Learning to Cook Can Save Your Life: 5 Tips to Get Started (RECIPES)

What good is it to know that quinoa is high in protein and leafy greens are a great source of calcium if you don't know how to prepare them?
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Last week, CNN's Wolf Blitzer interviewed Bill Clinton about how he's beating his heart disease with a new food regime and help from Dr.'s Dean Ornish and Caldwell Esselstyn. I couldn't have been happier to see the Prez feeling better. Yet it also excited me that he could be a fantastic vehicle for spreading the word about the importance of healthier food choices in America.

We know that about one-third of premature deaths in America can be prevented from good food and exercise, yet the message seems to be lost in translation. We're getting the queues signaling us to eat well -- from recipe note cards at the supermarket, to the countless healthy living blogs and articles published every day on the web. But it's not happening -- we aren't getting this "healthy food" into our mouths.

A major reason is due to the fact that we don't know, or have never been taught, basic, fundamental cooking skills. What good is it to know that quinoa is high in protein and leafy greens are a great source of calcium if you don't know how to prepare them? And instead of cooking ourselves (where we have the greatest chance of eating healthy food), we're relying on others to do the job. About one-third of all American calories are taken at restaurants and many meals eaten at home are pre-prepared at fast food stores, restaurant takeouts or at supermarket buffets where research shows that these kinds of meals have twice as many calories and copious amounts of fat, salt and sugar.

The easiest way for the majority of us to ensure we eat healthy, and live a lifetime free of disease, is by cooking meals ourselves. Cooking is one of mankind's wonder drugs. It can bring back vibrancy and youth to our minds and bodies, it can enhance the livelihood and futures of our kids. It can save us money at the store and on tax day (with all the healthy people, who needs a tax-dependent medical system?). And it can in large part stem the tide of our obesity epidemic (studies have shown that time spent cooking is a better variable in predicting obesity rates than social class or income!)

So what's stopping us, apart from being at our job(s)? Well, after talking to clients, colleagues and even doing a Facebook survey, here's a short list of reasons people give:

  1. Basic skills and familiarity with ingredients. Even though more farmers markets are popping up, once we buy an ingredient, we're stuck not knowing how to prepare it.
  2. Tools -- Not having a kitchen stocked with the basics can make cooking an onerous, displeasing experience.
  3. We're whipped for convenience and our values are misaligned; we're spending more time on Twitter than at the cutting board.
  4. It's not fun to shop. We're too confused by too many choices and going to the grocery store is not a pleasurable, relaxing experience.
  5. Prep time, clean-up and counter space: too long, too long and not enough.

Cooking, however, can become one of the greatest pleasures in life once you know how to get past your personal obstacles. Not only can it help save your life, but it can be super simple, fast, therapeutic, stress-reducing, and can build stability and love in your home. Some solutions:

1. Invest in quality cookware, tools and accessories. Having a sharp, professional-grade knife can cut your prep time in half, is safer to use, and will last you decades. Have trouble finely slicing a tomato or lemon? Try using a quality knife. An end-grain cutting board, quality sauté and sauce pans, measuring cups and colanders are also great basics.

2. Enroll in a class in your community. You may never have thought that learning cooking basics could be so fun! Learning how to pan-fry, par-boil, poach and blanch can making cooking much simpler than you could ever imagine.

3. Designate a home chef. A mentor and inspiration to myself and many Natural Gourmet Institute grads, Annemarie Colbin, always suggests appointing someone to be "in charge" of the kitchen. It makes things more organized, stable and promotes planning. Everyone else preps and cleans!

4. Create your personal repertoire. Having a suite of standard, go-to, memorized recipes for fruits and vegetables, grains and proteins, is critical. Learning to prepare one or two simple salad dressings can make eating veggies far more enjoyable. Although "red wine vinaigrette" may sound imposing, it's far simpler than you may expect.

5. And finally, give shopping, preparing and cooking quick meals the respect this beautiful ritual deserves. Food, although plentiful and ubiquitous in our country, is a blessing, and treating each food item with respect will change your outlook on food and healthy eating forever.

Last week, healthy food prep was put front and center at an innovative and groundbreaking event series at the Urban Zen Center called Food Solutions, launched at the start of the year. Hosted and created by forward-thinking food professionals Amanda Archibald and Stefanie Sacks, Food Solutions makes the vital connection between the culinary arts and a practical nutrition education, two fields that are naturally inextricably linked. Sacks said:

I believe that many people have a hard time thinking outside of the box. The field of nutrition has always been about science and nutrients and the culinary world has always been about food. It is safer to stay in that train of thought--it's what we have been doing for a lifetime. If the universities that are leaders in the field of nutrition don't start to take a stand and require culinary education and hands on learning, then we will never see a real shift.

Guests were given a hands-on opportunity to learn the ease that goes into preparing healthy meals -- especially for their children (who are greatly influenced by their parents' relationship with food). Tacos, roasted butternut squash risotto and spinach and cheese quesadillas were not being served to, but rather by prepared by, attendees. The ability to touch, taste, smell and see made cooking from scratch a fun, meaningful and beautiful experience.

By making food preparation the centerpiece of our increasingly urgent discussions on food environment related illnesses like childhood autism, childhood obesity and cognitive disorders (for which Stefanie and Amanda brought in guest speakers Annemarie Colbin, Ph.D. and Stephen Cowan, M.D.), our current "culinary gap" was importantly addressed. Cooking has got to play a much larger role in our society if we're going to have a chance at tackling and preventing some of the biggest health crises our civilization faces today.

What are your personal obstacles to cooking more often? Want to start cooking now? Here's a super simple, cheap and delicious recipe to get you and your family cooking starting tomorrow morning:

Warm and Sweet Oats With Dried Apricots and Pumpkin Seeds
Yield: 4 servings


3 cups water
Pinch of sea salt
1 cup whole grain steel cut oats
1/4 to 1/2 cup dried apricots, thinly sliced, then roughly chopped (or a fruit of your choice)
2 tablespoons pumpkin seeds
Unsweetened almond milk to taste
Maple syrup to taste


Pour cold water into a saucepan and bring to a boil. Add salt. Add oats and lower to a simmer. Stir occasionally, uncovered for 10 to 15 minutes (depending on your desired amount of chewiness). Stir in the dried fruit and seeds. Remove from stove and let cool for a few minutes. Ladle into your favorite serving bowls and add desired amount of almond milk and maple syrup. Enjoy!


Pooja Mottl is a healthy living advisor, candidate of the Chef's Program at the Natural Gourmet Institute for Health and Culinary Arts (NGI) and an NSCA-CPT certified fitness professional. Connect with her on:

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