If you haven’t made your personal resolution to better health yet, I’ve got a good idea for you: Cook. Preparing food in your own home with your own two hands is one of the healthiest steps you can take this year. You’ve surely heard of the saying “you are what you eat.” Well, when you cook for yourself, you know what you eat. And that’s more than halfway to health.
Consider this point, from a brilliant article in the Times called Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch: “Today the average American spends a mere 27 minutes a day on food preparation (another four minutes cleaning up); that’s less than half the time that we spent cooking and cleaning up when Julia [Child] arrived on our television screens. It’s also less than half the time it takes to watch a single episode of “Top Chef” or “Chopped” or “The Next Food Network Star.”
What this suggests is that a great many Americans are spending considerably more time watching images of cooking on television than they are cooking themselves — an increasingly archaic activity they will tell you they no longer have the time for.”
I suppose that would all be fine….except that as cooking has become a spectator sport, Americans’ weight has skyrocketed. Today, two out of every three American adults are overweight.
So, let’s make this easy. Cooking is not rocket science, and it can even (shock!) be fun — put on a little music, pour yourself a beverage of choice, smell the garlic sautéing, and suddenly it’s the best part of your day. To feed yourself and your family a simple and wholesome dinner takes all of 30 minutes once you’ve got a few basic skills.
How do you acquire these skills? By cooking! Afraid you’ll mess up? Do like Julia Child. On one show, she flipped a potato pancake and spilled half of it on the stovetop. She didn’t cry about it, she picked it up, threw it back in the pan and kept going. Real cooking is not what happens on TV in the glossy kitchens with fancy machines whipping cream into perfect peaks. It’s what happens in yours, with the oven door that doesn’t close all the way and the chipped orange bowls you inherited from grandma. Cooking is imperfect, and that’s my favorite part about it.
Below is a recipe for lentil soup that can’t go wrong and takes only 10 minutes of active prep. Serve with whole grain bread and a salad for a cheap, warm and nourishing winter meal. For you cheaters out there, please note: if you use store-bought dressing on your salad, it doesn’t count as cooking! Try our vinaigrette, recipe below, which takes a whopping one minute to make.
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, diced
2 large carrots, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
1 cup dry lentils
1, 15-ounce can chopped tomatoes
1 bunch (about 10-12 ounces) fresh spinach well rinsed and roughly chopped (or substitute 10 ounces of frozen spinach)
Juice of 1/2 - 1 lemon
Salt and pepper to taste
A handful of fresh parsley, roughly chopped
Optional: freshly grated Parmigiano cheese
- In a large pot, heat olive oil and sauté together onion, carrots and celery for about five minutes.
- Add tomatoes, lentils, and a pinch of salt and pepper and continue sautéing for 2-3 minutes more, stirring constantly.
- Add 6 cups of water and another pinch of salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer for 35-40 minutes or until lentils and vegetables are very tender. Check soup every 15 minutes or so to make sure lentils and vegetables are covered with liquid the whole time. If necessary, add more water ½ cup at a time.
- Add spinach to the pot and stir it in until it wilts completely—about 3-5 minutes. Remove from heat.
- Add lemon to taste and parsley. Adjust seasonings and turn off heat.
- Serve hot accompanied by whole grain bread, and if you wish, freshly grated Parmigiano cheese.
Yield: about 1/3 cup
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon honey
1 teaspoon mustard
Pinch salt and fresh ground black pepper
Combine all ingredients into a bowl and mix well with a whisk. Alternatively, combine all ingredients in a jar with a tight lid and shake vigorously until it is well blended. Taste and adjust the seasonings to your liking. Dress your salad, and store remaining vinaigrette in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.
Note: If left to sit, the oil and vinegar will separate—that’s fine. To bring them back together, just whisk or, if in a jar, shake.
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Director of Food and Nutrition Programs
The Children’s Aid Society