Making your own meals helps you feel empowered about your food choices and become familiar with what you put in your body.
An easy way to become a pro in the kitchen is to learn how to prep quick, healthy meals. Cooking can seem overwhelming, but with these easy tips you can learn how to create delicious and healthy meals. Remember that everyone makes mistakes, even professional chefs, so don’t give up, and keep cooking!
Learn how to meal prep
Meal prep is the process of planning and cooking meals in advance. If you’re in school and work part time, cooking every day is virtually impossible. Being able to pull out a pre-made meal from the refrigerator and heat it up in the microwave saves time and money spent on takeout food. Use the following guidelines to get started on meal prepping.
- First, decide on your budget and the number of meals you want to make. Consider starting with just one meal this week, like lunch.
- Review what ingredients you already have. What can you make that uses some of those ingredients? Research recipes online or download free recipe apps. Consider recipes that include a variety of food groups, such as vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins like beans, chicken, or fish. Not sure where to start? Try here.
- Make sure you have enough storage space in your freezer or refrigerator for the big batch of food you’re planning to make.
- Finally, create a shopping list based on the recipe you chose, and head to the grocery store. Stick to the list to keep your shopping budget-friendly!
Stay savvy at the supermarket
Even with your shopping list in hand, navigating the endless aisles of a supermarket can feel a bit overwhelming. Understanding food marketing lingo, price comparisons, and even the layout of the space will help make you a smarter shopper.
- Most supermarkets have a similar layout. Around the perimeter of the store, you’ll find fresh fruits, vegetables, eggs, meat, fish, poultry, and dairy products. The inner isles are comprised of everything else, such as grains and starches, packaged snacks, beans, desserts, pasta sauce, etc.
- Buy fresh fruits and vegetables that are in season to save money and get tastier and higher quality produce.
- If you can’t afford fresh produce, frozen or canned are just as nutritious! Rinse off canned vegetables to reduce sodium and choose fruit canned in 100% juice or water.
- Messaging on food packages can be deceiving! Just because something is marketed as “all natural” or “vegan” doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Learn how to read a nutrition facts label and ingredient list to help stick to foods that are lower in calories and fat, and high in fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals.
- As a rule of thumb, buy mostly whole foods (i.e. beans, tuna, frozen broccoli, brown rice) instead of processed foods (i.e. giant vegan cookie, frozen breakfast burrito) that often have lengthy ingredient lists.
- Pro shopping tip: Try unit pricing! Compare the price per unit instead of the retail price to get the most out of your money. The unit price is usually shown in the corner of the price sticker.
Get in the kitchen
Once you have all of your ingredients, it’s time to get cooking! Set aside an hour or two one day this week to prepare your meal. Make sure you have all the ingredients and kitchen equipment you’ll need, such as pots, pans, cutting boards, etc., before getting started.
First, read through the recipe from beginning to end to understand what you’ll be doing. Then, prep all your ingredients—chop vegetables, rinse off rice, remove meat from packaging. If you need to, preheat the oven. Follow the directions, step by step, always keeping in mind what you need to do next. Share your finished meal with a friend or family member, and enjoy!
Here are some helpful tips to guide you in the kitchen.
- C means cup, t or tsp means teaspoon, and T or Tbs means tablespoon. Learn more common cooking measurements.
- Learn basic knife skills to practice each week.
- Understand food safety basics.
- Learn common cooking terms like dicing, sautéing and simmering.
- Forgot an ingredient? Use these substitutions.
- Learn how to measure different ingredients.
Try something new
As we get older, our food preferences can change. Did you hate boiled Brussel sprouts as a kid? You might like them sauteed in a pan with a touch of maple syrup, EVOO, salt, and pepper. Now is an ideal time to experiment with new foods or re-try foods you may have disliked when you were younger.
Look for recipes with at least one ingredient that you’re not too fond of and give it a try. With vegetables in particular, try different cooking methods and seasonings to help bring out different flavors. For example, instead of steaming green beans and carrots, consider roasting them with a bit of oil, minced garlic, chopped red onion, salt, and red pepper flakes. Round out this meal with rotisserie chicken and mashed sweet potatoes.
Have more questions about cooking and healthy eating? Get free nutrition counseling and other health services at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center. No judgment, no charge.
Tomi Akanbi, MS, RD is the Clinical Nutrition Coordinator at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center. She holds a Master’s degree in Nutrition and Public Health from Columbia University, as well as a BA in Comparative Human Development from the University of Chicago. Tomi is passionate about improving our relationship with food and breaking down the barriers that prevent all New Yorkers from having access to affordable, nutritious food. She understands the challenges of maintaining a healthy lifestyle, but believes that balanced eating, exercise, and overall wellness can be enjoyable and attainable for all.
The Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center is located in New York City. It provides comprehensive, confidential, judgment free health care at no charge to over 12,000 young people every year. This column is not intended to provide medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion, treatment or services to you or to any other individual, only general information for education purposes only.