So, you set out to use up your fridge full of food this week and still found yourself hitting up your reliable food delivery apps. Cooking at home doesn't always give you the same thrill as trying a new restaurant or ordering your favorite meal, but making your own meals (despite how much it can feel like a chore) has its perks.
Some benefits of cooking at home, according to the University of Washington, include:
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- It saves money: Eating homemade meals can often be cheaper than eating out.
- It saves time: When you plan ahead, you can save more time making your meals at home than driving to get take-out or a table at a restaurant.
- It allows for portion control: You can better regulate your portion sizes at home.
- It helps you avoid food allergies and sensitivities: You can reduce or eliminate the risk of an allergic reaction when you control the ingredients in your food.
- It helps you connect with your loved ones: Involving your family or friends in the cooking process and chatting over a meal can provide an opportunity for connection.
- It allows for more nutritious ingredients: When you prepare your own food, you can better avoid the hidden sugar, fat and salt that lurk in fast food.
To help make cooking at home easier and more enjoyable, we asked the experts to share their most creative tips.
1. Have Rotating Meal Plans
It doesn't matter if you're new to meal prepping or if you're seasoned at it: It's easy to get bored with repeatedly eating the same meals. Switching up your weekly meal prep plans can help keep things exciting.
"Take a little time upfront to create two to three weekly meal plans that you can rotate throughout the month," Leah Johnston, RDN at SRW, a consulting agency for wellness products, says.
"Include meals that you know are a winner in your home and require little prep and cooking time," Johnson says. Start with just dinner, but adding breakfast, lunch and snacks will be helpful for you in the long run. If you want to take it a step further, have ready-made grocery lists for each of those weeks so you only have to shop once. This will save you oodles of time and effort at the beginning of each week and alleviate stress because you will have a plan. Using these as a base, you can swap in new meal prep recipes as you like."
2. Use the Salad Bar for Pre-Cut Produce
Sure, chopping and preparing your fruits and veggies ahead of time could make cooking at home easier, but not if you dread slicing and dicing. Your local supermarket salad bar may help ease your woes.
"If chopping, slicing and dicing are taking up too much time, there is a magical place in most grocery stores where all this has been done for you — the salad bar," Johnston says.
"Grab a container and fill it up with the already cut veggies you need to make a meal. For example, if you're making fajitas, fill that container with sliced peppers and onions. For veggie soup, see what kind of veggies and greens are available and then fill up a to-go container or two. You usually pay by the pound at the salad bar, so you might end up paying a little more for the convenience, though."
3. Freeze Your Stocks and Broths (and Dairy)
Freezing your stocks and broths can help you to have flavorful ingredients on hand when you need to make a quick sauce.
"The ice cube trays that are made for freezing large cocktail ice cubes are great for freezing stocks and broths in easy-to-use and small portions, perfect for making quick pan sauces," Olwen Phillips, a chef and recipe developer for EveryPlate, says.
"I also use them to freeze coconut milk for curries (I rarely need a whole can at once) and milk or cream for pasta sauces and mashed potatoes (I live alone, so I never go through my dairy products quickly enough!)," Olwen says.
Phillips recommends the Practico Kitchen large ice tray ($16.49, Amazon) to help you freeze your stocks, broths and dairy.
4. Microwave Your Veggies
While you may already be familiar with frozen steam-in-a-bag vegetables that you can just pop in the microwave, expert chefs say that you can also microwave your fresh veggies.
"I zap my cut vegetables in the microwave under a wet towel for a super-quick blanch instead of pre-boiling them. No more waiting for water to boil — just add to the microwave and it's ready in minutes!" Devan Cameron, chef and owner of Braised & Deglazed, says.
Microwaving your vegetables can also help reduce the cooking time on foods like potatoes. "Cooking potatoes in the microwave can save hours of time. If you're doing baked potatoes and still want that crispy texture, zap the potatoes first until cooked and finish them in a hot oven to crisp up the outside. This will save you at least 45 minutes of time, depending on the size of your potatoes," Cameron says.
5. Embrace Convenience Foods
It's totally OK not to make every meal from scratch. Buy a rotisserie chicken, boil a handful of whole-grain pasta and sauté some fresh or frozen veggies. You can throw this dish together in minutes. In that vein, make your life simpler by opting for pre-washed, pre-cut veggies.
"The list of nutritious 'convenience' foods that have specifically been designed to make your cooking at home experience easier and healthier is only growing," Johnston says. Here are some of her favorites:
6. Eat Local
Keep cooking at home exciting by challenging yourself to cook with ingredients that are local to where you live.
"One of my best tips is to look for recipes that use readily available and affordable ingredients you can get at your local market or farmers market, or a CSA (community-supported agriculture box) that makes cooking fun," says Dana Ellis Hunnes, PhD, RD, author of Recipe For Survival: What You Can Do to Live a Healthier and More Environmentally Friendly Life.
She also suggests sticking to recipes that use minimal ingredients. "I recommend using recipes that don't require too many ingredients, as the more prep you have to do, the more challenging it can be," she says.
7. Play With Flavor
If you already have go-to meals that you cook at home often, get re-inspired to cook by playing with new flavors. The next time you make your favorite dish, consider adding in new spices. "Take lasagna, for example. It's common to use Italian seasoning for this dish, but I like to add a pinch of cinnamon or nutmeg," says Steve Theunissen, RDN, certified personal trainer at Smart Fitness Results.
"I also like to add a pinch of either to spaghetti sauce," he says. Experiment with new and unexpected flavors to help homemade food feel fun again.