How often has this happened to you: You're hungry, standing in front of a fridge and pantry full of healthy food, but you have NO idea what to make! It's completely normal, and for some, can be the most difficult part of cooking healthy at home—how do you put everything together? Or how can you go beyond the handful of dishes you know how to make and break free from the baked chicken breast and salad?
There are many, easy ways to push past these two obstacles and figure out what to make with confidence.
Narrow It Down
Part of what can trip you up is the sheer volume of combinations of what to put together to make a meal. To make this simpler, you can take two approaches: you can focus on what you have already or you can use some ways to narrow down what you’re going to buy if you need to stock up.
If you've already shopped for the week, start by creating an inventory of what you have on hand. Look in the fridge and the pantry and jot down a list of what you have on hand (you'd be surprised at just how many things you forgot about since you bought them).
Keep this list to what you would use in a meal, like proteins, vegetables, fruits, grains, and any other additional perishable items like herbs. No need to add smaller items like condiments, snacks or baking ingredients. Put a star next to the ingredients you have a lot of (like a large bag of sweet potatoes) and perishable items that need to be used soon.
If you're looking to go grocery shopping and maybe plan out some meals for the week, you can narrow down your options by looking at what's in season and what's on sale. If you're not sure what's in season in your area, check Local Harvest or simply look up "What's in season in [your area]." With this search, you can see what produce is easy to find at any grocery store or farmer's market in your area. Sales at grocery stores can also help you decide what to buy for the week. Seasonal produce will usually be on sale, as well as other ingredients that can help you decide what you want to work with. If you don't get sales flyers in the mail for your local grocery store, check their websites for what's on sale that week.
Whichever method you're using, pick one main ingredient to start with to find a recipe.
Where to Go
Now that you have one ingredient to focus on, it's time to figure out how to use it to make a great meal. You can look in a number of places to find a recipe to cook from.
Like with most topics, the internet has millions of recipes that you can choose from. With your narrowed down ingredient, you can have a more direct search to find something to cook. The biggest pool to start with would be doing a search in your search engine.
You can start with keywords like "healthy [ingredient] dinner recipes," "healthy [ingredient] recipes", or "healthy [ingredient] entree recipes." If this brings too many results, you can try some sites that will narrow it down even further.
If you're a visual person, try looking on Pinterest. Once you search something in pinterest, you can also refine your result even more with suggested keywords right under the search bar.
You can also check out recipe websites to find what to make. More and more magazines like Eating Well, Cooking Light, Food and Wine, and Bon Appetit and are putting their recipes online. You can also look at sites like Healthy Aperture, Tastespotting, Yummly and Foodily that have additional search filters to help you get to the recipe that interests you.
The original way of gathering and finding recipes, cookbooks are a great place to find a recipe. Look through the index in the back of book to find the specific ingredient you’re looking to make a meal with.
Cooking magazines are good way to find seasonal recipes. If you don’t already subscribe to a cooking magazine, you can find the latest copies in your library and at any grocery store or bookstore. Lots of cookbook magazines are now also available online. You can buy digital copies online or you can borrow them through your local library (check to see if your library offers a digital magazine service).
Picking the Right Recipe for You
Now that you’ve gone searching for recipes, pull a few aside that interest you. If you’ve been stuck in a food rut, choose recipes that are different to what you’ve been making over the past few days or weeks. Once you’ve got 4 to 5 recipes, go through and read them with some considerations in mind.
The Ingredient List:
Start with the ingredient list. If you’re not shopping before making this recipe, read this section very carefully. Do you have all (or most) of the ingredients on hand? If you don’t, do you have something you can use as a substitute (Some recipes will mention substitute options)? Could you leave out any of the ingredients and still get a good dish? Often times a recipe with call for spices and you may not have all of them, and that’s okay (unless it’s the main flavor). If you don’t have fresh herbs, but you have dried that’s fine. If the recipe you put aside calls for a lot of certain ingredient and you don’t have it (and aren’t going shopping), save it for later, but move on to another recipe for now. If you’re not really sure what to use from your pantry to replace anything missing, set it aside for now.
If you are shopping before cooking this recipe, are the ingredients you need to buy foods you would eat again? Often times, the recipe can call for a spice, oil, or other pantry ingredient that doesn’t require using the entire amount of the food to make your recipe.
If it’s new to your kitchen, consider the shelf life of the ingredient (especially if it’s perishable) and think on if you’re really going to use it again before it goes bad or just sits on a shelf for years. If it’s a new ingredient that you’re interested in, make plans to find recipes that will continue to use this ingredient while it’s still good.
Techniques and Equipment:
As you read the recipe, do you feel comfortable with the amount of steps and techniques involved in the recipe? If you want to make something quickly and the recipe you’re reading has 20-30 steps, maybe this isn’t the time for this recipe. Do you have all of the equipment or tools to make the recipe? If you’re willing to invest the money into a new appliance, tool or piece of kitchen equipment, also ask yourself if it’s something you know you’ll use a lot. If not, consider a different recipe.
How much time does this recipe take to make? Most recipes will call out how much time they take. If not, simply add up the times mentioned in the instructions. How much time do you want to spend cooking? If this recipe takes several hours or any day-ahead prep, save it for another time and move on, especially if you’re looking for a meal to make that night.
Last, but certainly not least, is the most important part of the recipe: how healthy is it? How many ingredients are plant-based, nutritionally dense, healthy or minimally processed? Do any of the techniques involve quite a bit of pan frying or deep frying instead of baking or roasting? If you’re interested in end product of the recipe, try searching for a healthier version of this recipe to consider instead.
As you consider the ingredients, techniques, equipment needed, time, and healthy factor, recipes you initially chose will start to fall to the wayside. If they’re still interesting, just not for right now, save them for another occasion. This way you can have a stockpile of recipes to reference when you’re trying to figure out what to make tomorrow or next week. If you’re meal planning, go through this process a few times to figure out the rest the meals you want to make for the week. If you’re just cooking for right now, go for it and make a great, healthy meal!
Aimée Suen is a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner who shares nourishing, gluten-free recipes and nutrition wisdom at Small Eats. She is driven to help others enjoy whole foods and empower them to find their own healthy in all aspects of life, one small step at a time. When she’s not in the kitchen, she’s practicing yoga, in the gym, or learning something new. You can find Aimée on Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest.
Second Photo Credit: toocanimages/shutterstock.com; Third Photo Credit: photobyphotoboy/shutterstock.com; Fourth Photo Credit: jannoon028/shutterstock.com; Fifth Photo Credit: Evgeny Karandaev/shutterstock.com; Sixth Photo Credit: Alexeysun/shutterstock.com