Beginner’s Guide to Healthy Cooking

If you’re used to drive-thrus and boxes of prepacked food as your primary way of eating, the idea of cooking regularly may seem a little overwhelming. You may be thinking, “But I don’t know how to cook!” or “Those ingredients are really weird,” or even, “I can’t afford this!” 

Let me tell you, you can. Don’t wait, start today. 

Are you a “cold turkey” kind of person? Make a shopping list, purge your kitchen of unhealthy foods and start over. Do you have more of a “ease me in to it” attitude or just can’t stand the thought of tossing something you spent your hard earned money on? Make a plan. Make a commitment. “When I run out of [insert naughty food here] I will not buy it again. Instead I will buy…” 

These tips should help whether you’re taking the cold turkey approach or trying to change your habits gradually. 

KITCHEN EQUIPMENT
There is nothing more frustrating than trying to prepare a meal and you don’t have the necessary tools to do the job. It would be like a mechanic trying to fix a car with nothing but an air compressor and a wrench. It’s not going to work. I have more kitchen gadgets than I know what to do with, but these should get you started. 

Pots, pans and skillets
This one is obvious. You’ll need skillets and pots of varying sizes. There’s different types out there – non-stick, Teflon, cast-iron, etc. and arguments for and against each one. If you’re just starting out, my advice is don’t spend a ton of money. Just find something you can cook in (but I would avoid Teflon due to the chemicals it can transfer to your food) and you can always upgrade to the nicer stuff later as you find your niche in the kitchen. Oh, and don’t forget the baking sheets. 

Knives
Again, obvious. When you’re cooking from scratch, you’re going to be doing a lot of cutting and chopping. A quality set of sharp knives is invaluable. You don’t need a full set of expensive knives. A good chef’s knife, paring knife and utility knife is enough to get you started. A dull knife is all but useless, so if you can spring for a straightener, great. If you can’t, most electric can openers have one on the back that will work for a while. 

Cutting boards
There are literally dozens of different styles of cutting boards out there. Since you’re going to be preparing a lot of food from scratch this is a must-have. It really doesn’t matter if you choose plastic, bamboo, wood, marble or any combination of the above – you just need a cutting surface. Personally I like the flexible cutting boards, because you can bend them to get your chopped food easily into the bowl or pan without spilling. As an added bonus, they come in various colors (usually several different colors to a pack) so you can keep one color for raw meats and another color for raw fruits and vegetables. Be advised, though, they tend to get a little misshapen if you put them in the dishwasher. 

A blender
I cannot overstate how useful a blender is. Personally, I own a BlendTec and use it multiple times per day. I already know I will mourn when it dies (and run to the closest retailer to replace it). They’re guaranteed for 7 years and I”m pushing 8. I don’t know what I would do without it. A blender is useful for far more than making smoothies. You can use it to make homemade flours, homemade nut milks, and vegetables into sauces. If you have the means I highly recommend a BlendTec, but if you don’t, a high powered blender will work. Personal blenders like the Magic Bullet are very functional as well, but not absolutely necessary. 

Measuring cups and spoons
Most recipes you can eyeball and get them right. That’s part of the beauty of cooking – you get to harness your inner food artist. But if you’re just starting out, it’s a good idea to measure the recipe until you have a good feel for cooking. There are other recipes, like baking, that really do need precise measurements. I can usually find this stuff at the dollar store, so the cost is negligible. Get them. Use them. 

Storage containers
A box of storage containers can be extremely helpful. Leftovers are my boyfriend’s favorite food. He says, “What’s better than leftovers? Pre-made food that all you have to do is heat.” You will need storage containers to keep your leftovers. You’ll also need them if you want to do any pre-prep, such as chopping vegetables or meats. Look for containers with a tight-fitting lid. 

Once you have the basics, start moving up to things in the This Will Make Your Life Easier category. 

A Food Processor
This item is really more luxury than necessity, but it will save you a ton of time. I use my food processor for two primary functions: grating and blending. The grating function is fantastic for making potato and sweet potato shreds, and the blending function works well for blending thick batters that need to be very smooth or for pulsing vegetables. A cheese grater can be used in lieu of the grating function (but be prepared to put in some elbow grease!), and a blender or hand mixer can work instead of the blending function. 

Juicer 
I’m not talking about the RonCo Juicer Juice machine. I’m talking about this little gadget. There’s a large and small piece to let you juice oranges and grapefruits, but also smaller citrus like lemons or limes. It’s not required, just kinda fun. Also, it let’s you get every little pulp out of the rind. 

Immersion blender
If you want to make your own Paleo-friendly mayonnaise or just blend small things, an immersion blender is the best tool for the job. If you get one with the whisk attachment, it can also work in the place of an electric hand mixer. I rarely use my hand mixer, though, except to make mashed potatoes fluffy. 

Spiralizer
This is another “fun” item. It lets you turn ordinary vegetables like squash and potatoes into noodle strings. Certainly not a necessity. A mandolin or cheese grater works for small shreds, or just pull out your trusty knives and go to work. 

Mandolin
I almost put this in the “must have” category, that’s how much I use mine. But honestly, you can accomplish the same function with a sharp knife. A mandolin is great because you can slice fruits and veggies quickly and uniform. If you use the julienne setting, you can do all sorts of fun things. I use my mandolin for slicing onions, apples, eggplant, squash, potatoes, beets – just about anything. I’ve been toying with the notion of making homemade beef jerky and lunch meats, and the mandolin is going to come in handy for these tasks as well. 

Gourmet Express
I use this little specialty item all the time, primarily for chopping up veggies when I want them small (like for my Paleo Quiche). It’s smaller and easier to clean, but its function is similar to that of a food processor. 

Food dehydrator
This is great for making Cinnamon Apple Slices, other dried fruit and jerky. You can get the same effect by setting your oven to a very low temperature, but I like the “turn it on and walk away” aspect of the dehydrator. Plus, it won’t heat up your kitchen. 

Crock Pot
This is another item that should probably go under the “necessary” category, but really, it’s a fairly large investment as far as kitchen gadgets go and you really can do without one. But I have two. When my oven caught on fire, this was how I made dinner. There’s something almost magical about setting it up in the morning (most recipes require very little prep) and having dinner ready when you come home from work or after a day of running errands. 

OTHER ESSENTIALS
In addition to kitchen gadgets, here are some pantry staples you should keep on hand. Don’t worry, if you don’t make a ton of money you can add them gradually, picking up a few each time you go to the store. 

Spices
Since you’re not relying on processed foods anymore, you’re going to need to learn to season your food. Start with the basics: sea salt, black pepper grinder, onion powder, garlic powder, chili powder, red pepper flakes, paprika and cinnamon. These are my most used spices (except the garlic, but I’m allergic. I put it in everything before I found out). Then add some more: sage, rosemary, coriander, cumin, ginger and nutmeg. Now you have the majority of what I use on a regular basis. From there, mix it up even more: fennel seeds, dill, turmeric, cardamom, cayenne pepper, white pepper, etc. I have two two-tiered Lazy Susans full of spices. Dried spices will store for a fairly long period of time. I built my collection by trying new recipes with spices that weren’t in my cupboard yet. Spices can be fairly pricy, so build your supply up gradually. 

Oils
You’re going to see me talk a lot about healthy fats, and one of the ways to get your healthy fats is with oils. The two I use regularly are olive and coconut oil. For olive oil, I use light (referring to taste, not calorie content) and extra virgin. Select “cold press” or “first press” for best quality. Coconut oil should be un-refined (this is a must). Olive oil works best at lower temperatures and coconut oil at higher temperatures. Even though it is not a Paleo approved item because of the soy lecithin, I still use cooking spray from time to  time. And don’t forget the butter – grass fed and organic if possible. 

Coconut milk
You’d be surprised how much you can do with coconut milk. Be sure to keep a few cans on hand. Some brands come without the thickeners (xanthan gum and guar gum) but I haven’t been able to find them in the stores. I’ve tried both versions. My preference is with the guar gum and my favorite brand (so far) is Taste of Thai. BTW, the purpose of the thickener is to prevent the cream from separating, but the separation is often a good thing in recipes. So if you can find it without the thickener, definitely pick it up. Oh, and don’t bother with light coconut milk. This is just regular coconut milk with water added. If you really want to use light (though I don’t recommend it), you can add the water yourself. 

Squash
Hard squash, like butternut and spaghetti squash, stay fresh on my kitchen counter for a couple of weeks. I usually keep a couple on hand even if I don’t have a recipe in mind when I buy them. They won’t stay good forever, but they keep longer than most produce. 

Tuna
Sometimes you need a quick protein source. Imagine: your day went haywire so you get home late from work and you’re a day away from grocery shopping or all your meat is frozen. Your family is following you around asking when dinner will be ready because surely they will drop dead from starvation at any minute. You can pop open a can of tuna, toss in some seasonings and serve it over some shredded zucchini and spinach for a quick salad. I use solid white albacore packed in water. I avoid the tuna packets because they tend to have foreign ingredients. 

Eggs
Although perishable, they will keep for a while. I think you’ll be surprised how much you’re reaching for a carton of eggs now that you’re cooking healthy food. Egg yolks are great for making homemade mayonnaise, whole eggs work as a binding agent in all sorts of things, and of course you’re going to make them for breakfast. Use the whole egg and don’t worry about the horror stories you’ve been fed over the years about the yolk being bad for you – they’re not true. 

Nuts and seeds
Although these are a treat on Paleo, I always keep them on hand. I buy raw, unsalted nuts and seeds (you can always toast and season them yourself if needed for the application). My favorites are cashews, almonds, sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds. Remember, peanuts aren’t really a nut. 

Frozen fruit
Again, this is a perishable item, but it’s something really good to keep on hand. If you’re getting close to shopping day and you’re out of fresh fruit, frozen fruit is a good stand in. It works great for smoothies, sauces and even dessert. 

These are some things to get you started. My guess is that once you really get a feel for cooking from scratch, you’re going to discover all sorts of new kitchen toys you’ll want to play with.