Everything in life starts in the kitchen. If you want to be more productive, get ripped, get strong, think more clearly or be happier, what you stuff into your body three or four (or five or six) times a day is going to help, or hurt. The problem? It’s often difficult to know exactly what you’re eating – anything you buy from a shop, cafe or restaurant is likely to be stuffed with additives and preservatives, come from animals that lived crammed into cages, or be stuffed full of sugar.
The solution? Cook for yourself as much as you can.
This can be tricky, obviously. If you have a job, workouts to do, and interests that take up your morning or evening, cooking three meals a day from scratch seems ridiculous. But it really isn’t. What it really takes is having a decent repertoire of simple, healthy recipes, being happy to eat leftovers occasionally, a having a willingness to carve out time in the evenings. It gets much, much easier if you’re prepared to eat things that most people wouldn’t consider a ‘meal’ – a few hard-boiled eggs and a bag of spinach, say – but this post isn’t about that. It’s about how I made proper, delicious meals, for a week, from scratch. Normally I cook most of my food, but all of it? How tricky would that be? Not too tricky, as it turns out.
The ground rules:
1. Single ingredients only
Everything I ate had to be identifiable as the plant or chunk of animal it originally was. This ruled out a couple of staples: sausages, any kind of pre-made burger and all sorts of bread were out, as were cooking staples like pre-made Thai curry paste. You’ve got to have discipline, right? Tomatoes are a tricky one – I run through them like a monster, and the canned variety are cheaper and easier, despite having ‘acidity regulators’ in. My advice? Get the tinned version without added sugar, and talk to my lawyers if you don’t like it.
2. Spices are fine
Obviously. My rule of thumb: I get herbs fresh (the dried versions taste like stale weed), but spices are fine from a little jar. I try to make sure I’ve got chili powder, turmeric, paprika, cinnamon, cumin, sea salt and black pepper on hand at all times. I use them in basically everything. For the sake of the week, I ruled out balsamic vinegar and Worcestershire sauce – two of my staples – but that’s not something I’d really recommend. Stock is another grey area: a lot of recipes I like use it. For the sake of purism, I spent the week topping up my usual ‘stock’ recipes with boiling water – it affected the taste, but not too badly. My advice: make your own stock if you can be bothered, but use shop-bought if you can’t, and don’t give it another thought.
3. Drinks are a grey area
Tea, coffee and milk – fine. Soft drinks, fruit juice and milkshakes: not fine. Booze-wise, I drank red wine. This isn’t really all that relevant to scratch-cooking, and I like booze anyway.
With all that dealt with, here’s how I tackled the week. Recipes, cooking times and other notes are included where appropriate. I’m starting at the weekend because that’s where leftover-living starts.
Breakfast Poached eggs, bacon and broccoli. (The worst bit of scratch eating is not having bread to dip in my poached eggs, which are phenomenal. Use bacon instead. For the eggs: heat the water until it bubbles, chuck in a splash of white wine vinegar. If you’re getting the eggs out of the fridge, put them in a bowl of hot water for 30 seconds before you crack them into the pan, so they can warm up a bit).
Lunch Bacon, tomato, avocado and mixed salad. (If this sounds like too much bacon, you should probably stop here).
Dinner STEAK NIGHT. Sirloin steaked cooked in butter. Sweet potato fries (just cut them into wedges, drizzle with oil, and sprinkle liberally with chili powder and paprika,cook for 25 minutes) and creamed spinach (frozen spinach, chopped onion, nutmeg, cream) on the side. Cooking time: 25 very relaxed minutes.
Breakfast Scrambled eggs and avocado (just cube the avocado. Sometimes I’ll put a squirt of lime and a sprinkle of chili powder on the eggs. You know, for fun).
Lunch Apple and Brazil nuts. I do my big eating on Sunday evening, and don’t care who knows it.
Dinner SUNDAY ROAST. Roast lamb (done with rosemary and thyme) alongside roast broccoli, parsnips, and potatoes. For the veg, just give it an hour to marinade in some olive oil with leftover herbs and some pepper, then roast. Make as much as will fit in the oven. Prep time: About 15 minutes. Cooking time: 2 hours.
Breakfast Scrambled eggs and broccoli (how I cook broccoli: heat up some coconut oil in a pan, throw the broccoli in to part-fry with a lid on. After a couple of minutes, add a splash of water and let the broccoli steam the rest of the way. Also works with butter, and takes about 7 minutes total). Handful of almonds.
Lunch Leftover lamb and veg from Sunday.
Dinner Home-made burgers: I make these from lean steak mince with an egg, very finely chopped onion and courgette (carrot also works), chili powder, paprika, salt and pepper, and Worcester sauce when I’m being naughty. Accompaniment: rocket salad with diced avocado and sweet potato fries.
Breakfast Porridge w/ milk, ground almonds, blueberries and banana. (Almonds for the good fats)
Lunch Leftover burgers and fries, fresh spinach (eat crisps out of a bag and it’s fine, eat spinach out of a bag and everyone loses their minds).
Dinner Moroccan-style lamb stew (mix diced lamb in with turmeric, cinnamon, cumin and salt, pan-fry it with onions and carrots, then chuck in a can of tomatoes – raisins and dried apricots are nice if you don’t mind the sugar). Serve with blobs of sweet potato mash on top. Prep time: 15 minutes Cooking time: About an hour.
Breakfast Scrambled eggs and asparagus (cook it the same way as the broccoli). Handful of almonds.
Lunch Leftover lamb
Dinner Turkey meatballs. (Turkey mince, diced onion, carrot and courgette, one egg). Serve with salad and fries (if you want). Prep: 10 minutes. Cooking: 25 minutes.
Breakfast Porridge w/ milk, ground almonds, blueberries and blackberries.
Lunch Leftover meatballs (with rice done in my rice cooker – prep time about 45 seconds, cooking time 20 minutes).
Dinner Chili (beef mince, plus chopped celery, carrots, peppers, kidney beans and canned tomatoes and a load of spice. Cook for at least 40 minutes, and preferably about two hours). I tend to top this with greek yoghurt and grated cheese.
Breakfast Scrambled eggs with garlic spinach (just fry the spinach in coconut oil, and swirl a fork around it with a bulb of garlic jammed on). Total cooking time: about 3 minutes.
Lunch Leftover chili
Dinner Basque-style Spanish chicken – pan-fried chicken thighs and legs, with onion, pepper, a tin of tomatoes and chunks of sweet potato added. Eat with wine. Once you’ve eaten all the chicken, save the leftover goop and poach eggs in it in the morning. Amazing.
So there you go. An entire week, and I didn’t even have to get into my (amazing) bourguignon or stroganoff. It wasn’t even that hard. It would have been worse if I’d had days out of the office, but that’s where pre-made stuff (hard-boiled eggs, cold food) come in. It was also pretty cheap, and had basically zero effect on my weightlifting, face-punching, hard-writing schedule. All in all, worth a try.