80% of your health and fitness is the direct result of the quality of your diet.
And since most of the food you’ll find at restaurants and in prepackaged meals is generally unhealthy, it follows that the best investment you can make for your health and fitness is learning how to cook.
This idea is repellent to most of us guys, whose greatest cooking accomplishments tend to be grilled burgers and chili. (And even then, it’s a rare occasion when we make them.)
But far from being an impossibly daunting task, mastery of basic kitchen skills is well within the ability of every able-bodied man.
It’s time for a change. No, wait… it’s time for a revolution. No longer will we do endless hours of cardio each week to “undo” the effects of our diets. No longer will we drop a pretty penny on supplements and hope they do the heavy lifting for us.
From now on, we will take control of our health and learn how to cook a few good meals.
We are the kitchen hackers… and this is our manifesto!
Intro to Kitchen Hacking
So what is kitchen hacking?
In a nutshell, it is the art and science of acquiring and preparing food as easily as possible.
From knowing what food is healthy in the first place, to buying it from the market (either super- or farmers-), to cooking it up in a way that is delicious, kitchen hacking aims to simplify the process of healthy eating in a manner that anyone can follow.
From the penny-pinching college student to the high-flying CEO, and the cardigan-sporting artist to the data-crunching computer geek, this new paradigm is wide open for any and all who are willing to roll up their sleeves, get their hands dirty, and learn a whole lot in the process.
Kitchen hacking is for those of us who are disgusted by the typical “healthy diet” of skinless chicken breasts, egg white omelettes, and protein shakes.
It’s for those of us who are both intimidated and a bit skeptical of the “whole, natural, organic, biodynamic, grass-fed, etc.” movement.
But it’s only for those of us who are willing to put in a bit of extra effort now to make our lives a whole lot better in the long term.
What follows are the five articles of faith of our new movement. It is our declaration of independence. It is our manifesto.
1. Food Should Be As Simple As Possible (But No Simpler)
The principle of Occam’s Razor recommends, assuming all other things being equal, that the most basic of all hypotheses should be followed.
In other words: everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.
It’s tempting to think that all cooking needs to be really complicated. Cookbooks and cooking shows are bursting at the seams with recipes that seem to be designed primarily to entertain people rather than to actually give them something practical to cook.
(Michael Pollan has an excellent article on this phenomenon published by the New York Times you should check out.)
As impressive as Julie Powell’s endeavor to prepare all of the recipes in Julia Child’s classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking was, it completely overtook her life.
Most of us have jobs. We have school. We have friends and family. We have passions. We have responsibilities. We have goals.
We have something bigger going on in our lives than spending a couple of hours in the kitchen each and every night.
Wipe from your mind the idea that food preparation must be a big, fancy deal. Forget about the stress of trying to find something new and exotic to eat every night.
You should be eating more or less the same meals all the time. (If that scares you, think about it for a second. You probably already do.) They should be made from simple, basic ingredients. You should be able to substitute ingredients easily when the supermarket is out.
Most importantly, you should be able to prepare these meals in your sleep.
Your diet, your meals, and your refrigerator should be as simple as possible, but no simpler. You should have enough variety to keep you sane, but not so much you go insane.
Fancy, complicated food is great for special occasions–or when someone else is cooking. The rest of us should focus on making a few simple meals the basis of our diets.
2. The Food Must Be Delicious, Filling, and Fast
Do you know why most diets fail?
Because they make people try to survive on bland, crappy, and low-energy food.
I know I keep beating a dead horse here, but the conventional wisdom that it’s all a matter of manipulating the calorie balance in your body is bunk. It’s written by people who’ve spent too much time reading textbooks and not enough time in the lab trying this stuff out.
Most of us live in a world of cheap, tasty, fast, and most importantly UNHEALTHY food literally all around us.
It is extremely difficult to turn a cold shoulder to this environment, and a diet of salads, unsalted chicken breasts, and protein shakes will ultimately fail with just about anyone trying to adhere to it in the long term.
So how do you do it? You beat the bastards at their own game!
Contrary to popular belief, high-calorie foods are not inherently unhealthy. Tasty foods aren’t either. People have been eating energy-dense animal fat and plant starch for millions of years and yet remained free from the obesity and diseases of civilization that plague us today.
Perhaps these foods don’t hit our reward centers the way that burgers and fries do. Maybe they don’t affect our hormone levels the way that pizza and soda does. For whatever reason, it’s damn near impossible to overeat on a diet of minimally-processed meat and vegetables. (Criticize this if you want, but come at me after experimenting on yourself rather than with any “a calorie is a calorie” bookishness.)
What if you had healthy and delicious food at reach most of the time? What if it literally took you less time to prepare it than it would to run through the drive through? What if it was just as easy to reheat as a pouch of mac and cheese?
Now what if it actually tasted good? What if it filled you up and didn’t leave you hungry in another two hours?
This is the jist of a concept I have come up with called “faster food.” By beating food companies and fast food restaurants at their own game by ensuring you are surrounded by tasty, healthy, and filling food that is faster and easier than their product, you negate the bad influence they have on your eating habits.
In order for a diet to be successful in the long term, it must be easy and enjoyable to follow. Otherwise you stand no chance against the easy, cheap, and unhealthy food all around you.
3. Time, Money, and Energy Investment Must Be Minimized
One of the biggest frustrations I have always had with health and fitness advice is that it tends to make people think that they need to let it take over their lives.
For example, most sources suggest that you should get a minimum of 30 minutes of exercise each and every day, or 3 1/2 hours per week… and that’s just if you want to get into “decent” shape!
In reality, it’s not uncommon for most exercise protocols to take up 5, 7, or even more hours of your life each and every week!
That might be reasonable for athletes, bodybuilders, or anyone else whose livelihood really necessitates that kind of devotion, but the rest of us are lucky if we can make it a month on a program like that without falling off the wagon.
Similarly, eating well can end up being an unreasonable investment if you let it get out of hand. Food can be expensive, depending on what you are shopping for, and supplements don’t come cheap either.
Being healthy and fit will increase the days you have on this planet and minimize the amount of those that you lose due to illness and injury. It will increase your ability to accomplish whatever it is you are doing with your life by increasing your energy levels.
And, let’s be honest, it’s gonna make you more of a sexy beast and boost others’ social judgment of you.
But, truth be told, it doesn’t take NEARLY as much time, energy, and money to achieve these goals as you have been led to believe.
Instead of trying to convince you to become a gym rat or an amateur nutritionist, I’d rather get you up and running with a realistic and sane plan that you can fit in with your busy life.
Let’s start by looking at where the average Joe is at and try to meet him there.
Now, it’s also true that we Americans spend less on food relative to our incomes and take less time to cook it than any other culture. And while I’ll admit that eating well on such a time and money budget can be a challenge, it’s certainly not impossible.
In an experiment I tried a while back, I showed how I was able to prepare 22,152 Calories worth of food, which cost me $48.21, in 2 hours 56 minutes. (This series is one of my favorites on the blog. Check out part one, part two, and part three.)
So you’ll be able to spend the same amount of money and time with kitchen hacking as the average person already does on their food if that’s what’s holding you back.
But if you are willing to go the extra mile and put a little more into it, you’ll be rewarded with a greater variety of good eats.
Food prep need not be the torture we have always thought it to be. Kitchen hacking means spending as little time, money, and energy on our meals as possible, but no less.
4. Obscure Ingredients, Fancy Gadgets, and Complicated Techniques Need Not Apply
In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a big food renaissance going on these days.
Celebrity chefs such as Emeril Lagasse and Mario Batali have hit shows on the Food Network, (which is seen in over 90 million households). But the influence of food TV is spreading even beyond this specialty network, with MasterChef becoming a hit on Fox. (The show started as a British hit and now has 26 different versions across the globe.)
Bookstores are lined with thick cookbooks filled with exotic recipes. Department stores are filled with expensive kitchen gadgetry that we didn’t have even a generation ago. Supermarkets are filling up with organic, pastured, and local produce and meat.
…and yet so very few of us even cook.
Although a small minority of us are legitimate foodies and place a high value on devoting a lot of their time, money, and energy towards their diet, it’s not enough to account for all the people watching others cook on TV.
In reality, the majority of people think of cooking as entertainment.
They’ve been seduced by the images on TV, and yet intimidated by the idea that they could ever throw together anything like what the Iron Chef can for their everyday meals.
And you know what? They’re right!
Just as too much fitness advice is given out by former pro bodybuilders who assume that everyone can spend an hour at the gym every day, too much “cooking advice” is given by professional chefs who don’t know what it’s like for food prep to be just one small part of a person’s life.
I think this comic from The Oatmeal neatly sums up why most guys hate the mere thought of cooking.
Too many people believe that preparing healthy and tasty food means they have to stock their fridges with crème fraîche, buy a crème brûlée torch, and learn how to properly cook a soufflé.
Although a couple of newfangled pieces of gear might be worth your while, you can do just about anything with little more than a couple of pots and pans, a sharp chef’s knife, and a wooden spoon.
Although you might want to splurge on heirloom tomatoes, morel mushrooms, and fresh oysters every now and then, you wouldn’t believe how far potatoes, garlic, carrots, celery, and onions will go.
And although it might be cool to learn how to cook a sous vide steak with a horseradish-infused foam created in an ultrasonic bath, a simple grilled steak with a baked potato will beat the pants off it any day.
You don’t need to have a kitchen that looks like a pharmaceutical laboratory to make a good meal. You can have a minimalist kitchen and still be set up to eat healthy, delicious meals for the rest of your life.
5. The More Food, The Merrier
Why do you think that factories make things in a few large batches rather than many small ones?
It is simply a more efficient use of resources this way. You save time, money, and energy in the long run.
When it comes to food preparation, it takes just about the same time to make one serving of pot roast and mashed potatoes as it does eight.
Now, this one is highly dependent on what your schedule is, but if you can clear out three hours straight once a week to prepare your food for the next seven days, you’ll be able to cook insane amounts of food in very little time.
Although the time savings is hard to ignore, perhaps the greatest benefit of batching your cooking like this is that you can then take advantage of the glut of food you have on hand to transform your environment where healthy eating is inevitable.
When your home and work refrigerators are full of pot roast, chili, and “man salads,” its just as easy, if not easier, to eat your homemade healthy food rather than a microwave dinner or going to hit up the drive thru.
No longer will we work hard in the kitchen and only get one meal out of it. Instead, we will “go big” and fill up our refrigerators with healthy, tasty food.
Kitchen Hacking 101
As longtime readers may have noticed, I’ve been devoting a LOT of words specifically to food, nutrition, and cooking the past year.
This isn’t to give short shrift to things such as exercise, sleep, and stress reduction (I’ll be tackling these things in more detail in the future) but rather to emphasize the importance of diet on your overall health and fitness.
I think we guys in particular are all too quick to focus on exercise, and let our crappy diets slide (or just add protein shakes), and I think that’s a huge mistake.
I’m a bit of a freak of nature in that I’m a guy who has always been interested in cooking. I’ve been to the side of the spectrum that is super-extremist–spending lots of money on food and lots of time in the kitchen–but my life no longer can support that.
I’m too busy juggling a million different things and have returned to the real world of food being more of a practicality.
I’ve been working for a LONG time on a project that would help any dedicated guy make his first healthy home-cooked meal and take the first step towards kitchen hacking mastery.
…and that day is almost here.
I’m finally putting the finishing touches on my Kitchen Hacking 101 course, and couldn’t be happier with how it’s turning out.
Very soon I will be unleashing this beast on the blog, and inviting you to check it out.
To be continued…