“Let food be thy medicine, thy medicine shall be thy food.” – Hippocrates
“Abs are made in the kitchen.”
“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are.” – Brillat-Savarin
Good health starts with cooking your own food. It’s near impossible to achieve lasting health, weight, and strength building goals without a little blood sweat and tears in the kitchen (unless you are one of the lucky few who can pay someone to cook for you, and that’s not many of us).
I smile every New Year, as the number one resolution on everyone’s list is to improve their health in some way – eating better, exercising more, smoking and drinking less, etc. Each New Year, we pick out a diet plan that seems to fit our lifestyle, and we go for it whole hog starting January 1. Most people last a few weeks, but the majority of us seem to lose our dedication by the end of the month. Life is just too hectic to stick to a strict plan, a plan that most likely involves more time spent in the kitchen preparing healthy food.
Even without starting a new healthy eating plan, most of us know that to be healthy, we need to eat more fruits and vegetables and eat less sugar, bad fats, and refined and processed foods. But what we don’t always know how to do is COOK those healthy fruits and veggies, good fats, and healthy meats into fabulous meals three times a day. Rather than a new diet plan, what most of us really need is to a) come to the realization that we need to cook for ourselves most of the time and then b) find a strategy to do it while the rest of our life is going on.
Here’s the deal – life will ALWAYS be hectic, everyone is busy and no one wants to spend extra time in the kitchen (unless you are one of those who find it a creative and therapeutic outlet). The bottom line is that it is near impossible to achieve your health goals without cooking your own food. There is simply no other failsafe way to control what goes in your body.
I think it’s interesting how much time we all spend taking care of our exterior bodies – workouts, manicures, pedicures, facials, wraps, eyelashes, hair color, hair cuts, veins zapped, hair removed, botox, injections, and the list goes on. Why don’t we have the same awareness and desire to take care of the inside of our bodies? After all isn’t that what our bodies use for fuel, rebuilding, and repairing, eventually reflected in our outward appearance and also how our bodies function – our energy level, ability to focus, mood stabilization, sleep quality, etc.
While eating fast food and restaurant food might taste good and be convenient, it typically adds excess salt, seasonings, sugar, and unhealthy fats to your diet that you cannot control. And all those packaged convenience foods are also a substandard choice, as the ingredients are not fresh and usually include more salt, sugar, additives, colorings, and preservatives that are not present in a home cooked meal. Even the packages labeled “all natural” or “organic” are a step in the right direction but still include a healthier form of additives, sugar, salt, and still lack the nutrients in fresh food.
Your best bet to improve your overall health for the long term is to start cooking at home. In fact, if you choose one thing to do for yourself to be healthier, let it be preparing your own fresh food. If you are new to cooking or in general just really don’t like it, here are 10 tips that got me started:
1. Be prepared. Set aside time each week to grocery shop. Stock your fridge with fresh fruits, veggies, eggs, and meats, and line your pantry shelves with spices, condiments, oils, and healthy staples like canned coconut milk, canned pumpkin, and frozen berries. I find I do best when I plan to grocery shop at the same time each week. It becomes built into my weekly routine, and I always have healthy food ready to make into meals.
2. Make cooking a priority. Schedule time each day to prepare your meals. Your life will always be busy. Your life will always be hectic. You will always be going through something difficult or distracting. So do not use that as an excuse. In fact, when we are the busiest or having the most difficult time with life is when we need to feed our bodies with the best quality food. It is at those times that we especially need nutrients, so we can stay healthy and strong physically and emotionally.
3. Keep a clean kitchen. Remove the clutter from your counters, and wipe them down morning and night. A clean, uncluttered environment not only gives you the space you need, but it also creates a place of calm and order, which is inviting for cooking.
4. Buy high quality, fresh foods to use in your cooking. Why spend the time in the kitchen if you’re going to cook with a bunch of packages and poor quality ingredients. If you’re looking for shortcuts, buy pre-chopped fruits and veggies in the produce section. Check out the spice section for familiar spice blends to use like curry, chile powder, taco seasoning, Cajun seasoning, etc. Condiments like infused vinegars, mustards, and coconut aminos are an excellent way to make your healthy food taste good. Just remember to look at the label and choose pure spices and condiments without additives.
5. Keep it simple. To begin with, choose recipes with few ingredients and fewer steps that include plenty of vegetables and a little meat and healthy fat. I love easy one-pot meals that combine veggies, a healthy meat, a little healthy fat, and lots of spices to make the meal taste good. If you don’t own a slow cooker or a steamer, invest in one. I use mine daily. I also have super sharp knives so I can prep produce efficiently.
6. Give yourself the freedom to be creative with your meals and the permission to fail. You don’t always have to rely on a recipe with numerous steps. Some of your originals will turn into family favorites while others will not. But taking the pressure off yourself to serve gourmet masterpieces every meal will increase your confidence and enjoyment in the process.
7. Record your favorite recipes as you go. Slowly build weekly meal plans with grocery lists of all the recipes that are hits with your family.
8. Cook in bulk, doubling a recipe so you can eat the leftovers throughout the week or freeze them for next week. I love to look in my fridge and see all the containers of fresh home-cooked food.
9. Have a positive attitude in the kitchen. Be thankful for your food, your kitchen in which to prepare it, and your loved ones with whom you share it. Just like everything else in life, your attitude in approaching it greatly impacts how much you enjoy the experience.
10. Create an atmosphere in the kitchen that inspires you. If you are one who isn’t fond of cooking, make the experience enjoyable. If you are one who has worked all day and just wants to relax, make the experience relaxing. Turn on music, light candles or adjust the lighting, focus on your breathing, use the time to be quiet and think, make yourself a pretty drink in a pretty glass. It doesn’t always have to be wine or a cocktail. My favorite is sparkling water with a couple of raspberries and lime in a stemmed glass. Or use your cooking time to catch up with your loved ones. Get your kids or your spouse in the kitchen with you to help or even just to visit. Put your phone on speaker and catch up with a friend while you prepare your food. Whatever makes the experience a good one for you and helps meet your needs at that moment – do it.
This spaghetti squash with sausage, Brussels sprouts, and apples is one example of a simple meal that I came up with using a variety of fruits, veggies, spices, and a healthy meat option. It has been a repeat meal at our house many times this winter.
Spaghetti squash is a delicious and nutritious alternative to traditional pasta. Roasting a spaghetti squash is almost as easy as baking a potato. Almost. To roast a spaghetti squash, I first need to soften the tough outer exterior by placing it in the oven while the oven is preheating to 400 degrees. Once the oven is preheated, I take out the squash and using a sharp knife, cut through the hard shell to halve the squash. Once cut in half, I scoop out the seeds, rub the insides of each half with a little olive oil, and place both halves cut side up on a parchment lined baking sheet. I roast the squash for about 45 minutes at 400 degrees. I make sure not to over-bake, so the squash doesn’t become mushy.
Next, I prepare the sausage, Brussels sprouts, and apples. I start by quartering the Brussels sprouts, and blanching them in boiling water for about two minutes.
I transfer the Brussels sprouts to an ice bath and let them sit while I chop the onion and apples.
I buy turkey or chicken breakfast sausage from the meat counter at Whole Foods. It’s fresh, and I trust that it is high quality meat. I brown the ground turkey sausage with the onion in a little coconut oil in a large sauté pan until it is no longer pink.
After the turkey sausage is no longer pink, I add the blanched Brussels sprouts and sauté over medium heat for about 7 minutes.
Next, I add the apples, sea salt, and thyme and sauté over medium heat for about 5 minutes more before lowering the heat to low.
It’s time to remove the spaghetti squash from the oven and fluff the squash “noodles” away from the shell using a fork. I place the squash “noodles” in a bowl and toss with a little olive oil and sea salt. Sometimes I add a little garlic or chile powder for additional flavor.
To serve, I layer the sausage, Brussels sprouts, and apples over the spaghetti squash on each plate. This recipe takes a bit longer and has a few more steps, so I choose a to make this one when I can look forward to spending some time in the kitchen.
- 1 spaghetti squash
- olive oil
- sea salt, to taste
- 1 pound breakfast sausage (I use chicken or turkey)
- 1 tablespoon coconut oil
- 1 bag Brussels sprouts, quartered
- ½ purple onion, cut into slivers
- 2 apples, cut into slivers
- ½ teaspoon sea salt
- 1 tablespoon thyme
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees, and place the whole spaghetti squash in the oven while it is preheating.
- After a few minutes, remove the spaghetti squash, cut it in half, and scoop out the seeds.
- Place cut side up on a parchment lined baking sheet, and rub a little olive oil over the inside of the squash.
- Bake for 45 minutes, and then fluff spaghetti squash "noodles" out of the shell with a fork.
- Transfer the "noodles" to a bowl, and toss them with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of sea salt to taste.
- Meanwhile, blanch the Brussels sprouts in boiling water for two minutes, and then transfer to an ice bath.
- In a large saute pan, brown the sausage and onion in the coconut oil until no longer pink.
- Add the Brussels sprouts, and saute for about 7 minutes.
- Add the apples, thyme, and sea salt, and saute for 5 minutes more.
- Divide the spaghetti squash onto 4 plates, and top each dish of squash with ¼ of the sausage, Brussels sprouts, and apples mixture.
When we first moved to Frisco, Texas from Snoqualmie, Washington, our kids were 1 ½ and 3 ½. We had a teeny tiny little backyard in our first house with not even one tree or shrub, no outdoor grill, pretty much nothing but a slab of concrete and a few chairs. But Rob and I would sit outside in the ridiculously hot summer evenings just watching our kids run around in circles. Because we could. It was our summer to “thaw” and enjoy being outside with no jackets, no goose bumps, no chance of rain. I don’t think we complained about the heat once that summer because we were so happy to have the sunshine. Now we did make a pretty big trade off for that sunshine; we lost the mountains and water and evergreen trees and crisp clean air of the Northwest. Texas is home now and I love it, but I hop on a plane and travel to a beautiful part of the world any chance I get.
Moving into our second home here, we now have a pool and an outdoor grill, so we spend many summer nights outside together as a family. This routine provides such a good way to wind down and relax at the end of the day. As my kids get older and their sports and social lives expand, we have fewer and fewer nights when all four of us are at home together, so we have to make more of an effort to plan family time.
Typically, our nights at home are the most relaxing time of my week. This weekend, however, I had a hard time winding down. It occurred to me that it’s because school has now started and with school comes a higher level of stress. Gone are the lazy days of summer and back are the worries of being a middle school parent…homework, grades, social circles, social media, sports team tryouts, service opportunities, a faster pace of life…it’s all resuming, and I could feel my body revving up in response.
I make it a priority to take good care of my body with food and exercise, so I can live my life feeling good, but what about stress? Am I making it a priority to keep it in check? Stress can sabotage all of my good intentions and efforts to keep my body healthy. In particular, there’s this important little hormone called cortisol – our fight or flight hormone – that can get stuck in the permanent “on” or high state. While cortisol at a normal level helps us meet the challenges of every day, too much of a good things isn’t so good. High cortisol levels trigger our bodies to always be in a state of emergency. Our bodies then do anything and everything to turn on the life saving strategies, going into survival mode. Adrenal levels are elevated, metabolism slows and we store extra weight around the middle, sleep is difficult to come by, and we feel stressed out and anxious all of the time.
A few cortisol lowering tips I will be incorporating into my life as school is back in full swing and I feel my stress level rising…
- Pray, pray, pray, pray, pray, pray. No peace is like the Lord’s. I am on my knees daily asking for it.
- Write down everything that is on your mind in your journal. In your head, picture placing each of those worries on a tray and handing them over to God. Then let it go and trust. Someone in college gave me that tip, and I’ve been doing it ever since.
- Take time out to breathe. Slow and deep breathing works wonders to reduce anxiety and stress in the body. I breathe in for a count of 7, hold for a count of 4, and breathe out for a count of 8 and repeat it several times.
- Spend time with people you love and those who make you laugh. For me, this is my family. They are my favorite people in the world.
- Watch your caffeine intake as it stimulates your adrenal glands as well.
- Drink water. Lots of it. Pure, clean water. Even slight dehydration is stressful on your body.
- Watch your sugar intake and focus on those low glycemic foods to keep your blood sugar stable. High blood sugar is super stressful on your body.
- Increase your omega 3 fatty acids (fish, walnuts, flax seeds, etc.), as they lower cortisol levels and reduce inflammation in your body.
- Give yourself permission to take a time out, and do something that relaxes you. I like to read, listen to music, or take a hot bath.
Another reason our family nights spent in our backyard help me relax is that my husband does the cooking. He’s come a long way with his grilling skills – we’ve traded those hockey puck hard burgers for fall-apart-in-your mouth grilled salmon. His latest favorite to make is these jerk chicken and mango skewers. Jerk is a spice rub or marinade from Jamaica that actually originated in Africa and is known for being spicy hot with a little bit of sweetness.
To make the skewers, Rob started with one pound of pasture raised chicken breasts.
He cut them into cubes the right size to thread on a skewer.
To make the jerk chicken marinade, he chopped a purple onion and minced two cloves of garlic. In a medium sized bowl, he combined the onion and garlic along with the juice of 4 limes, tamari, maple syrup, olive oil, and lots of spices: sea salt, black pepper, cayenne, chili powder, allspice, thyme, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Freshly grated nutmeg is the best.
He submerged the chicken cubes in the jerk sauce and marinated them in the refrigerator for at least two hours.
We cut chunks of mango, red bell pepper, and purple onion to add to the skewers. He alternated threading the mango, red bell pepper, onion, and marinated chicken cubes onto eight skewers.
He grilled them for about 6 minutes, flipped them over, and grilled them for 6 minutes more.
For a side, one idea is to “rice” a head of cauliflower in a food processor. Heat the remaining jerk sauce in a medium sauce pan and let it simmer for a few minutes. Then add the “riced” cauliflower to the sauce pan and cook for a few minutes more. Serve the skewers with the cauliflower “rice”.
- 1 pound pasture raised chicken breasts
- 3 mangos
- 1 red bell pepper
- 1 purple onion
- ½ purple onion, diced
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- ½ - 1 teaspoon cayenne, to taste
- 1 teaspoon chili powder
- juice of 4 limes
- 1 tablespoon tamari
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 tablespoon maple syrup
- ¾ teaspoon sea salt
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- ½ tablespoon thyme
- 1 teaspoon allspice
- ¼ teaspoon cinnamon
- ¼ teaspoon nutmeg (freshly grated is best)
- Cut chicken breasts into cubes and set aside.
- In a medium bowl, combine diced onion, minced garlic, and the remaining ingredients to make a jerk marinade.
- Marinate the chicken breast cubes in the jerk marinade in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours.
- Cut mango, red bell pepper, and purple onion into chunks.
- Alternate threading the mango, red bell pepper, purple onion, and chicken cubes onto 8 skewers.
- Grill over medium heat for 6 minutes. Flip, and grill for 6 minutes more.
When on a recent trip to California, I enjoyed a delicious appetizer similar to these smoked salmon cucumbers. Once back home, I came up with this version starring the omega-3 superstar, smoked salmon. Salmon is loaded with essential (meaning our bodies can’t create them on their own but they are vital to our bodies) omega-3s, which boast anti-inflammatory benefits in addition to promoting brain and heart health. I buy my protein packed wild Alaskan smoked salmon at Whole Foods or www.vitalchoice.com.
- 1 sliced cucumber
- 2 tablespoons plain Greek yogurt
- 4 ounces wild Alaskan smoked salmon
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives
- Lay out each slice of cucumber on a serving tray.
- Spread a tiny amount of plain Greek yogurt on each slice. Be careful not to put too much, as the yogurt can overpower the other flavors.
- Cut the salmon into 1 inch squares, and lay each square on top of the yogurt and cucumber.
- Sprinkle chopped chives on top of the salmon.
Just a few reasons to stock up on blackberries this season…they are one of the top 10 antioxidant foods, packed with vitamins C, A, E, and K, manganese, and of course heart disease preventing, detoxing, diabetes fighting FIBER. Blackberries can be more than a breakfast, snack, or dessert. Try them in this savory chicken dish…
Blackberry Balsamic Chicken
- 4 organic chicken breasts
- 1 cup fresh blackberries
- 2 tablespoons honey
- 1/4 cup blackberry or raspberry balsamic vinegar
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 2-3 cloves garlic
- 1 tablespoon fresh thyme (optional)
- 1/2 teaspoon Himalayan sea salt
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
- In a Magic Bullet, Vitamix, or other blender, blend together blackberries, honey, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, garlic, thyme, and sea salt.
- Place the chicken breasts a baking pan, and pour the blackberry mixture over the chicken breasts.
- Bake for 25 – 30 minutes uncovered or until chicken is cooked through.
- Option: marinate the chicken in the blackberry mixture for 2 hours, then grill.
The weather is getting warmer, and my body is desiring light, fresh tastes. This easy salmon dish fits the bill and gives my family a boost of much needed omega-3 essential fatty acids. I can’t say enough about this anti-inflammatory powerhouse. Most people are deficient, and wild Alaskan sockeye salmon is just about the best source for our bodies. My family eats salmon about three times a week ideally.
Chipotle Lime Salmon
- 2 salmon fillets
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- zest of 1 lime
- juice of 1 lime
- 2 cloves minced garlic
- 1/2 teaspoon ground chili chipotle
- 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
- lime wedges
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- Grease a baking pan with an oil mister or a little bit of the olive oil.
- Place the salmon fillets in the pan.
- In a small bowl, stir to combine the olive oil, zest and juice of lime, garlic, chipotle, and salt.
- Drizzle over the salmon fillets, and top with lime wedges.
- Bake for about 16-18 minutes.
Meatloaf is an easy meal that shouts comfort food and has so many memories attached, probably for everyone. When I am at a loss for what to have for dinner, this is an easy go-to dish for me, as everyone in my family likes it, and it’s great for leftovers as meatloaf sandwiches. Serving meatloaf is also a wonderful time to put to good use my lazy susan, as I pull out all kinds of condiments. Everyone in my family likes to add a little something different to theirs, and I think that is great. Even healthy food should be able to be enjoyed by all.
- 1 beaten egg
- 3/4 cup gluten-free rolled oats
- 1/4 cup almond or coconut milk
- 1/4 cup finely chopped onion
- 1/4 cup finely chopped celery, green pepper, or carrots
- 2 tablespoon Bragg’s Organic Sprinkle spice mix
- 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
- 1/4 teaspoon pepper
- 1 pound ground turkey
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
- In a large bowl, stir to combine egg, milk, onion, other vegetable, spice mix, salt, and pepper.
- Add the ground turkey, and using your hands, knead the ingredients together.
- Press the meat mixture into a loaf pan.
- Bake for 45 to 50 minutes or until cooked through.