Cooking By the Seat of Your Pants

Working with Guiding Stars has had some definite impacts on the way I eat and cook. It’s impossible to spend several hours a week reading and writing about nutrition and healthier cooking without picking up some better habits. But all intentions of healthy meal planning aside, life happens, and more weeks than not, I find myself hitting the end of the week with weird bits of odds and ends in the fridge and no carefully considered meals at hand. My first instinct used to be to order out or make ramen, ignoring the weird odds and ends until I had no option but to toss them out. In the past few years, however, I’ve developed a routine for making a cheaper, healthier meal out of whatever is not yet crawling around in the back of my fridge.

Stuffed peppers can be an awesome way to use up odd leftover proteins and whole grains.
Stuffed peppers can be an awesome way to use up odd leftover proteins and whole grains.

Step 1: Take stock of the leftovers.

A balanced meal has a bit of protein, a good amount of veg, some whole grain and just a touch of healthy fat. My first step is to ask which of those pieces I have: some leftover broccoli? A little extra sauce from pasta night? The last pickings from that roasted chicken? It’s pretty rare that I’ve got all of the components in just leftover odds and ends, or, if I do, that they’ll all work together to make an edible meal, which is why it’s important to think ahead to step two when I go grocery shopping.

Step 2: Raid the pantry.

I try hard to keep my pantry stocked with two or three meals worth of basic items that fit the healthy eating bill. I buy up extra of these items when I see them on sale:

  • Whole Grains: Brown rice, quinoa, wheat berries, pearl barley and oatmeal!
  • Protein: Canned beans, dried beans, lentils, natural peanut butter and nuts
  • Fruit & Veggies: Dried fruit (sweetened only with juice – these can be surprisingly sugar-packed if you don’t check you labels or watch the stars), frozen fruit (my favorite way to preserve summer abundance), canned veggies (no salt added), frozen veggies
  • Healthy fat: Vegetable oils that are liquid at room temperature, natural nut butters, nuts

If you keep a small selection from each of these lists on hand, you can whip up a healthy meal for any time of the day, even if you don’t have any leftovers to use up. If you want it to be enjoyable and inspire you to stay committed to a nutritious approach to eating, you have to think ahead to step three as well.

Step 3: Find the flavor.

Salt, sugar and fat are the unholy trinity of flavor, but since we should moderate our intake of all three, amazing flavor takes a bit of mindfulness.  Not much more work, mind you–just knowledge of the available tools. Garlic and onion are two flavor powerhouses that form the foundation of many cuisines world-wide. For easy prep, chop several onions and heads of garlic at the same time (food processors make this simple and minimally tearful) and freeze half cups of chopped onion in a muffin tin, each with a tablespoon of garlic in a tablespoon or two of olive oil. When you’re ready to use them, just toss the block into a pan on low heat or in the microwave to thaw and soften and add any of the following spice combos.

  • Mexican Medley: Ground chiles (or chili powder) and cumin are the fundamental flavors needed to bring your dish south of the border.
  • A Taste of the East: Looking for Thai or Indian? Stock ginger and a good curry powder. It might not be quite authentic, but adding those two flavors to the garlic and onion base is the quickest way to fake a decent curry.
  • Impressive Italian: This is where the herbs come to shine. Basil is the most basic essential. Oregano will bring that pizza pizzazz to the table. Combine the two and add almost any of your favorite green herbs–parsely, sage, rosemary and thyme–to tweak the flavor to your liking.
  • Going Greek: Mint and lemon are your prime suspects in good Greek. For the best lemon flavor, zest the entire lemon whenever you have reason to buy one and freeze teaspoons of the zest in water in ice cube trays.
  • Pleasingly Cheesy: Cheese is generally high in saturated fat and salt, putting it firmly into the sometimes food category in spite of its many positive nutrients, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get a cheesy rush. Nutritional yeast, available in most natural food stores, is another way to bring a criminally delicious hint of cheese to the table.

Want to go sweet instead?

Nothing to it! Fruit is full of natural sugars. If you eat a full serving of fruit with an appropriate serving of oatmeal, you won’t feel the need for heaps of brown sugar. To bring out the sweetness, my favorite spice mix is 2 parts cinnamon, 1 part nutmeg, and 1 part cardamom.