How to Cook Real Food in Real Time

How to Cook Real Food in Real Time

You know you don’t want to eat processed food. I know you don’t want to eat processed food. And we both know that the rubber meets the road at about 5:00 every weeknight when you open the fridge, exhausted, and there’s nothing–or at least nothing that doesn’t seem daunting–in the fridge.

So let’s just step back and take a few deep breaths. Because I’m about to tell you something that will change that whole scene.

Making the choice to cook real food on a regular basis doesn’t happen at 5:00. It happens every moment of every day by thinking about food differently, looking at food differently, treating food differently. It’s a thread that subtly weaves its way through your everyday life and, ultimately, changes the pattern of the way you live.

It takes a few good months of persevering to complete that weaving. But here’s the really, really good news: Once you’ve gotten through the Peaks and Valleys of Practice and integrated planning for, shopping for and cooking real food into your daily rhythm, you’ll find weaning off processed food is a lot easier than you think. And that the long-term rewards are well worth that initial push.

So let’s paint a different scenario, shall we?

You open the fridge and know exactly what you’re going to make, with everything you need at your fingertips. You feel calm and peaceful as you prep, because you’ve chosen food you feel good about and know how to cook … so it all happens naturally.

Your smile lingers as you sit down at the table and serve the meal you’ve made. I made this, says a giddy little voice from deep down within you, flush with accomplishment and gratitude that extends to everyone who has touched that meal.

So what do you say … ready to get to the Land of NOURISH? Here are our favorite free resources to thread real food into your life:

Tools and Pantry: Set Yourself Up for Success

Don’t underestimate the importance of a good pan or a nice, sturdy cutting board. They are the gatekeepers between real food being realistic (and a pleasure to cook) and real food being a chore that makes you want to tear your hair out. Here’s our Essential Tools Checklist, along with advice on how to choose and use the mother of all implements — the knife.

Next up, make sure you have what you need in your pantry to be able to pull together a quick dinner. (Here’s my formula: fresh, seasonal produce + pantry staples = sensational meals). Read here about Building a Healthy Pantry and stock up with our Essential Pantry Checklist. However … a pantry is just a bunch of stuff in the cabinet unless you know how to make it relevant. To learn, read our Love Your Lists article, watch our How to Use Your Lists video, and print out our Par Stock Worksheet to get started.

Two more articles you might enjoy while you’re rethinking your pantry: Relandscape Your Kitchen — about how to put the “out of sight, out of mind” principle to work for you — and Breaking the Plastic Addiction.

The Miracle of Found Time: Meal Planning and More

“Meal planning” sounds like such drudgery. What about “meal dreaming” or “dish fantasizing”? The truth is, there are some simple habits and skills you can nurture that will make it infinitely more fun to make your meals–whether days ahead or on the fly.

Read about how I plan my meals, and how Alison shapes her week to make real food — planning, shopping for and making — doable during the week. And don’t forget about leftovers! (If you snub leftovers, repeat after me: “Leftovers are my friend. Leftovers are my friend.”) Learn how to Make Your Dishes Do Double Duty and Make Leftovers Loveable along with their cousin, Freezing.

In the Kitchen: Essential Techniques to Save Time and Add Magic to Your Meals

You absolutely, positively don’t need to be a chef to cook awesome meals with real food on a regular basis. But it does help to have some basic techniques and know-how under your belt. Watch my Kitchen Tips Video Clips series here, and read about three techniques that transformed my time in the kitchen here in Back to Basics.

Once you’ve got the basics down, learn how to use umami to boost the drool-factor. Knowing how to use salt and “indulgence fats” wisely to build flavor, along with little tweaks you can do to balance the flavors a dish, will improve your cooking exponentially with almost no effort at all.

In the Kitchen: Choose and Cook Real Foods with Confidence

Remember I talked about the thread of real food weaving through your everyday life? A big part of that is feeling good about the ingredients you’re buying, and confident enough in your choices that you’re not falling into shouldangst over every decision. And then there’s the prep … and the storage. Dealing a few bunches of Swiss chard is a lot different than dealing with frozen lasagna. I’m just saying.

Here are our best resources for choosing and using real food ingredients.


Supermarket veggies are a start if you’re coming from pizza and Subway, but I’ll tell you, there is nothing like fresh-picked, locally grown produce. Learn how to plug into your local farm scene (yes, there probably is one) with CSA 101, or find a farmers’ market near you.

Blah blah, blah blah, blah blah. That’s what you’ve probably been hearing during that last paragraph if you’ve got a picky eater in the house (and let’s be honest, when we say “picky” we mean “doesn’t eat vegetables”). But did you know that it takes a few weeks to retrain taste buds? And that it can take 8-10 (some studies say up to 18) exposures to a food before you learn to like it? What’s more, vegetables prepared one way can taste completely different than another way (think boiled carrots vs. roasted).

All that to say, I strongly encourage you to try–several times, in several different ways–all kinds of veggies. Get started with Get Your Greens, and then learn how to zip them clean in no time. But don’t stop there … explore Butternut (Squash) and Beyond and our Root Vegetable Roundup slideshow. The awesome thing is, there is sooo much you can do with vegetables. Check out our Whole Meal Salads slideshow and 10 Ways to Dress Up Your Veggies for ideas.

Whole Grains

Whole grains are awesome. When I first stretched my wings with whole grains (I was writing a feature for Prevention), I felt like I’d discovered a whole new world hidden behind the brown rice. Beautiful little quinoa beads, nutty farro, millet and more. See my Get a New Grain series here for how to buy, store and cook seven different kinds of whole grains. If you’re short on time, go to 20-Minute Whole Grains for ideas on how to use quick-cooking varieties.

Meat, Chicken and Eggs

To feel really good about what you eat, you’ve got to have your eyes wide open. And that means knowing what labels really mean. Learn what “Grass Fed,” “Grain Finished,” “Organic” and more mean on meat labels in Where’s Your Beef Been?, how to navigate tricky egg labeling in Label Lingo, and how to source local meat and eggs in Community Supported Pasture.

What’s the best way to cook meat? Two of my favorite weekend techniques (they take awhile to cook) for super-succulent beef and pork are Braising and Dry Braising. During the week, I rely on Making Flavor with a Pan Sauce for fast, one-pan meals. And if chicken breasts are ubiquitous in your household, then for the love of God, read 5 Ways with Chicken Breasts for some new inspiration.


Most people I meet are stressed out by seafood. They don’t know what to choose, they don’t know how to cook it, and they really don’t think they’ll like it. I get it. It’s unfamiliar territory. But, honestly, fish and seafood is not that scary once a) you know what to buy and b) you’ve cooked it a few times. Really.

How about you see for yourself? Read this article on Turning the Tide Towards Sustainable Seafood and you’ll know what “sustainable seafood” means and how you can pick it. I’ve even laid out a script for you to use at the fish counter in Start a Conversation About Seafood.

So what should you buy? The bottom line is here in Go Wild, Farm Fresh Fish and Why Frozen Seafood Can Be Better Than Fresh. For a list of several goodies to choose from, check out our Super Seven Sustainable Picks here, here and here. And now that my daughter asks for clams and mussels several times a month, How ‘Bout Them Bivalves is near and dear to my heart, and I hope it will be to yours, too.

OK. All ready to get cooking with real food? Fantastic. Forge ahead with 10 Ways to Make Fresh Food Fast.

Save Money: Cooking with Real Food Can Actually Save You Money

Admit it, one of the little gremlins that crawls onto your shoulder when we talk about grass-fed beef and sustainable seafood, and locally grown vegetables is the one who whispers, “but that’s all so expensive … I can’t afford that!”

Well I’m just going to whack that little guy off of there, and you’ll want to join me when you read Is Healthy Really Too Expensive? 7 Ways to Save and my $5 Challenge. When you weave (there’s that lovely thread again) habits into your life like Shopping in Bulk Bins, Using Everything to Stretch Your Food Budget and Turning Scraps into Soup, you save money. When you reshape your plate and Cut Back on Food Waste, you spend on the good stuff while saving money overall.

So what do you say … are you ready to move ahead on your NOURISH evolution from processed to real food once and for all? Awesome. Start by signing up here and I’ll send you a weekly recipe and inspiration to keep you going. And keep an eye out … I’ll be touching base now and then to see how you’re doing on your journey and what I can do to keep you moving.

I’m so glad you’re here!

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