Monday, January 31, 2011

Tips for Eating Healthy as a Family, or My Obsession with Cooking Light

Some of you might think I'm a bit psychotic after reading this post, and you might be right. But I imagine that some of you out there, like me, love to cook but find that it gets difficult to cook and eat healthy meals after a baby graces your household. Or maybe you don't have kids, don't cook but would like to start, or are looking for ways to get out of a rut of boring meals. If you fall into any of these categories, I may be able to help you out.

A few months before I got pregnant with my son, I visited an old high school friend and her 2 yr-old daughter. As we got to talking, she told me her current project was cooking her way through the Cooking Light cookbook, to make sure that her family was eating healthy but also to make sure that her daughter was exposed to all sorts of different foods. Watching her daughter eat couscous, baby spinach, pine nuts, and whatever else we ate that day, I was impressed and inspired. Even though my son wasn't even a glimmer in my eye yet, I decided right then and there that one of my goals in having children would be to raise an adventurous, healthy eater.

I went straight to and bought the same Cooking Light cookbook. (See the side panel.) I started trying out recipe after recipe from it, and about 99% of them were A.Maz.Ing. My husband started trying out new foods he never would have looked twice at before, and we both loved our new culinary adventures. We were hooked.

I bought a 2-yr subscription to the magazine and started frequenting the website. When the latest issue shows up in my mailbox, I feel like it's Christmas. I start tearing out recipes and putting them into a binder of things to make and review.

When my son was born, my cooking stopped completely for a few months. Between the c-section recovery and the sheer exhaustion, I didn't have it in me. But I love to cook and prepackaged foods just didn't taste the same anymore, so I decided I needed to just get back into it. I devised a system that appeases my anal, highly-organized self and keeps grocery costs and wasted food in check.

Tip #1: Create a menu for the week ahead.

Every week I create a menu for the following week's dinners using recipes I find from Cooking Light. I go through my binder or my cookbook and pull out the recipes I think I want to make. Then I go through them, looking for the fresh ingredients I know I don't have on-hand. Things like goat cheese, for example, are not something I keep in the fridge, so if I want to make a recipe that uses goat cheese, I try to find at least one other recipe that uses the same ingredient so that none of it goes to waste.

Tip #2: Build variety into the menu to keep from getting bored.

The majority of what we eat is chicken, but every week I also try to include a pasta dish, 1 or 2 red meat dishes, a vegetarian, and a fish if I find a new recipe that uses an item that is carried in my supermarket's seafood section. Usually, 4 or 5 of the dinners I make in a given week are brand new things to try. I find this gets me more excited to cook. At the end of the week, I write little notes on the recipe page of the ones that we enjoyed such as whether it was fast and easy, any suggestions for next time, etc. Those that we enjoy get added to the 3-ring sections of the binder, those we didn't get tossed in the garbage.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.....

Tip #3: Find a good source for recipes and use them to build your grocery list so you'll know you have everything on hand that you need for any given night.

When I have the recipes pulled that I want to make this week, I go through each one and look at the ingredients, preparation time, and compare these things to our family calendar. On a day that I know my husband is home, I can plan to make a meal that is a little more time and prep-intensive. The opposite is true on the days we have something going on in the evening or when he'll be working late. Recipes that use fresh ingredients that don't last long in the fridge (fresh pasta, special cuts of meat, etc) need to be made as soon after the grocery shopping trip as possible. So I figure all this out and line up the menu accordingly. I also try to consider leftovers - recipes for 6-8 servings will give my husband and I leftovers we can eat for lunch during the week, so I try to make the bigger meals between Sunday and Tuesday.

Tip #4: Make more than you need and refrigerate leftovers for daily lunches to keep food costs down and give you healthy and quick choices for lunch.

Tip #5: Organize your grocery list according to store layout to minimize shopping time and frustration.

For me, grocery shopping is one of the very few occasions where I get to leave the house baby-free for an hour or so. But even that isn't guaranteed, so I do my grocery list in such a way that it minimizes time in the store. On the backside of my menu, I write down headings for different sections: produce, deli, meats, dry goods, frozen, etc. I picture the grocery store in my head while I write the list so I can write things down in a way that makes them easy to remember and find.

I go back through my recipes one at a time, and add the items I need to the list under the appropriate heading, skipping the ingredients I know I have on hand. When I get to the store, I pretty much stick to just the list unless there's some really good sale on something, which keeps food costs under control.

Tip #6: Do prep work for meals when/if you have a chance during the day, or spend the extra money for pre-chopped vegetables and other prepared ingredients to save time.

On weekdays I try to get all my chopping and various prep work done during naptime, so that when it's time to start cooking I'm ready to go, with all my ingredients and utensils out on the counter waiting for me. Most nights, dinner is on the table by 6:30, occasionally as late as 7pm. But when it gets there, it's fresh, healthy, and 9 times out of 10, very tasty. I love Cooking Light because it doesn't use artificial ingredients like sweeteners or fake butter. It makes the most of fresh ingredients and spices and cuts out unnecessary fat, calories, and sodium. I've never thrown away a meal from Cooking Light because it tasted bad or gross - there are just always some that are better than others.

Tip #7: Don't be afraid to try new things. If you don't like it, you can always order pizza. After all, you ate healthy all week long!

So for those who are curious, here are the recipes on my menu this week, with links. They are all new recipes for us this time:

Chicken w/ Sage Browned Butter + mashed Yukon Gold potatoes + steamed broccoli

Chicken Scallopini + wild rice + spinach salad

English Cottage Pie

Turkey Sausage-Gnocchi Soup + Oven-Baked Zucchini Chips

Smoky Potato Pancakes (Latkes) + salad

Coconut Chicken Fingers + sweet potato fries

Beef, Cheese, & Noodle Bake (This one is a throwback to my former obsession with Hamburger Helper)

***UPDATE*** On 2-2, I received an email from the Circle of Moms (group? App? whatever the fuck it is), titled "7 Tips on Eating Healthy for Busy Moms" or some shit like that. It was basically all the same stuff I posted here. So listen up, Circle of Moms - don't rip off my site or I will hunt you down and find you and punch you in your whore mouth. I realize that my tips here aren't all that unique, but to post the same number, same things, 2 days after I did, well that's got to be more than a coincidence.

GD Bastards.

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Hermitage said...

Hello coconut chicken fingers, I think we're going to be delicious, I mean delightful, friends!

You are so organized, I bow to your abilities!

Alyssa said...

That's so great that you have gotten back into cooking and that you're trying so many new meals a week!

Dan.Eliot said...

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Susan said...

Great tips...and I'm definitely going to try the Cooking Light magazine!
p.s. That picture looks delicious!

JLK said...

For those keeping track at home: The chicken w/ sage browned butter was pretty good, but I think overshadowed by the mashed potatoes since I haven't made them NOT out of a box in forever. Made a ton so I'd have leftovers for the cottage pie.

The chicken scallopini was meh. Probably won't make it again.

The English cottage pie was pretty awesome, but in the end not worth the extra effort beyond my normal shepherd's pie since I can just add cheese and tomato paste to my existing recipe.

The Turkey Sausage Gnocchi soup was absolutely the winner this week. Like 5 ingredients, super fast, and YUM-MY. A begged me to make a vat of it so he can eat nothing else for the rest of the winter.

The Oven Baked Zucchini chips were meh. I didn't have an oven-proof rack to bake them on so I used a broiler pan and they never really got crispy. I will try it again though and maybe cook longer or something.

The Potato Pancakes sucked. I used the ingredients from that recipe but the method for traditional latkes and I could not get them to crisp up for shit. I was soooo disappointed.

The Coconut Chicken Fingers were #2. I had to use sweetened coconut because I couldn't find unsweetened, but they still came out really good. I didn't have the sweet chile sauce for dipping so I dipped mine in Major Grey Chutney instead and it was pretty damn good.

I recommend trying the Turkey Sausage-Gnocchi soup if you're looking for something quick, easy, and simple for a weeknight meal or a weekend lunch.

JLK said...

Oh and the Beef, Cheese, & Noodle Bake was also pretty damn good and definitely reminded me of HH Cheeseburger Macaroni without all the saltiness.

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