With the end of January upon us, the time seems right to check in with our New Year’s resolutions, or as is the case for most of us, our New Year’s good intentions.
Often, those good intentions revolve around healthy lifestyle goals. A month in, though, and those goals start to feel less urgent.
Perhaps now is a good time to review and, maybe, revise those goals. I’m not about to suggest a new way to count your carbs. I’ll leave that to the nutritionists and dietitians. My suggestion is far simpler: Get cooking.
Preparing meals for yourself and your family is a worthy goal that comes with a host of benefits, both expected and unexpected.
First, it saves time and money. You won’t be surprised to hear that dining out is expensive. You might be surprised, though, to find out how expensive it is. The average American household spends about $3,000 a year dining out, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (an individual spending only on themselves counts as a household, too.)
Where the average restaurant or takeout meal per person runs about $13, the average meal per person at home costs about $4 to make. Cooking at home can save you significantly, particularly if you choose cost-effective ingredients.
For instance, try cooking with less meat. Meatless Mondays aren’t only good for you, they might save you a few dollars, too. Or buy inexpensive cuts of meat, such as chuck roast, and cook it low and slow until it is fall-apart tender.
Less expensive cuts don’t always have to take hours to cook. Bone-in chicken thighs are one of the cheapest cuts of poultry and can cook quickly, as is the case with Cast-Iron Roasted Chicken Thighs With Lemon Dijon Vinaigrette.
If you don’t have a cast-iron skillet, you’re missing out on one of the best deals in the world of pots and pans. It’s inexpensive, especially compared with a good-quality stainless-steel skillet, and it’s a culinary workhorse you can use for sautéing, roasting, frying, even baking.
Preheating a cast-iron skillet in a hot oven is a great way to kick-start the cooking process when preparing chicken, steak, vegetables and, well, just about anything. For this recipe, to roast chicken thighs, I set the cast iron in the oven while it’s coming up to temperature. Then I place the seasoned thighs in the skillet skin side down and flip toward the end of the cooking process. This ensures a crispy skin with moist, tender meat, all in under 30 minutes.
Here they’re served with a lemony mustard vinaigrette, which adds a lovely bright note to the rich, meaty thighs.
In praise of chimichurri
Roasted chicken is so versatile, though, that it can be served with any number of other sauces, and chimichurri is one of my favorites. I like to have chimichurri sauce (along with tapenade, salsa, pesto and various other sauces/condiments) on hand as a quick and easy way to punch up the flavor in an otherwise plain dish.
I often find myself adding a spoonful or two of salsa to a salad dressing or stirring a little pesto into scrambled eggs. I might toss roasted vegetables with tapenade for an added touch of briny earthiness. The idea is to increase flavor without increasing the time it takes you to prepare a meal. And since a little goes a long way, it won’t add much to the cost, either.
Chimichurri sauce is perhaps my favorite flavor addition. In the summer, it’s a staple, as it pairs perfectly with almost anything on the grill. It’s useful in the wintertime, though, when its bright, acidic notes are not only welcome, but essential to many of the heartier dishes we find ourselves making when the weather is cold.
Swirl a spoonful of chimichurri sauce into your next bowl of chicken soup, pork and beans or beef stew. The addition of fresh herbs and vinegar can be transformative.
A basic cheeseburger can turn into a memorable meal by mixing a few tablespoons of the chimichurri sauce together with a little mayonnaise and slathering it onto toasted buns. Provolone cheese is swapped out for the standard American, and roasted red pepper, along with a few rings of charred onion, stand in for lettuce and tomatoes. You can’t get this Chimichurri Burger at any drive-through window.
Your meal the way you like it
There’s no better way to ensure that you’re going to get your food prepared to suit your own tastes than to make it yourself. And if you’ve got any specific dietary needs or preferences, you know how much trust it takes to let someone else make your food.
In life, how often do we get something just the way we want it? So, go ahead, top your pizza with broccoli. Make your mac and cheese with pepper jack. Throw a couple of extra slices of bacon into your BLT. It’s your sandwich, you’re making it and you’re the only critic who matters.
This time of year, many of us are trying to cut back on excess. Yes, you could buy some prepackaged, frozen “healthy” meal, but how long are you going to stick to the plan if “the plan” involves eating food with no texture or flavor?
Instead, try this Lentil, Sweet Potato, Kale and Coconut Stew. It’s packed with flavors, both exotic and familiar. Lentils form the base of this curry-scented stew and sweet potatoes are a nice counterpoint to the earthy legumes. Tomatoes and coconut milk balance each other out with just the right amount of acidity and creaminess and an array of toppings add a crunchy, fresh element. If you don’t like some of those toppings, leave them off. It’s your bowl.
The recipe makes a generous amount, but extras can easily be frozen. So, yes, some good things do come out of the freezer.
Don’t go it alone
All the tips and recipes in the world usually don’t make cooking an enjoyable experience if you’re always alone in the kitchen. If you’re one of those people who finds cooking to be a Zen-like experience, best enjoyed solo, feel free to ignore my advice.
But if you’re one who trudges into the kitchen, shoulders slumped, dreading the meal you have to pull together for the entire family, alone, I’m talking to you.
My advice is “don’t do it alone.” There is no better place to spend time with family and friends than in the kitchen. The chatting, the stories, the laughing are all a part of the mealtime experience. Involve the others in the mealtime preparation whenever possible.