Here are 10 tips to transform the beginner cook into a confident apron wearer. Whether you’re training for your first 5k or towing the line at the Boston Marathon, these tips can help you improve your nutrition and inspire you to meal prep on a weekly basis.
1. Buy the freshest and highest quality ingredients you can get
Yes, it will cost you more, but the outcome will be far superior in both flavor and nutrition. Local, seasonal food from farmer's markets requires little effort in the kitchen to transform into a dish that will bring everyone to the table.
Buy the must-have spices in small quantities—or better yet, buy them whole and grind them fresh (an old coffee grinder works fabulous). Buy Parmesan in a big wedge and freshly grate just what you need. Squeeze lemon juice fresh. Chop your own vegetables and please don't buy those little jars of already minced garlic.
2. Don’t fear salt
Salt is essential for drawing out the juices and flavors that transform ingredients and should be used every step of the way. For an expert hack, always add salt at the beginning of cooking, and we include a small amount of salt in sweet treats.
High-quality sea salt is an essential mineral that athletes need. And your home-cooked food will still have far less sodium than packaged or the saltiest restaurant foods. Keep a stash of fine sea salt in an easily accessible bowl next to the stove.
3. Don’t fear fat
Fat is an essential component of cooking and is a carrier for flavor. A little fat can transform a dish from bland, dry, and boring to buttery, rich, and soul satisfying. The truth is: Good fat is good for you, and fatty foods can even help you lose weight.
4. Read through a recipe in its entirety before you begin and prep all the ingredients in advance
Mise en place is a French culinary phrase used by chefs the world over, and it literally means "putting in place." Put all your ingredients in place and the recipe will flow smoothly. You never want to leave oil unattended in a hot pan while you're scrambling to finish dicing the onion and carrots. The way an ingredient should be prepped appears beside its name in the ingredient list. Ingredients appear in order of usage.
5. Taste as you go
Obviously don't taste meat dishes until they're fully cooked, and always taste your final masterpiece before serving it. If a dish tastes bland, it might need a little more flavor, maybe a little more salt, a little more fat, a little acid to brighten the flavor (a splash of lemon juice or vinegar), more heat (add a pinch of red pepper flakes), or a touch of sweetener (if it's too acidic). Since ingredients and cooking techniques vary tremendously, it's impossible to give precise measurements for seasonings. That's why it's always up to you to taste and decide if the dish needs any extra love.
6. Follow the recipe
But with a twist. Follow the recipe exactly as written the first time you make it, but then get creative with substitutions. Learn to cook with what you have on hand or what inspires you at the farmers' market.
Make season substitutions when an ingredient can't be found year-round. Please never buy tomatoes in the winter—that is, unless you like the taste of cardboard.
7. Embrace leftovers as your best friend
If you're a time-starved parent, student on a budget, or always-hungry athlete, get in the habit of making double batches of recipes and freeze what you won't eat in a few days. Freeze in individual portions to make thawing easier to always put your leftovers to good use.
Soups, stews, sauces, beans, and grains freeze beautifully in zipper storage bags or containers with lids. If your family complains about eating the same dish two nights in a row, find creative ways to reinvent the dish. Leftover meat and veggies are delicious on top of a salad or sandwich.
8. Designate a prep day – Plan your meals like you plan your training!
Nominate Sunday or another non-workday as your culinary day to prep food for the week. Make a hearty grain salad with seasonal veggies for work lunches, roast a big tray of root veggies (leftover roasted veggies are fabulous in scrambled eggs or salads), prep fruits and vegetables for smoothies, bake a wholesome treat for healthy snacking, cook a pot of beans, roast a whole chicken, and make a batch of homemade salad dressings or sauces to transform quick weeknight meals. (Mix and match on the above—we definitely don't expect you to accomplish all that in one day!). Our second cookbook, Run Fast. Cook Fast. Eat Slow., is full of make ahead meal ideas and meal planning and meal prep tips.
Every Sunday Elyse posts Meal Prep inspiration on Instagram.