If you think cooking a healthy, delicious weeknight dinner takes too much time, then try a recipe or two from Ellie Krieger’s new book, Weeknight Wonders. In less than 30 minutes from prep to table, Ellie’s new collection of 150 dinner ideas will have you preparing entire meals that are faster, and definitely more nutritious, than ordering take-out. The well-known host of Healthy Appetite on Food Network and Cooking Channel, Ellie is the James Beard Award-winning author of The Food You Crave, in addition to So Easy, and Comfort Food Fix, and she has been a columnist for Fine Cooking and Food Network magazines, and USA Today. A registered dietitian and nutritionist, Ellie is on a mission to help people eat better, cook simpler, and answer the question, “What’s for dinner?”
Meatless Monday: I love the concept behind Weeknight Wonders. It seems to have been written to answer one question: “What’s for dinner?”
Ellie Krieger: It really was, in a very large way. It’s funny, when people talk about food and nutrition, there are so many facts that can twirl around your head and issues to consider. But it really does come down to that: ‘what’s for dinner, what are we having, what is doable?’ I think one of my missions is to really look at what’s stopping people from making healthy, delicious food at home and how can I help them break down those barriers. This book answers that question in a very practical way.
So what is the biggest barrier regarding cooking at home? I’m sure most people will say “time.”
No, it’s not time. I think the biggest challenge is mindset. Because we do have enough time to cook a healthy meal, and I think that I prove this with this book. I think it’s more of the misconception, an attitude towards cooking at home, that needs to change. I approach it as a world of possibilities instead of limitations. We know there are limitations in terms of time and money, but you can absolutely get a great meal on the table that’s healthy, affordable and that everyone will be into. It’s about having the right tools, and my goal is giving people the tools.
So where does the home cook start? What is essential to cooking healthier weeknight meals?
Really stock your pantry with healthy options. I have a whole pantry list in the book. If you don’t have time to go to the store, you’ll have these foods on hand: frozen spinach, frozen fruit, canned tomatoes, canned beans, whole grains like quinoa and whole grain pastas. These are healthy convenience foods. Have these as your base and fill in weekly with fresh items.
Overall, Weeknight Wonders is very balanced, equally divided between meat, poultry, seafood and vegetarian. Does that sum up the way you eat at home?
It really does. I personally love variety. Variety of flavor and texture and color. I love variety of ingredients. I want to pick from all of them, so it does wind up being balanced. But, that said, every dish I make is very much plant-based focused, even if it has meat in it. Very vegetable forward, I guess you could say. And also whole grain forward.
Speaking of balance, you have an approach to food that our readers might want to consider. It’s called “Usually–Sometimes–Rarely.” How did that come about?
I was in private practice for many years. And when I was working with clients, I felt people were very extremist. It was all or nothing. In order to help people find balance, to get off this diet rollercoaster and living in the extremes, I developed a food list that I call “Usually–Sometimes–Rarely.” The “Usually” foods are the backbone of a healthy eating plan: vegetables, whole fruit, whole grains, healthy oils, lean proteins plus fish, nuts, seeds, beans and low fat dairy. The “Sometimes” foods are the ones you might want to sprinkle in here and there, things like a refined grain like white flour or an unrefined sweetener like honey or maple sugar. These foods have some advantages but you might want to hold back on the amount you use or the frequency. And then there are the “Rarelys.” These are the foods that a lot of chefs use heavy-handedly and a lot of nutritionists completely rule out. And this is where my overriding philosophy is ‘never say never.’ This is where butter, bacon, cream, full fat cheese, ice cream and white sugar come in. I use these in minimum amounts for maximum impact.
That’s a great approach. Similarly, on CNN’s “Road Warriors” you said: “let go of the idea of being perfect.” That goes against the typical “eat this, not that” advice we usually hear.
Rules just set us up. Initially, we’re so high, and we can pat ourselves on the back. And suddenly if you have one French fry, your whole world has crumbled. It doesn’t need to be like that. I have personally lived through the whole binge diet thing in my teens and early twenties. I know how exhausting and painful–and unhealthy–it can be. And in many cases it can lead to disorder eating, which is a whole other topic. My passion is for striving for balance and helping people find happiness, instead of looking at food like a constant struggle.
Meatless Monday agrees! Our entire movement is based on prevention and moderation and small changes—in this case, “one day a week, cut out meat.”
I am so impressed and amazed and inspired at how Meatless Monday has taken hold. I was in a Barnes & Noble the other day, and in the Cooking section I saw a sign: “Great for Meatless Monday.” And there was a table full of fabulous cookbooks.
Does being a Registered Dietitian influence your cooking style or did your cooking style lead you to become an RD?
They are quite intertwined for me. I’ve always loved food. I’ve always been cooking and passionate about food. As I went through my own personal journey, I’ve learned how to love food in a healthy way. I started studying nutrition in college as a Pre-Med student, but I ended up majoring in Nutrition once I realized the depth and breadth of Nutritional education. I remember my food chemistry class, being in the lab, where starches begin and proteins coagulate, stuff like that, things dietitian need to know. All this definitely affected my own cooking.
Your website says it all: “Delicious, Meet Healthy.” Are those two objectives, health and taste, your focus when you’re writing a new cookbook?
Health is always part of my approach. But I always think more of real people. Happily, when I’m on the road on a book tour or through social media, I get to meet a lot of people–I get real feedback from real people. So when I’m cooking in the kitchen and when I’m developing recipes, I think about these people. The humanity and human connection really do it for me. It’s wonderful, and I love this about my job. I meet people who say, “I made your soup the other day,” or “Every Sunday, my family has an Ellie Sunday.” This is amazing. I’m in people’s lives in a very real way, in a very intimate way. And I feel there’s a level of intimacy in it for me. The fact that someone’s going to eat it, it’s very personal.
Speaking of families and cooking, at The Monday Campaigns, we also have a initiative called The Kids Cook Monday. As a mom, what was your approach to getting your daughter interested in cooking?
Cooking together just makes food fun. And it teaches critical life skills. First of all, start early on. When my daughter was just able to sit up and bang things, I would put her—safely—on the counter, and I’d give her a piece of bread and a butter knife and just let her chop it. So you can get them involved when they are very little. A few years later, they can handle simple tasks. They can tear lettuce and toss a salad. They’ll make a bit of a mess, but that’s how they learn. A then a few years after that, you can teach them to make things on their own. I just think it’s easier in the long run for everyone. Also, when I think about kids cooking, I think many parents default to baking stuff. I would encourage everyone to branch out from that. If you want your kids to eat vegetables, let them cook vegetables. Let them pick out vegetables in the store, let them scoop the seeds out of butternut squash at home, and then when they see it baking, they see it collapse in the pan, how sweet and delicious it gets, it’s wonderful. So my advice would be: don’t stop at cookies and brownies! With kids, you can approach foods from a totally sensory experience: smell, taste, color. When my daughter was two or three, we’re on a city bus, and she says, “Mom, I smell basil.” We looked around and there’s someone nearby with a big bag of basil. And I’m like, “yes, that’s my girl!”
March is National Nutrition Month. Since today is the first Monday in March, can you recommend a dish we can all cook in 30 minutes? Perhaps a meatless Weeknight Wonder?
I love the Savory Red Lentil, Quinoa and Vegetable Stew. I love this dish, it’s very unique. The lentils and quinoa cook in the same amount of time, in the same pot, with the vegetables, too. So it’s like a one-pot dish, but it has so many great flavors. It’s almost like an Indian-flavored chili. It’s really lovely, and it’s one of my favorite dishes.
Savory Red Lentil, Quinoa and Vegetable Stew
Reprinted with permission, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
from Weeknight Wonders by Ellie Krieger
Photography by Quentin Bacon
Copyright 2013. All rights reserved.