Don’t know where to start when it comes to cooking?


It is time to address a very common excuse among my college students, as they tell me that because they don’t know how to cook, they eat out. While they often start out as Excuse-itarians, many become Do-ers, one recipe at a time! Let me introduce, Joanna Lopez, a student from my Nutrition 300 class this semester at Cosumnes River College…

Joanna, The Excuse-itarian:
“I don’t know where to start when it comes to cooking!” This was me in January. At 19 years old, I was halfway through my first year of college. I had quickly fallen into the “busy college student” trap, relying on fast food and not paying attention to how much money I was spending or how crummy I was feeling. That greasy food was dragging me down. I didn’t want to go on walks and it was a struggle just to get motivated to attend my classes. I was getting migraines because I was dehydrated and only sipping sugary drinks. Then, something interesting happened. Throughout each day, I started thinking about what Professor Hagenburger was sharing about how much what we choose to eat impacts our health. I realized that all the food I was eating was actually hurting me. I didn’t have any confidence in the kitchen, but I knew that I wanted to be a better version of me. I decided that instead of stopping for fast food, I’d stop making excuses and step into the kitchen!

Joanna, The Do-er:
There are so many benefits of playing in the kitchen with plant-based whole foods! I am saving money, lots of money, since I spend way less at the grocery store compared to eating out. I save time because my breakfast comes together in a few minutes, I bring food with me to school for lunch and my dinner waiting in the fridge when I get home. I get to have my food exactly the way I like it… spicy, please! I have more energy, am more focused, my skin feels better and I actually feel good after I eat! I am just a happier person since I made the life-changing decision to prepare my own dishes and make water my drink of choice. Not only do I feel amazing, but I am proud of myself when I make something delicious, and I am reducing my risk of developing life-threatening diseases. A lot of people think cooking healthy food is difficult, but I am starting off simple and loving it! This is about taking care of myself, one meal at a time, not being the next contestant on a Food Network show!

Joanna’s Approach:
For me, it is all about figuring out what I have, what I like and what I need, and then having fun! I began by going into my kitchen and looking around to find ingredients that I already had on hand. Then, I found a recipe on the internet that looked easy and good to me. I made a shopping list with all of the ingredients. Before I left for the grocery store, I crossed off any of the ingredients that I already had. When I first started out, I followed each recipe and then made notes about what I would change to make it even better. Now, when I look at a recipe, I automatically think about how Professor Hagenburger encourages us to add greens, beans, onions, mushrooms and whole grains to our meals, so I swap out white rice for brown rice, add beans or lentils and include as many colorful veggies as possible!

Why this may work for you, too:
Instead of starting at the grocery store and buying what looks good, only to return home with a bunch of items and no plan, start in the kitchen cupboards/pantry. When you begin with what you have, and do a little research, you won’t let ingredients go to waste in the fridge and can reduce your stress level! It is also great to learn from other people’s mistakes/suggestions by reading the posted comments below recipes. Remember, it is all about starting simple and trying new things at your own speed. I just love how easy it can be to customize a “bowl”, so that is where I suggest you begin! I have an afternoon class, so I wanted to find something that could cook while I was at school and decided to see what my rice cooker could do! I am so excited to share this recipe with you!

Joanna’s R.C. Bowl with Chipotle Sauce
The veggies and rice cook together in the rice cooker (R.C.), while the sauce simmers for a few minutes on the stove and then jumps into the blender. Play around with the heat by adding more (or less) of the chipotle peppers and their fiery seeds! For a very mild version, substitute fire-roasted green chili peppers. Cut all of the veggies small, so that you can enjoy each ingredient in every bite!

Ingredients (to go into rice cooker)
1 cup brown rice, uncooked
2 potatoes, diced small (any color, have fun with purple potatoes!)
0.5 cup carrot, diced small
0.5 cup red onion, diced small
0.5 cup green bell pepper, diced small
2 Tbsp lemon juice (~ 1 lemon)
0.5 teaspoons salt (optional)
2 cups water

1.5 cups of cooked black beans (~1 can, rinsed and drained)

Combine all of the ingredients above, except for the beans, in a rice cooker and set on “brown rice” mode. When rice and veggie mixture is done, stir in the black beans.

Joanna’s Chipotle Sauce

2 large tomatoes
0.5 red onion, chopped
2 cloves of garlic
1-2 chipotle peppers in adobo (remove seeds if you are sensitive to spicy food)

Combine sauce ingredients in a pan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes, then carefully transfer to a blender. Blend sauce while holding a folded paper towel over venting hole in lid to allow steam to escape.

Underneath and on Top
3+ cups romaine/spinach/kale/chard (bite sized pieces)
1 bunch cilantro, chopped small
0.5 medium red bell pepper, diced small

Line each bowl with crisp romaine or other dark green leafy and then spoon the rice, bean and veggie mix on top. Drizzle with the Chipotle Sauce and garnish with fresh cilantro and diced red bell peppers!

Store any extra rice, veggie and bean mixture separate from the sauce in the fridge. They will last for several days and will be a welcome sight when you arrive home after a long day. Yummy food at your fingertips and on the table as fast as you can chop the lettuce!

The Nutrition Professor’s Tips:

  • Don’t peel potatoes, since a good portion of the fiber and phytonutrients are found in that precious outer covering!
  • Red onions are off the chart when it comes to antioxidant power, especially compared to white or yellow varieties, so choose red/purple whenever possible!
  • Crush/mince the garlic 10 minutes before you heat it to boost the disease-fighting power!
  • Be sure to enjoy red bell peppers raw to maximize the available nutrients!

Joanna’s New Normal:
I have made cooking a “new normal” for me by building up my skills, recipe by recipe, and wondering about all of the different food I can learn how to prepare. There are so many recipes to try, that I will never get bored! I look forward to planning what I want to cook each week, and love that I have made a habit of preparing what I can when I have little blocks of time, such as cutting some veggies or fruit for 15 minutes before bed, or boiling whole grain pasta while I am doing dishes. I even have a bag of kale and spinach that I have chopped into pieces the size of confetti that I keep in the fridge, ready to sprinkle on my lunches and dinners. Planning ahead really works, because it is no fun to wait until you are hungry after school or work to start a recipe and then find out that you don’t have the ingredients or that it is going to take a long time to cook! I still keep notes about what I make, what I would do differently next time and have started taking pictures of my dishes. It is easy for me to stay motivated because of how good I feel, all of the plant-based whole food recipe ideas out there and the money that I am saving! If you slip into the convenience food trap, just pay attention to how you feel afterward and how little “value” you got for your hard-earned money!

Timaree Hagenburger, a registered dietitian, certified exercise physiologist with a master’s degree in public health, and is honored to work with students like Joanna as a nutrition professor at Cosumnes River College. Timaree also conducts local events, corporate wellness work, has a regular segment on California Bountiful TV and published her first cookbook – The Foodie Bar Way: One meal. Lots of options. Everyone’s happy. available at – where you will also find details about Timaree’s upcoming events (cooking demos, book signings and talks about the incredible power you yield with your fork!).

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