Smart eating made simple

The 4 principles of kitchen confidence

"I'd estimate that Americans cook less than 20 percent of their meals at home," Mark Bittman laments. "There's a myth that ordering fast food is cheaper and more convenient. In fact, home cooking can be easier, cheaper, and faster. Plus, it's ten times healthier than any other alternative, and it gives you ultimate control over your diet." On a busy day, you don't even need to follow a recipe, says Bittman. Here, four lessons that gave him the confidence to improvise

1. A great meal is more than a menu

"One time about 10 years ago, I forgot I was hosting a group for dinner until one of them called that afternoon and asked, 'What time should we come over?' I completely panicked because I had no menu planned and no food in the house. So I ran to the supermarket and grabbed some stuff to make a salad, a roast chicken, potatoes gratin, and chocolate mousse. It was nothing spectacular, but everyone -- including me -- was happy with what I had made. That night did a lot for my confidence. I learned that when people sit down at your table, they're not expecting you to be a five-star chef. They're looking for love and great conversation and a simple, decent meal."

2. Experimenting is safer than it seems

"I sometimes joke that there are only nine recipes in the world. But there's a lot of truth to that. At some point I realized that the same patterns crop up over and over again. If you cook a piece of chicken with ginger, garlic, and scallions, you get a Chinese flavor. Use lime and cilantro, you have Mexican. Parmesan and oregano? Italian. You can apply these flavor patterns to almost anything -- fish, broccoli, tofu, whatever. Healthy cooking is often just a matter of riffing on well-worn little flavor combos. It's like multiplication: not hard at all once you learn it."

3. It's easier to find recipes for your ingredients than the other way around

"Probably 75 percent of my New York Times recipe columns are the result of me screwing around with ingredients I bought on impulse. There's a certain freedom in this approach. For example, let's say you decide, Tonight I'm going to make monkfish with white turnips. But then you go to the store and the monkfish looks terrible or they don't have white turnips. At that point you're in trouble because your shopping list is calling for those ingredients. On the other hand, if you go to the market with no prefixed notions, buy whatever fresh ingredients look best, then figure out how to cook them, you're actually going to end up with less stress -- and a much better meal."

4. Some of the best healthy meals are scraped together

"On my last book tour, I got stuck eating a lot of 'road food.' When I returned home, I was ready for some real food, but we didn't have many ingredients on hand -- my wife had been too busy at work to do any shopping. So I dug around and found some celery, a few carrots, an onion, and a tomato. I cut them up, simmered them for a few minutes in olive oil, then tossed everything with pasta. So quick, and really, really delicious. I live in New York City -- the world capital of takeout -- and I'd rather eat this stuff any day."

Continued on page 6:  How to feed fussy eaters