Preparing nutritious, homemade meals each night of the week can be a challenge, whether for a whole family or just for one. No matter how much I love being in the kitchen, I often find myself too tired to cook after a long day at work, falling back on a hodgepodge of snacks from the depths of my pantry, or a slice from the pizzeria near my apartment. And it's gotten even more dire this summer, since I've added yet another time commitment to my routine: training for the TCS New York City Marathon. Between the early wake-up calls and all the miles in my legs, it feels like the last thing I have in me at the end of the day is to make myself something tasty and sensible to eat.
In need of advice on how to juggle it all, I talked food, work, running, and life with Elyse Kopecky, a chef and nutrition expert, cookbook author, and busy mom of two. Before going to culinary school and writing her first book, Elyse had a successful career as a digital marketing producer for Nike, and ran competitively for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Her new cookbook, Run Fast. Cook Fast. Eat Slow. (co-authored with Olympic marathoner Shalane Flanagan) came out this week, and focuses on preparing delicious, nourishing meals to to fuel athletes and active home cooks alike. Here are the tips Elyse shared for keeping your kitchen stocked for success, so you can whip up healthful, satisfying lunches and dinners at a moment’s notice.
As a young athlete, running in college, I tried to eat what I thought was healthy—low-fat, but highly processed foods—and it made me very sick. It wasn’t until I was in my 30s, living abroad in Switzerland, when my husband and I switched to eating high-quality butter, aged cheeses, and whole-milk yogurt; from low-fat, white-meat chicken to whole-roasted chicken; and from processed, frozen veggie burgers to full-fat, grass-fed beef. And then I started feeling so much better, so much so that I overcame amenorrhea for the first time in my life, and it was just a huge "a-ha!" moment for me.
In culinary school, we learned a lot about the impact of fat on the body—how it regulates our metabolism and hormones, and the ways it's important for brain development. Every cell in our body is composed of fat. Learning more about the science helped verify that my theory wasn’t just relevant to me, but that it would be true for thousands of others, especially fellow young and otherwise healthy athletes.
I always buy my meat, usually grass-fed ground beef, from a local farmer that I trust. I also try to buy organic whole milk and make my own yogurt, or I’ll buy a good brand of organic whole-milk yogurt. Straus Creamery is one of my favorites, but you can also get a really good whole-milk yogurt at Trader Joe’s. And cheeses—I always buy cheeses that are aged and made in the traditional way. I used to think I was severely allergic to dairy, but it’s more where it comes from and how it’s processed.
I buy produce from our local farmers market and now we get a weekly CSA box, but I don’t pay much mind to organic labeling at the farmers market. I just believe local is better and more nutritious—some local farmers will spray, but if they do, it’ll be before the fruit is flowering. At the grocery store, I definitely try to buy organic versions of anything that doesn’t have a thick skin: things like apples and berries. But lemons, oranges, bananas, and other produce with a thick skin, I don’t worry too much about.
Most people don’t sharpen their knives regularly enough, but it’s super important to take good care of them. I go through a ton of produce each week, so having a reliable knife is essential. And relatedly, a really good, big cutting board, to let you chop a whole head of kale in once place, or where you can just lay everything out. In terms of pots and pans, I often use my French oven, and a cast iron skillet.
I’ve been relying on my Instant Pot right now, because I’ve had limited stove access as we’re renovating the kitchen in our home. I use the slow-cooking setting a lot; in the morning I’ll throw in everything for a soup or stew and in the afternoon it'll be ready to go. Or I’ll use the Instant Pot for making bone broth or yogurt. I actually use the pressure-cooking setting a little less than the slow-cooking setting, but the pressure-cooking setting is handy for cooking rice or beans.
Last, I love Mason jars—especially the tall, wide-mouth, straight-sided kind. I use them for everything: storing leftovers, taking smoothies to go, putting sauces in the freezer. Every time I make pesto, or hummus, or marinara sauce, I make a double batch and freeze it in a Mason jar (the kind labeled freezer-safe).
It's a daily commitment to cook all your meals from scratch, especially for a hungry family. But I believe it can become an enjoyable routine and ingrained habit. Because my husband and I work full-time, and have a 9-month old and a 4-year old, batch cooking has been a game-changer for us. My philosophy is "cook once, eat twice," and so I double most recipes and get really creative with leftovers. So, if I make hamburgers for the family, I’ll double the recipe, using two pounds of meat instead of one; we’ll eat burgers one night and I’ll use the second batch for burger bowls, or to put on top of salads, or take the meat and put it into marinara sauce for a pasta dish.
Second, I’ll dedicate one afternoon a week to cooking, to jumpstart the week and get the bulk of my prep done. I’ll roast a tray of veggies, bake sweet potato fries, cook a pot of grains, and make some rice. On Sundays, I’ll make a big grain salad and homemade dressing, and it’ll last for a few days of lunches for my husband and me. And I’ll throw stuff in the Instant Pot all at once.
It’s important to give myself two hours of uninterrupted time in the kitchen, without the kids nearby—I turn off my phone and get really focused. It's amazing how much more I can get done while multitasking. So while I have a dish in the oven, I also have something going on the stove, and by the end of the afternoon will just have it all stored away for the week ahead.
We’ll have sweet potato fries on hand every week. I also like to keep cooked beets, which I make in the Instant Pot and put into everything from smoothies to hummus and on top of salads. And then I mentioned I make a lot of grain salads and power bowls, so I’ll have a jar of homemade dressing, and a batch of quinoa or farro, or rice mixed with coconut oil, to keep it from drying out. It reheats a lot better that way. Usually we’ll also have hard-boiled eggs in our fridge for a quick grab-and-go snack. And then I’ll make one wholesome sweet treat for the week, to pack into my kid’s lunches or to grab for a late-night bite—one that’s hearty and nourishing, with lots of good fats.
The kitchen is the heart of our home. That’s where we spend most of our time—my husband and I preparing and eating dinner, the kids nearby, and all of us together and being in each other’s company. I really like to slow down and enjoy the meal I’m eating. Since we’re remodeling our home, it’s been a little crazy; I’m eating on the go a lot and doing exactly what I’d advise against!
Outside of the kitchen, our biggest hobby is going on outdoor adventures. That’s why we moved to Bend, Oregon, where we have access to great trails. Raising our kids out in nature is a big part of what we’re about.
In the end, taking a moment to stop and breathe is really important, not to mention good for digestion. Food is meant to be enjoyed and celebrated and shared!
Photo reprinted from Run Fast. Cook Fast. Eat Slow. Copyright © 2018 by Shalane Flanagan and Elyse Kopecky. Published by Rodale Books, an imprint of Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.
What are some meal-prep staples in your fridge? Let us know in the comments!