This is not a blog post about recipes, although I have my share of those at my personal blog, if you’re interested. This isn’t about low-fat eating, or weight loss. Nor is it about the food pyramid, or hexagon, or whatever the hell shape it is this week. It’s more about a few ways in which I personally found I was able to prepare healthier, purer, more energizing meals for myself; and being a professional dancer, I have reaped benefits. Now you can plainly see I am not an athletic build. I am definitely an endomorph. But size doesn’t equal fitness, and all things considered, I cook and eat fairly healthy at home!
Preparing healthy food at home used to seem like a humongous chore to me. As an adult dancer, you are working a lot of angles to follow your bliss, making for long days and late nights. When you work all day, and then have dance classes and rehearsals at night, you are often not home to eat until late, or need to eat something fast between work and classes. It seemed like things I could whip up quickly took a lot of pre-planning and prep, and it was just easier to eat frozen, pre-packaged, or take-out. I developed some pretty bad habits over the years, and it took some effort to get out of that rut, but once I was, I can attest that this is a far more satisfying place to be food-wise. And my body thanks me for it when I have better fuel going in, so it can make better dance coming out!
So here I am going to give you my personal 5 top tips that will empower you to eat healthier, prepare healthier options for you and your family, and feel stronger and and more energetic. It means creating some new habits–making new pathways to walk each day–but once you get in the swing of it, you will reap the rewards!
1) Clean Your Kitchen Every Day
This is probably the biggest step I took to empower me to eat healthier, but I don’t recall anytime when any health magazine or article ever highligted its importance. Maybe they don’t want to presume we don’t keep our kitchens sparkling clean (you know, those of us who live as if we were frozen in a perfect 50’s vacuum ad or something?!). I know for me and my husband, with both of us working hard all day, then eating late, we would pretty much fall into bed every night and worry about the mess the next day.
So this meant when I got home from learning, teaching, or performing, feeling hungry and eager to eat something, I would be faced with dirty pots and pans, counters, dishes. Before I could get into the act of prep and cooking, I had to take the time to clean up after the last time we ate. So you can imagine what sounded a lot better? PIZZA DELIVERY! And the cycle would continue each day…
So the new habit I formed, inspired by a brief stint with Fly Lady (way too intense for me, but some great ideas in there…), I vowed to shine my sink! This is the concept that every night before you go to bed, you clean up the entire kitchen, right down to a pristinely cleaned sink. Well given that we were coming home late, eating late, and going to bed late, I shifted my schedule to first thing when I get up in the morning. Of course, your sink shining time could be ANY time during the day. But here’s how it works for me: every morning as soon as I get up, I put the kettle on to heat my water for tea. While it is heating I start washing the dishes. When the pot is done heating my water, I stop briefly to fill my cup and set my tea bag to steeping, then continue washing the dishes. By the time I am ready for sugar and milk, I have sprayed the counters with cleanser and wiped them down, and the dishes are whirring away in the dishwasher (important note: I started this habit before we had a dishwasher, and I could get most all the dishes washed by hand in only a little more time. So no excuses!) It takes only about 15-20 minutes to really clean up from the night before.
Now when I am ready to cook, all my tools are sparkling clean and at attention. All my cutting boards are at the ready, any and every pan I own is full of possibility, and I can spread out however I need to make the meal I wish. So number one, clean your kitchen!
2) Keep Regular Staples In The Larder
Another barrier to healthy cooking was simply that I wasn’t keeping flavorful, healthy ingredients at the ready. So when I wanted to make something tasty and good for me, inevitably I didn’t have what I needed and a run to the store at 10pm wasn’t really in the cards. But two further limitations was a) I didn’t want to have to do planning for my entire menu that week for grocery shopping (that’s the whole “too much pre-planning” thing I hated), and b) fresh ingredients can be expensive, so if I don’t know for sure that I am going to use it, it goes bad. It felt like a lot was going to waste, which added up!
I think the key to this is getting to know what flavors you gravitate toward, and keeping elements of those kinds of recipes around. The way we started was having a couple staple recipes we were okay with making variations on every week while we were getting the hang of it. Spaghetti is a fun one, because you can make it SO MANY ways. If you have a bottle of good quality sauce, you can put in all manner of ingredients, including fresh tomatoes, onion, green peppers, garlic, mushrooms, ground beef or turkey…the list goes on. And every one of the ingredients from a simple spaghetti recipe can be used in countless other recipes–that was the key! We had a fallback recipe we knew we could make quick and healthy and delicious; but more importantly the ingredients which comprise that meal are true staple ingredients in so many other recipes. Let’s look at these elements and see how we can mix and match them. In italics I put ingredients we don’t keep around all the time. Otherwise everything is stuff I could pretty much walk into my kitchen and make right now:
onion + green pepper + chicken or steak + tortilla shells = fajitas
(and if you keep a can of fat free refried beans or black beans in your cupboard as we do, burritos!)
garlic + tomatoes + onion + bread + mozzarella or Asiago cheese + romaine + basalmic and olive oil = bruschetta salad
onion + garlic + green pepper + mushrooms + tomato sauce + herbs + pizza dough or pre-made crust, like Boboli + goat cheese = home-made pizza
(of course you could add chicken or any other meat of your liking)
onion + tomatoes + garlic + carrots + 15 bean mix = bean soup
(or mix in ham or beef and make into more of a stew–set it all in a slow cooker and it is ready to eat when you get home!)
Okay, I could go on, but keeping staples you know you can use around means you always have what you need to make a meal quick and delicious, and most importantly FRESH! This takes a little time to work out, but it’s worth the effort.
3) Throw Out Your Cookbooks
Okay, some people love their cookbooks, and we definitely have some go-to cookbooks we keep around as our staple collection. But for years we accumulated so many cookbooks, frankly we were overwhelmed. They were cluttering up our already small and cluttered kitchen, and besides, we could never seem to find that one recipe we wanted when we needed it. They became this exciting sea of possibility that we only ever dipped our toe into.
And much like reading exercise magazines won’t make you healthier, collecting cookbooks doesn’t make us a good cook.
What I love about finding recipes on the internet is that I can quickly and easily find recipes to suit the ingredients I have available. Just type in two or three ingredients you want to cook with + the word “recipes” and you will get hits galore giving you ideas on how to use what you have. Add the term “quick”, “easy”, or “simple” for ones with fewer ingredients, prep, and cook time. Not only will you get a collection of recipes, but also other people reviewing their success (or not) with the recipe in question, and offering modifications. For instance, if a recipe calls for five ingredients, and I only have three, a quick Google search often gives me some substitute ideas for those elements or alternate recipe ideas which use the ones I have to their best advantage. The web gives me more confidence and flexibility in making adjustments as suits my available options.
4) Make Your Own Recipe Book
This may be a little more a-type than some people want to be, but I promise you, it’s a small project that takes a few bucks and a few minutes. And of course, you can be super crafty and make it all purdy if you feel so motivated…
We don’t necessarily want to run back and forth from a computer when we’re cooking, and we want to be able to find recipes later that we like (I do keep a bookmark folder for fave sites and recipes I want to try in future), and it’s handy to have a copy of your favorite/most successful/most flexible meal options. When I find a real winner of a recipe, it goes into the “Moore Family Cooking Compendium”. It’s a simple 1.5″ binder, into which I have placed some page dividers with common recipe book divisions (chicken, beef, appetizers/snacks, etc). When I find a recipe was a big hit, I slip it into a plastic sleeve and pop it into the book. You can also pull recipes out of magazines and put them in here, rather than keeping the whole magazine. Same with any recipe books you only use a few recipes out of–photocopy them, put them in your binder, get rid of the big old recipe book. Then anytime I want to use a recipe, I can pull it out–it stays clean and dry in the plastic sleeve, and doesn’t take up so much room on the counter as a big book would. If I make modifications, I can slide the page out and write it on there for future reference. (this picture is not my recipe book, but it looks so much like it, it was a perfect photo. And BONUS, she has an article about how she made her book, and some staples she keeps in her kitchen for quick meals. Kismet!)
The first recipes to make it into our book were staple recipes, such as:
Alton Brown’s method for cooking a steak and baked potato.
Quick and easy way to cook juicy chicken breasts.
Various crock pot recipes for beef, chicken, and soups.
We keep the basic recipes right at the front of each section, so they are easiest to flip to. These basic preparation recipes provide a foundation for so many flavors to be paired with them. If you know how to make a perfectly cooked steak in 20 minutes, all it takes is prepping some simple rice pilaf (we love Uncle Ben’s 90 second pouches–perfect sides for two, or for one person with leftovers), and pairing with some heated canned or frozen corn–a 20 minute well-rounded meal. In that same time you could make a simple sauce for the steak, or maybe a fancier one with some sauteed mushrooms and a touch of blue cheese…*mouth watering* Or the simple chicken recipe, same deal. A touch of cream and minced green onion reduced for a chive sauce while the chicken is cooking, steam some carrots, boil some potatoes and throw on a pat of butter and herbs, another well-rounded meal made from staples you can keep around all the time.
This is probably the most common truth that we all need to take to heart, but especially folks like us who rely on our bodies to perform on demand (and oh the demands we make!). The real key to consistently making healthy choices with our food is to think of food not just as something that stops our stomach from grumbling, but as something that provides fuel for our bodies to function properly. You’re hungry, you’re tired, you don’t feel like making anything, you grab a bag of chips or a fast food burger…do you feel gross afterward? HELL YES! That is your body saying, “Woah there buddy, this isn’t fuel. I need fuel to give you energy and good feelin’s. You don’t feed me, I can’t feed you!”
And the more you start to look at your food as fuel, the easier it is to make good choices and feel motivated–even excited–to take the extra effort to prepare meals you really need and deserve. The pre-prepared foods, frozen foods, and fast foods are full of chemicals, fats, and sodium; and while they are so quick and easy to fill our bellies and save us some time and effort in an already demanding day, they are leaving our bodies starving.
The thing is, you already know this. Every diet scheme out there is telling you the same thing. Every corner of the health food market is shoving this down our throats; and I don’t know about you, but I admit I get sick of hearing it parroted over and over again. I KNOW this, right? If I am being honest though, yes, intellectually I knew it; but I wasn’t in the habit, I wasn’t truly practicing it. I hadn’t set up a structure of my life to support this habit (keeping my kitchen ready to cook, having ingredients on hand ready to prepare, having simple tried-and-true recipes close at hand…)
So this is just a gentle reminder to you, just as I needed to be reminded and will always continue to need to be reminded, that our bodies are worth a cleaner fuel. This is a reminder that establishing and maintaining these simple habits as part of our routines, we will be stronger, and our dance will be stronger in turn.
Here is a good basic list for a simple, well-stocked pantry:
Real Simple Pantry Staples Checklist
Eating Healthy on a Budget