home cooking

How Food Photography Made Me a Better Cook

My husband likes to joke with our friends that life with me means waiting to start eating until I get the chance to take some photos. While this isn't always true, I would say I take my camera out about 75% of the time when food is involved. It seems odd to some people, but I have been doing this for so long that it's innate at this point. 

The other day I was thinking, food photography is a fun hobby but it has also taught me a lot of cooking and I can hands-down say I'm more skilled because of it. Who would ever think that this would be the case! Here are five ways food photography has made me a better cook. 

1. Presentation is your first win.

The most obvious is that my plating and presentation awareness has dramatically improved and in my opinion, solid presentation is your first win as a home cook. It's the first thing you (or your guests) notice when you put the plate down. It can make someone say "wow" before even taking a bite. And honestly, even if the actual flavor isn't what you were hoping for, most people will think it tastes better than they would if the plate looked blah. When taking photos, I am always looking for ways to make meals more interesting so over the years I have learned to use garnishes, citrus wedges, an artfully placed spoonful of yogurt or (leading us into our next topic) a smear of sauce. 

skillet of pad thai with sriracha sauce

2. Adding a sauce or glaze is magic.

Sauce is one technique that the beginner home cook probably neglects to use unless following a recipe. It seems like an extra unnecessary step if your food is seasoned well, but trust me when I say sauce is key for elevating the meal to restaurant quality. Once your pantry is stocked with all of the essentials (which I'll be covering in my 21-Day Cooking Challenge!), whipping up a sauce is as easy as combining a couple of staple ingredients in less than two minutes. Not only does this take the flavor up a notch and keep moisture locked in, it often adds that pop of color that's a win for your eyes and the photo too. 

3. A balanced meal is a pretty meal (most of the time).

Almost all of the time, a balanced meal means a variety of colors of textures which also means it's pleasing to the palate and photographs well. Some exceptions include lentils (why), root vegetables, grains and soups. Because of this, I'll often add extra greens for a pop of color, add berries to oatmeal or choose tri-color carrots over the traditional for more variety. This ends up being a win for both visual appeal and nutritional variety.

pasta fagioli soup with parmesan cheese and microplane

4. Utilize different plates, bowls and silverware for the best result.

The way you serve a meal can have an impact on the experience. Think about family style versus a meticulously arranged plate, versus a build-your-own bowl situation (not to mention what type of bowl). It's fun to mix things up and get creative with this and recently I started searching for new bowls/serving dishes that I can use to make the food pop a little bit more. I found this one and I really like it because it has shallow sides and photographs better than a deep bowl where your food tends to get lost in a shadow. I also experiment with smaller plates and even stemless wine glasses for serving something like dessert or a yogurt parfait. 

5. Thinking through the steps logically means I can improvise later.

I am confident in my recipe development skills because when you are photographing everything, writing down each technique, and then re-visiting all of it later (again and again), it means you are hyper-focused on every point of the process. Basically, you are thinking like someone who has never made the dish before. In addition, I think I better understand the "why" behind various cooking techniques which allows me to improvise too. I know what will happen if I skip X, or add Y. I can predict how a dish will turn out if I put it in the oven uncovered versus covered. And perhaps most importantly, I can usually figure out a way to salvage a dish that's going south quickly. Most of the time. 

Leave me a comment: Tell me about a hobby you have and how it has made you more skilled in another area of your life!

Tips for Getting Dinner on the Table Fast

One of the most common (if not the most common) barrier to folks cooking more meals at home is a lack of time, am I right? Many of us work long hours, try to squeeze in some exercise, then have to brave traffic and by the time we get home, cooking can be the least appealing thing to do.

I look forward to it because I'm a total cooking nerd (at least most nights), but I know not everyone feels the same way so I wanted to give some practical tips that might be helpful for getting dinner on the table FAST on a week night, and a healthyish dinner at that. 

Go Semi-Homemade

Does anyone else remember that show on The Food Network, Semi-Homemade with Sandra Lee? I haven't seen it in years (I actually don't even know if it's on anymore) but I used to love it. Sandra Lee made all sorts of fun stuff using shortcuts like boxed baking mixes to make cooking quicker and easier. As much as I love cooking, I know there is a time and a place for convenience items and I definitely take advantage of them when necessary. My favorites:

  • Rotisserie chicken

  • Pre-chopped butternut squash (it's pretty much the worst thing ever to chop)

  • Angel hair slaw (versus buying the whole cabbage and shaving it myself)

  • Shredded cheese

  • Pizza dough

The trade-off is, these are usually a bit pricier than their "made-from-scratch" counterparts. Think about your week and what you'll have the time and energy to do.

Think Ahead & Be More Efficient  

Something that has dramatically helped me with week-night cooking is planning. I don't just mean weekend prep because while I realize that's helpful, I also appreciate that not everyone has the time or desire to do it. What I mean is, if you have to chop an onion on Monday and know you'll need another one on Wednesday, do both at the same time. Similarly, if you need a small amount of rice, double the batch because it won't take that much longer but saves you time later and rice is super versatile for other on-the-fly dishes later. If you take the time to rinse and chop some cilantro, chop the whole bunch even if you don't need it all in that moment. I know I'm a lot more likely to use it throughout the week if it's already chopped any way, which means less waste too so this one's a double win. 

breakfast-for-dinner

Try Breakfast for Dinner

If there's ever a night when Jacob and I just aren't feeling what was on our menu, or really just can't imagine spending more than 15 minutes getting something cooked, breakfast for dinner it is. Some of our favorites are breakfast burritos with avocado, hot sauce and whatever else we have on hand, or Kodiak Cakes with nut butter and fruit. 

Nutrition Tip: Keep things balanced by including a source of carbohydrates/fiber, protein and heart-healthy fat. This way you won't be raiding the kitchen for something else an hour later.

Here are some other quick ideas:

  • Open-face, whole grain English muffin topped with cream cheese, fried eggs, sautéed spinach or kale and tomato slices (don't forget to season with salt + pepper)

  • Savory oatmeal: make per the usual directions but instead of adding fruit and sweetener, add shredded cheese, a poached egg and some chives/cilantro/green onions

  • Scrambled eggs with green chili, avocado and Sriracha + sides (pictured above)

snack-board-dinner

Snack Boards for the Win

Like I mentioned before, I'm a huge fan of snack boards at any time of the day. They make great appetizers or party food, but you can also use them as a way to clean out the fridge on Friday night and make a super quick dinner that's perfect for movie-watching. Add whatever you like, but think about a variety of textures, temperatures and food groups to make it great. Click the link above to grab a snack board shopping list and how-to guide that I put together if you don't want to spend time coming up with your own (just scroll to the end!). 

Stock Some Helpful Tools

If you follow me on Instagram, you might already know that I recently bought an Instant Pot (<-- this is the one I have, and this is an affiliate link just fyi) and so far I am really impressed with how magical this thing is. You can cook things in minutes that typically take hours. For example, on Halloween I cooked a whole chicken in just 14 minutes! Now I will say that cook times are a little bit misleading because you also have to account for the time it takes for the IP to come up to pressure and then come back down before you can open the lid (15-20 minute each). However even with this time included, certain items that are usually only doable on weekends can easily turn into week night meals. This weekend I made black beans from scratch in an hour from start to finish (no soaking necessary). Not too bad considering that it's entirely hands-off once you get it going. 

In addition to the instant pot, I'm a fan of stocking some basic, inexpensive tools that save a lot of time, like a garlic press, and a few good quality knives (I say this a lot but... so important!). They make chopping quicker and easier and I promise, it's worth the investment. You might also grab some small sauce dishes to make getting your mise en place simple. 

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Green Chef: Restaurant Quality Meals Delivered to Your Doorstep

As many of you probably recall, I recently decided to dive into the world of meal delivery services to see what all the fuss is about. So many people that I know have really gotten into these so I thought it would be a good little experiment to test out a couple and then write about the differences. FYI: In case you missed the post about my Blue Apron experience, find that here. The other service that I decided to try out is Green Chef, mostly because one of my friends sent me a code for four free meals, but also because I was intrigued by the mouthwatering photos on their website.

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About the Company

Green Chef is a Colorado-based meal delivery service that sources USDA certified organic ingredients and prides themselves on sustainability and green innovation. The first box I ordered came the week of August 21st. I purposely saved the first-time customer promotion to use after a weekend when I had company in town and knew it would be unlikely that I would get to the grocery store on Sunday (I received a box on Monday). I still stand by my statement that these services are the perfect solution to a post-vacation weekend. Not only do you solve the problem of not having time to go to the store, but the food is usually really nutrient-dense, feel-good-food which I appreciate after a few days in a row of eating out and drinking wine late into the night. 

Now if you’ve ever opened one of these boxes before, it’s kind of like Christmas morning for adults. Even though you know what meals you are receiving ahead of time (they send an email to give you a heads-up), I think it’s really exciting to see all of the brightly colored produce, seasonings, sauces and anything else you might be cooking with. Speaking of which, the first thing I noticed when I opened up this box was the amazing colors. Green Chef is really plant-heavy compared to Blue Apron and everything was so beautiful and fresh. I also noticed that there was a lot of stuff in there! I’ll get more into this in a bit, but Green Chef’s meals use insanely complex ingredient combinations and really layer on the flavor and garnishes. For this reason, the amount of food you get in each box is really impressive, which can help make you feel a little bit better about the price tag (not crazy expensive, but more then I would normally spend on a week's worth of dinners).

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The Meals

The three meals I cooked the first week were:

  • Caribbean Chicken with Collard-Strewn Coconut Rice & Pineapple Salsa
  • Cumin-Coriander Steak, Farro Tabbouleh with Green Beans & Carrots
  • Mediterranean Veggie Bowl, White Bean Patties, Feta, Quinoa, Cucumber, Mint (pictured above)

We really liked all three of these meals, although the vegetarian option was the clear winner for both me and Jacob (surprisingly, since he is a total carnivore). I love that a lot of Green Chef’s meals are bowls and this one had everything going for it – excellent texture, light and bright flavor, and the perfect amount of seasoning to bring everything together.

In addition to the actual meals, another detail I really appreciate is the color coded stickers on each of the ingredients. This makes for easy sorting in the refrigerator and even easier gathering when it’s time to start cooking. Each beautifully designed recipe card also explains which kitchen equipment you’ll need at the top, so you can get everything out in the beginning and it just streamlines the entire process. 

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The Cons

The only cons that I can think of (in addition to the typical qualm of excess packaging that comes with any of these services) is that someone who is new to cooking might not learn as much about technique as they would with some of the others on the market. I actually really like that most of the sauces are already made and most of the more complex chopping and dicing is already done for you (since it saves time and I already know how to do these things), but for someone who is trying to learn how to cook, this might be a negative. Also, this is a subscription service, which means that once you sign up, boxes are shipped weekly unless you “hold” or cancel your account. I set a reminder on my calendar so I don’t forget to go in and change my settings as needed, but if you have a difficult time remembering, this could be a nuisance for you. 

Spicing Up the Cooking Game

If you want to learn more about flavor combinations and branch out from your typical cuisine, Green Chef totally nails it on that front. In just six meals we’ve had everything from Thai-inspired curry to Mediterranean to Italian and even a classic steak dish, but nothing even remotely similar to a meal I had cooked before. 

I was so intrigued by my first box that I immediately scheduled my second one (for which I paid the full price), but again waited for an appropriate week. Since my parents were in town last weekend and stayed until Monday morning, I had a shipment scheduled the day they left so I would have a box of beautiful ingredients waiting for me when I got home from work. To spice things up, I went with the vegetarian plan this time around and was once again blown away by the complexity of the meals. To give further context on this, one of the dishes we made had coconut lime curry sauce that was used to simmer vegetables, which were then served over sticky rice and tamarind glazed tempeh. This, in itself, would have been unique and outside of my usual repertoire, but the recipe also included fresh cilantro, cashews and toasted coconut for finishing touches which just took the dish to another level.

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If any of the above sounds interesting to you, I would highly recommend giving Green Chef a try. They offer plenty of options for a variety of eating styles (including omnivore, carnivore, paleo and more) which makes it easy to find something that will work for you. If you want to sign up and get four free meals, you can use this link (if you sign up with this and then order a second box, I do get a little bit of a kick-back). This post is not sponsored in any way, I just really like the service!

On a related note, I wanted to let you know that if you’re on Instagram, use the hashtag #SpiceUpYourCookingGame for a chance to be featured on my feed. In honor of my upcoming e-course launch I’m going to be posting some tips for making healthful food and cooking more interesting for the next several weeks and I would love to hear from you as well! If you aren’t already following me, hop over to my account @LeanneRayRDN for all things food and cooking inspired.