Photo: Westend61 / Getty Images
Having a healthy meal plan is great, but it’s not doing you any good if you don’t stick to it. As a dietitian and health coach, I help my clients make healthy food choices, but I also help make sure those choices stick. To make sure that happens the choices need to turn into lifestyle changes, and they need to not be so hard that you’re miserable.
If you’re too overly ambitious about how much time you’re willing and able to devote to meal prep and cooking or you get too restrictive in what you think you should be eating, you’re setting yourself up for a quick burnout. A few weeks in, and you’ll be back to ordering Seamless or grabbing a pizza on your way home from work.
Here’s the issue: Healthy eating also should be fun. Setting yourself up with the tools and resources you need to streamline your approach and add fun to the process of feeding yourself will help you enjoy a balanced diet that supports your goals. More than that, you’ll want to keep it up. (Related: This 30-Day Challenge Is the Essential Guide to Meal Prep for Beginners)
To dig deeper into how to make your time preparing and cooking healthy meals more fun, I talked with Ryan Scott, an Emmy-award winning celebrity chef and TV host, who knows a thing or two about not just healthy food, but about having a good time in the kitchen. Scott, who actually lost 35 pounds in 16 months through changes to his diet and exercise habits, recently teamed up with Craftsy for a series of cooking classes highlighting delicious one-pot meals—one brilliant way to save time while cooking. Here, he shares more genius hacks for making healthy cooking and meal prepping more fun, so you can optimize your time and your health benefits.
Invest in the basics.
Nothing throws a wrench in your Sunday meal prep like cutting your finger with a dull knife or literally losing your lunch because your cutting board goes sliding off the counter. Before you can focus on the food, you need the proper tools. (Related: Meal-Prep Mistakes to Avoid for Faster, Healthier, and Better Food)
“If you’re going to go run a marathon, and you put on a pair of $29 shoes, it doesn’t make sense,” says Scott. “You have to set yourself up with the proper tools.” One genius trick if your cutting boards are slipping: Rather than buy special mats, try repurposed kitchen shelf or drawer liners, which are just as grippy, he says.
On his list of must-have kitchen tools for healthy cooking: “Start with proper [knives]…get a bread knife, an 8-inch chef’s knife, and one paring knife.” You also want to have multiple cutting boards so you can designate one for meat and a few more for veggies and other items. “If it takes too much to make a meal, you’re going to order out, so having a couple easy, accessible cutting boards to just chop something quick won’t feel like too much to clean up.”
Let a device do the heavy lifting.
Good news: You don’t have to spend hours standing over the stove or babysitting a roast in the oven. Using a multi-use cooker, such as an Instant Pot, or a slow cooker lets you be hands-off so you can prep other foods at the same time. (Related: Keto Instant Pot Recipes That Will Convince You to Finally Buy a Pressure Cooker)
“[Multi-cookers] really allow people to become their own chef,” says Scott, and they make flavorful, seemingly complex recipes more accessible. And don’t think that real chefs don’t use these time-saving cooking tricks. Scott says he cooks with them at home and loves showing people tricks to get the most out of them.
Your grandma may not have made her recipe using these countertop appliances, but you shouldn’t feel like modern conveniences make a recipe or meal less delicious or healthy. Rather than roast a chicken in the oven, you can make it in a slow cooker while you run errands, says Scott. That chili that needs to simmer for hours? Throw everything into a pressure cooker, and it will be ready in half the time.
They’re also handy when you’re trying to cobble together a meal come Thursday night with whatever odds and ends are left in the fridge and cabinets. “That’s why I love these one-pot meals,” says Scott. “There are those days you didn’t pull out a protein from the freezer; there are those days where you’re, like, ‘what do I do with this random ingredient?'” where you’re more likely to throw in the towel and order takeout. (Related: Easy One-Skillet Meals to Make for Dinner Tonight)
Stop using the same boring spices.
There’s a whole wide world of seasonings beyond salt and pepper. Herbs and spices add flavor and can also add health benefits while helping you decrease your sodium intake. A few basics to have on hand: cinnamon, cumin, garlic, ginger, onion, oregano, paprika, rosemary, and turmeric.
Try one of Scott’s favorite flavor hacks: Add a few cloves of garlic inside a batch of slow-cooked beans. Plus, beans are a great resource for putting together vegetarian meals and meal-prepped lunches. They offer a good amount of protein and loads of fiber to help you stay full throughout the day.
Master something you can make a bunch of ways.
Having a basic dish you can do multiple variations on can build your confidence and give you lots of options to help prevent boredom or burnout from the same sad meal-prepped chicken and rice.
Scott’s recommendation: “Perfect the roasted chicken.” To shorten cooking time, cut the backbone out of a whole chicken (it’s easier than it seems, but if you don’t want to DIY it, have the butcher do it or find one with the backbone already removed). This will expose more of the bird to the surface of the baking sheet so it distributes heat more evenly. By using a baking sheet, you have room for an entire meal on one pan, says Scott. (Related: Sheet-Pan Meals That Make Cleanup a Breeze)
Don’t eat meat or sick of eating chicken? The same idea can be used for a ton of different meals, proteins, or a ton of different roasted vegetables.
Give your food the plate it deserves.
You spent all that time meal-prepping your dinners for the week. Don’t just eat it out of the glass container you stored the food in. If you’re making a salad, don’t eat it from the mixing bowl—something I myself have been guilty of in the past, by the way. Same goes for a frozen entrée—don’t eat it from the container you microwaved it in.
It may seem like a tiny thing, but taking those 30 seconds to put food on a plate can majorly upgrade your eating experience. Feeling more satisfied, visually, when you eat, can help you avoid feeling deprived and stay on track with an overall healthy diet. (Related: How to Make Mindful Eating a Regular Part of Your Diet)
Serving food you make to others can also up the pleasure factor. People connect over food, and cooking and eating with others can strengthen your bonds and nurture relationships. There’s also a certain pride that comes from preparing a meal for your loved ones. Added bonus: If you’re cooking for skeptics, it’s a great way to show others that healthy eating can be delicious.