Cooking Outside the Box

It's the way many of us started cooking when we were still in college. It's the way my husband would proudly prepare the occasional dinner for us when we were newlyweds.  It's the time-saving, budget-conscious way we convinced ourselves we could eat at home.  It's hard to break the habit of cooking processed food that comes in a box. Here are some beginning tips for cooking outside the box:

1. Read the label.  Picture what you perceive the food product to be that's promoted on the front of the box.  Then turn to the label and read every detail of the ingredients.  If this includes several unappetizing words that end in "ite", "ate", or "ol", consider a more wholesome alternative to so many artificial additives and preservatives.

2. Stock the spice rack.  If you're accustomed to buying something like a noodle helper that includes a convenient mix of spices, try gathering your own spices to use.  You might find from reading the label that the main flavoring is garlic and salt.  Have your own garlic on hand.  Consider whether you want to eat that much salt.  Try some other spices and herbs to punch up the flavor of your food.  Have you tried thyme, rosemary, or oregano lately?

3. Add something fresh.  Consider switching from dried to fresh for flavors like garlic and onion.  Imagine which fresh vegetables would add nutrition, flavor and fun to the dish you want to prepare.  That's so much better than little bits of dried "vegetables" that come in your boxed meal kit.

4. Buy bulk staples.  If you're buying a meal helper in a box, chances are you're paying far too much per pound for a carbohydrate like noodles, potatoes or rice.  Check out the cost savings of buying these things separately.  While you're at it, buy the less-processed, more colorful, or whole-wheat version instead.  Have you tried red potatoes in place of white?  Whole-wheat pasta is becoming more common on grocery store shelves.  I recently noticed that the prepackaged rice side dish cost about $2.50 per pound on the grocery store shelf, while I could buy my own brown rice for 79-cents per pound.  Then, I went to the bulk bin of another grocery store and found organic brown rice for 89-cents per pound, which was practically free with a $5-off-$25 store coupon.  Start cooking from scratch, and chances are you'll have so much extra food (for less money) that you'll have to start freezing and saving part of it for another convenient meal later on.

5. Find great recipes or cook something simple.  Whether you try a famous chef's recipe online or pull out your grandma's worn recipe book, give yourself credit for trying something new.  Consider the basic methods of preparing foods, and step way outside the box to make something simple without the recipe once in a while.  Sometimes we feel intimidated because we don't have all of the ingredients on hand for a complicated recipe. Cooking dinner doesn't have to be complicated, even if it's not something from a box. Boil, bake or steam your food, stir-fry the things you like, include your favorite natural flavorings, and make mistakes.  That's how people have been feeding their families for centuries.

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