Merten Shares Tips for Healthy Cooking
The intermingling of flavors and ingredients bring warmth to a home and welcome anyone who comes through the door.
Who doesn’t love the smell of a home-cooked meal seeping from the oven!
While so many of us love a home-cooked meal, the ability to regularly put together fresh foods on the table can sometimes become a rarity.
This is why Shop Chop A GoGo’s Deb Merten has become a lifesaver for so many families in the Iowa Great Lakes Area.
Through Shop Chop A GoGo, Merten’s main mission is to make families’ lives easier, and she does this by purchasing, prepping, and cooking fresh ingredients so meals are ready for the family table.
“I don’t care to sew or quilt. I don’t golf. I love to cook and make people happy,” Merten said. “Cooking is therapeutic and it’s my hobby.”
The whole idea behind Shop Chop A GoGo originally stemmed from family camping trips. Merten would prep her ingredients and meals ahead of time so they were ready to go. This prep time allowed her to enjoy the camping experience.
Other families began to take notice, and they started having her prep their meals for them as well. When they got to the campground, the meals would be all ready to go and a level of stress was eliminated.
“This is where I realized how many people would benefit from fresh meals prepped and ready to go,” she said. “Families are so busy these days and I want to ease their burdens.”
When a client reaches out, Merten begins the process by discussing with them their family’s likes and dislikes. She finds out how many are in the family and desired serving sizes. Does the family like leftovers or prefers to finish the meal at one setting? Merten also asks about dietary requirements and delivery days.
Through this process, she has learned a number of techniques all families can incorporate into their meal planning.
“It’s always good to have fresh vegetables and fruits readily available,” she said. “Having them cut and ready to eat, people will grab and eat them.”
Merten will make homemade dressing, and with lettuce ready to eat at any point, it becomes a perfect addition to any main course.
Casseroles are often good for families and many times are an easy warm up for another night. Soups are ideal for winter months and add good variety. Merten will vary chicken and beef dishes, following the weekly sales and will provide suggestions according to what she finds.
Another cooking tip Merten’s incorporates into her meals is the use of original Greek yogurt instead of sour cream.
“Most can’t tell the difference and Greek yogurt has lower fat,” she said. “You can use it just like sour cream or ranch dressing, promoting healthy eating.”
Secrets of Buying Produce
Merten prefers the freshest produce available, which in the summer time means visiting the Lakes Area Farmer’s Market on Saturdays in Spirit Lake. Depending on the season, she will suggest tomatoes, potatoes or corn.
She prefers fresh vegetables and fruits, taking her time to pick through for the best options.
“I smell the vegetables and if it’s smells good, it tends to be a good choice,” Merten said. “Depending on the type of produce, the greener or firmer, the better. Cheaper isn’t always the best but I do scour for the sales.”
Merten stays away from wilty and doesn’t like precooked vegetables.
“If I won’t eat it myself, I’m not going to give it to someone else to eat it,” she said.
When purchasing meat, she watches the sales and will pass the deals onto her clients. For instance, if pork is on sale, she will suggest pulled pork sandwiches. Another option for a delicious meal is marinated pork chops. She also likes to find good steaks for a family’s meal.
“I will text and email with a client back and forth, so I get exactly what they want,” she said.
Incorporating Healthy Eating
Every family is different and some have special dietary plans they need to follow. Whether it’s a keto diet or gluten free, Merten will cook according to a family’s needs. She spends time researching recipes and will try them before passing them onto the client.
It means using Greek yogurt or a light option rather than sour cream. Merten prefers to cook with butter, not margarine.
“It may be higher in calories but there’s rich flavor in it and you know exactly what you’re getting in butter,” she said.
She also suggests using olive oil a lot while cooking, as well as balsamic vinegar. She will place meat and vegetables together on a sheet pan and add one or both options, creating a desired flavor wanted again and again.
Another trick Merten has learned for integrating healthy eating, especially with children, is to add flavor. She said add a little butter or cheese on vegetables, making it easier for kids to try and eat. Cool whip from a can or sprinkles is something children also think is a fun concept.
“You can get them to eat something they wouldn’t normally,” she said. “Even adding sugar free pudding with just a little bit of cooled whip or making a snickers salad with mostly apples, they don’t know any differently.
Merten will often make her own seasoning for a meal and stays away from prepackaged items. While it may take a little longer at times, she knows what is going into the seasoning and she can control the flavor.
“By making my own seasoning, it becomes so much healthier and has reduced sodium,” she said. “I can tweak the flavors and enjoy making ranch, taco, or fajita seasonings for meals.”
She also suggests using zucchini rather than lasagna noodles for a lasagna dish.
“Just make sure to get the water out of the zucchini so the dish doesn’t get too watery and stays firm,” she said.
After Merten has purchased quality ingredients, she has created a chopping system, one her husband or grandchildren will also help with at times.
“I’ve gained more tools than I’ve ever had before,” she said. “My husband will often chop and I will organize and place the ingredients in containers and bags.”
Merten suggests cutting vegetables in a uniform shape. She also uses a food processor or mandolin to slice vegetables evenly. Different scoops help make things uniform.
“I want everything to look nice and as easy as possible for a family,” she said. “It has to look presentable. I also want it healthy but tasting good.”
Once a meal has been prepped, everything is placed into containers and has stickers included that share what needs to be done.
Some families will just want the meal prepped and ready for cooking. Others prefer the meal hot and ready for the table. Merten also caters small parties and provides catered lunches for several businesses in Spencer.
“I’m a down home girl that wants to make every dish something I would eat and proud to share,” she said.
Shop Chop A GoGo Loves Variety
Merten also makes freezer meals for families, older individuals, and new moms. She packages them proportionally, making them an ideal meal for one person.
“Soups are great freezer meals, especially for an older person or for a lunch,” she said. “I have families that will ask me to make some meals for their older parents, as they don’t know what else to get them, but know how much the person would appreciate a home cooked meal.”
Merten also prepares box lunches with chicken wraps or salads, as well as gift baskets for numerous occasions. She also enjoys appetizer parties, as well as bridal showers or ladies luncheons.