By Ciana Hamilton
Eating well doesn’t have to mean spending lots of money. It’s a common misconception that healthy food is costly food and this false narrative can be a contributing factor to household food insecurity. One step to liberating yourself from oppressive food systems is learning about how food nourishes your body, how to shop for fresh foods, and how to prepare simple healthy meals. For me, years of surviving on little money forced me to learn how to shop and cook for myself. I was tired of spending money (that I didn’t have) on take-out or eating heavily processed ‘easy’ meals. I wanted to share what I’ve learned with folks who may find themselves wandering aimlessly in the produce section at the grocery store, or the person who avoids cooking because they were never taught how to cook.
First things first, you have to have the right set up and tools. Buying kitchen supplies doesn’t have to be expensive. Gather a few at a time and check out places like thrift stores, dollar stores or clearance sections at department stores. Here are some bare-bones basics to get you started:
- Set of knives
- Cutting board
- Can opener
- Spatula, cooking spoon
- Mixing bowl
- Vegetable peeler
- A medium-sized saucepan, frying pan and baking sheet
- Tin foil (parchment paper or beeswax wraps work well too)
You will almost always need some sort of oil in order to make a decent meal. Trust me, you don’t want to make scrambled eggs with a dry pan. Your best option is going to be Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO). Olive oil is high in healthy fats like omega 3 and 6 as well as monounsaturated fats. A bottle of EVOO can last a long time, so if you can, spend the extra money. Another great cooking oil is coconut oil. If your diet allows, butter or ghee are also great alternatives to oils and add extra flavour to most dishes. Avoid cooking oils such as vegetable oil and canola oil. These cooking oils are usually much cheaper but they are heavily processed and unhealthy.
Onions and Garlic
There are very few recipes that don’t call for either onion or garlic. Having these two ingredients on deck at all times is crucial to making food that is full of flavour.
How to shop: Buy a head of garlic every time you do groceries, you won’t regret it! You can also buy pre minced garlic that you keep in the fridge. Big time saver. Yellow and white onions offer the most flexibility; you can use them in just about any recipe due to the mild flavor. Red onion is cool too but tends to be sharper in taste and can be really noticeable in meals.
How to store: I always keep my onions and garlic in a cool dark place. If you only use half of an onion, wrap the remaining onion in either tin foil, wax paper or plastic wrap. Put it in the crisper of your fridge and it will last an extra week.
Canned and Dry Goods
Buying canned or dried pantry items is a great idea if you’re on a budget and need groceries with a long shelf life.
How to shop: For dry foods, it’s best to shop at a bulk store. Buying dried bulk goods is perfect if you live alone or only need a small quantity of something. Things like rice, pasta, beans, coffee, spices, flour, sugar and more can be found at most bulk stores. You can buy as much or as little as you want! Be mindful when shopping in bulk — it can add up quickly. Remember to weigh your items to get a better idea of how much it will cost before going to the register. You can also bring containers from home to reduce your use of single-use plastic bags.
For canned food items, always check the ingredient lists for any weird or sketchy-sounding preservatives. Most canned items will have preservatives but there should not be a ton listed on the ingredient list. Always a good idea to check the sodium content as well as the expiry date. Canned items such as diced tomatoes, beans, tuna, and soups are great pantry items.
How to store and prepare:
You can store dry food in glass jars, plastic containers or keep them in the bag you purchased it in. You can start to get into the habit of using containers from other items like glass pasta sauce jars or large yogurt containers to store your dry goods. For canned items such as beans, it’s always best practice to rinse them well before cooking or consuming (mention why — sodium content?). Canned soups are easy to make since it’s typically just heat and serve.
Spices and Seasonings
One of the hardest things for me in the kitchen was building up my spice rack. It’s something we often forget about but spices are absolutely paramount to cooking.
How to shop: Basic spices can be found at major grocery stores and are usually reasonably priced. Some staples you want to have are: salt, black pepper, cumin, ginger, curry powder, Italian seasoning, chili powder, paprika and turmeric. For recipes that call for more specific seasonings, hit up that bulk store and buy what you need for the meal you’re making.
Rice! Once you get this basic meal down, you can only go up from there. Your first pot of rice might be a bust but don’t fret, it will get easier and soon it’ll become easy!
How to shop:
Buying rice seems like it would be straightforward but there are many different varieties of rice. It can be intimidating if you don’t know some basics. Rice can be divided into three main categories: long-grain, medium-grain, and short-grain. Long grain rice types are light and fluffy while short-grain rice tends to be thick and sticky. Different types of rice have different flavour profiles as well; basmati rice tends to be slightly nutty in flavour while jasmine rice is subtle and sweet. The type of rice you choose should be determined by what meal you’re making. If you’re going for a curry or a dal, basmati is best. If you’re looking to do a simple rice and beans or fried rice, you want a white or brown long-grain variety.
How to prepare:
This is a basic guide and different kinds of rice will have different directions, but as a general rule, remember these tips:
- Rinse your rice under cold water for about 30 seconds; it makes a difference.
- Your base cooking ratio is always one cup of rice to two cups of water.
- Using a medium sized saucepan, you always want to bring your water to a boil first before adding the rice.
- Once your rice is in the pot with the water you want to get it to a steady simmer before reducing the heat to low.
- Always cover the pot with a lid and don’t take it off.
- Set a timer, depending on the cooking instructions. You always want to set a timer.
- A little water in the pot after the rice is cooking is ok. Let it stand for at least five minutes before serving.
You can make a bomb salad in no time. I love making a big salad because I can get really creative. Salads don’t have to be boring; add ingredients like nuts, cheese, dried fruits, croutons and protein to take your salad to the next level.
How to shop:
General rule, buy greens that are dark coloured or have purple/red leaves. These kinds of greens include: mixed green varieties, spinach, arugula, radicchio, chard and kale. Lighter varieties of lettuce are nice and crispy, but far less nutritious. It’s always best to buy greens that look fresh. Avoid prepackaged salads that have yellow, brown or wilted leaves.
Storage and Preparation:
Spend the time to wash your greens before using them. Your salad dressing is what will make or break your salad, so spend time finding a good dressing recipe and invest in the ingredients. If you’re buying ready-made dressing, check the sugar content. You can make a basic dressing with simple ingredients like olive oil, balsamic vinegar, lemon juice, salt and pepper.
Cook in batches
Forget everything you remember about leftovers. I promise they aren’t horrible. Cooking big meals that will give you leftovers is the most efficient way to prepare food. It’s unrealistic to try and cook a brand new meal every day. Plus, a lot of food tastes better the next day once the flavours have had a chance to settle. Big batch meals can be made on a day you have extra time or you can invite friends over to help you cook and everyone can take some home.
How to shop:
For a big batch recipe, make sure you are getting enough ingredients. Buy extra if you are unsure. Make a list or have a copy of the recipe handy. You will most likely need a big pot or a slow cooker.
How to prepare
Set the time aside to cook. Have the recipe visible. Make sure your kitchen is tidy and start with the most tedious of tasks which is usually washing, peeling and chopping vegetables or making any sort of sauces. Put on some music and put love into your food!
Some ideas for big batch meals:
- Rice and beans
- Soups and Stews
Build a Bowl
We’ve all heard the hype around “Buddha Bowls” and although some restaurants and stores sell pre-packaged bowls, making a bowl is super simple, cheap and allows you to experiment in the kitchen.
How to shop:
Think about ingredients you like and how to combine them. Rice, quinoa, shredded kale or lettuce make a great base for any style of bowl. Then start to think about layers. It’s best to choose ingredients that can cook all at the same time; this way you are not preparing a bunch of different things. My bowl go-to’s are usually sweet potatoes, beets, squash and brussel sprouts. Next, choose a protein. Tofu, chicken strips, beef, eggs, you get the idea. Now the most important part, sauce! Any bowl will need some kind of sauce or dressing to go with it.You can make a basic spicy mayo with just mayo, sriracha and a little lime juice!
Meat and Protein Sources
Your body absolutely needs protein, it’s no secret. Whether you eat meat or not, it’s important to include a protein source to your meals in order to truly satisfy hunger and give your body what it needs.
How to shop: If you’re an omnivore, choose a simple meat to start. Lean ground beef or ground poultry is a great starting point. Beans and tofu are great alternatives. Extra firm tofu is the way to go and can be prepared in a variety of ways. Eggs are another excellent protein option and very accessible.
How to prepare: For ground beef/poultry, you can find a recipe to follow or just wing it with some chopped garlic, onion, seasonings and vegetables. To put it simply, you want to heat a pan, put your meat in and break it up with a cooking spoon.You’ll know it’s done once it’s all browned and no pink remains. Drain any extra oil from the pan and season as desired. For tofu, I often find it easiest to bake, but you can fry tofu in some oil with some seasonings. Often underrated, eggs are super healthy and provide tons of protein. You can prepare eggs in a variety of ways: fried, omelettes, quiches, frittatas, hard/soft boiled and of course, scrambled.
It’s important to understand how your body processes food and what kinds of nutrients your body needs from food. As a starting point, you want to remember a few things. Your body speaks to you in many ways. If you ate breakfast in the morning but are hungry again shortly after, your body is trying to tell you something. Ensure that each of your meals contains a balance of carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats. Your carbs will give you energy throughout the day, but if you load up on heavily processed carbohydrates like bread and pasta you will feel a midday crash. Your energy sources should come from rice, oats, or vegetables like sweet potatoes. Your body uses protein in many ways. Protein is important for your bones and muscles as well as for repairing your body when it needs to. Finally, you want to incorporate healthy fats whenever possible. Healthy fats are amazing for your brain and were traditionally eaten to keep the body warm and full. Nuts, avocados, olive oil, peanut butter, full fat yogurt or milk are great examples.
Cooking can be a very spiritual thing— it’s meant to be. You are preparing something your body needs with your hands and your heart. There is no shame in preparing basic meals that aren’t fancy or Instagram worthy. Put love and intention into every meal you make, even if it’s just scrambled eggs and toast. Your body, mind and spirit will thank you.
Ciana Hamilton is a happy nappy freelance creative writer & journalist. When she’s not writing she can be found doing fun shit with her kids.