Health Check / Plan early to eat well
Updated 3:17 pm, Friday, March 23, 2018
Editor’s note: Reporter Sophie Vaughan takes over our monthly Health Check column and shares with us the skill of meal planning it appears she has perfected.
I ate in the dining hall for all four years at the small Vermont college I attended, which made the transition to cooking post-college a learning curve.
Sure, I cooked for myself over the summers and the semester I studied abroad in Madrid, Spain. But during those periods I would primarily make roasted vegetables and pastas with store-bought marinara sauce and nothing I made tasted good because I used few seasonings. These foods surely didn’t satisfy all my food groups, leaving me semi-malnourished and still hungry after multiple servings of pasta, which didn’t help my waistline.
When Hearst Connecticut Media Group hired me as a reporter and I moved to the area in the fall, I vowed to cook good food because journalism schedules are notoriously long and unpredictable. I knew if I didn’t plan for — and cook — good food at the beginning of the week, I would resort to take-out and my health, and thus my work, would suffer.
Also, with the periods of cooking for myself no longer temporary and the vast swath of adulthood before me, I understood I could either become the healthy person I want to be or I could not, and I wanted to be the former.
On the recommendation of a friend, I bought “Great Food Fast: 250 Recipes for Easy, Delicious Meals All Year Long,” by Martha Stewart Living Magazine, and set out to cook all of my meals for the week each Sunday.
The first few weeks — really months — were difficult.
I cooked too much food and was left with much spoiled food waste at the end of the week. Instead of overestimating how much food I would need in the fear I might run out, I began to plan how much food to make in accordance with the recipe’s stated number of servings.
If a recipe serves four, I know it will sustain me for about four lunches, which helps for planning purposes and also portion control. I choose two recipes, one for lunch, usually a recipe that serves four, and one for dinner for Sunday through Thursday or Friday, which serves between four and six.
For lunch I try and choose a lighter recipe, something high in protein and vegetables that doesn’t slow me down during the work day and for dinner, something heavier, maybe a pasta. Because I eat the same meals all week, I try and choose recipes that include multiple food groups, ideally a vegetable, grain, and protein and, if one recipe is heavy on one food group, I round it out by choosing for my second recipe one that compensates for the food groups the first lacked.
For both recipes, I choose something that’s easily packageable into containers for work.
When I went home for Christmas, my mom gave me a new cookbook: “One-Pan Wonders: Fuss-free meals for your sheet pan, dutch oven, skillet, roasting pan, casserole, and slow cooker,” which I now use almost exclusively due to the ease of cooking each recipe in one device and the book’s wide variety of dishes. I highly recommend!
Some of my favorite lunch recipes from the America’s Test Kitchen book include lemon-herbed cod fillets with crispy garlic potatoes, herbed salmon cakes with asparagus and lemon-herb sauce. For dinner, I’ve enjoyed the chicken stew with cheddar biscuits, lentils and rice with yogurt sauce and crunchy toasted almonds, and creamy pasta with mushrooms, butternut squash and pine nuts.
While at first cooking for the week felt a burden, I’ve come to enjoy my routine. When the weekend begins, I flip through my cookbook, eagerly choosing what two recipes to make for the coming week as if I’m choosing from a menu. It became more fun when I decided to only choose recipes I genuinely want to eat, because eating something I did not enjoy, for multiple days in a row, was unpleasant.
I try to start cooking early Sunday afternoon, ideally after lunch, because the whole ritual always takes longer than I expect, an average of three hours for two recipes, and cooking late into the night on a Sunday is not a fun or relaxing way to start the week and also doesn’t give the food enough time to cool down before I put it in the refrigerator.
However much I pretend to be Julia Child, and love the film “Julie and Julia,” I’m still a 22-year-old woman that has only been cooking for herself for a few months, so I turned to two local chefs for expert advice and answers to my most pressing food-prep questions.
A large point of stress in my food-preparation is how long food lasts, especially meats.
Matt Perotta, a chef with Garelick and Herbs, a prepared-foods store and cafe and catering company with locations in Southport, Westport, New Canaan, and Greenwich, said roasted vegetables usually last about three days in the refrigerator and meats about the same, so if you know you’re not going to eat the food within three days, freeze the rest and defrost it later in the week. Frozen meals should be eaten within a week, Perotta said, so to avoid freezer burn.
How long chicken lasts depends on its freshness, Jonathan Mathias, a chef and owner of the Westport-based catering company A Dash of Salt, said. He recommends buying organic chicken for ultimate freshness.
Neither chef follows my schedule of cooking two recipes for the week and, consequently, take a less rigid approach.
“The sides are always the things that are easiest to prep ahead,” Perrotta said, noting he cooks a sauce, such as a bolognese or marinara, and roasted vegetables on the weekends and then will add these ingredients to a meat, fish, pasta, or rice and beans each night of the week.
Mathias pushed back on my strategy of preparing all my food on Sunday, saying it’s a very American idea.
“We tend to isolate and compartmentalize,” Matthias said, adding he prefers a more European approach to food prep in which he goes to the store each day and follows his whims. “I know I want to have dinner, but I go to the market and I see what’s fresh. The idea that you’re eating Brussels sprouts in July when it’s a winter crop doesn’t make sense.
“I use everything I purchase,” he added. “My kids like steak and so I’ll cook them a couple of steaks and then the next night we might have soft-tacos with sliced steak and other ingredients so you can keep it moving.”
Matthias is right that when I prep my food for the week I lose spontaneity and may overlook a seasonal food because it’s not built into my recipe, but I do try and observe what’s in season at the grocery store and factor that into my planning for the following week.
In the end, I think Matthias and I have the same goal: to eat real, cook, unprocessed, home-made food, which most food experts and health professionals say is the key to maintaining a healthy weight and lifestyle, which I have since I began meal prep.
“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants,” as food-writer Michael Pollan famously said.
Preparing my food for the week on Sunday is how I accomplish Pollan’s mantra; you choose what works for you.