8 Healthy-Cooking Tips I’ve Learned from Living with a Chef



Whenever I tell anyone my boyfriend, Zach, is a sous chef, their response is pretty much always something along the lines of, “Oh my goodness, how nice! He must make you so many amazing meals, huh?” Well, no, not really. I mean, don’t get me wrong, when he’s actually at home for dinner, he does deliver some drool-worthy feasts. But a good five or six days of the week, he’s off making dinner for other people, and I’m left to fend for myself. So when he is around, I soak up as much cooking know-how as I can, so that fending for myself doesn’t mean eating Annie’s mac n’ cheese for dinner every night.

Over the past few years of living together, I’ve racked up a pretty long list of cooking tips thanks to him. Some of them, like the secret to making the best alfredo sauce on planet Earth, are totally not health-related. But a few of the tips he’s taught me in the kitchen make a world of difference when it comes to whipping up a healthy meal. Check them out below.

1. Don’t try to replicate the veggie side dish you had at your favorite restaurant. 

Know this: The reason your veggies taste so much better straight out of a restaurant’s kitchen than when you cook them for yourself is because they are drenched in butter. Drenched, I tell you.

One day, I asked Zach why my sautéed spinach never tastes as good when I make it at home as it does when I order it at a restaurant. His response was, “Restaurants use way more butter for cooking than you would ever, ever think about using at home.” Yikes.

So when you’re cooking for yourself, don’t try to replicate the salty, buttery flavor of the sautéed spinach at your favorite restaurant. You’ll either end up sorely disappointed after skimping on fat, or you’ll end up with a dish that tastes restaurant-worthy, but at the cost of being a total calorie bomb.

2. Never underestimate the power of fresh herbs.

Whenever Zach walks into Whole Foods, he immediately makes a bee-line for an area of the grocery store I rarely frequent: the fresh herb fridge. He throws packages of oregano, thyme, cilantro and more into the shopping cart with the enthusiasm of a six-year-old who just got his hands on a bag of Skittles. He uses fresh herbs in pretty much everything he cooks at home, and that simple effort makes a huge difference in the flavor of even the simplest of dishes like, say, sautéed mushrooms.

So if you, like me, often forget about fresh herbs when it comes to cooking, or you look at the price tag of fresh herbs at the grocery store and say, “Meh, I can live without it,” it’s time for you to hop on the herb-loving train, stat. Not only do you get tons bangin’ flavor for your buck, but certain herbs, including all the ones I mentioned above, are loaded with good stuff like vitamin K, antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties. Oh, and did I mention, a serving of most chopped herbs will only run you one calorie? Yes: one calorie.

3. A lot of the time, you can use the entire vegetable, leaves and all.

One night, Zach came home from work with some carrot-top pesto for me to try. And weird as it seemed, it was pretty darn delicious. Chefs like to use up every last bit of an ingredient, because hellooo lower food costs, and this results in some strange—but totally tasty—dishes that you can also make at home.

Along with whipping up stuff like carrot-top pesto, the folks at the restaurant where Zach works save the usually-thrown-away leafy tops of veggies like beets, radishes and carrots to make sautéed greens. Resourceful, right?

4. Don’t be afraid to get weird in the kitchen.

In other words, be creative. Just because you’ve never tried, say, carrot-top pesto, doesn’t mean it won’t be the bomb. And the same goes for about a bazillion other potential concoctions your fridge has to offer right about now.

5. When in doubt, throw a shallot in the mix. 

Before I moved in with Zach, I had only ever used shallots in one dish: risotto. Now, after watching him put shallots in just about everything he’s cooked for the past few years, I do the same. Shallots give you a sweet, mild oniony flavor that pairs well with everything from sautéed veggies to fish to fancy-shmancy grilled cheese sandwiches—and all for just seven calories a pop. So whenever you’re feeling a little lost on how to add flavor to a healthy dish without adding a boatload of calories, consider throwing a shallot into the mix.

6. All you need are six ingredients for a truly delicious salad dressing.

Speaking of shallots, the only ingredients you need for an awesome salad dressing are one shallot, a lemon, olive oil, thyme, salt and pepper.

I am terribly picky when it comes to salad dressing. I hate the taste of vinegar, which excludes like 80 percent of store-bought brands, and I see no point in eating a salad if you’re going to drown in it cream, á la ranch dressing, so I usually just stick to olive oil. But there is one salad dressing my boyfriend whips up on the regular that I really like—and if my picky tastebuds are down with it, I’m pretty sure just about anyone would like it. Plus, it’s so easy to make, a preschooler could do it.

The recipe: Throw some some finely chopped shallots, chopped thyme, the zest of one lemon and the juice of one lemon into a bowl. Then slowly whisk in about 3/4 a cup olive oil, adding salt and pepper to taste as you go. (Whisking is important—otherwise the lemon juice and olive oil will separate quickly.) Store in a mason jar and enjoy on all your salads, sautéed veggies, fish—pretty much anything that could use some dressing up—for up to a week.

7. If you don’t want to go overboard on the oil, roast your veggies.

I went through a phase this summer where I was eating sautéed eggplant, zucchini and mushrooms tossed with pesto and quinoa for dinner every single night. (It was summertime and the eggplant was just So. Freakin’. Good.) But about a week in, I realized I’d gone through, like, an entire gallon of olive oil. When I mentioned this disturbing realization to Zach, he suggested I roast the veggies instead of sautéing them. Not only would it significantly cut my oil consumption, but roasting is also way more hands-off. In other words, it’s easy.

Boy, was he right: I tossed the veggies with a tiny bit of olive oil, salt and chili flakes, threw them in the oven at 400 degrees for about 25 minutes, went and watched an episode of Parks and Recreation while they cooked and, in the end, had a nearly identical dinner that was way easier to prepare and way less calorie-dense. That’s what I call a win-win.

8. Have a little butter (and cream, and cheese) every now and then, just because it’s good.

When it comes to my mental health, one of the most important cooking tips I’ve learned from living with a guy who likes to cook up an indulgent dinner like homemade sweet potato pasta in a white wine cream sauce, just because it’s Tuesday, is this: a little butter (or heavy cream, or brie) every now and then won’t kill you. What a relief, right?

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