March is Nutrition Month, and you might think that means I'm going to talk about what you should eat. But the chances are you already know what to eat. In fact, in a recent study, 85% of Americans were aware of functional foods (those that pack a health punch beyond their nutritional value), but less than 50% of us are actually eating them. Do you know how to make something out of Quinoa? No? Then what use is it to know that it's healthy? Our problem isn't that we don't know what to eat—it's that we don't know how to cook.
As a nation, we have demanded quick, easy meals, and insisted it's all we have time for. In my practice, all I hear is that people are too busy and too stressed to cook. But is time really the problem? In a previous generation, we learned to cook from our parents, especially our mothers. I myself am of the first generation that was raised largely with the packaged foods that became available in the 1960s and 1970s. And I can see the influence of this food in people of my generation—I go to their homes and no one is using the stove. Often, they don't really even know how to. They've turned to prepared, processed foods out of necessity, not just time constraints.
And let's just be clear—opening a package is not cooking. In 2011, a recent study found, 72% of meals were prepared at home. This was an unexpected piece of good news out of a bad economy. But it's mixed good news, because a lot of that "preparation" wasn't really cooking; it was plating up processed foods.
The fact is, it's not just about eating at home—it's about buying whole foods and actually cooking them. Says Karen Ansel, Spokeswoman of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, contributor of Woman’s Day, and co-author of Healthy In A Hurry: Simple, Wholesome Recipes for Every Meal of the Day, "Cooking your own meals is the number one way to take control of what you eat. When you cook your own food you're in charge of everything that goes into it from fat, to calories, to salt to portion size." If you want to eat healthy—let alone manage your weight—you are going to need to get acquainted with your kitchen. And not just the freezer and microwave, either.
Where can you start? By equipping yourself with tools and knowledge. For years I would visit my brother's house, and every time I went they would ask me to cook my homemade lasagna. But when I would ask where the knife and cutting board were, they didn't have even basic tools. So, every Christmas I bought them kitchen utensils and supplies. Now, my sister-in-law has learned from watching me and from experimenting with the things I bought them, and she's cooking for herself. She tells me she wants to be able to teach her kids to cook—since no one taught her. If this describes you as well, March is the month to start making a change. It is not too late to take control of your kitchen, and to learn to cook.
First, you need to outfit the kitchen. But don't buy so much kitchen stuff that every time you open a cupboard a pan falls out on your head. Keep it simple. Invest in a cutting board and a couple of good knives. For pans you really just need a roasting pan, a baking dish, a medium-sized skillet, and a 5-quart saucepan. Those are the basic tools for roasting, sautéing and boiling anything from meat to pasta and vegetables.
Second, you need to enlist some help. Look around your community—there may be a local cooking class offered, or even someone in your family who is a good cook and doesn't mind taking you through a few recipes. You don't need a big repertoire—you need to be able to make a few basics. Learn to roast a chicken, for example, and you can break it down to top a salad; to stuff a burrito or quesadilla; to go in a pasta sauce; to be the base of a chili. From cooking just one thing, you can get the base of several fresh, healthy meals. You just need to make a start. This March. Now.
Manuel Villacorta is a registered dietitian (RD) and certified specialist is sports dietetics (CSSD) with more than 16 years of experience. He is a national media spokesperson for the Academy of Dietetics and Nutrition and the Author of Eating Free and creator of the Eating Free weight management program (an international, Internet-based weight loss and weight management program). He is an in-demand health and nutrition expert on both local and national television and radio, and in articles in print publications and online. Villacorta is the owner of San Francisco-based private practice MV Nutrition, the recipient of three consecutive ‘‘Best Bay Area Dietitian’’ awards (2008, 2009 and 2010) from the San Francisco Chronicle and Citysearch.