When I worked in “Big Food” probably one the biggest struggles I’d hear moms share was answering the question, “what’s for dinner?” While more and more dads are learning about this predicament, the problem is no less vexing. Here’s the typical situation: you have a busy life—work, kid’s activities, maybe helping out with your parents, paying bills, and who knows what other kinds of stressors—and in this crazy, mixed-up equation, figuring out what’s for dinner drops to the bottom of the list. And what’s the result? We end up buying fast food or some other-convenient, highly processed meals to feed our families. Unfortunately, most of these so-called solutions only lead to more problems since they’re anything but healthy!
Over the years I’ve found the answer to this dilemma comes down to a developing your “cooking muscle memory”. What’s muscle memory? Lifehacker.com defines it as “memories stored in your brain that are much like a cache of frequently enacted tasks for your muscles.” Once muscle memory is developed, tasks operate more like reflexes and require little thought. And that’s exactly what we need to do with our cooking skills … make them more intuitive and less stressful!
For generations cooking skills were passed down from mother to daughter. But when women started entering the workforce in droves during World War II, and convenient processed foods started replacing homemade meals, cooking traditions were lost, and skills disappeared. Today that’s happened to such a large extent that some households have lost the ability to cook real meals for themselves.
Big Food hasn’t made it any easier for us. They’ve convinced us that their highly processed bags and boxes are perfect substitutes for real food. In fact, in many ways they’ve been able to position them as superior. After all, processed foods are oftentimes cheaper and take less time to prepare. But as our waistlines have continued to grow and our basic barometers of health (blood pressure, blood sugar, etc.) have gotten worse, we’re learning the price we’ve paid for the highly processed Western diet is very high.
The solution is sure to require some work since we’re not going to learn new skills overnight. But the problem is not insurmountable—it just requires a little investment in developing a repertoire of what I call “go-to” meals. These are the meals that you can make with your eye’s closed (well, maybe not literally closed). But with a little practice they become such a part of your routine that you don’t have to think about them. Instead, your muscle memory kicks in. So now when you’re trying to answer that question, “what’s for dinner?” you’re not paralyzed.
To help you make the transition to real food, I’ll be sharing some of my family’s “go-to” meals. Hopefully they’ll help you make some simple changes and improve your health!
Probably one of our favorites is a fast and easy roasted chicken. I used to be a fan of those rotisserie chickens sold in grocery and club stores, but as my food values have changed, I’ve started to re-think that choice. Has anyone else had that uneasy feeling when you’ve picked one up one of those chickens from the store? The questions that would run through my head go something like this:
- How long ago was this chicken cooked? Somedays I’m sure these chickens move quickly, but not always. And when they don’t, how long are they left sitting there?
- Was the chicken fresh when it was cooked? Or was it seconds away from its expiration date—or even worse, spoiled?
- What else is in this chicken? Although the ingredient label usually isn’t very long (click to view a sample ingredient label here), I’m still pretty concerned about the following additions:
- These chickens typically contain lots of sodium as a result of some or all of the following: saline injections, brine baths, and lots of salt to season. Since store-bought rotisserie chickens don’t have to label nutrition facts, the exact level of sodium in these birds can be a real mystery.
- Carrageenan is a frequent ingredient and used to help chicken retain water and improve sliceability. While the FDA considers carrageenan safe, I’m not so confident. There’s a decent amount of peer-reviewed research that links it to gastrointestinal inflammation and higher rates of colon cancer. Furthermore, health professionals like Dr. Weil have concluded “All told, I recommend avoiding regular consumption of foods containing carrageenan. This is especially important advice for persons with inflammatory bowel disease.”
- Sodium phosphate is another common additive that’s used to retain moisture in the chicken. While it’s generally considered as safe, the overuse of phosphates in processed foods may be taking a negative toll on our bodies. In fact Rodale News reports, “Doctors are linking [phosphates] to higher rates of chronic kidney disease, weak bones, and premature death.”
- Are those plastic capsules the rotisserie chickens are packaged in safe? They’re made of polypropylene which is supposed to be safe and not leach BPA or anything dangerous. But having these plastic containers sitting under heat lamps and warming trays is unsettling. While I won’t say they are dangerous, new research on plastics may have us rethink their safety in general (to learn more check this Mother Jones article out).
- How were these chickens raised? Were the conditions humane? How were they fed? Were they treated with antibiotics and growth enhancers? In an up-coming blog post I interview a former poultry farmer, and let me tell you—the picture isn’t pretty at all.
- Where was this chicken prepared? My first job was working in a grocery store, and one of my responsibilities was cleaning up the store. That was the dirtiest job of my life, and it has always made me think twice about buying foods prepared in grocery stores.
But probably the most important question that runs through my head happens after I eat one of those store-bought, rotisserie chicken for dinner. Does anyone else have that sluggish, headachy,”off” feeling after eating one? I’m a huge believer in listening to my body, and this is a big cue for me to make a change. And while these store-bought chickens may be a better choice than most fast food options, I know I can do better.
Over the past five years I’ve been on a quest to find a better solution, and I’ve experimented quite a bit with roasted chickens. I’ve tried slow-cooker chicken recipes, which are good, but they takes 3-4 hours to cook, and I’m not always home to get it started at 2pm. I’ve also tried roasting chicken on the grill. Again, this tastes great, but it’s not very convenient—especially in the middle of a Minnesota winter! Regular, oven-roasted chickens are super, but they can take upwards of an hour to make. So my “go-to” oven-roasted chicken recipe is super fast, easy, uses ingredients I have on hand, and probably most important of all—both my son and I love!
So here it goes! Just make sure you check out the notes on the recipe where I include some extra tips and tricks. Also at the very bottom of this post I’ve included a “Kitchen Resources” section where I share some of the tools that make preparation of this recipe even more of a breeze!
- 1 whole chicken
- Seasoning ( salt and pepper or homemade lemon-pepper)
- 1 onion, divided in half and sliced into strips
- 1-2 cans chickpeas, rinsed and drained (no-salt added, 15.5 ounces cans)
- Optional: Fresh limes or lemons (for serving)
- Optional: Fresh cilantro leaves or sliced tops from green onions (for serving)
- 1 tablespoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon pepper or about 12 grinds from my pepper grinder
- ½ teaspoon rosemary, chopped or crumbled if dry
- 1 lemon rind, grated
- Place your oven rack about midway in your oven.
- Preheat your oven to 500F.
- Get out your roasting pan. I prefer using a large steel roasting pan or cast-iron skillet (see the suggested kitchen resources below), but a regular roasting pan can work too.
- Take a fully-defrosted, whole chicken and remove the giblets and neck (I set them aside or freeze them to make chicken broth).
- Spatchcock the chicken by cutting out the chicken's backbone. The easiest way to do this is to lay the chicken breast side down in your pan, then use kitchen shears to cut on both sides of the backbone. Set the backbone aside (again, I use it to make chicken broth). Here's a link to a photo showing you what this looks like.
- With the chicken cavity side up, season it with salt and pepper or homemade lemon-pepper seasoning.
- Turn the chicken over and flatten it with your hands so it's flat against your pan.
- Cut your onion in half, and then slice it into medium-size strips.
- Sprinkle these onion pieces around the chicken.
- Depending on the size of your roasting pan/skillet, arrange 1-2 rinsed and drained cans of chickpeas around the chicken.
- Season the top (skin side) of the chicken and the chickpeas.
- Tent the pan/roaster with foil.
- Bake at 500F for 15 minutes.
- Remove the foil tent and continue roasting for about 15 minutes.
- Chicken is done when it's pierced between the breast and leg and the juices run clear. I use an instant read thermometer to make sure. It should read 165F. Insert the thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh (avoiding touching a bone).
- Optional: squeeze lemon or lime wedges over the chicken and chickpeas and use squeezed wedges as garnish.
- Optional: garnish with cilantro or green onion tops.
- Grate the peel of one lemon. This is easier to do before you juice or cut the lemon. Try to make sure you don't grate into the lemon pith too much. (The pith is the white layer right underneath the yellow peel.)
- Add the salt, pepper, and rosemary then blend.
- One batch of this seasoning is more than enough for 1 chicken. I usually have a little bit left over that I set aside for later.
If you're not up for handling whole chicken or spatchcocking it, substitute a pre-cut whole chicken or your preferred mix of chicken breasts, thighs, and legs. Cooking time will likely be a little quicker when using pieces vs. a whole, chicken.
This recipe can be as simple as you want it to be. If you don't want to take the time to make a lemon-pepper seasoning, just use salt and pepper.
Make sure you calibrate your thermometer before using it. Even the best thermometers can be off by several degrees. Here's a link that shares instructions on how to calibrate a thermometer at different altitudes.
To save time you may want to spatchcock several chickens at once when you buy them. Not only will this make it easier when you're ready to cook, but also the chicken will defrost quicker!
I hope you’ll give this roasted chicken recipe a whirl. I usually cook it as pictured, but you can simplify it down to a pan, pre-cut chicken pieces, and salt & pepper. Easy right? And while it makes a super delicious meal, probably what I love the most about it is all the things you can make from your leftovers. So stayed tuned because that will be the subject of my next post—another one of our “go-to” favorites: Chicken Noodle Soup!
Have any questions? Then ask them below. Or share your thoughts about store-bought, rotisserie chickens. Or if you’re ready, let’s get cooking! And while you’re at it, share this recipe with a friend or family member and help them along their REAL food journey!
- Pans: I love this large, 15-inch carbon steel skillet by Lodge. I use it for lots of different dishes, and it easily accommodates 2 cans of chickpeas for this recipe (and when you taste these chickpeas, you’ll be wanting LOTS of them). This 12-inch cast iron skillet also works well, but it really can only hold one can of the chickpeas.
- Instant read thermometer: I love my Thermapen splash proof, instant read thermometer! There are lots of others that work great too—just make sure you calibrate your thermometer so you cook your food to the appropriate temperature.
- Kitchen Shears: These stainless steel kitchen shears are great, but there are lots of other options that can work. You just want something pretty sturdy since spatchcocking a chicken takes some well-made shears!
- Grater: This Microplane zester/grater is amazing. It’s super for zesting citrus or grating cheese, carrots, etc.