Before you freak out and stop reading, understand that by “cook” I really mean “prepare.” If you’re like me, you don’t consider yourself a chef by any means. But, one biohacking principle that is important to understand right off the bat is this:
The only food you can truly trust is that which you prepare yourself.
I’m not suggesting that all take-out and restaurant food is evil and out to poison you, but I am ascertaining that the food we eat outside of our homes usually contains any number of cheap and/or poor ingredients, namely highly processed vegetable oils and hidden sugars. Unfortunately, not even the vegetable side dishes or salads on most menus are innocent. Often, restaurant chefs sauté their veggies in cheap oils (like canola) and add extra sugar to just about everything–even the most unlikely of dishes like a rack of ribs–to make their food more palatable. And, as we all know by now, sugar is addictive, so added sugar in any recipe is good for business. It keeps us patrons coming back for more!
Further, most restaurants do not use the highest-quality ingredients like grass-fed, grass-finished beef or pasture-raised eggs. For this reason, it’s also important to prep meals for yourself at home; you bought the food, so you know its source and quality.
When you cook with raw, whole ingredients yourself, you know exactly what you will consume–no funny business!
And, again…by “cooking,” I simply mean preparing easy meals. Some of us (like me) have bizarre palettes and can eat two hard-boiled eggs, tuna salad, and raw veggies dipped in hummus for dinner. If you live alone, knock yourself out–take it easy on the prep work and just assemble wholesome ingredients into the crazy combos you adore. If you live with someone else (like I do), however, those nights of self-pleasing meals are over. Still, you don’t need to be the world’s greatest chef–or even the world’s slightly-better-than-average chef!–to create a healthy meal. Here are some of my tips:
- Start with a base of vegetables. Possibly, create the now famous “zoodles” using a spiralizer like this one. Or, buy a cheap steamer basket (truly a lifesaver!) like this one to quickly (and oh so easily) tenderize nearly all types of veggies. Do you own a roasting pan? I’m assuming you do! In the colder months, I like to dice sweet potatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, etc., douse them in olive oil + salt + pepper, and roast them for 40ish min. at 400 degrees. (When you take them out, drizzle some warmed grass-fed ghee over the top and you’re in for a real treat!) In the summer months, my M.O. is to chop up an assortment of raw veggies including–but not limited to!–lettuce to create a quasi chopped salad. When it comes to vegetables, get crazy! Ideally, we should all be eating a diet in which plants are at the center of every meal. If you’re interested in finding out why this is, how many servings of vegetables we should eat daily, and what types of vegetables (specifically) to eat, check out this episode from one of my favorite podcasts “Revolution Health Radio,” hosted by functional medicine extraordinaire Chris Kresser. (And, while you’re at it, scroll through his archives. So many of his episodes are incredible!)
- To your vegetables, add some high-quality protein. Now, the key term here is “high-quality.” The highest-quality meat, poultry, pork, and fish is not cheap, but it’s hugely important to splurge. Thus, you may find yourself eating less animal protein and more protein from things like seeds, nuts, nut butters, and legumes, but that’s totally fine. If you live near a farmer’s market, it’s ideal to buy your animal and fish protein there because A) you will support a local farmer (woot woot!) and B) you will be able to chat with said farmer about the animal’s life prior to its death (sorry, Babe). It makes no sense to clean up your diet and lifestyle if you don’t clean up your animal protein because you end up eating whatever the animal ate when it was living. If the cow was stuffed to the brim with crappy corn, gross grains, and ice-cream sprinkles (yes, sprinkles!), you will be consuming those same things when you eat its meat. If you do not live near a farmer’s market, try to find the best quality animal and fish protein at a local butcher, fish market, and/or chain like Whole Foods. Just as when buying anything, be sure to read labels…but also don’t be fooled by them! Just recently I learned that “grass-fed” beef may mean that a cow was fed corn/grains/sprinkles its entire life right up until the bitter end when it was fed grass just before slaughter. By doing this, meat wholesalers are able to charge more by slapping the “grass-fed” label on the package. So, when buying red meat, look for words like “grass-fed, grass-finished” or “100% grass-fed.” For eggs, it’s complicated. See this article for the lowdown, but generally look for “organic eggs from pasture-raised hens” or buy them from a farmer you trust. (You really can’t go wrong with trustworthy farmers!) See the chart in this link for assistance when choosing chicken and pork and the chart in this link for a guide to buying the highest-quality fish. Truly, so many food-related industries are trying to trick us. Don’t succumb! Ask questions, do your research, and be the smartest consumer.
- Become best friends with your slow cooker. Truly, anyone can be a “chef” with a slow cooker. I have not mastered the art of slow cooking, but I have mastered the art of Googling and Pinterest-ing recipes for wholesome slow cooker meals. There are thousands out there! (I have owned an older version of this slow cooker for year, and it still works like a charm!)
- Other best friends:
- High-quality fruit oils like olive oil (for finishing), avocado oil (for cooking), and coconut oil (also for cooking)
- Simple spices like Redmond’s Real Salt (for finishing and cooking), fresh-ground pepper, garlic powder, Old Bay, Hot Old Bay (my best best friend), onion powder, red chili pepper flakes, dried organic oregano, dried organic thyme, and dried herbes de provence
- A cast-iron pan (avoid non-stick skillets to reduce your exposure to harmful toxins)
- Embrace leftovers. Think you need to whip up a new meal every night? Think again! I’m a big fan of eating leftovers for lunch the next day and/or dinner the next night. Also, get creative with your original dish. For example, of you make “The Easiest Roast Chicken You’ll Ever Make“ (according to Bon Appetit), use the leftovers to whip up a simple chicken salad. (Unfortunately, mass-produced rotisserie chickens–like the $4.99 ones at Costco–are usually highly processed and contain additives like thickeners and sugars. Circling back to the common theme: it’s always best to make your own!) Hate eating the same thing two days/nights in a row? Freeze your leftovers so that you have a dinner prepped for a night next week or next month!
- Eat eggs for dinner. Eggs are not only delicious, but they’re also nutritious and super easy to make. Don’t lump them into the “breakfast” category. Expand your horizons!
When you do eat at a restaurant, it’s easy to adopt some simple hacks that will make your meal healthier (like your home-cooked ones).
- Ditch the restaurant’s dressings. Most are filled with unhealthy oils and ridiculous amounts of sugar. Instead, ask your waiter for olive oil and vinegar to create your own dressing. (Pro tip for the most delicious salad, according to Bobby Flay: “Season the greens and vegetables with salt and pepper before dressing them. It draws out their flavors. Never pour the vinaigrette right on the greens—that destroys them. Pour the dressing around the sides of the bowl, and then, using your hands, gently push the greens into the dressing to coat them. This way, you don’t have to use all the dressing. You want the greens glistening, not limp. Once the leaves are dressed to your liking, gently transfer them to a plate.”
- Ask for condiments on the side. Like dressings, ketchup, barbecue sauce, and other condiments are also filled with sugar. Use them sparingly or–better yet!–not at all! (Yellow and dijon mustards, however, are fair game. Yum!)
- Avoid any dishes that are smothered in sauces. Similar to condiments, sauces like marinara and teriyaki are also–you guessed it!–filled with sugar and other unhealthy additives. Avoid these at all costs.
- This one should be rather obvious, but stick to the grilled, sautéed, steamed, broiled, etc., foods rather than the fried ones. (I know…this one pains me, too!)
Bottom line: Recognize that no restaurant or take-out dish–even if it’s a salad!–will be as healthy as the one you can make at home. Just cook (or quickly prepare) meals for yourself!
Are you new to cooking/preparing your own meals? If so, please share your helpful tips so that we can all boost our confidence in the kitchen!
In each blog post, I aim to bring you food for thought (pun intended. Note: my day job is teaching English), but don’t take my word for it! Click on and read all of the links above to become your own expert on this topic; knowledge is power. The more you know and understand the “why” behind each biohack, the easier it will be to stick to it and realize you can’t live without it!