Living in a healthy flat
Nutritionist Claire Turnbull gives a practical guide to cooking and eating healthily when you’re sharing a house.
Sharing your living space means you may be sharing the contents of the fridge, and in a flatting situation, this can either work like a dream or be a health disaster. It takes time, effort and diplomacy to navigate the world of flatting, and sometimes making and sharing a healthy meal may just seem too daunting. Especially if you can’t find a dinner plate under the mountain of plastic takeaway containers and the only way to find cutlery is to remove three days’ worth of dishes from the sink – or go on an archeological dig in your flatmate’s room!
I’ve flatted with super chefs, health nuts, rugby boys, big eaters, pie eaters, leaf eaters and non-eaters… you name it, I’ve lived with it. I have shared food, borrowed food, cooked my own food, and on occasion I’ve conceded defeat and paid a visit to my relatives for a good feed! The biggest lesson I have learnt about flatting and eating is that to eat well, you need to have a healthy environment and be organised. And it helps when other people around you are eating well, too.
If you are ready to start eating better, feeling better and looking great, make it your next challenge to improve the health of your flat, one meal at a time.
Make a plan together
The easiest way to introduce healthy eating habits into your flat is to make it a team effort. This starts with having a good conversation about what you are all doing now about food and coming up with a way to start making some healthy changes.
Next time you are all together, start a conversation about healthy food. Mention how much money you could all save and how much better you could all feel if you starting sharing healthy meals. If finding a time for everyone to get together is a challenge, offer to cook a meal for your flatmates. Everyone loves a free feed and you can talk about your food situation then.
Things to talk about
- Money saving. Sharing food can save big bucks, meaning more money for the exciting things in life.
- What food do you want to share? Everything? Breakfast and dinner? Or evening meals?
- Budget. How much money do you think is reasonable to set aside for a food kitty each week? Do you buy together at the start of the week, or only buy the ingredients for meals you cook?
- How could you share the shopping? Does one person do the shopping or do you take it in turns? Do you put a set amount in per week? Could you set up a flat account?
- How will you divide the cooking? What is everybody’s timetable like? Try a one-night-a-week roster for starters. Don’t forget to also organise who’s going to do the dishes when.
- What sorts of things are you going to cook? What are the things you like and don’t like? Look through recipe books and get ideas about things you all enjoy, and see the recipes section of our website for more meal ideas.
Organise your kitchen
Unfortunately, the plastic cutlery from your local Thai takeaway and a toaster that only browns toast on one side aren’t going to be enough to create quick and healthy meal masterpieces. However, with just a few basic tools and a little organisation, you can easily get everything you need.
If there are things on the list following that you don’t have, there is no need to spend a fortune buying new utensils if you don’t want to. Ask around friends and family and see what spare or old kitchen equipment they have. Look in op shops or on Trade Me – lots of people update their kitchens and want to get rid of perfectly functional kitchenware.
Look at your current kitchen set-up. Where’s the best place to store pots and pans? Is there a drawer where you can store your cooking utensils, or is it best to keep wooden spoons, spatulas and tongs in a jar on the bench top?
Make a list of what you need
You may not need all this, but a few basics will make cooking easier.
Pots and pans
- Large pot for cooking things like pasta, rice, potatoes, soups, casseroles
- 2 medium pots for cooking or steaming vegetables, making sauces
- Small pot for making porridge, heating beans, boiling eggs
- Wok for great, quick and easy meals like stir-fries
- Large non-stick frying pan for stir-fries, omelettes, pancakes, eggs
- 2 mixing bowls – medium, large
- 8 or 12-cup muffin pan for healthy homemade muffins, mini frittatas
- Large roasting dish for meat, roasting vegetables
- 2 baking trays
- Cake tins in different shapes and sizes if you bake
- Loaf tins
- Sharp knife
- Measuring cups
- 1-litre measuring jug
- 2 or 3 chopping boards
- Wooden spoons
- Slotted spoon and ladle
- Balloon whisk
- Potato masher
- Potato peeler
- Storage containers in a variety of sizes for leftovers and packed lunches
Small appliances (optional)
- Hand blender/food processor for making smoothies, dips, hummus, soups, sauces and cocktails!
- Crockpot for slow-cooked meals to cook while you’re at work or university
Learn how to put together healthy meals
Here are the ingredients for a healthy meal:
- Something starchy. Use a variety of carbohydrate-rich foods in evening meals like pasta, rice (preferably basmati or brown), couscous, potatoes, kumara or grainy bread.
- Some protein. Protein-rich foods include eggs, fish, lean meat, tofu and pulses such as kidney beans, lentils, chickpeas and baked beans. Assuming you may not all eat together on one or two nights, a sample plan may be red meat two nights per week; chicken on one or two nights; fish on another one or two nights; and a vegetarian meal one night per week.
- Lots of vegetables. Aiming for half a plate of vegetables (that’s a good handful or two per person) is a great base for a healthy meal. Fresh or frozen vegetables are both good.
- Some fat. A small amount of healthy fat is important for your body. Good oils include canola, olive oil and rice bran oil.
- Allocate a shopper. Decide who in the flat is best to do the shopping. It may be that you take it in turns.
- Hunt around your local supermarkets and food stores. The shop two minutes from your house might be more convenient, but you may find for an extra five-minute drive, there is a cheaper shop that saves you $50 a week.
- Each Sunday, sit down (maybe at a flat meal) and decide what meals you want for the next week. Determine who is at home for what meals and who can cook when, then write a list. Be sure to check what you have in stock as you may have bits and pieces that need to be used up.
- Bulk-buy dry ingredients like pasta, rice and potatoes. It can be cheaper to buy a larger bag of the ingredient to use over a few weeks rather than buying a small bag each week. The same goes for specials on meat and chicken. If you find a bargain, consider buying enough for two weeks and freeze what you don’t use now for later.
- Take advantage of specials. Be flexible with brands. Even if there are specials, buy only what you really need. Beans, pasta, rice or meat are usual staples. You may need to check with your flatmates that they are comfortable with some flexibility over what you buy if you are the shopper.
- Avoid unnecessary trips to the dairy. While convenient, it can be a more expensive way to shop.
Keep it going
The biggest challenge when you make a step towards healthy living is keeping the momentum going and not slipping into old habits. Here are a few ideas to keep things interesting:
- Have a weekly theme. Mexican, Italian, Indian, Japanese, Greek, Thai – what can you all come up with?
- Give yourself a reward. If you all cook healthy meals for the month, treat yourself to a healthy dinner out somewhere with the money you have saved – then no one has to wash up!
- Be flexible and plan week to week. Things come up, people get busy. The key is keeping to a routine and dedicating just 10 minutes each week to planning for the week ahead. Make this meeting fun – during a coffee out, a walk, over a drink or before you hit the movies.
- Vary the menu. Make it a challenge that every month, each person needs to make a new dish which they haven’t made before for the flat. If everyone in the flat tries this, you will get a whole range of new recipes to add to your repertoire.
Serve it up
Work out a time that works best for all of you. If you can, make your eating environment attractive (and clean!). Pick up some cheap place mats or candles to put on the table. If you don’t have a dining table, find a space where you can all sit down and eat together. Even better if it’s not from the kitchen bench or sitting on the stairs. Try to keep the TV off while you’re eating so you can enjoy good conversation and, hopefully, great food. Minimise other distractions like loud music, web browsing or reading while you’re eating.
Useful flat pantry staples
- Canned tomatoes
- Baked beans
- Curry paste
- Low-fat plain yoghurt
- Frozen vege mix
- Garlic and ginger
- Canned fruit in natural juice
- Wholemeal pita bread
- Lean mince
16 quick and tasty ideas for shared meals
1. Healthy stir-fried rice
In a large wok, heat a small amount of oil. Beat a couple of eggs (allow an egg per person) and add a splash of soy sauce. Gently scramble the eggs until they are just soft. Add cooked rice and peas and stir though sliced spring onion and cooked shredded chicken (or some stir-fried chicken with garlic and ginger you’ve prepared earlier).
2. Fish and chips
Rub fish with green curry paste before cooking. Bake, grill or fry in a teaspoon of oil and when cooked, sprinkle with chopped cashew nuts, chopped coriander and a squeeze of lime juice. Great with homemade potato wedges and stir-fried veges.
3. Chicken meatballs
Use chicken mince instead of beef to make meatballs. Add minced chicken to garlic, chopped onion, parsley and mint. Shape into balls and gently fry in a splash of oil. Serve with pasta of rice and a tomato-based sauce.
4. Honey-glazed stir-fry
Stir-fry meat with grated ginger, chopped garlic, sesame seeds, salt-reduced soy sauce and a dribble of honey. Add frozen or fresh stir-fry vege mix and serve with rice or hokkien/udon noodles.
5. Meat and three veg
Make a marinade with red wine, a splash of Worcestershire sauce and crushed garlic. Soak lean steaks in the marinade. Heat a frying pan with a drop of oil and cook steak on both sides to your liking. When meat is cooked, slice on the diagonal and transfer to a plate. Serve with mashed kumara and potato with steamed green vegetables like broccoli, spinach and beans.
6. Spicy dhal
Dhal is a cheap, tasty, healthy dish. In a large pan, lightly fry an onion with freshly chopped garlic, ginger and fresh chilli or chilli flakes. Add hot chicken or vegetable stock. When the mix starts to gently boil, add red or yellow lentils. Cook until soft. Serve with vegetables and rice. If you like, add a teaspoon of curry paste when cooking to add spice.
7. Roast chicken
On a rack in a baking tray, roast chicken. While roasting chicken, in a separate baking tray roast potato, kumara, pumpkin, carrot and parsnip (or whatever is in season) with a little sprayed oil and ground black pepper. Before serving the chicken, cut into the flesh with a knife and make sure it is cooked through and that juices are running clear. Remove the chicken skin and serve with roast veges and seasonal vegetables like beans, cabbage, cauliflower.
8. Bolognese base
Heat onion and garlic in a pan. Add lean mince and cook until golden brown. Add a dollop of tomato paste, canned tomatoes, a pinch of sugar and some dried mixed herbs. Use this as a base for spaghetti bolognese, lasagne or add a can of chilli beans for a Mexican feel. Serve with pasta or rice and mixed vegetables.
9. Vegetable frittata
Frittatas are a delicious way of enjoying quiche without the fatty pastry, as well as being a great way to use leftovers! Grease a baking dish, line with leftover sliced cooked potato or kumara. Add in any other leftover vege like broccoli, beans and mushrooms. Pour over a mixture of eggs beaten with a little water. Add grated cheese. Bake in the oven until firm and serve with salad.
10. Hearty tomato sauce
Cook onion, garlic and freshly chopped tomatoes together until soft. Take off the heat. Add capers, chopped parsley and a pinch of sugar. Serve with fish, rice and salad.
11. Vege bolognese
Use red lentils rather than meat to make a vege bolognese. Bring a large saucepan of water to the boil. Pour in red lentils and stir to ensure they don’t stick to the base of the saucepan. Boil lentils for 8-10 minutes or until soft. Heat oil in a medium pan and cook chopped onion and garlic until soft. Add canned tomatoes, tomato paste, a pinch of sugar and dried mixed herbs, then stir in the lentils. Season with salt and pepper to taste and simmer for about 15 minutes until flavours develop.
12. Spicy steak rub
Rub beef, lamb or pork with a dried herb mix or spice rub before cooking to add extra flavour and interest in under a minute. Serve with homemade coleslaw with low-fat dressing and a baked potato.
13. Pesto pasta
Add a teaspoon of pesto to cooked pasta then serve with grilled meat and a fresh salad.
14. Thai-style fish
Bake fish in the oven with finely sliced onion, grated ginger, lime juice and a dash of sesame oil. Serve with steamed green vegetables (try Asian varieties like pak choy) and a grainy roll or rice.
15. Fresh tomato salsa
Grill fish and serve with a salsa made from chopped avocado, tomato, red onion, fresh red chilli and lime juice. Great with couscous and a mixed salad.
16. Zesty chicken pasta
Cut skinless chicken thigh meat into bite-sized chunks. Heat a non-stick pan with a little oil and gently brown the chicken until cooked though. Add the juice and zest of a lemon along with a small handful of walnuts. Add to pasta along with baby spinach or rocket leaves and stir through.
A week of healthy flat food
- Monday: Chilli con carne – lean mince with tomato, grated carrot, courgette and chilli beans. Serve chilli with rice and green veges like peas and broccoli on the side.
- Tuesday: Homemade grilled fish burgers – grainy bread bun with grilled fillet of fish and tomato chutney. Serve with homemade potato wedges and a mixed salad.
- Wednesday: Lean pork and vegetable stir-fry with garlic, ginger, soy and sweet chilli sauces. Sprinkle with chopped nuts and serve with boiled rice.
- Thursday: Vegetable omelette served with salad and baked kumara chunks.
- Friday: Pasta with chicken, sun-dried tomatoes, pesto and steamed green vegetables.
- Saturday: Curry with chickpeas, butter beans or lentils. Serve with rice, mini-poppadums, mango chutney and vegetables.
- Sunday: Roast chicken with potato mashed with butter beans (rinse and drain canned beans) and fresh herbs. Serve with steamed carrots, spinach and beans or any seasonal vegetables.
“Our worst flatting food disaster was the night we made Thai green curry. It looked delicious but was far too hot. So my flatmate had the great idea of adding some yoghurt to make it less spicy. Great idea, we thought, until she brought dinner to the table… It was berry-flavoured yoghurt mixed into our curry! Revolting!” – Kate
“One of my flatmates decided to make us a roast chicken dinner one Sunday evening. It was unusual for him to do much around the flat, so we were all fairly excited. Our meal was laid out on the table for us, but it tasted absolutely disgusting and the skin of the chicken looked horrible. ‘What sort of oil did you use in the pan?’ we asked. ‘The bottle under the sink,’ he said – which turned out to be our dishwashing detergent! He never cooked again.” – Raewyn
“I was trying to impress a young lady, so I decided to cook a chicken casserole. I followed the recipe right up until it said ‘add 3 cups chicken stock’. It makes sense now to add water to the stock, but I didn’t know that then! I had run out of chicken stock so off I went to the supermarket – I bought some more little yellow pots and tipped them all in. We ate out that night!” – Marc
“Whenever it was my turn to cook, I only made one thing: roast chicken pieces on rice with plum sauce and a side salad. I cooked once every three days, and after about six months my flatmates bought me a cookbook. I think they were trying to tell me something!” – Alma