It's been a long day. Who feels like shopping for dinner?
Maybe you don't need to. A pantry stocked with the basic essentials can have all you need to prepare a healthy and delicious meal. "Cooking with what's on hand may seem like a challenge to fledgling home cooks. But it can be very rewarding," says Amy Myrdal Miller, RD, a dietitian with the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone. "For me it's wonderfully liberating to make a meal with just what I have on hand."
Cooking at home is also key to healthy eating. "Especially for people who are watching their weight or controlling diabetes or other diet-related health problems, preparing your own meals is really important," says Ruth Ann Carpenter, RD, a nutrition consultant and co-author of Eating Well Every Day. By making meals yourself, you decide how much salt and what kinds of fat are used. You keep portion sizes in check. You add an extra serving of vegetables or whole grains. "All of that is much harder to do with restaurant meals or take-away food," Carpenter says.
Best Techniques for Throwing Together a Dinner
To cook with what's on hand, it's helpful to know a few basic kitchen techniques.
- Sautéing is a great way to cook vegetables or meat quickly. Experts recommend using cooking oil that stands up to heat, such as canola oil. Stir frequently to make sure nothing sticks to the pan. When sauteing several different ingredients, you may want to cook them separately and recombine at the end just to warm them up.
- Roasting is another quick and easy approach. "The high oven temperature of roasting cooks meat and vegetables quickly and caramelizes the sugars on the surface, creating a crunchy and sweet flavor," says Scott Samuel, a chef instructor at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone. "And it's quick and convenient. You can make a simple and delicious meal by putting chicken breasts, onions, potatoes, and carrots in a roasting pan and popping it in the oven at 400 degrees."
For some dishes, the only technique you need to know is how to boil water. Consider a classic Italian dish that uses just five ingredients: cauliflower, black olives, olive oil, Parmesan cheese, and pasta. The instructions couldn't be simpler:
- Boil water.
- Add pasta. About 6 to 8 minutes before the pasta is done, add cauliflower, cut into bite-sized pieces.
- When the pasta is tender, remove, and toss with black olives, drizzle with olive oil, and add grated parmesan cheese.
Another great choice for easy-to-prepare meals at home is soup. All you need a can of broth, some frozen vegetables, a can of tomatoes, and a heaping handful of barley or similar whole grain to make a hearty soup. With canned beans, canned tomatoes, lean ground beef, and hot pepper flakes on hand, you can make a delicious bowl of chili in minutes.