If anyone had an excuse to order takeout every night, it would be Giada De Laurentiis. Because in addition to starring in TV shows on Food Network (including Giada in Italy), she has written eight cookbooks (the latest is Happy Cooking) and a book series for kids (including, most recently, Recipe for Adventure: Philadelphia!), and she has an eponymous restaurant in Las Vegas. So if this single working mom can still find the time to cook for herself and her daughter, Jade, 8? Then, heck, we can cook at home, too. The key, says the 46-year-old, is pre-prepping parts of your weekly meals, since—hello!—"food doesn't rot overnight!" That's why Giada relies on a mix-and-match approach to weekly cooking that saves time, effort, and money. "Planning your meals is not that hard," she assures us. To help us master the habit, the Italian-born, California-bred chef has created a 30-Day No Takeout Challenge exclusively with Health. It draws on her own food philosophy, culinary-school shortcuts, and what she thinks both Americans and Italians get right about food.
Why is cooking for yourself better than ordering takeout?
You don't know what's in your food if you're not cooking it yourself from scratch. You think you know what's in it, but having worked in restaurants, I know very well that there are a lot of crutches that restaurants fall back on, like sauces and ingredients that are pre-packaged. Plus, takeout is expensive! So you save money, and you feel better about what you're eating.
You spend so much time in Italy. What do you think Italians get right—and what do Americans get right?
Italians live to eat, and Americans eat to live. It's a totally different philosophy, but one is not better than the other; a combo of the two would be best. There are a lot of conveniences here—it's one-stop shopping. In Italy, part of their tradition of being with your family is you go to the best bread shop where they make their bread, and you go to the butcher. Then, because they don't want to go to the baker or the butcher every day, they become more creative with leftovers.
What did you learn in culinary school that you still use to this day?
The basis of adding flavor to any soup, stew, or stock using a mirepoix, which is the herbs and the onions, carrots, celery—the trinity of flavors. I always fry up some garlic, onion, and herbs, and a lot of times I'll add some carrot and celery, and that adds flavor to everything I make—everything. Soups, stews, sauces, even salad dressings. Because you can heat up those things and infuse them in the oil you use.
What is the best advice or cooking method you've learned from another chef?
Mario Batali is someone I've always found fascinating because he can look into a refrigerator, and whatever you have in there, he can turn into this delectable, elegant, special meal. So I learned from him to use everything at your disposal.
Are you OK with cooking shortcuts, like canned beans and tomatoes?
Canned beans are fine because beans are complicated to make from scratch—just rinse them off. Canned tomatoes are fine. But I buy peeled whole tomatoes. I don't usually buy the crushed or pureed, because all those processes? They're often adding more preservatives to them.
What's your favorite way to doctor up a big bowl of grains?
A lemon vinaigrette: lemon, olive oil, a little bit of smashed garlic and some dry herbs, tossed over the grain. Of course, you could add vegetables or fresh herbs to the grain, too, but even just a dressing is going to add flavor in every bite.
How do you keep from nibbling when you are around great food all day long?
I do nibble! I always have a ton of precut mixed fruit in my fridge, and bowls of mixed nuts that I've toasted. And I usually have a platter of stuff like grilled vegetables in my refrigerator—and olives—so I can grab and go as well. I also have dark chocolate chips in my freezer. They're cold, so it takes longer to melt in your mouth.
What's your flavor obsession of the moment?
Smoked salt. I'm using it on everything. I love to use it on meats, poultry, and fish. I grilled some apricots the other day, put some smoked salt on them and served them with a little burrata. It's great on watermelon as well: You do a little lime juice, a little smoked salt. That smoky flavor adds so much. That's my obsession.
What advice do you have for women making career-versus-family balancing decisions?
I ask, 'What do I really want, and how is this going to feed my soul one way or the other?' When Jade was littler, she didn't know I was gone. Now she's 8; she knows when I'm gone. And I'm divorced, so it gets a little trickier when you're a single mom, which a lot of parents are. When you split time with your kids, when you actually have them, you don't want to be working. Otherwise, what's the point? This time is precious.
Giada's wearing: Gucci top (vintage); Zadig & Voltaire leggings ($800, shopspring.com).
With all the TV work you do, do you ever mess up?
Of course I mess up! It happens all the time. I drop things, I burn things. While filming in Italy, I was cooking fish, and when I went to plate it for an eating scene, the entire fish fell on the floor. Or I'll overcook pasta and it will fall apart on me. Thank God for editing.
What are your favorite and least favorite parts of cooking?
I like to shop and go to farmers market stands—because I go in with a plan, and often the plan changes depending on what I see. But my favorite part of the whole thing is to see the reaction of whom I'm feeding; that to me is the entire payoff. My least favorite part is cleaning all the friggin' dishes!
Short-term, what's the very next meal you plan to cook?
I was thinking I should make a farro risotto with some cherries.
And last-term, what would you like your final meal to be?
A seven-layer chocolate cake. I would eat all of the frosting on the outside, then I would peel off the cake and eat the layers in between. I like a scavenger hunt. It's more fun, and it takes longer to eat, so you get more pleasure out of it.
Styling by Karen Shapiro. Hair by Davy Newkirk using R+Co at The Wall Group. Makeup by Mai Quynh using Lancome at Starworks Artists. Nails by Allison Burns at Crosby Carter Management using Dior Vernis.