Eating Healthy…ish

It seems there’s a trend afoot. One that says “I’ve worked hard; I deserve a treat after a long day at the office… but I don’t want to lose momentum for all that hard work!” That trend is Eating “Healthy…ish”.

What, you might ask, is healthy-ish eating, exactly?

Well… let me start by filling you in on my vision of “healthy”.

Swaths of green, purple, orange and red veggies, as far as the eye can see… Tender beans, lentils, peas, corn and fish replace those fatty fillets of beef and pork… starches and processed grains are banished, replaced by whole grains and hearty pasta… Hydrogenated and animal fats are avoided, replaced by their kinder, gentler cousins Canola and Olive.

That’s “Healthy”.

Throw a little cheese on top…

That’s “ish”.

Welcome to the world of healthy-ish eating!

In general, I like to feed my family wholesome foods that nourish the body in the long run rather than something just “quick and dirty” to fill the void. I feel confident that these foods will provide a great foundation for future growth.

One small hitch: wholesome foods only work if they’re eaten.

Enter “Ish”

Cooking “Healthy-ish” lets me add a moderate amount of cheese on that veggie whole-wheat-pasta casserole. It lets me add a smidgen extra olive oil to those colourful sautéed veggies in my scrambled eggs.

Thanks to “Ish”, I can rest assured that while, yes, my toddler will eat a bit more cheese that I would like, more importantly, she’ll also get her veggies.

Now, I’m not advocating Doritos for breakfast, but a little flavour (and let’s be honest, “flavour” usually means “bad”) carefully added to an otherwise a-okay meal can help keep me and my family eating the greens along with that tasty, tasty cheese.

But how?

There are two approaches that work for my family, the goal being “Make good food that’s edible”. One: find a healthy recipe and tweak it until it tastes good. Two: take an indulgent recipe and strip out some of the badness. Let’s take a look at these two approaches.

Good food… but who’ll eat it?

First, find a recipe that your family is willing to try (say my One Pot Pasta Recipe). Sometimes, (like the pasta) it just works. Great! Other times (steamed veggies and rice, for example) there’s just something missing.

Well, when something’s too plain, I find a few of these “secret weapons” work:

  • Add salt. One draw-back of “all fresh” meals, is that it can lack that something to bring out the flavours. A little salt goes a long way (just a pinch can be enough), so add a dash, taste, and repeat until it’s yummy!

  • Add oil – but only the “good” kind (olive oil and canola oil have good reputations). Usually a Tablespoon in a large family meal will be enough to enhance any natural flavours. This is good for anything sautéed (lightly fried), as well as most sauces.

  • Add complementary seasonings. This one’s a bit tricky. A lot of recipes online are click-bait, meant to draw you into some site that has a bunch of recipes and lets you muddle through what’s good or not. Other sites (like one of my favourites: Oh She Glows) have carefully crafted their recipes and only present their best and most flavourful.

    When a recipe is missing that tender love and care, Cumin or garlic may be what you need.

  • Add cheese – just a little, though. To make sure you’re not obliterating the healthiness of your choice, carefully measure the cheese, say a shredded tablespoon per portion. You’re going for a hint of indulgence, not “ooey-gooey”.

  • Add something bad, but in a carefully controlled portion. Examples of this include adding a single slice of garlic bread with that wholesome pasta dish, or adding a little batter to that baked fish. Use caution, though. It’s a small step from “single slice of garlic bread” to “cheesy-bread-splosion!”.

For the above (as in life) moderation is key. Try a bit, taste, and adjust until you find the right fit.

Oh, and don’t forget to write down what you did so you can do it again! I have a handy organizer, but I’ve been known to keep a notepad on my microwave for cooking notes.

When it’s a matter of texture or appearance instead of flavour (i.e. my toddler won’t eat certain vegetables), try blending, mashing or straining part of the meal (the side vegetable or sauce, for instance). For my One Pot Pasta Recipe example above, I blend the healthy veggies together into a uniform sauce before I cook it. I get all the healthy advantage of the meal, plus my picky eater will, you know, eat it!

Tasty food… but not so healthy

This one’s easy to find, hard to fix. You have to know what the “problem” is in order to fix it, so let’s break down some of the common sources of badness:

  • Too much fat. The best way to reduce fat is to simply not include it in the first place. Remove chicken skin before cooking (this takes away that top layer of fat). Trim excess fat from fatty cuts of meat or even choose lower-fat cuts. If you’re adding butter, peanut oil or vegetable oil, use canola oil or olive oil instead (hey, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em).

  • Too much starch. If you’re using potatoes (common here in Newfoundland), try replacing a portion with that wonder-veggie cauliflower. Mix it into mashed potatoes and you hardly notice. If you’re using another source of starch, reduce the portion size and add a side of something green in its place, like steamed green beans.

  • Highly-processed grains (e.g. white flour, white rice, or minute-anything). Replace white pasta with whole wheat, and white bread with whole grain bread. If you’ve got picky eaters who refuse to try something new, there are some brands of bread out there that offer “disguised” versions – whole wheat bread that looks like white bread, or bread with cauliflower dough baked right in.

  • Not enough veggies/too much meat or grains. Reduce the portion size of the meat, pasta or rice and up the amount of veggies. For example, instead of a meal of fried chicken and fries, try a few pieces of chicken on a bit of rice plus a side of steamed veggies. When cooking different kinds of meat, certain veggies go better than others. Some tried and true veggie/meat pairings include: carrots and chicken; green beans and pork; or broccoli and beef.

  • Too “from-a-box”. Let’s be honest, we all love the ease of just throwing something into the oven and walking away for 20 minutes. Ta-da! It’s like magic! Except for all those preservatives, fats, extra carbs and salt.

    But what can we do?

    Never fear! There are plenty of alternatives to work with: Chicken strips can be made from home made ingredients and custom-made seasonings; Home-fries can be baked with a carefully controlled amount of oil or using a low-oil frier; Home-made versions can be whipped up quickly (think home-made quesadillas instead of pre-fried easy-bake mini-tacos, or “do it yourself” side dishes using whole wheat pasta).

    Plus, there are some reputable brands out there. This takes a bit of leg work, but finding a brand you trust for those “easy-peasy” meals can take a bit of strain off the day-to-day meal planning.

One of the keys to successfully reducing the unhealthiness of a dish is in smaller portions. Sometimes, that’s a smaller amount of the indulgent food on your plate. Other times, it’s a smaller amount of “the bad thing” in the dish itself.

Welcome to dinner…

In my ongoing quest for a healthy family, “ish” has made its home here. “Ish” is here to stay.

Thanks for keeping my family well, “Healthy”. And thanks for helping them enjoy it, “Ish”.

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Meal Planning 101: Your key to chaos-reduction

Work, work, work, that’s all I do… until now!

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So, I’ve mentioned “meal planning” a few times before, but I haven’t taken the time to talk about it in more detail… until now.

As part of a family where both parents work, it can be hard to come home at the end of the day and spend an hour cooking something that isn’t from-a-box easy (but bad). I used to find it so wearying at the end of my work day. More chores to be done before I could even think about spending time with my family.

So I took a step back. I said to myself “self,” (okay not really, but we’ll go with that). “Self, what can you do to make my end-of-day better?“.

Well, “self” ignored me and surfed Pinterest instead.

Believe it or not that was a good thing! I swiped through dozens of pins on using my slow cooker, and dozens more of “10 minute meals” (of the set-it-and-forget-it variety).

I was inspired!

I filled my slow cooker for the next morning and used my momentum to cut up ingredients for the day after that.

Two meals in one week that weren’t baked-something and rice? Gord was over the moon! My daughter was even on board… if only because she still hadn’t learned the word “no” yet.

I had a good start making a couple of meals a week home-made from scratch. However I was finding it difficult to keep coming up with meals every work night. Picking something that either myself or Gord could cook, plus trying to remember what ingredients were on hand was a bit unwieldy. What could I do so that we could eat home-cooked meals with flavour more regularly?

It was a challenge, but I was up for it!

Instead of figuring out food to eat “on the fly”, it was much easier when I knew in advance what to make. And knowing what to make, well, that just meant I could do some of the more time-consuming preparation steps the day before. And if I could do that for a couple of days, well, I could do it for the rest of the week too!

Here’s how I did it…

The “What”

1: What to eat

The first thing I needed to know was just what my family was willing to eat. We had a few staple recipes that we all enjoyed, so I started with those. My recipe book has grown since then, but sticking to those staples has helped everyone stay on board.

2: What are your limitations

The second thing I needed to look at was my schedule and skill level. It wouldn’t help anyone if I needed two hours of waiting before I could cook the darn thing! Nor would it work if I overreached my skills.

So, I researched a few recipes that were “30-minutes or less” using flavours and techniques I was comfortable with. Weekday meals aren’t for stretching my culinary wings. They’re for quickly filling bellies with nutrition (and, okay, maybe a little play-time in the kitchen, but only on my terms!)

You’d be right in thinking my first few recipes are meal-plan ready (funny how that worked out, huh?)

Give ’em a try, I’ll wait!

The “When” and the “How”

Figuring out “what” you can eat is only half the battle. The “who” (your family) and the “where” (home-sweet-home) are easy too, so, now for the “when” and “how”:

1: Pick when to shop

Starting off, I picked one day a week to do the grocery shopping: the day after weekly fliers came out.

2: How to shop the sales

It was no accident that I picked the day after fliers were delivered to do my shopping. Fliers were my gateway into picking which store had the best deals for that week.

Shopper points aside, I found shopping sales the best way to save money. If you’re determined to collect all those golden point-miles, keep the long view on sales and stock up on the things your family uses often when they go on sale. It may be hard, but stick to your guns and only buy what’s on your meal plan outside of those family staples.

A couple extra cans of tomatoes seem to always make their way into my pantry when two-for-one week is on.

3: Plan when to prep

More than just planning the meals, planning to prepare those meals is essential. I started out doing the work for the next day after baby-bed-time, but soon found that doing two hours on Sunday was a better fit for my schedule. Sure, it takes two hours up front, but it allows me to just throw things together for the rest of the work week.

Put it into practice!

Put together, what does my weekly meal planning look like? Something like this…

Wednesday night, I find the fliers on my front step after work. Once the little one makes her way to bed, I sit down and take a look. Does the green store have a big two-for-one sale on beans and pasta? Does the red store have a special on my favourite brand of chicken? Whichever one has the best sales gets my business!

Next, I jot down some of the things on sale that my family likes. Chicken… tomatoes… lettuce… that goes well with those taco shells I bought a few weeks ago (on sale, of course) and rice. Let’s make taco salad one night and chicken burrito bowls on another!

Finally, I make a note of how many meals need onion, how many need peppers, and so on. I need…. five onions, three peppers, and some mushrooms. Let’s plan to do some chopping on Sunday night and put it in the fridge until the day-of!

Wait… what?

I know, I’ve been a bit vague. What you end up doing can really depend on how much time you have, and what your family enjoys.

To help you along I’ll be posting a few of my secret weapons: printable planner pages, and a walkthrough of my month-long February meal planning (yes, I said month-long, you’ll understand when I post about it later).

Give meal planning a try and share what works for your family!

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Sweet Chili Cashew Chicken

This cashew-crusted chicken is whipped up in minutes and takes a low-maintenance 25-45 minutes to cook (depending whether the chicken is fresh or frozen). Throw on some steamed green beans or carrots and some rice, and you’ve got yourself a delicious, protein-packed meal.

Choose your seasonings wisely… this bad boy can pack a wallop if you add more Sriracha, or it can be sweetly mild without the kick. Your choice!

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I’m a fan of Chicken Parmesan. No, you aren’t at the wrong recipe, I said Chicken Parmesan. Sweet chili cashew chicken is nothing like Chicken Parmesan. Except for the chicken part. Everything else… not the same. Not that I knew that at the time I first threw this together.

Let’s hearken to a story from not so long ago…

Tired and hungry, a weary traveller stared into a hollow box of ice, wondering just what to prepare for a meal that would satisfy a craving most fierce. Lo! Chicken was found, and with it the great “Chicken Parmesan” could be crafted. But, um… “forsooth” and such… er… (blast, where’s ye ole dictionary when you need one??) I… um… *rustles paper* … okay fine, I ran out of Parmesan.

Parmesan-less, like an animal, what could I do but search high and low for alternatives across the great wide web?

One recipe caught my eye, but an empty pantry left that idea hanging. Whole grain mustard and something else I’d never heard of? I wasn’t going to find those in my kitchen.

Yet, I was intrigued.

“Cashew Crusted Chicken”.

It had potential. But… Cashew butter on chicken seemed so plain. I had to make it more interesting…

Enter Thai Sweet Chili sauce. Mildly spicy but sweet, it seemed to go well with the cashews. Yet, after more than a couple of bites, it was one note: sweet cashews. Not enough “chili”.

Not to be deterred I tried again. This time adding that ubiquitous Sriracha hot sauce to the “sweet”.

The result is this sweet yet spicy crusted chicken that’s easy to make and still full of delicious zingy flavour.

“But what about the children!?” you might ask.

Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered!

If you prefer something with zero zing, substitute the Sweet Chili Sauce and Sriracha for plain old cherry sauce. Dish up one serving of cherry-sauce cashew sauce on one piece of chicken, then add some Sriracha to the rest.

Kids have their sweet, parents have their spicy!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this sordid tale….

And I hope you’ll enjoy this chicken even more!

Sweet Chili Cashew Chicken Recipe

Ingredients

White rice - OrderNaryLife.ca

White rice. Still goes with everything.

  • 2 large (or 4 small) boneless skinless chicken breasts
  • Sauce:
    • 1 cup cashews
    • 1 cup water
    • 1/8 cup sweet chili sauce (or cherry sauce)
    • 1-2 Tablespoons Sriracha, to taste
    • 1/8 teaspoon salt, to taste

Goes well with a side of rice or steamed veggies.

Tools

  • Blender or food processor
  • Baking pan, uncovered
  • Oven
  • Spatula or serving spoon

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350F.

  2. Blend the sauce ingredients until smooth. Add more water if the sauce is too thick to pour.

  3. Dollop a small amount of sauce onto the bottom of the baking pan.

  4. Place the chicken breasts on the pan in the sauce, so they’re spaced apart. Cover each chicken breast with the remaining sauce.

  5. Prepare your side dishes while the chicken cooks.

  6. Bake the chicken until cooked through (about 25 minutes if the chicken is raw, or 45 minutes if it’s frozen).

  7. Serve with a side, such as rice, string beans or steamed veggies.

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Weekday Vegetarian

Monday through Friday,
just five days a week,
Veggies and lentils,
not one bite of meat.

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I have a confession to make.

I used to be a vegetarian.

I’m pretty sure I’ve alienated all the non-vegetarians (“she used to be a vegetarian?) and active vegetarians alike (“she used to be a vegetarian?) but I’ll tell you why it works for my family…

When I had only myself to cook for, I was a vegetarian. When Gord (my husband) needed to eat too, that changed.

Now, I’m not one of these women who thinks “its my place” to cook. Quite the opposite, in fact Gord’s been known to try his hand at a recipe or two (and lately he’s made some amazing dinners – so long as the recipe’s clearly outlined). No, back then, I would make myself something vegetarian, only to watch Gord stab, burn, squash or otherwise injure himself in inventive and seemingly-impossible ways as he tried to fend for himself.

It was painful to watch, and I enjoy cooking. So I started cooking for both of us. He gave up all-beef-all-the-time, and I started eating chicken.

Compromise. It keeps the world going ’round.

Re-engage: vegetarian-mode

A couple of years ago, Gord started actively managing his weight (about the time I got pregnant, actually. Coincidence? I think not!).

He’s been doing pretty well with it ever since, but about 6 months ago he hit a plateau. He was managing portion sizes by calorie amounts and had reached the point where he’d hit his goal at the end of the day, but it still wouldn’t be enough.

Simply put, he was hungry!

It was about this time I was also actively managing our household meal plan (we had to keep our budget under control with a growing toddler to feed) plus the planning helped him know what portion size to allocate for his end-of-day meal.

Every now and then, I would throw in a vegetarian experiment – some better than others – but most of the time we had meal with chicken, tuna or beef. The plans worked for the budget side of things, but was getting harder for my husband to maintain due to that recurring hunger.

Between the jigs and the reels, Gord realized that on the nights I made vegetarian meals, he felt fuller. He could go to bed after eating within his calorie count and still wake up without wanting to gnaw his arm off.

Now, even though he was more satisfied on nights with the vegetarian meals, he still wasn’t so convinced when I suggested we go weekday vegetarian.

“Meat is delicious,” he argued.

A dilemma, for sure, so I had to up the game a little.

“What if veggies could be delicious too?” I countered. Inside, though, I wasn’t so sure if I could manage five unique vegetarian dishes every week, without repeating them week-in and week-out.

Enter Oh She Glows

So, my mom knows me… she got me this delightful vegetarian cook book and so far every recipe has been astoundingly successful. Like, I’d say these recipes are some of my favourite meals without qualification. That they’re vegetarian just happens to work for my new meal plans.

That book was the first Oh She Glows cookbook. I’d never heard of that blog before, but ever since, that site has been a mainstay of my weekday meal planning. Every recipe in the cookbook has been the best of the best, but even the web-only recipes “just work”.

So I pulled inspiration from there. I experimented. I toiled. I pulled recipes out of the ether (a.k.a. the web) and came up with one week, then two… then three weeks, each with very little repeat and all-vegetarian meals!

Looking at the bottom line, we were also saving on our grocery bill. Meat’s expensive. Beans, chickpeas, lentils? Not so much.

Looking back on it, I think we owe our success in taking small steps over a few months rather than just jumping in headlong.

How to switch to weekday veg

We started small. Planning for one or two vegetarian meals a week, using adaptations of dishes we already loved (spaghetti, chili, burgers, soup).

Once we had a few dishes under our belts, we looked around for interesting meals that we weren’t familiar with (most came from that Oh She Glows cookbook, but there are plenty more on the site). We swapped around our weekly meal plans from “mostly meat with a few veggie meals” to “mostly veggie with a few meaty meals”.

Finally, we took the plunge… All veggie meals during the work week!

And you know what?

It’s working!

My husband has lost (and kept off) 45 pounds in the last 2 years. By limiting portion sizes, and keeping track of his meals, he’s succeeded in his goal. He’s even set new goals for himself.

Our budget is at a manageable level, leaving enough in our pockets for the fun things (like a visit to Polkadot Place).

Best of all? All bellies are full of nutritious home-cooked meals. And really, that’s what matters.

Can’t ask for anything better than that!

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Vegetarian Butter “Chicken”

This sweet curry is filling and delicious. If a vegetarian meal is what you’re looking for, this captures the essence of Butter Chicken without the chicken.

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Let me be clear: I love butter chicken. Its sweet, mild and creamy curry base is an excellent companion to tender chicken. Served over a bed of rice and with a side of home-made naan bread, this is hands down my family’s favourite meal.

veg-butter-chicken-1

I even keep a spare bottle (okay, two bottles) of butter chicken sauce in my pantry “just in case”.

That being said, it takes a bit of work. My usual Butter Chicken recipe takes a full hour and half, and is worth the wait – but only when I have the rare opportunity to make it, that is.

Enter the chickpea

So, without a spare couple of hours, but really wanting some butter chicken, I looked in my cupboards for something, anything that might taste somewhat close to chicken.

“Chickpeas!”

Alone, they weren’t quite enough.

“Mushrooms?”

Yes! Much better!

And so, I came up with this adaptation that takes only 20 minutes start to finish, and yet still keeps the same spirit. It still replicates that sweet curry I’m so fond of – but it’s so much quicker to prepare. Armed with this recipe, my family and I can finally have Butter Chicken (or, more accurately Butter “Chicken”) during the work-week.

This version relies heavily on the bottled sauce (unlike my full butter chicken recipe – coming soon), so it’s important that you get a brand of Butter Chicken sauce that you like. I’ve tried a few and like Patak’s and Sharwood’s, but the store brand does work in a pinch. If you’re industrious (or if you plan ahead) a home-made sauce would work too. I haven’t worked out the homemade version… yet.

Without further delay, I present:

Vegetarian Butter “Chicken” Recipe

Ingredients

White rice - OrderNaryLife.ca

White rice. Goes with everything.

  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1 can chickpeas
  • 1 can mushrooms
  • 1 bottle Butter Chicken sauce
  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/4 cup of raisins
  • 1 Tablespoon of peanut butter

Goes well with a side dish of rice or naan bread.

Tools

  • Large sauce pan and spoon
  • Cutting board and knife
  • Can opener

Directions

Butter chicken sauce simmering - OrderNaryLife.ca

Simmering sauce, just waiting for the chance to be eaten.

  1. Heat the oil on medium-low temperature (4/10) in a large sauce pan.

  2. Add the onions and mushrooms and stir occaisionally.

  3. Meanwhile, start cooking your rice as per package directions. Set the rice aside if it’s done before the sauce.

  4. Add the raisins and milk when the onions are translucent, then heat until the milk is hot but not boiling. Add the peanut butter and mix through.

  5. Rinse and add the chickpeas once the peanut butter is mixed through.

  6. Add the butter chicken sauce and mix through.

  7. Bring to a simmer until the chickpeas are ready (about 15 minutes).

  8. Serve over rice or alone as a soup.

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One-Pot Pasta

Easy-peasy, this recipe makes enough for a hoard, and tastes pretty good, to boot!

Just throw everything in the pot, stir a few times and in 25 minutes, you’ve got enough for supper, seconds and even a few lunches.

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Picture, if you would, the following scene: A toddler tugs impatiently at your leg, doing a semi-hop over and over, all the while letting out just that right pitch of shrill to grind what little nerves you might have had into powder.

Welcome to Monday night supper at my house.

Well, I should say, that was what Monday night supper used to be like until I found this gem of a recipe! To see the original, head on over to Mama Bake. Their version is a great bulk recipe that serves more than 15 portions. A bit of overkill for my family, so I’ve adjusted my version to meet my family’s tastes. My 6-8 portion version is below.

While I really enjoy the ease of this recipe, it does trade off a bit in the flavour department. To counteract this, when I have an extra few minutes, I’ll sweat the onions, mushrooms and peppers first, then throw everything else in.

For my picky eater (*cough* toddler *cough*) I actually blend everything except the pasta before I put it in the pot. The result is a smooth sauce with the pasta and all the veggies are disguised.

If you can plan ahead, the night before, chop up the veggies, otherwise the ol’ “throw-as-you-go” preparation method works fine (Add your ingredients into the pot as they’re ready and cover in between).

The key to this recipe is literally to cook everything together. No pre-cooking the pasta, no straining out the water. Just toss it all in and cook!

By now, you must be thinking: “Everything in one pot… Oh! The chaos!”. Don’t worry, it works out, I promise!

One-Pot Pasta Recipe

Makes 6-8 servings.

Cooks in 25 minutes, with 5 minutes of prep

Ingredients

  • 250g pasta (about 3 cups macaroni or rotini, or a loonie-sized amount of spaghetti)
  • 2+1/8 cups water
  • 2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
  • 1 can diced tomatoes
  • 1 can tomoato soup or a cup of pre-made/leftover pasta sauce
  • 1/2 Green Pepper, diced (about 1/4 cup frozen)
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 1 can mushrooms (or about a cup of fresh sliced mushrooms)
  • Seasonings (adjust to taste):
    • 1+1/2 Tablespoon dry Italian seasonsing (1+1/2 teaspoons dry basil, 1 teaspoon Oregano, 1/2 teaspoon Thyme)
    • 1/2 teaspoon Garlic Powder
    • 1/4 teaspoon Chili Powder (or a dash of Cayenne if your family’s adventurous)
    • 1/4 teaspoon salt

Hardware

  • A large stew pot with lid (about 5L or 5 quarts). Trust me, you want the lid.
  • Mixing spoon
  • Knife and cutting board (if chopping any fresh veggies)

Directions

  1. (optional) Chop your veggies before-hand if you can. Otherwise, carry on.

  2. Put everything except the pasta in the pot. Stir around the wet ingredients so they’re thoroughly combined. Notice that I didn’t do this in my featured picture. I had a little trouble getting it evenly mixed.

  3. Turn on the stove to medium-high (about 7/10).

  4. Stir in the pasta. When I use spaghetti, I find cracking it in half or quarters helps it all fit. Stir so all the pasta is covered in liquid.

  5. When the sauce is bubbling, stir and reduce to medium-low (about 4/10). Stir occasionally for 20 minutes, or until pasta is cooked.

  6. Relax for a few. Seriously. You deserve it!

  7. Optionally, serve with garlic bread and Parmesan cheese.

I hope this recipe adds some calm to your day. Enjoy!

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