This is a guest-post from one of our ‘fitnatters’, Carol Cooney, talking about how to get started with cooking healthy meal recipes from scratch.
Why a growing number of people don’t cook from scratch
People are becoming more and more disconnected with the food they eat, and for me this starts when you buy it ready-made rather than making it yourself. When you cook for yourself you pick the ingredients, cook and season as you prefer and know exactly what you are eating.
The reasons people don’t cook are many and personal, but some of the most common ones I hear are below. I will attempt to debunk the feeling that cooking from scratch is hard and laborious, and clear the path towards easy and tasty home cooking.
1. It takes too long.
Typically I would expect to make a simple meal in the same time as it takes to order a takeaway, or pop a ready meal dinner in the oven. Simple meals usually only have a few ingredients and a couple of steps in the preparation and cooking. Depending on what you make, once you do the first bit it can simply sit and do its own thing whilst you do other jobs. Simple doesn’t mean boring, it just means simple, a few good ingredients and not much preparation work.
2. I don’t know how.
Start with easy dishes like blended soup or tomato sauce for pasta. Nothing complicated, and a hand blender hides rough chopping!
Recipes are great, but watching some easy to follow TV shows can help you understand a few simple ways to prepare and cook food. Again focus on simple meals rather than trying to recreate a full banquet.
3. It costs too much.
If you have bare cupboards and you have to go and buy all the staples in one go, yes this might cost more than buying a few ready meals but once the first week’s shop is in it’s really easy to keep to a manageable budget. Start with swapping a few meals a week and build up the larder over time. Once you get going you will only have to top up rather than buy everything. I now find I very rarely do what I would consider a big shop. The cost of basic ingredients over time is considerably less than buying processed food. If you consider a jar of pasta sauce, not only is there the cost of the ingredients, but transportation, packaging, marketing, actually making it and storing it, and that’s all got to make a profit for all the different companies in that supply chain. The amount of money left to spend on the actual ingredients isn’t that much once you have paid for everything else. This is why *some* are packed with cheap ingredients and then nasty additives are used to make it taste nicer than the quality of the ingredients would usually suggest.
Where to start with cooking healthy meal recipes from scratch
You might be wondering what to do first, that’s totally natural. Don’t expect to go from a ready-meal-lover to gourmet chef overnight, like everything worthwhile it takes time and practice, but you can easily knock out a simple tasty dinner straight away. A simple tomato pasta sauce is one of the easiest things to start with. Once you get the basic version to your liking, you can add all sorts – herbs, chilli, capers, olives, garlic etc. You can then develop this into a bolognese, lasagne filling, pizza topping; the possibilities are endless.
How to make tomato sauce
Don’t feel the need to measure this or worry if your onion is the same size as mine, no tomato sauce will ever taste exactly the same, that is how real food should be.
What you need
This will make enough tomato sauce to cover pasta for four people.
- 1 white/brown onion
- 1 tin of plum tomatoes. Try to buy these rather than chopped tomatoes, as the chopped ones are usually regular salad style toms and lack the richness and sweetness of a plum one.
- good glug of olive oil. Don’t go mad but don’t be mean either, make sure you have enough to cover the onions properly. The oil is part of the flavour of your sauce so use a nice one, I prefer extra virgin, probably because of the name
- seasoning to taste
- sugar – you might or might not want a pinch of this, it depends on the tomatoes. Sugar brings out tomatoes’ sweetness and is used by all good cooks!
I don’t include garlic in my most basic sauce, I consider that an extra to play with once you get going.
How to make it
Add the oil to a regular sized frying pan, let it gently warm through while you chop the onion, don’t add an onion to cold oil cos it just doesn’t taste as nice!
Chop your onion as you see fit, it’s getting blended so you don’t have to be very neat. The rule of thumb is the smaller you chop, the quicker it cooks. Tiny isn’t always best as it can mean you burn the onion if you don’t watch over it. There are various ways to chop an onion, if it bothers you, then there are videos showing you how. Heck you can even buy frozen ready-chopped while you get your cooking hand in. For a soup or sauce being blended it doesn’t matter how you chop it though.
Add the onions to the oil and give them a good stir so they get evenly coated in the warm oil. Cook on a low to medium heat, you want the onions soft and sweet, not burnt and tough. When the onions go translucent and you can see the faint lines on them, they are done. If you rush this you still get a nice sauce, but the onions have sugar in them that makes them lovely and sweet if you have a little patience here.
Now you can add your tinned tomatoes. You can either mash them with your spoon once in the pan, or with a potato masher, or crush using your hands as you tip them in the pan, I like getting messy and use my hands to smash them up, it means I can feel for any hard end bits you sometimes get.
*I usually get my pasta on at this point, the sauce is ready when the pasta is done. For pasta you need a large saucepan of boiling salted water, then just drop the dried pasta into it to cook, making sure it’s all covered with water. It’ll take about 12 mins, depending how thick the pasta shapes are. To test if it’s ready just hook a bit out and try it. Use 60-100g of dry pasta per person, depending how big they are!
You can now add your seasoning, I like lots of pepper, but you can add as much or as little as you like. The beauty of making your own sauce is it tastes how you want it to, not how the food manufacturer wants it to. Salt, go easy until you get used to the salt you use. If you use sea salt flakes, like Maldon, you can typically use a bit more compared to table salt as it’s not as concentratedly ‘salty’. Add it and taste it, you can always add more if you need to. Stir the seasoning through and see how it tastes after a minute.
*if you add Parmesan to the dish to serve, be aware it adds a saltiness so don’t over salt the sauce.
At this point you might want to add a pinch of sugar to lift the flavour of the tomatoes, again add a bit then taste it.
Once you are happy with the taste you are done, get the hand blender out and whizz it to your preferred consistency then simply toss your pasta through it with a little pasta water and eat. If you don’t have a hand blender just go in there with a potato masher to smooth it out a little.
The next time you make it, you can experiment with any other bits you want to try, to make it your own sauce. Start with a very basic version so that you understand how it tastes before you add other layers to it. If you miss this part out, you won’t know what is ‘missing’ when you start adding more flavours and its not quite right.
Where to go from here
A simple tomato sauce is a wonderful thing to be able to quickly make for yourself and your family. It’s quick, easy and absolutely nasty free. You can adapt it into pizza sauce, develop it into Bolognese or even chilli, your children can make it with you and you can hide vegetables in it if they don’t like veg, then gradually unhide them over the weeks (best to get them started on liking veg so you don’t have to hide anything). Once you master this you have a foundation for other simple meals, you can get neater at chopping things up and start to add more layers of flavour and discover your inner chef. You can find tons of tasty, simple healthy meal recipes and weekly diet meal plans from fitnaturally, here are a few below.
A few easy recipes