few seasonings you like handy: spice rubs, herbs, marinades, dressing, sauces so you can easily make things delicious and so you can be creative too.
Food is social, share photos of your meals and celebrate with friends and family what you’re making and swap recipes. Experiment and find out what you like and dislike.
You don’t need special equipment for meal planning but look for things that can make the experience more satisfying and support your healthy habits. For example, buy convenient glass storage containers so you can see the food in the fridge easier; buy a sharp sturdy German chef’s knife or a beautiful bamboo cutting board to make trimming and cutting foods easier and more pleasant an experience
Remember “The best is the enemy of the good” (Voltaire). It’s repetition, not perfection, that leads to healthy habits. It’s my hope that you can add one or two things from today to make healthy cooking more automatic, easier and more satisfying. And don’t forget to celebrate the progress along the way.