How to capsule your cooking habits
When I was in college, I remember one evening where a group of five or so friends decided to have dinner after a long day at the library. We were tired and low on funds. I suggested that we could cook something, although most of them balked at this idea. In less than an hour though, I had put together a meal of chicken, vegetables, couscous and wine that left everyone raving. “Where did you find this? I didn’t even know I had this in my house!” exclaimed one of them. Before this, I never knew I had a knack for combining ingredients lurking in the backs of cabinets to make healthy and delicious dishes. Little by little though, I came to hone this skill. Health and budget concerns made me conscious of this issue in my mid-twenties. Since then, my cooking habits have become something of a well-oiled machine. I hope what I’ve learned can help make your own adventures in eating a little easier.
Whatever your eating habits might be, whether paleo, gluten-free or simply “get-in-my-belly!”-driven, I think there is something to be gained by everyone in implementing a capsule method for your cooking habits. The goal of this guide is to help you establish easy, efficient, yummy (and hopefully healthy!) food prep habits. Or, you can just pick a few ideas here and there and integrate them into your current routine. Here we go!
What tastes good?
This is probably a lot easier than figuring out what types of clothing work best for you. You already know what foods you do and do not like! If you’re an absolute novice at cooking though, I recommend making a list of your favorite foods, making sure to include proteins, grains and veggies (whatever they might be for your diet).
Establish what you need
There are a few things to consider here before you get started.
-How many people do I cook for? (if you cook at all…)
-How much food do I need to buy?
-How often do I want to go to the grocery store/market/etc.?
-How much effort am I willing to/can I expend?
-How much time do I have?
How many people do I cook for?
This is pretty self-explanatory, but the type and amount of food for a family of four will greatly differ from the needs of a single man or woman.
How much food do I need to buy?
This relates directly to the question above. Once you’ve determined how many people you cook for, this gets easier to calculate. Next, you need to think about how much you actually eat at home. This might take some time to figure out, but it will save you from wasting your money and wasting perfectly good food.
Maybe others are less naïve than me in this respect, but I had the shock of my life when I first moved in with my fiancé, because I simply could not believe how much food a man in his twenties could consume on a daily basis. I had always been a single gal buying for one, so when the contents of the fridge were totally eaten after two days I knew I needed to revise how much I was buying.
How often do I want to go to the grocery store/market/etc.?
This, too, relates to the previous question. You might have a small fridge or buy lots of fresh veggies and bread that don’t hold for long. I personally like to do two smaller shops per week versus one large one, but this will depend on how much time you have and what you buy.
How much effort am I willing to/can I expend? and How much time do I have?
These two concepts are related to one another in my mind. By “effort,” I’m mostly referring to how much time you have. We’re all busy, but we all have to make time to eat. Ask yourself the following questions:
- How often can I/do I want to cook per week?
- How elaborate can my meals be?
- Can I batch cook?
Stock up on staples
By now you should know what and how you like to eat. Easy-peasy. Now it’s time to head to the grocery store and stock up on staples.
This is really the secret to capsule cooking. In my lifestyle, I love to rotate lots of fresh veggies, whole grains, fruit, nuts and beans (I’m not a vegetarian, I just hate protein. I’m trying though!). But these foods on their own aren’t going to do a whole lot for my taste buds.
Your secret weapon akin to those solid basics in your wardrobe are your spices, seasonings and flavorings that live in your cabinet and hide on the small shelves of your fridge.
This is where your own preferences come into play. I can’t tell you what you’re going to like. But I will share some of favorites, if only to get your creative juices (pun intended) flowing:
Coconut milk: I could eat coconut for breakfast, lunch AND dinner. I use the canned milk for curries, sautés, pudding, my coffee and desserts. You name it, I’ve made it with coconut milk. You can freeze it in cubes if you only need a small amount. Favorite lazy meal: sauté some tofu (or chicken, shrimp, shaved steak, etc.), toss in a frozen vegetable (my usual go-to is green beans), ¼ cup coconut milk and 1 tsp. jarred curry paste. Serve over rice, with naan, quinoa or whatever else strikes your fancy.
Oils: olive oil, coconut oil, vegetable oil and sesame oil (makes roasted vegetables 10 times better, goes great with salmon, is amazing in salad dressing)
Vinegars: apple cider and distilled white (I don’t like balsamic very much, but that’s another common one)
Powdered/dried spices and herbs:
Lurking in my fridge:
Pickled hot peppers
Tomato paste (in a tube!)
Wine (for cooking, not drinking…lol)
These are just a few things that float around on my shelves. But I also cook a LOT—far more than the average person, I think. If you’re not as adventurous or savvy in the kitchen, no worries. Grab a few ingredients that you like. Also, there’s no need to spend lots of money on bottles of items your rarely use. Lots of stores now allow you to buy spices in bulk, so you can customize how much you really want.
Again, these ingredients are to my tastes. But one thing I can tell you is that nothing ever tastes bad with olive oil, garlic and a splash of white wine!
The freezer is your friend
Grabbing two packs of something on sale or going to Costco if you have a large family is a great way to stock up on frozen goods. You can get frozen veggies, fish and meat. And what’s more… you can easily double a recipe you are making to freeze for when you have company or truly have no energy to cook. Some recipes can even be frozen when they’re still uncooked or just partially cooked (which is ideal!).
Make that list!
So now we’re going to get to the nitty-gritty of simplifying your shopping and cooking habits. To do this, I’m going to use a fictional scenario to help illustrate the process.
So, let’s say I’m buying for me and my fiancé. I love Brussel sprouts, and this week we’re not feeling any meat. I know my cabinets and fridge are stocked with my standard spice and condiment wardrobe! So we just have to focus on the fresh food:
So, for my fictional list, I’m going to include:
Cheese (I’m using goat)
Brussel sprouts (YUM!)
Red lentil daal
Roasted Brussel sprouts with chickpeas
Tofu in peanut curry
I’ve included more meals that what we’ll actually need, just to have some extra ideas in mind. There’s nothing worse than being starving and not knowing what to eat!
On average, I’ll probably cook three recipes per week. For each recipe, I’m cooking for two. I know I’ll eat one serving of whatever I make, and I know my fiancé will eat 1-2. So for whatever I make, I’m making 4-6 servings.
Because leftovers are your friend! We often eat leftovers from dinner the night before for lunch the next day. Or, I’ll cook two days in a row, and that way we can switch between the extras for lunch and dinner. My favorite way to cook is to spend several hours on a Sunday just prepping everything. I wash my veggies, chop them, and prepare my meat if necessary. That way, when I go to cook later in the week, it’s literally a matter of throwing something in the pan. This cuts down on cleaning time, as well, and there is nothing I hate more than washing dishes after dinner.
That’s all there is to it! To review, capsuling your cooking habits consists of the following:
- Figure out your tastes
- Figure out your needs
- Stock your pantry
- Pick some recipes
- Pick a schedule
- Grab an apron (because if you’re me, you end up wearing half the meal), and get cooking!
Stay tuned for more capsule cooking posts and recipe ideas!
Disclaimer: I might allude to my own nutrition habits here and there. I don’t expect you to follow them, nor am I telling you what to do for your health. I’m an expert at what works for my body, life and tastes. My goal is to help you figure out what works for yours. I hope you respect my right to do what works for my body, just as I respect yours.