When I first started nutrition school, I wrote a post for my personal blog entitled The Reluctant Nutritionist. I was deep in the program, inundated with lectures, ideas, and inspiration from experts across the field of holistic wellness. Some of these lecturers included chefs and home-grown cooks sharing recipe ideas and their passion for clean eating. I thought “I will never get that excited about cooking,” feeling a little small, even though I am a total believer in the power of food and a junkie for delicious meals.
Then I started to realize how my current cooking know-how has been a slow build. Growing up, I never enjoyed grocery shopping, poring over labels, making up interesting culinary creations. Brendan worked in the restaurant industry for a decade when I met him, then continued on during our schooling the first part of our marriage. He cooked, I did the cleaning and the cheerleading for delicious creations he’d whip up on a budget.
I never developed confidence in my own palate, always feeling “stuck” to following a recipe perfectly.
But a funny thing started to happen as I watched him sautee and chop. I slowly developed my own ideas about cooking and found a few “signature” dishes I took pride in making. When our firstborn was diagnosed with autism after battling a rare kidney disorder as a baby, my relationship with cooking changed again. With a toddler who needed to re-learn to love food, I found myself forced to get “food creative.”
I started experimenting with flavors to get him to eat. Brendan dove into research on the brain/gut connection between sensory disorders, behaviors and mood, and introduced the idea of going gluten – free. I resisted, nervous enough about Liam and his caloric intake with a regular diet, let alone a radical new one.
This was 2006, before Gluten Free became the term de jour. G/F items were expensive and, quite frankly, tasted like salty cardboard.
Purposefully, we experimented. And started to see our kid “return” to us from whatever far-away place his brain took him with the influence of gluten in his body. It dawned on me, way back then: food can both deliver powerful medicine and cause profound harm. In Liam’s case, his brain’s reaction to gluten in his system removed him from us, in every way: eye contact, speech, his presence in the here and now of our daily lives. I started to believe and change. And cook more, encouraged.
Vegetables and texture continued to be a struggle, so Brendan created a “sucker punch” risotto with a plethora of chopped veggies folded in. Chipotle became our second home as we let him go to town with rice, beans, avocado and cheese. I began to loosen my grip on recipes and relax about cooking “perfectly.”
Fast forward ten years, and many more baby steps. I still avoid the grocery store, going in and out as fast as humanly possible. I love to relinquish the kitchen to Brendan and don’t daydream about recipes or dabble with my own creations for the fun of it. Plenty of blogs on clean, whole eating are devoted to this.
I find myself drawn to blogs of busy people like me who have learned to de-bunk the mythology of cooking. Making healthy meals for your family can be easy and fast with a couple of tricks up your sleeve.
One of many “aha” cooking moments came a few years ago when our daughter received an award in summer camp for “healthiest lunch,” which pleased her to no end. The second hit me last year, when I realized that my kids rarely get sick. They will catch the usual school-room bugs that go around each winter, but they kick it in less than a day or two. I credit a lot of this to us cooking real food for them 80% of the time. I know there are many other factors at play, but I can’t deny the power of whole ingredients.
I try to include a veggie (or at least a fruit) with every meal and always pack leftovers in their lunch boxes. They think nothing of it, though they do occasionally pine away for a Lunchable or a school hot lunch, like many of their friends eat. I don’t believe in being a food Mafia mama though, allowing plenty of thrilling chances to “life eat:” popcorn at movies, candy on holidays, cookies at parties. I relish hearing their conversations later about how their tummies hurt because “we ate something with too much sugar.”
Kids are sponges and cooking for them early can be the key to creating a life-long knowledge and appreciation for (not necessarily love affair with) cooking.
I’ve come up with a few Kitchen Greatest Hits, most borrowed from cookbooks and kind of honed into my own. It’s fun to whip up a Faux Fancy meal without having to take 2 hours of prep time and 3 runs to the grocery store for strange ingredients.
I wanted to share my favorite here, maybe for your next Sunday night meal or lunch for an out of town visitor. Make a double batch for leftovers, skip the pasta all together (maybe replace it with zucchini or squash “noodles”), or allow yourself a carb treat.
This dish has all of the star players: healthy fat, phytonutrients, antioxidants, tons of flavor and texture. I hope you love it as much as my family does.
Spaghetti with Italian Tuna and Cherry Tomatoes (adapted from the Williams Sonoma cookbook line: Pasta, by Chuck Williams).
– 2 pints cherry tomatoes, halved
– 8 green onions, including tender green parts, thinly sliced
– 3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
– 1/4 cup EVOO (extra virgin olive oil)
– Salt and pepper
– 1 lb pasta *
– 6-8 oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, drained and thinly sliced
– 2 cans oil =packed Italian tuna **
– 1/4 cup capers, preferably salt packed, rinsed and drained. you’ll want to keep some of the salt on the capers for optimum flavor.
– Large handful of fresh flat-leaf Italian parsley
We love the Tinkadaya brown rice line of G/F pasta – it’s so good, nobody ever suspects!
** the sauce is also amazing with fresh salmon, de-boned. Cut a salmon filet into large pieces and sear in a high-heat oil like avocado oil. Bake for 5 -8 minutes at 425. Let it cool, then crumble the salmon and toss with olive oil (2-3 TBSP depending on the size of the cut). Set aside in a container; depending on time, refrigerate or just let cool.
Preheat oven to 450. Bring a large pot of water to boil.
Place cherry tomatoes into a large rimmed baking sheet, along with garlic and green onions. Drizzle with 1/4 cup of olive oil. Season with salt and pepper, stirring to distribute flavors. Bake till tomatoes turn golden brown at the edges, about 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, salt the boiling water and cook pasta until al dente, usually 8-10 minutes depending on the type of pasta.
Put the sun-dried tomatoes, tuna, capers and chopped parsley into a large, shallow bowl. Drain the pasta, add to bowl, and drizzle with a little olive oil. Toss to coat well. Fold in the cherry tomato mixture and toss again gently.
Makes 4 main course or 6 first course servings.