Some simple, inexpensive, last-minute guidelines to live by to make eating and cooking at home a world-class gastronomic experience.
1. Water doesn't usually scream, "drink me," unless you've just climbed a mountain. But you can still spare yourself the unnecessary sugar overkill of juice and skip the trendy, chemical-based vitamin waters by infusing your tap water with some fruit. Go traditional with lemon. Tangy with lime. Oranges work great too. Go subtle with strawberry or pineapple, or basil/spearmint/pineapple mint, and cucumber. Add sparkling water to give it some zip!
2. Nothing's truer than the fact that ingredients make the food. So why not upgrade the only ingredients that you add to practically every meal? Freshly ground black pepper and sea salt make all the difference. This will automatically make your food taste 10 to 20% better. Get grinders (with the seasonings inside) at Trader Joe's, and find refills at Bed Bath and Beyond (or Williams Sonoma).
3. Refresh familiar snacks with a complementary flavor combinations. Add simple spices to everyday snacks, like powder cinnamon to apple sauce, unsweetened cocoa powder to yogurt and strawberries. Step up your vegetable protein sources by adding different types of nut butter (sunflower seed, almond, hazelnut) to your quiver of condiments for sandwiches, crackers, and breads.
4. Add honey or brown sugar to orange squashes (acorn, butternut, pumpkin) and root vegetables (sweet potato, parsnip, carrot). Add parmesan or feta cheeses for squashes, and twiggy spices like thyme and rosemary for the root vegetables.
5. Pile fresh fruit, almonds, and raisins onto your morning cereal. The easiest fruits are berries (blue-, black-, or rasp-), since with a swish-rinse of water, they're good to go. Bananas are a close second (not to mention radically inexpensive), and strawberries, apples, pear, peaches, and nectarine are great alternatives. If you're especially invested in your mornings, take the extra time to cut the world-popular mango or more farmer's-market-specialty persimmon, both of which require the paring of the skin.
6. Add dried oregano or thyme (in addition to salt and pepper) to eggs. Cook it halfway, and let the juices run into the other food you eat the eggs with. This works especially great on top of spaghetti squash, fried rice, or garlic-fried french beans, red russian kale, broccoli, or other stemmy, hard-leafed vegetables.
7. Undercook your vegetables (and by that I really mean don't overcook them). Produce has more intact, recyclable enzymes when they're not fully cooked, which is why eating raw salads tend to give you more energy. Overcooking cooked vegetables not only makes them soggy and borderline tasteless; it also reduces the nutritional value. A good rule of thumb is to stop cooking at its brightest color.
8. Make fruit a part of your meals. This has always been my wife Nicole's favorite addition. Most of us Americans like a dash of sweet, sometimes for a jolt of energy and sometimes just to cleanse the palate. In our household, fruit is a dessert, a sentiment we've inherited from Chinese culture and further ingrained from the Whole Foods mentality that "Food is a Dessert". With fruit, it's delicious without the guilt trip.
9. If you love biting into fresh fruit in fruit juice popsicles, skip the unnecessary added sugar content in most processed, packaged frozen treats and go straight to the source! Bags of frozen produce are a fun hot afternoon snack or yogurt topper. Frozen mango tastes great by itself. Frozen blueberries work well in cereals, yogurt parfaits, or just on its own too. Frozen strawberries make a great base for smoothies, and they're already stemmed and cut. In fact, having worked at Jamba Juice, the key ingredient to the frozen-creamy texture of their smoothies is their base of frozen fruit (not fresh!). Get flash-frozen (if available) for the most nutrition. Bags of these are available at TJ's or your local grocery store.
10. Add raw salad (spinach, romaine, mache, etc.) on top of cooked foods. This works especially great on casseroles, lasagnas, pesto pastas, and stir fry/rice combinations that need a punch of freshness or greenery to balance the textures and starch-to-veg ratio. Particular salad vegetables like cabbage and romaine add a texture-enriching crunch to the whole ensemble.