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January 9, 2013 at 6:00 AM

Learn to ‘cook fearlessly’ for a healthy 2013

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Was your New Year’s pledge to eat healthier food? To lose weight? To save money? Here’s a tip from Seattle author Kathleen Flinn: “If you learn to cook, you can pretty much hit all three.”

Flinn, a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris, has no issues with elaborate meals or difficult techniques. But she learned to her surprise a few years back, shopping at her neighborhood market on Capitol Hill, how many people stick to boxed or prepackaged foods because even basic skills seemed a time-consuming mystery.

She gathered together a group of hopeful cooks-to-be and spent a year, with the help of local chefs like Thierry Rautureau and Robin Leventhal, showing them how simple the fundamentals of everyday meals could be — roasting a chicken, baking bread, tossing together a quick pot of soup with whatever’s in the fridge. Her graduates, as she chronicled in her most recent book, “The Kitchen Counter Cooking School,” made transitions that worked for their families and budgets. This year, Flinn started a free “Year of Cooking Fearlessly” project online, making some of the same lessons broadly available, from basic knife skills to kebabs and pot pies. (You can check it out here).

“I wanted to acknowledge something beyond 30-minute meals. It’s not necessarily about the time it takes you to make a dinner, it’s about putting in some time to learn some fundamentals,” she said.

What holds people back from cooking at home? Flinn thinks it boils down to confidence. She’s studied how people cook at home, and “one thing that amazes me is how many times people say ‘I know I’m probably doing this all wrong.’ People don’t really learn to cook in any kind of systematic way anymore.”

She also persistently hears people say they don’t have time to cook. She knows how tough it can be, but “there are some strategies you can put into place,” she said. She has one friend who started a food-sharing arrangement with another busy soccer parent. Rather than wait through every practice during the week, they would take turns having one parent watch the kids while the other cooked for both families. “If she’s going to roast a chicken, she roasts two. If she’s going to make a pot of spaghetti, she makes extra.” The next practice day, she watches both kids and has her own dinner delivered. “It goes back to that thing where it takes a village. I think we forget, we can create our own village.”

But isn’t cooking hard? “I taught my six-year-old niece how to make (bread). If a 6-year-old can make bread I think anybody can.”

How can even a frugal cook compete with the price and convenience of fast food? “You have to look not only at the cost, but at the value for calories,” she said. Even at McDonalds, two adult dinners and a Happy Meal can top $15 fast, she noted. “For $15 you can get a whole roast chicken and get a side of mashed potatoes and a side of vegetables that’s a much better use of your money.” And a single-serving $4 Big Mac looks less like a deal compared with a pot of spaghetti and homemade sauce that breaks down to $1 per plate.

Here are a few of Flinn’s tips for making healthier and better-tasting meals. Follow them and you might fulfill more New Year’s plans than your own. Flinn’s own New Year’s resolution?

“To try to inspire more people to cook.”

5 tips for budding cooks:

Choose your shortcuts: Boxed mashed potatoes contain long lists of artificial ingredients – pass on those. But pre-cut onions in the produce department, while they might be more expensive and less fresh than cutting onions at home, are at least a whole food. Buy them if that’s what it takes for you to start a stir-fry on a busy night.

Simplify: Having some sort of routine for cooking meals makes it easier to plan. “It doesn’t have to be as aggressive as ‘Every Tuesday we have spaghetti,’ she said, but it could be as basic as the friend who decided to serve oatmeal four days a week for breakfast, cutting down dramatically on planning and shopping.

Invest in equipment: It might cost less than you think. Go for a multipurpose 8-inch chef’s knife, for instance, rather than a block full of poor-quality knives you won’t use. You can get a decent one for as little as $10 at Ikea, though it will only last a few years. If you invest in name-brands like Henckels or Wusthof, though, avoid the cheapest ones, which tend to be more about the name than quality. Whatever you get, hand-wash it rather than dulling it in the dishwasher.

Learn to read labels: Seattle-based nutritionist Beve Kindblade told Flinn’s students to keep things simple, suggesting that they’ll skip most processed foods just by avoiding anything with less than three percent of fiber per serving, and avoiding anything with more than six grams of sugar or total fat per serving.

Don’t feel you need to excel at everything all the time: If you can go from four prepackaged meals a week to two, that’s great. One of Flinn’s “kitchen counter” graduates never got the hang of knife skills, but learned to chop onions in a food processor instead. “If that works for her, it’s totally fine.”

Photo by Irene Flinn

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