Meatloaf night: As it was, is now, and ever shall be.
March 29, 2010 11:24 AM   Subscribe

My wife and I have recently decided that we’ve had enough of the chemical laden, highly processed, "bad" foods our families have been eating for generations now. We're looking for healthy, family-friendly meal ideas that use fresh ingredients. Help us break the cycle of boxed dinners, frozen meals and drive-through take out.

Some of our plans include continuing to shop at our local farmers market and working on our first garden. The problem is that once we have all of the healthy ingredients, we don’t know what to do with them. We would love to hear recommendations for Web sites or cookbooks that offer simple, healthy, meal suggestions, and are not centered around a diet plan. Added difficulty level: should be tolerable to both 5-year-old and 14-year-old palettes.
posted by Otis to Food & Drink (49 answers total) 101 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Read this post, it is full of great links an resources
posted by Think_Long at 11:28 AM on March 29, 2010

Best answer: I love Eating Well magazine. All their recipes are online but it's fun to get the magazine each month, too.
posted by something something at 11:28 AM on March 29, 2010

Pasta - either make your own or use the purchased kind which isn't overly processed. Top with a tomato sauce that you make yourself or a mixture of olive oil, garlic, cheese and sautéed diced vegetables.
posted by mmascolino at 11:32 AM on March 29, 2010

I think you probably just need to get yourself a basic cookbook. As I've mentioned elsewhere, The Joy of Cooking is more or less the canonical cookbook for just learning how to really cook. It's got a ton of recipes, yeah, but it's also got information about ingredients, processes, procedures, etc., e.g. "How exactly do I bone a chicken?" and "What's the difference between a loin and a rump roast?" It's got ways of using just about everything that you're likely to find in a North American supermarket, and the focus seems to be on old-school, from-scratch preparation, using a minimum of processed ingredients.

Spend some time with this, and pretty soon you'll find yourself just making stuff up, because you'll know your way around the kitchen.
posted by valkyryn at 11:33 AM on March 29, 2010

We're doing something similar in our household after reading Gary Taubes' Good Calories, Bad Calories. I am now officially against most refined flour and processed crap marketed as "low fat."

Staples at the farmer's market: get fresh butter and eggs. Fresh eggs are much, much better than store-bought eggs, even the organic kind. Get fresh soft and hard cheese to eat on crackers. If you can, join a local CSA. It's actually very cost-effective, and many branches will provide recipes for all the random assortments of vegetables they give you.

Make your own peanut butter! None of the bad oil, and you can make it crunchy or smooth, according to your kids' preference.

As for cookbooks, get Martha Stewart's Great Food Fast. It's seasonally-based and easy on cooking amateurs like myself. And not to shill for Whole Foods, but their website has lots of easy recipes all meals that focus on healthy, fresh ingredients that one needn't necessarily buy at WF itself.
posted by zoomorphic at 11:35 AM on March 29, 2010

Also, be careful not to wrap this whole lifestyle change up in a package where one weak link can destroy your resolve.

Shopping at the farmer's market and tending your own garden are both wonderful things to do, but a garden is a lot of work and the farmer's market often has inconvenient hours. The truth is this: the difference between a microwave tv-dinner lasagna and a lasagna you make yourself using boxed noodles and non-organic non-local tomatoes from your local Target is already far huger than any difference between that second option and a lasagna made with homemade pasta and organic locally-sourced ingredients.

Just start cooking, and don't sweat it if the garden doesn't grow.
posted by 256 at 11:41 AM on March 29, 2010 [33 favorites]

Best answer: I like the idea of signing up for a Community Supported Agriculture program (CSA). Advantage is you get food every week, including things you normally wouldn't think about buying/using.

When we first signed up for ours, I made it my goal to actually eat all of the food. That's not always practically possible (and there is nothing wrong with giving some of it away and there is no real way to avoid having a certain percentage go bad--so don't be surprised if you don't reach your goal 100% but you can definitely get pretty close). The point is though that you get that dynamic of 'I paid for it so by gad I'm going to USE it' working for you instead of against you as it usually does.

Also our CSA usually gives us a recipe with our weekly pickup which is almost always quite delicious.

Another very simple approach is just type the item plus the word 'recipe' into google, like "rutabaga recipe" (obviously substituting beets, radishes, leeks, chard, kale, or whatever the particular item is). If you do that, the problem quickly becomes one of choosing among dozens of delicious sounding different recipes featuring that item rather than 'don't know what to do with this thing.'
posted by flug at 11:43 AM on March 29, 2010 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I think you can't do better than Mark Bittman for learning how to cook -- How To Cook Everything is my standby housewarming gift for anyone with a new kitchen, or a newfound desire to use it. The new edition has Jim Lahey's no-knead bread recipe, too, if you decide you wanna play around with baking...

Bittman is great at paring recipes down to their essentials and suggesting variations, substitutions, and ways to tweak recipes. This, I think, more than the recipes as such, will get you into the spirit of cooking.
posted by Pickman's Next Top Model at 11:47 AM on March 29, 2010 [9 favorites]

I swear I'm not piggybacking on his show (which I can't bear to watch for all of the crazy socioeconomic/obesity epidemic politics the producers are trying to cram in), but Jamie Oliver's books -- the Naked Chef ones, Jamie at Home and Cook With Jamie -- are really good and have simple recipes with luscious pictures. He talks a lot about finding a few great ingredients that will liven up your meals so you won't need to overload it with extra stuff, and about making relationships with the people who sell your food -- not just the farmers, but your neighborhood butchers and grocers, if you're able to do that. Plus he has kids of his own, so they have little snippets here and there about making stuff that kids will enjoy.

Don't forget to involve your kids in the planning, planting, shopping and cooking!
posted by Madamina at 11:49 AM on March 29, 2010 [4 favorites]

Tackle the things that have the most ingredients on the boxes, and which you're most comfortable learning to cook -- I like 256's example of doing a big lasagne that can be portioned and frozen.

Don't try and recreate your boxed menu overnight, but don't abandon the freezer cabinet either: the stir-fry kits of mixed frozen vegetables (no meat, no sauce) can be the basis of all sorts of interesting variations -- minced ginger and garlic and a dash of soy go a long way.
posted by holgate at 11:51 AM on March 29, 2010

I came in to recommend Eating Well, too. We've been subscribing since 2006 and cook something from them about 5 times a week, and we've only made a few recipes that turned out to be duds, and many, many more that go into our regular rotation. On their website, you can filter by "ease of preparation" and total time, so you can start out making things like Chicken and Fruit Salad, and before you know it, you'll be making a Hazelnut-Mocha Bûche de Noël.

If your kids are picky eaters, you could start out with some of the recipe collections in their kids section.
posted by amarynth at 11:55 AM on March 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'll second Jamie Oliver and Mark Bittman, and also suggest you go with a google niche instead of general google - try I've also been enjoying this blog, in which someone tries to do exactly what you are trying to do. If you're trying to work in more vegetables as well, try Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone - it's a wonderful book.
posted by hungrybruno at 11:59 AM on March 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Congrats on your new plan. I agree with 256: don't be so overenthusiastic that you lose momentum after a few weeks or months.

I would say: first, think about food you like. Lasagna? Meatloaf? Steak with béarnaise sauce?

Put those things on a list, and just research a bit on the internet how they are commonly made. After a while, you will start to see a lot of similarities between different recipes. There are only so many ways to cook meat or vegetables. You can roast and grill meat, you can cook, steam or sauté vegetables. Research a bit, and you'll get the hang of it. Recipes are basically a lot of permutations with different methods of cooking meat, combined with different starches and different methods of cooking vegetables. And a different sauce. So you'll just have to learn about ten techniques and five sauces and a world of recipes is open to you.

Personally, I would start with:

- grilling steaks (it's not hard, but has to be done right. Bonus: it's a lot like grilling burgers)
- making Hollandaise sauce (five egg yolks, insane amounts of butter, some lemon juice; it's the rockstar sauce for fish)
- steaming vegetables (carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, sprouts, any "hard" vegetable will do)
- making mashed potatoes (steam potatoes, mash, add insane amounts of butter, milk & some salt)
- tomato sauce
- probably risotto, which is heavenly goodness and is not hard to make (it does involve a lot of stirring, but I've never met anybody who didn't like risotto)

The only downside to cooking is the dishes. Cooking itself is relaxing and creative.

Re the palates of the 14 and 5 year old. You can pretty much cook anything that you can buy boxed. It just won't have all of the added sugar, which will probably take some time adjusting to for the youngsters. They're probably not used to tangy and bitter tastes. If you want them to like your cooking, be sure to use decent fats (not the spritzy stuff you Americans have, for god's sake): real butter, good olive oil, and don't be skimpy with it when cooking. It makes all the difference in taste.
posted by NekulturnY at 12:02 PM on March 29, 2010

Everyone already knows about Mark Bittman, right? Because How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, which is my food bible for the past year (I assume his other books are good too) makes cooking tasty, homemade, healthy food, astonishingly easy.

Also, pretty much any vegetable, sauteed or roasted with some garlic, salt and olive oil, can be amazing. It's easy to forget and think that meals have to be really complicated. But sometimes some salty roasted cauliflower and a garlicky potato is all you need to make life delightful.
posted by Erroneous at 12:05 PM on March 29, 2010

Best answer: Super Natural Cooking by Heidi Swanson is a fantastic book about the right way to approach building a natural foods pantry. There are also a ton of great recipes and suggestion about how to use these ingredients. Her blog 101cookbooks is amazing as well (some of you might notice how frequently I recommend it). Her book and site are vegetarian, but I am not and still get a lot of use out of them, fwiw.
posted by purpletangerine at 12:13 PM on March 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

I would avoid Joy of Cooking for right now. I would strongly recommend How to Cook Everything. I also recommend anything by Alton Brown, and, weirdly Everyday Food magazine by Martha Stewart Industries. Everyday Food has a feature where they give you a shopping list and then tell you how to make a weeks worth of meals from what's on that list.

This should be a gradual process. You mention meatloaf in your title: if meatloaf is a family favorite already, then do some research as to how to make meatloaf. I often find is a good resource if I want to compare lots of different approaches.

I also recommend Cook's Country magazine to folks in your situation - its put out by the America's Test Kitchen crew, and it focuses on traditional American comfort foods.

Another great place to start might be pizza: get a pizza dough recipe, mix some up a day or two in advance, and after work one night put together a make-your-own-pizza night.
posted by anastasiav at 12:18 PM on March 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

Get a good grill.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:22 PM on March 29, 2010

If you live near a Korean or Japanese supermarket, go for the less expensive tofu and rice.
posted by sanskrtam at 12:30 PM on March 29, 2010

I start many a conversation with "According to Mark Bittman..."

Nobody has mentioned his latest book, Food Matters, which is particularly relevant to your situation. He had a conversion similar to yours, and the second half of the book is all about how to cook the healthy, local, sustainable foods that he fell in love with.
posted by diogenes at 12:36 PM on March 29, 2010

+1 Bittman, but I'm in here to say I love my subscription to Cooking Light. Most if not all of their recipes are also online..
posted by pkphy39 at 12:38 PM on March 29, 2010

Best answer: We're already well underway with this sort of thing, too. A real inspiration for us has also been the 101 Cookbooks blog (by the author of the aforementioned Super Natural Cooking), though we really got our start a couple of years ago with the recipes in Twelve Months of Monastery Soups when we were on the hunt for meatless Friday dinner ideas. I have a Moosewood cookbook that we've gone into occasionally, and I need to dig it out again soon. Like the 101 Cookbooks stuff, it's vegetarian and a good place for new ideas (Curried Lentils! w00t!)

Other things that are very easy to make at home:

- yogurt (super easy)
- creme fraiche
- buttermilk/sour cream
- jellies/jams/pickles (I just pulled 9 jars of preserves out of the canning pot about 10 minutes ago)
- bread (especially the no-knead artistan-style breads, though some variations need to be started - the night before)
- soup stocks (chicken, vegetable). Learn to make a basic roux and bechamel sauce, and you can do away with cans of cream-of-something soup as a recipe-add-in forever.

Now. My state has a particularly nice website for locating the farmers in the area that sell directly to the public, and we've managed to find a local farmer who sells grass-fed beef and a pretty good price. We've used them in the past to find you-pick berry farms and so on, and we found our beef farmer there as well. You might hunt around a little to see if your state has something similar.

And n-thing that you involve the kids. We've been slowly transitioning for a couple of years now, but reading Michael Pollan's books really pushed over the edge. It's been a total blast.
posted by jquinby at 12:52 PM on March 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Don't sweat this... I think what you should work on is your ingredients rather than the end result. Start stocking the cupboards and refrigerator with organic/healthy crackers, peanut butters, fruits, soups, salsas, condiments, and so forth. Get real butter if you can. Get some olive oils; dump the Crisco, Pam, and butter spray in the trash. By doing that, you've completely replaced your building blocks with guaranteed healthy choices and you're basically just counting calories from that point onward, which is beyond the scope of my comment. I realize your funds might be limited, and if that's the case I would concentrate mainly on (1) getting only organic fruits and vegetables, (2) avoiding transfats/hydrogenated/partially-hydrogenated oils, (3) shunning processed foods when possible (i.e. drinking water rather than Diet Coke), and (4) learning to freeze stuff so you can bring out your own pre-made ingredients rather than reaching for a processed ingredient.

Myself, I have a lot of trouble messing around with foods that take a lot of preparatory work... after all, convenience food and fast food is great because it's fast. So you should not overlook snacks and quick meal options that make use of good ingredients. In that respect, go to a health foods store and don't feel bad about picking up some of the organic/non-GM chips, healthy TV dinners, and other such options. Also don't feel bad about shopping at the regular supermarket... you can still make healthy choices there (e.g. getting the REAL American cheese with rather than the Kraft "cheese food" stuff and getting to know where the organics are).

Here's some quick and easy ideas for such convenience foods: organic peanut butter or cheese on Kashi crackers, cut-up organic fruits, plain cheese slices, any recipe range-fed beef from a local co-op. You can even grab some organic chips, shred cheddar cheese, sprinkle on cayenne pepper, and you get something many times more healthy than Doritos and dip-in-a-jar.

And good for you on your decision... I'm not given over to pseudoscience and "sky is falling" activism, but I have a very strong hunch that much of the cancer in the US (some, not all) has its root causes in certain processed foods. I see eating right as a cheap insurance policy and potentially an irreplacable gift for your kids.
posted by crapmatic at 12:53 PM on March 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

When I feel the need to get my eating back on track, I do the Wild Rose Herbal D-Tox cleanse. It lasts 12 days and comes with herbal supplements that purportedly cleanse your liver, etc. I take them, but with a grain of salt.

You do not eat less food - just healthier food. Since the meal plan does not allow for eating any flours, processed sugars (the only sweet thing you really get to eat is berries) or dairy (except butter), and definitely no preservatives, you are forced to break your pre-processed food habits. It ends up being a lot of beans, whole grains, veggies and nuts. Most meat is fine. This way, you have to learn how to cook at home with natural ingredients. It's a challenge and takes a fair amount of time and planning to avoid cheating - what do you do when you can't have sandwiches for lunch? - but it's well worth it. And as a bonus, you'll likely lose a few pounds on it.

(I hope it goes without saying that children shouldn't be doing such cleanses. No herbs. Otherwise, the diet is perfectly healthy for them - if you can get them to eat it. )
posted by kitcat at 1:18 PM on March 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

One of the things that helped me the most to stick with eating better is to find prep time once a week, and start my dishes. For me, this is Sunday afternoon. I make the list of dinners we want for the week, then, I'll do food shopping either Saturday, or earlier Sunday, so everything is fresh and in good condition. Sunday, I do all the prep & building blocks -if I am making a chard quiche, I shred the cheddar and saute the chard with curry, make the crust if I am ambitious. When we have the quiche during the week, all I am doing is beating the eggs & cream, mixing in the chard & cheddar, and baking it in the crust. For soup, I cook them with the "hard vegetables" (carrots, parships, celery, potatoes, onions), then store it in a pitcher in the refrigerator. On the night we have soup, I put it in the pot, add leafy greens and corn or string beans or other soft vegetables and serve. Slaws & salads can be pre-made to the point of wilty greens & dressing. Baked mac & cheese or baked ziti I cook everything, and refrigerate it in the pan I will bake it in.

In addition to saving time during the week for cooking, I also spend less time cleaning -doing most everything at once means I clean my knives, heavy pots, chopping boards, etc. only once rather than every night. I think my takeaway orders have gone down about 90% since I have started this. Another side effect is better lunches. Now I pretty much always have leftovers to bring to work, so I don't have to run out for an overpriced sandwich. I've started chopping up melons, pineapples and making snacks as well. If the fruit is already prepped, I will eat it. If it isn't, I will be lazy.
posted by kellyblah at 1:23 PM on March 29, 2010 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I like Not Take Out. If you all eat meat, it is an excellent resource if you are transitioning from relying on take out to starting to cook for yourselves all the time. From their "about us" (emphasis mine): helps you plan, prep and cook an entire meal, not just one dish. We provide a complete menu, a shopping list and a game plan – basically, we help you organize to go from kitchen to table with ease. . . . Our menus call for seasonal, fresh ingredients, are uncomplicated and designed to be cooked in under an hour. So whether it’s mango, cilantro or pecorino, we’ll bring new tastes to your table and even get you to make nice with some spice.
The meals really work the way they intend them to, as a mix of fresh from the market (farmer's or otherwise) and pantry staples, ready about an hour after you walk in the door, pleasingly arranged on the plate.
posted by crush-onastick at 1:26 PM on March 29, 2010 [3 favorites]

In addition to the Bittman, consider getting a modern pressure cooker like a Fagor and picking up a copy of Lorna Sass's Pressure Perfect and Great Vegetarian Cooking Under Pressure. They are the fastest (and IMHO, easiest) way to quickly cook beans/legumes and braise cuts of meat that would otherwise take hours.
posted by pianoboy at 1:28 PM on March 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

do you guys have a trader joes nearby? we get a lot of our groceries and even prepared meals from there and are kind of obsessed with the place. there's also a lot of stuff there that is healthy but will appeal to kids (like frozen mac and cheese!). it's a nice stopgap for those days you are SUPER BUSY and don't have time to do a full out fresh meal from stuff you'd gotten from the farmer's market, but still want something delicious and not something as horrifically bad for you as marie callendar's frozen meals. it also has enough familiarity that it can help ease the transition to a completely fresh, self-made diet for your kids.
posted by raw sugar at 1:58 PM on March 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

I suggest finding a couple of vegetable preparations that you find delicious & easy, delicious being key. Plain ol' steamed veggies probably won't win your heart or help you stick to your plan.

Golden Crusted Brussels Sprouts and Roasted Cauliflower have become weeknight go-to recipes in our household. We eat them several times a month and I'm excited every time. Also, this quinoa recipe is a quck, tasty meal and requires mostly stuff you can keep on hand. We add a poached egg.
posted by stargazer360 at 2:13 PM on March 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Simply in Season helps with the seasonal produce recipes.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:23 PM on March 29, 2010

No problem! I picked up a copy of The Three and Four Ingredient Cookbook (although most have a few more ingredients than that). Fewer ingredients, less prep, and mostly healthy. It's easy to substitute ingredients when you only have a few, so you can work around any picky eaters. I've also found that slow cookers make cooking very easy but I don't have any cookbooks to recommend for you.
posted by golden at 2:38 PM on March 29, 2010

One way to get a fast good dose of veggies is by making a green smoothie. Basically it's like a fruit smoothie but with 50% or more veggies in it. It won't taste that great (but not terrible either). I make one almost every day and in it I put:

grapes and/or a pear 1c
little tomatoes 1c
baby carrots 1/2 c
baby zucchini 1/2 c
some squash 1/2 c
some celery 1/2 c
a lot of greens like kale, spinach, chard,collard and so on. 3-4 cups or more
water 1 cup
ice 1/2 c
frozen blackberries 1/2c
a frozen banana
a few sprigs of parsley

That makes enough for 4 people. All ingredients are optional, amounts are approximate; you can modify it to suit your taste. It helps to have a Vitamix or similiar high powered blender.
posted by jockc at 2:53 PM on March 29, 2010

Adding veggies to your existing meals is easy:

Steamed veggies, super easy:
Wash, chop, boil an inch of water, put veggies in a metal basket over the boiling water, put lid on, wait 2-5 min. (There are frozen microwaveable steam-in-bag veggies -- get the ones that don't have sauce already included - for nights when you just can't wash and chop the unfrozen kind. Frozen veggies do not lose their nutrients like canned do, and it's nice to keep some on hand for easy green additions to a meal.) Once they're done, you can put butter or oil, pepper, etc on them to taste.

Roasted veggies, super easy:
Wash, chop, slather with olive oil, pepper and a little salt, maybe thyme or rosemary if you're feeling wild. Put on cookie sheet, put in oven. 425 for harder ones like sweet potatoes, potatoes, beets; 350 or 375 for softer ones like parsnips or carrots. Cooking time depends how big you've chopped them, chop them pretty small (1" cubes, 1/4" thick round slices of sweet potato, for example) and it can be 20 min, chop them bigger and it can be 45 min. Just check them, turn them over if they're getting too brown, pull them out when the insides are nice and tender (blow on one til it's cool and bite to see).

Easy meals:
Pasta with anything.
Rice with chili or other stewy dish (beef stew, black bean soup, curry dish, etc)
Omelets - eggs with anything.

I agree with the recommendation of Mark Bittman, I have his How to Cook Everything Vegetarian which I think has more ideas for what to do with veggies than the non-vegetarian one. Joy of Cooking is good but has a lot more old-school dishes with high fat, and which I just don't find myself making.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:13 PM on March 29, 2010

Seconding the advice above to make it easy on yourself and adding, that involve your kids in meal preparation sooner rather than later.

When I was cooking every night for my husband and teenage step son we signed up for Every week we would get an email with a weeks worth of menus that included a shopping list and recipes. There are lots of different styles of menus, vegetarian, low-budget, etc. The best thing about it, was once a week my son could pick a menu and make the recipe and we knew we had all the ingredients. He learned how to cook different things and I got a night off from cooking, although at first it was way more work to let him cook than to do it myself, until he learned things like you have to boil the water first before you put the pasta in. The second best things was that I didn't have to spend a lot of time and mental energy planning out menus and we still got a lot of variety. The menus are healthy, not hard to prepare, and use easy to find ingredients.
posted by DarthDuckie at 3:20 PM on March 29, 2010

I've got a recommendation that I think is needed as a baby step between going from Take-out and ready made meals to the perfect, healthy dishes you want. It's a website I've posted here before called Menus for Moms. Each week, you get five days of three course meals, with recipes, and with a complete shopping list for everything.

It's not always healthy. I'd say that one or two dishes a week are heavy on cheese, or use condensed soups as a base. But it will give you lots of ideas, and you'll go weeks without repeating a recipe. Plus, it plans things so that you'll use leftovers. I used it almost exclusively for about 4 months before I felt comfortable enough with my shopping skills to improvise more. Now I'm looking forward to doing a CSA this summer and getting more and more fresh veggies onto our plates.
posted by saffry at 3:24 PM on March 29, 2010

Ah yes - one other tip. I don't know about cooking with meat, but I do know the key to making yourself want to cook: begin with something that smells good.

So, for just about anything I make, I begin by chopping up two onions and some garlic, then I heat some olive oil in a frying pan on medium or medium-high heat, put the onions in (add the garlic a little later since it cooks faster) and cook them until they're translucent. Now your kitchen smells like food!

You can go almost anywhere from this beginning. For example if you want to make tomato pasta sauce:

To the cooked onions and garlic you can add some chopped veggies, like red and green peppers, finely chopped carrots and celery, mushrooms, whatever you like. Cook these for a few minutes until they're soft. Then add a can of tomatoes (I get "whole peeled tomatoes" without seasonings, Muir Glen is a good brand although it's more expensive than the house brand - worth it to me because the house brand can sometimes have off-flavors. I also usually don't add the liquid in the can, but that's optional.) Add oregano, black pepper, salt, and other spices you like. Mash up the tomatoes with your spoon and let the whole thing simmer until it's a consistency you like.

(If you want meat-tomato sauce, I think you cook the meat separately and add it in when you add the tomatoes, but be sure to double-check that since I don't actually know.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:50 PM on March 29, 2010

should be tolerable to both 5-year-old and 14-year-old palettes.

It might be helpful to--at least for a while--institute either specific dishes or specific themes for each night of the week along the lines of foods your kids like to eat (i.e., taco night, meatloaf night etc.). You can use fresh produce and other healthy ingredients in basic, classic American foods like meatloaf (serve with salad, roasted vegetables). You can also start to branch out from there, like these amazing lamb meatballs, which are what meatloaf wants to be when it grows up.

Something I remember really enjoying as a kid was my family's pasta night--from age 10 or so, I began helping my mom make the sauce: saute ground beef or turkey with a little salt and pepper until just done, skim off the fat, add onions and garlic, then bell peppers and whatever other vegetables you want, then a jar/can/tub of tomato sauce (or tomato puree or canned tomatoes), season to taste with fresh or dry herbs; let that simmer while you cook the pasta. One or both of your kids might enjoy having a role in one or more of the weekly dinners.

Also, something that has recently helped me immensely in terms of eating more of the fresh produce I buy was to find bottled salad dressings I like (I know, I know--people say homemade is "better"... but not if you always forget to actually make it and your salad ingredients just languish in your fridge). Don't let perfect get in the way of good.
posted by Meg_Murry at 4:05 PM on March 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Please don't do any sort of "cleanse" they are quackery and will irritate your digestive tract.

Do learn how to cook with whole chickens. I buy one whole chicken, eat the meat with my boyfriend for dinner over two nights by simply roasting it with some vegetables and use the bones for a crockpot stock which becomes a delicious soup.

Braising meats in a crockpot is amazing too! I often cook some lamb shanks in wine/grape juice overnight.

Full Moon Feast is a great cookbook for these techniques and more.
posted by melissam at 4:21 PM on March 29, 2010

I think I understand exactly where you're coming from. In college, and thereafter, I equated cooking with choosing which box of Hamburger Helper to make, or something along those lines. I used to buy taco seasoning in the packets, among other things. In addition to the cookbooks everyone is mentioning (I've used my copy of The Joy of Cooking so much, the spine is pretty much broken, and I've just picked up How to Cook Everything, both are excellent), I think you should work on replacement strategies. If, for example, you like making tacos, and you use a prepared mix, find a recipe and make your own (The Joy of Cooking has a pretty simple recipe for tacos). If you like pasta sauce from a jar, find a recipe that helps you make your own.

You've got a good idea going, with eating healthier, and taking more responsibility for what you and your family eat. It doesn't mean you have to completely change your menu. In fact, if you suddenly decide, that's it, no more meatloaf, we're going to eat X instead, you might find yourself hankering for the bad old meatloaf. Find better, healthier ways to make what you already eat, and then expand your cooking vocabulary from there.
posted by Ghidorah at 4:24 PM on March 29, 2010

i agree with ghidorah. if you try to make it about completely changing your food habits, you will likely not stick with it. what is it you like to eat? what do your kids like to eat? all those boxed things, all those take-out things, can be made better at home. i own hundreds, literally, of cookbooks but without know what it is that you like to eat, i can't suggest one. and besides, even those of us who know how to cook and love to do so often find ourselves with the easy take-out (but lousy) solution. i handle this by giving myself an incentive to stay true to my resolve to cook at home: i pay myself (by writing a check and then depositing it in a separate savings account) for every quick-grab-it and run takeout kind of meal that i walk away from in favor of going home and cooking - even if its the most simple pasta. don't know yet what i am going to do with the dollars that are accumulating but i do know that it will be more satisfying than the quickie meals that i've turned down.
posted by zoesmom at 6:46 PM on March 29, 2010

It looks like this has been mentioned a few times, but we joined a CSA about two months ago. At first it was a lot of "what the heck do I do with this" and to be honest some food got wasted. This last box (we get one every other week), none of it was wasted. Cooking raw veggies and having lots of fruit around was never part of my lifestyle when I was growing up, and learning to cook it was hard. Our boxes come with a newsletter that includes recipes. But my best recipe source so far has been AskMetafilter. I have learned to cook Kale, Squash, Collard Greens, and the oddest thing so far, beets.

On several occasions I have marveled that the whole meal we are eating is local and organic.
posted by Big_B at 8:01 PM on March 29, 2010

My suggestion is to keep reading and trying. Read many recipes for the same or similar type dishes. Try one and if you don't love it, try another. Reading many recipes will help you learn how to cook without being tied to a recipe. I feel like that is key for quick and easy weeknight cooking. I find that reading lots of recipes means looking online as well as in books. I use 101 Cookbooks mentioned above and SmittenKitchen, TheKitchn , Orangette and check archived recipes to get inspired.
posted by Swisstine at 9:00 PM on March 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'd just second what 256 said above about not jumping in and making this such a Huge Lifestyle Change that you either lose motivation or your family holds you hostage until you bring back the take-out. So you need to take things in steps.

I'm as big a proponent of local agriculture, CSAs, sustainable farming, etc. as anyone this side of Michael Pollan, but (and I think even Pollan would agree with me here) it's a lot better to move from heavily-processed non-organic food to minimally-processed non-organic food, than it is to move from non-organic TV dinners to organic ones.

Or, to put it bluntly: just because it's "organic" or "all natural" or "contains whole grains" (or whatever the latest fad is) doesn't mean it's not junk food. You can get organic TV dinners and organic potato chips (even — no joke — organic Cheetos) that are only marginally (if at all) better than the mass-market varieties. They might be arguably better from an environmental-sustainability perspective, but mostly they are just marketing.

If you are on a limited budget, better to spend your money on fresh produce — even if it's not organic (do wash it thoroughly) — than spend it on organic versions of the same junk food you've been eating. And if you have limited time, probably better to spend it cooking using store-bought minimally-processed ingredients (the "outer perimeter" ingredients) than spending an entire season coaxing a few tomatoes out of the ground while your family eats McD's in the meantime. Not that I have anything against organic or gardening per se (or organic gardening!); they're just not the low-hanging fruit.

Other people have given great advice on recipes, but one thing that I don't think has been mentioned is family. Almost everyone I know has a cache of family recipes, and making them can be satisfying in a way that even the best Mark Bittman recipe isn't — because it's your family's recipe. (Just be on the lookout for recipes that contain wartime or food-fad substitutions, like margarine or Crisco in place of actual butter. Yech. I never feel bad about swapping them back; I figure that if my grandmother could have afforded it, she'd have used butter.)
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:05 PM on March 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm single, so my eating habits are a bit haphazard, but more and more, I've been going back to the things my parents made when I was a kid. They wanted us to eat well, but both worked full-time. Some of their standards:


- Spaghetti with tomato sauce, chicken sausage and salad.

- Taco night! Tacos with ground turkey (browned with onions and taco seasoning), lots of lettuce and tomatoes are not so bad healthwise, super tasty and kids love them.

- Omelets are a great way to deal with different tastes (each person gets one with the fillings they choose) and can obviously be very healthy.

- Grilled chicken with "baked" potatoes (nuked in the microwave) and some veggie side. Grilled chicken breasts pounded fairly flat and then marinated in olive oil, lemon juice and oregano before being grilled are yummy. You can easily grill up a bunch of extras for leftovers.

Some good weekend meals that will make for great leftovers are lasagna, enchiladas, chicken cacciatore, and all manner of stir fries.

All of these foods are delicious and easy to make. None of it is fancy or perfectly healthy, but there are a lot of veggies and other good stuff.
posted by lunasol at 9:37 PM on March 29, 2010

On a different tack from cookbooks like How to Cook Everything that aim for a broader "knowledge of how to cook", you could start with a cookbook like The New Best Recipe. It has a thousand recipes from the makers of Cook's Illustrated/America's Test Kitchen, and they're all really well tested. They have detailed descriptions of how to make each dish, along with a description of how and why they (experimentally) settled on just that recipe. It hasn't let me down yet.
posted by JiBB at 11:39 PM on March 29, 2010

They are UK produced, but the BBC's 101 Meal Cookbooks are very, very good.
posted by MuffinMan at 12:19 AM on March 30, 2010

Best answer: Cookus Interruptus is another blog that focuses on cooking fresh and healthy food for the family. There are a lot of recipes to look at to give you ideas on how to use your produce.
posted by creepygirl at 9:15 AM on March 30, 2010

Response by poster: Thank you for all the great responses everyone. There is a lot here to explore. Just picked up Super Natural Cooking from the library and it looks fantastic.
posted by Otis at 11:37 AM on March 30, 2010

Pick one day a week and eat vegetarian or vegan. After a month or two, you'll start building an enormous variety of side dishes that you can cook with any meal.
posted by talldean at 8:54 PM on March 30, 2010

I agree you should start small because making it a one fell swoop Huge Ambition is setting yourself up for stress and disappointment, discouragement. Approaches that have baby steps:

-limiting the number of days a week you try to cook totally from scratch and slowly increasing the frequency, and/or focusing on one component of your meal (salads, veggie sides, and soups are my favorite easy ins) and not feeling guilty about letting the other part be store bought for a while, allowing you to focus

-slowly build your recipe archive, really taking the time to only collect tried and true recipes and guides by trying them one or a couple only at a time and paying attention to the nuances, what techniques works for you and which do not and why. When something passes the smell test (hee), archive it in an easily searchable way (personally, I type every THIS IS A KEEPER!! recipe into Google Docs and label it appropriately, and keep it on my desktop too). If you do this, you will gradually amass a repertoire you can turn to when you develop into someone who can go by what's available at market to decide dinner, not the other, more common way around (thinking up something, taking the ingredient list to the store). That is the real ticket--there's an adage in the Zuni Cafe cookbook about how recipes give you ideas but the market gives you dinner. IMHO, that's the sweet spot you want to reach. Then CSAs, farmer's markets, etc. really live up to their potential to open your eyes up to seasonal change and embracing local ingredient limitations and characterization. Good stuff.

-more a hoity toity (sort of academic really) approach, and to me a little gimmicky for the practical home cook, but: focusing on a single ingredient or flavor or kind of cooking and trying to master it thoroughly before moving on to another. Again, not so practical for the home cook who needs to produce dinner all the time.

-master a wholesale cooking TECHNIQUE--pan-frying with deglazing, braising, etc.--how it works, what it works well on, how to do it for the best possible results, what pan or equipment works best for it, etc.--and then applying it whenever you can based on your research (firsthand and otherwise) on what it works well for
posted by ifjuly at 10:11 AM on April 2, 2010

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