Nutrition experts often recommend cooking at home as opposed to dining out (or grabbing takeout) to boost the quality of your diet and help you maintain a healthy weight. But research shows that eating at home doesn't automatically mean your diet deserves an A+.
In fact, a June 2016 study in Nutrition Research and Practice of nearly 5,000 adults concludes that you need to employ healthy cooking methods and use quality, nutritious ingredients to make a difference in your homemade meals.
If you're more adept at OpenTable than you are in your own kitchen, it's time to dive in and learn how to cook for yourself. Start with these tips that not only put you in control of your meals but also help you eat more healthfully for long-term good health.
1. Purchase a Good Knife
"A high-quality knife is essential to a home cook," says Beth McCarthy, a chef, certified yoga therapist and nutrition health coach from Colorado Springs, Colorado. She is partial to her Wüsthof cook's knife and calls it her closest companion in the kitchen.
Of course, along with a quality knife, you'll also benefit from having some basic knife skills, adds McCarthy. You'll save your fingers and speed up food-prep time. Plus, cutting your vegetables in a consistent size ensures they cook evenly, improving your dish that much more.
To sharpen your knife skills (pun intended!), search YouTube for tips or ask a friend who's an accomplished chef. Then practice, practice, practice until you become more comfortable with your knife.
2. Invest in Quality Cookware
You may pick up a set of pans on the cheap at the local discount store, but if they're thin and poorly made, they won't heat evenly and may compromise the quality of your meals.
Invest in a set of reliable, heavy pans. Get a small and large sauté pan, a saucepan, a fry pan and a stock pot for cooking pasta and chili. You can even save some cash if you buy a cookware set in bulk.
A cast iron pan is a must too, as it serves so many varied purposes. You can purchase pre-seasoned cast iron cookware, but it will also become more seasoned the more you cook with it. Use it for soft-scrambled eggs or for a hearty, seared steak.
Other items you might like include a grill pan, rice cooker and Crock-Pot.
3. Pick Up on Poaching
McCarthy shares that poaching is one of her favorite ways to prepare healthy, tasty dishes.
Poaching involves cooking food — usually eggs, fish or delicate vegetables — in flavorful liquid with a temperature ranging from 140 to 180 degrees Fahrenheit. Cook shrimp in vegetable stock infused with fresh thyme or eggs in water with a dash of vinegar and black pepper. Because poaching doesn't involves oils, the cooking method can save you loads of calories and fat.
Other healthy methods to master include broiling, baking, roasting, stewing and stir-frying.
4. Choose Quality Ingredients
When you start with quality whole foods, you optimize your nutritional intake.
Seek out vegetables and fruits that are in season, pay a little more for quality meats sourced from ethically raised animals and skip the processed shortcuts such as instant rice and sugary bottled sauces. Your meal will shine with minimal effort if you start with the best ingredients possible.
A simple way to incorporate veggies in the morning is to throw them into an omelet or sauté sweet potatoes with some eggs, says Melaina Bjorkland, RD, a clinical dietitian at Penrose St. Francis Health Services in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
5. Read the Recipe
Read the whole recipe — from start to finish — before beginning to cook your meal. The recipe contains crucial information such as the temperature you should preheat your oven to and how to prep the ingredients. Forgetting to read your recipe will almost always guarantee your meal won't come out as planned.
As a beginner cook, you'll want to stick to measurements carefully. Your recipe plays a key role in this whether you're crafting a cookie-topped birthday cake or a filet mignon with green beans and roasted potatoes.
6. Don’t Be Afraid of Instruction
Have a friend who always brings the best dishes to potlucks? Do you swoon when you visit your mother-in-law's for dinner? Don't be afraid to ask them for tips.
Some of the best resources for your cooking adventures are close to home. These accomplished home cooks have tried-and-true methods and may even invite you into their kitchens to watch them in action so you can pick up a few tips.
7. Fall Back on the Internet
Even if you don't have a cooking expert near home, you can still watch skilled people cook. Scour YouTube for videos that help you see exactly what is meant by terms such as "sweating" your onions or "browning" your chicken. It's one thing to read a description, but when you see exactly what a technique looks like, you've got that much more understanding under your belt.
8. Experiment With Spices
Fresh herbs don't have a long shelf life but can brighten a dull dinner. Try adding fresh cilantro leaves into chopped tomatoes and onions for a quick topping for grilled steak or top your spaghetti and marinara with slivers of fresh basil.
Dried spices boast a longer shelf life, making them a go-to for everyday use. Mustard powder, oregano, chili powder, cumin and rosemary add delicious notes to otherwise bland dishes. Toss chili powder into black beans, for example, or sprinkle rosemary over chicken breast.
Besides adding serious flavor to your meals, herbs and spices replace the need for unhealthy additions such as added salt, extra fat and sugary add-ins like barbecue sauce and ketchup.
However, using herbs and spices doesn't mean you should forgo fat altogether. "A great way to incorporate healthy fats is with versatile foods like avocado, nuts or nut butters, seeds and oily fish," Bjorklund recommends. Adding these whole foods to your meals will ensure you get a spectrum of nutrients including fiber and protein.
9. Don't Forget Your Protein
Skip processed proteins such as preservative-packed hot dogs and sausages and stick to lean, natural protein options instead. Lean beef, such as flank steak or tenderloin, white meat poultry and seafood are all healthy options.
Throw these foods on the grill, bake them in the oven, include them in stir-fries or roast them on a sheet pan with vegetables and herbs.
Legumes make for a nutritious, heart-healthy source of protein too. When you're first starting out cooking, canned beans will become your best friend. Shop for low-sodium cans of black beans, red kidney beans or cannellini beans. Place them in a slow cooker with diced tomatoes, chopped garlic, diced onions and chili powder for a quick vegetarian chili that's sure to please.
10. Always Have These Staples on Hand
A well-stocked pantry can make the difference between cooking at home and calling for takeout. Items to keep on hand include chicken stock, brown rice, unsalted or low-sodium canned beans, diced tomatoes, balsamic vinegar and whole-grain pasta.
Even when you have just 10 minutes to cook dinner, you'll have ingredients on hand that will help you get a meal on the table faster than pizza can be delivered.