Use these healthy recipes to incorporate the ‘rule of threes’ on your plate

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Despite starting her professional career working at a hedge fund, Alford is the vice president of digital content at theGrio and a CNN analyst. Get the latest Syracuse news delivered right to your inbox. Subscribe to our newsletter here . Like many cooks, I watched a lot of cooking […]

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 Despite starting her professional career working at a hedge fund, Alford is the vice  president of digital content at theGrio and a CNN analyst.
Despite starting her professional career working at a hedge fund, Alford is the vice president of digital content at theGrio and a CNN analyst.

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Subscribe to our newsletter here.

Like many cooks, I watched a lot of cooking shows during the pandemic. My show of choice: all 18 seasons of “Hell’s Kitchen.” Aside from consistently berating his chefs and ejecting them from his kitchen, Gordon Ramsay orchestrated challenges designed to improve a specific area of the contestants’ culinary expertise.

One particular challenge intrigued me, and I soon replicated it in my own kitchen. Ramsay’s contestants spun three wheels, each one containing ingredients separated by category: proteins, vegetables and starches. No matter how irrational the combination was, the contestants had to highlight those three ingredients to Ramsay’s standards.

I’m not sure how often halibut, eggplant and lentils have been used together, but this was one of the many strange combinations I fabricated from my randomized ingredient selection. Not only did this teach me how to cook with limited food options, but it changed my perspective about the foods I store in my pantry, fridge and freezer, and ultimately what foods to serve together.

In college, I’ve learned to master the “rule of threes” when it comes to effective meal prep, finding three of the healthiest, most long-lasting foods that will simplify anyone’s week.


Here are a few ways I mix and match different proteins, veggies and starches at Syracuse University:


This is a category I thought would challenge me the most at college. I am a pescatarian, limiting my options to seafood, which can be more expensive than standard meats. However, I’ve implemented a great deal of variety when it comes to proteins through the use of meat alternatives such as tofu and tempeh.

For fish, I recommend buying it frozen and in large batches since it can last in the freezer for over a month. The same ideology applies when meal prepping with meats. Ideally you want to find your two favorite fish; I tend to use a leaner white fish — cod or flounder are easy choices — and a thicker filet like salmon, my favorite. Canned fish like tuna and salmon are also easy alternatives to cooked proteins, and they are easy to store since they don’t expire for years.

Tofu is also an underrated protein that I cook about twice a week. I prefer to use it over tempeh since it comes precooked, so all I do is either cut the tofu into cubes or scramble it into smaller chunks and get it nice and golden brown. A tofu press is a great, hands-free way to drain your desired tofu portion.


Stocking up on a wide variety of vegetables will make your meal prep easier. There’s no need to overload on the freshest produce — some rot quickly — and you definitely don’t need more than eight to 10 types of vegetables in your fridge. Just like the proteins, it’s important to know which to buy fresh and which are okay to store in the pantry or in the freezer.

The two musts for fresh veggies are spinach and lettuce due to their versatility and because you usually don’t have to cook them. Bell peppers are a close third, but they take a little more time to chop and clean. For heartier vegetables like carrots and broccoli, you can go for fresh, frozen or canned. (Yes, canned, freeze-dried broccoli exists!) Both can be eaten raw, and they are easy to prep out of the freezer since you can just toss them onto the stove or into the microwave.

Beans and corn are best when canned, as are green beans and other lighter, smaller vegetables, which last a little over a week when raw.


Starches take the longest to cook, but they’re the easiest ingredient to store in the fridge and to cook in large batches. They also offer a nutritional benefit to any meal that is often overlooked by college students. Whether you’re cooking rice, quinoa or even potatoes, each major starch requires a very similar cooking process.

Rice and quinoa — the easiest and most versatile starchy bases and sides to satisfy any meal — are cooked exactly the same way, just with different cooking times. Quinoa takes the least amount of time on the stovetop. To last myself a week, I typically cook three-fourths to one cup of quinoa. The same goes for rice, and I also like to mix them together.

For quinoa, the quinoa-to-water ratio I use is one cup of quinoa for every 1 3/4 cups of water. For rice, I use one cup of rice for every two cups of water. Add the grains and water to a medium-sized pot and bring the mixture to a boil. Once it’s boiling, reduce the heat to low and let it simmer until cooked, usually when the water is absorbed and the grains have expanded. The taste test is usually a reliable checker for doneness — the grains should be soft and moist but not a mushy consistency. Once complete, turn off the heat, remove the pot from the hot burner and let steam for no longer than 10-12 minutes.

With these three food groups, the possibilities of different meals are endless. They each vary in cook times and flavor and can be interchangeable with nearly any protein, vegetable or starch. Here are some of my go-to recipes to try for yourself:

Pan-seared halibut with broccoli and rice
– Pat halibut dry and season with salt and pepper. Also, oil and heat a medium-sized skillet to medium-high heat.
– Place halibut on the pan and cook for about three to four minutes on each side. Cook halibut until firm and golden brown.
– In the meantime, cook frozen broccoli in the microwave to package specifications or on the stovetop until defrosted and hot.
– Reheat rice in the microwave for 30-40 seconds.

Pan-seared salmon with sauteed asparagus, brussels sprouts and quinoa
– Chop brussels sprouts into thirds and snap off hard ends of asparagus. Add to an oiled, medium-sized skillet over medium high heat.
– Meanwhile, take out a pre-thawed salmon filet and pat dry with a paper towel and season with pepper.
– Remove vegetables once they have some color and are softened.
– Add more oil to the pan, if necessary. Salt the salmon and immediately place skin-side down on the pan. Cook for three minutes on each side — add or subtract a minute for thicker or thinner filets.
– Let it rest for one to two minutes then serve.

Shallow fried tofu salad with quinoa
– Chop lettuce and spinach into the size of your choosing and add to bowl
– Coat the bottom of a pan with oil, and heat over a medium-high flame. Chop a third of a tofu block into cubes and season it with salt and pepper.
– Add the tofu to the pan and rotate across all sides to reach a crispy, golden brown exterior. Once all sides are golden brown, turn off heat and place tofu cubes on a paper towel to dry. Immediately salt tofu.
– Reheat quinoa in the microwave for 30-40 seconds.
– Mix ingredients in the bowl and serve.

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