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Healthy Strategies for Real Food in the Summer

Pots on a stove

If you can’t stand the heat, how can you stay in the kitchen making real food all summer? It’s a struggle for me every year, in a home with no air conditioning. Pennsylvania summers aren’t as hot as some other places, but we get our share of hot days–and then there’s the humidity that makes me feel like a boiled noodle before I even turn on the stove!

Even if your home is air-conditioned, you’ll want to cook without heating up the house when the weather is hot outside. After all, adding heat to your home makes the AC work harder, running up your electric bill and polluting our environment.

Also, your thermostat probably isn’t in the kitchen–so your kitchen can get miserably hot before the increased temperature reaches the thermostat and triggers the AC to bring the room with the thermostat back to ideal temperature . . . at which point the kitchen is still uncomfortably warm!

Energy Efficient Summer Cooking

There are lots of ways to cook when it’s too hot for the oven! Alternative appliances are helpful, but there are also work-arounds for minimizing the heat from your stovetop.

Does a Slow-Cooker Heat Up the House?

Because the slow-cooker contains heat so well in its thick crock and tight-fitting lid, and because it’s actually applying a lower heat than most cooking appliances, not much heat escapes–especially if you keep the lid closed and don’t peek until the minimum cooking time is done! What I love about the slow-cooker in hot weather is that it can be left unsupervised for hours, so what little heat gets out is not coming right at you the way it does when you’re stirring a pot on the stove.

Food being prepared

My favorite slow-cooker meals are Split Pea Curry and Ginger Black Bean Soup. Both are high-fiber, gluten-free, vegan, made from affordable ingredients, and packed with flavor. In the summer, I add more hot sauce to my portion than I would in the winter.

Spicy food can make you feel cooler! But it only works if you have a breeze or very dry air. The spices make you sweat, and then the breeze evaporates the moisture, cooling your skin.

Due to its independent nature, a slow-cooker doesn’t have to do its work in the kitchen. When you want to slow-cook one food while preparing others, put the lid on your filled slow-cooker and carry it onto the porch, into the garage, or into any room that nobody will be using for a few hours. You only need an electrical outlet, a stable surface that supports the weight of the slow-cooker, and nothing above it that will be damaged by steam from the vent-hole in the lid. In addition to moving the heat away from you, this strategy frees up counter space for other meal prep tasks. Simply carry the slow-cooker back to the kitchen when the meal is ready. Check out more slow cooker recipes here.

What Else Is Cool in Cooking Appliances?

Like a slow-cooker, the Instant Pot or any other pressure cooker holds in heat rather than spreading it around the room. The amount of steam released by a pressure cooker is even less than a slow-cooker, over a much shorter period of time. See all our Instant Pot recipes on Kitchen Stewardship® here.

A microwave oven heats just the food, not the space around it, and is possibly the most efficient way to cook. However, it doesn’t work well for all types of food and can damage the texture or nutrients. I hardly ever do any food’s original cooking in the microwave, but it’s my favorite way to reheat leftovers. My 14-year-old recently learned a microwave method for cooking corn on the cob, which I have to admit was easy and turned out well–with a lot less heat and time than boiling a soup kettle full of water!

A solar cooker focuses the sun’s rays to cook your food. It has to be used outdoors, so that’s not heating up your house! There are many types of solar cookers, some you can make yourself and some you can buy, some that do slow-cooking and some that are more versatile. Solar cooking uses free energy instead of running up utility bills!

One aspect of solar cooking that can be annoying is that you have to adjust the reflectors every hour or so as the sun moves across the sky. My brother has a handy tip for cooking efficiently while also getting other stuff done and staying hydrated:

Tending a solar oven is very compatible with doing yard work: Put your water bottle next to it, and every time you pause for a drink, aim the oven at the sun.

RELATED: More on staying hydrated. It isn’t just about how much you drink!

The George Foreman grill heats food from both sides at once and doesn’t heat much air around itself. It’s my family’s favorite way to cook thawed veggie burgers on a hot day. The downsides are that it doesn’t do well with frozen burgers (they get soggy before they get cooked), it has a non-stick coating, and ours is the tiny size that can only do one burger at a time. But it can toast the buns, too! It definitely makes for a cooler kitchen than we get if we cook the burgers in a skillet on the gas stove while toasting buns in the toaster-oven.

Try Cooking Outside!

Grilling is a popular option for summer cooking: The waste heat dissipates faster outdoors than in the house, without straining the air conditioning. I’m not a fan of grilling myself because of the smoke, spattering fat, and heat right near the grill where somebody has to be tending the food. But a lot of people enjoy grilling, and on some types of grills you can also cook food in a pot–which makes it basically an outdoor stove.

Gas grills are greener than charcoal, and using a chimney starter instead of lighter fluid keeps volatile organic compounds out of your food and our air. Here’s a tasty marinade recipe for grilling!

Grills aren’t the only outdoor option: Any portable cooking appliance can be moved to an outdoor location with an electrical outlet and adequate protection from water and fire hazards. Be very cautious, though, and make sure children, pets, and wildlife can’t bump into it!

My mother likes to cook in her electric skillet on her patio table, using an extension cord plugged into the outdoor outlet. Here she is making vegetables, garbanzo beans, and potatoes in a tomato curry sauce. Meanwhile, the rice was cooking in an electric rice cooker in the unoccupied kitchen. (Under different circumstances, the rice cooker could have been the one put outside.) She’s also made my Indian lentils with carrots recipe in the electric skillet outdoors.

Cooking outside

When you really want to bake or toast something in hot weather, taking the toaster-oven outdoors may be the best option. Although a toaster-oven is not as well insulated as a standard oven, its small size makes it more energy-efficient. (Ovens that use convection–circulating the hot air–bake faster with less heat than conduction ovens the same size.) So if you’re baking an amount of food that will fit in the toaster-oven, it’s a better choice than the big oven, even if you use it in the kitchen.

I recently made baked tofu on my porch table, with an extension cord running into the living room, since we don’t have an outdoor outlet. I stayed nearby the whole time to make sure nobody would trip over the cord! (Also, any appliance manual will tell you not to put it on an extension cord because that increases the risk of electrical fire, so I was on the alert.) It was a nice excuse to sit on the porch reading . . . and a lot more comfortable than being 3 feet from the toaster-oven indoors!

Taking the heat out of the kitchen can be helpful even when you don’t go out of the house, just to another room. I’ve sometimes made coffee in my downstairs bathroom, just off the kitchen, to avoid having the hot, steaming percolator right next to me while I’m preparing food. In the years when that bathroom doubled as my daughter’s changing room, I’d set the percolator on top of her dresser, right in front of the power outlet. Now that she has her own bedroom and we finally have a sink in that bathroom, I can put my largest cutting board on top of the sink to make a flat, stable surface for the percolator. This is only safe before the kids get up–don’t let anyone turn on a faucet that close to an electrical appliance!!

Use the Stove Sensibly

When you have to cook on the stovetop, here are a few tricks for energy-efficient summer cooking, minimizing the heat:

  • Use flat-bottomed pots and pans that cover the whole burner, or (with a gas stove) adjust the flame so it doesn’t go past the edges of the pot. Excess heat around the edges gets wasted instead of cooking the food–and it also feels especially hot to the chef who’s standing there stirring! I love stir-frying in my wok, but I do notice the excess heat shooting up around the sides of its round bottom!
  • Cover pots and pans whenever possible. Keeping more heat in the pot means using less heat to cook the food. Holding in the steam keeps your kitchen from getting so horribly humid that your sweat can’t cool you.
  • If you have a gas stove with pilot lights, turn off the pilot lights during the summer, and light the burner with a flintless lighter before each use. (I’ll admit, we never did this. Two years ago, we replaced our stove with one that has built-in spark lighters for the burners, and the kitchen is noticeably cooler!)

Every moment the burner is on adds more heat to your kitchen! When the forecast is hot, plan meals that cook quickly. Here are a few of our favorites:

  • Mexican-style beans, grated cheese, diced tomato, and other toppings as available, in burritos or nachos. Often we’ll cook some onions and mix in the beans and spices, but in the hottest weather, rinsed canned beans served cold are just fine with some salsa.
  • Cut up green onions and/or garlic scapes and maybe some fresh herbs from our CSA farm share. Briefly sauté them in olive oil in a cast-iron skillet, then toss in canned wild Alaskan salmon and a splash of lemon juice and stir just until it’s warmed up. Serve over salad.
  • American Beanwich is kind of a vegetarian Sloppy Joe with McDonald’s cheeseburger flavor.
  • Hummus & vegetable flatbread sandwiches make use of almost any vegetable we happen to have. You could do these as wraps, instead, for neater eating.
  • Soba noodles are quick to boil (and GF versions are available!) and make a great Asian-style noodle bowl when topped with leftover protein, raw or leftover veggies, and teriyaki sauce.
  • Frozen burgers or leftover protein cook quickly in the microwave or a skillet, leaving you with time to make a veggie-rich raw side dish like coleslaw or cucumber salad.
Cooked veggies and a burrito

Meals that Don’t Require Cooking

When a day is hotter than you expected, change your plans and fix food that requires little to no cooking.

  • Tex-Mex white bean dip or quick homemade hummus or instant hummus with plenty of raw veggies for dipping.
  • Salad with cold leftover protein (hardboiled egg, some kind of meat, baked tofu, or cheese). Try Katie’s easy homemade ranch dressing!
  • Cottage cheese and a variety of fruit.
  • Nut-butter sandwiches. I find that these seem like “a good dinner” only if we have a variety of fruit on the side and make dinner a picnic! Once I actually packed the picnic in the morning and took it to work with me, went out for lunch, and then surprised my son with, “We’re going on a picnic!” when I picked him up at day camp.
  • Caprese salad–perfect at the height of tomato season!
  • Tuna salad (over salad greens or on sandwiches) with a variety of cold toppings: cucumber, bell pepper, hot pepper, olives, green onions, radishes, etc.
  • Gazpacho is a cold soup (trust me, it tastes much better than it sounds) made with vegetables that are all in season in the summer.
  • French-style meal of several kinds of cheese, sliced fruit, and baguette.
Cheese and chicken salad

Rainy-Day Cooking

When you get a day or two of cooler weather, cook up some food for the future! Another option is to cook late at night when the kitchen is cooler, then leave the window open and go to bed–you’ll have a cool kitchen in the morning and food ready to eat.

Zucchini bread is a classic way to use up a vegetable that’s abundant in summer–so use a cool day to bake a lot of it! I have 4 loaf pans, so I always bake 4 loaves of zucchini bread at once, refrigerate any we won’t eat immediately, and freeze any excess shredded zucchini in bags the right size for another 4 loaves.

Homemade veggie burgers cost a lot less than manufactured ones, have less packaging, and are free of genetically modified soybeans. Here are my family’s 3 favorite veggie burger recipes, with tips on cooking and freezing. Pre-cook your homemade burgers in cool weather, and freeze them for convenient, quick-cooking meals in future!

Cook a pot of brown rice at night and mix up a Brown Rice Salad for tomorrow’s lunch or dinner.

Get Enough Salt

Eating more real foods means eating fewer processed foods, and that can cause some reduction of sodium in your diet, because a lot of processed foods are stuffed with stealth sodium! A healthy diet for avoiding heart problems stays within a reasonable range of salt consumption, and although most Americans eat much more salt than they should . . . when you’re eating a lot of real food, you’re no longer “most Americans”! Using some salt here and there in your cooking is likely to give you enough sodium most of the year, but the hottest weather may require an extra sprinkle.

Salt is important in hot weather because you lose a lot of it when sweating. (Check your shirt collar for evidence!) If you are prone to low blood pressure like I am, this can have a serious effect on your energy level and may even be dangerous for your health. Of course, sweating is also a loss of water, so it’s crucial to drink enough liquids and eat watery foods like melon and cucumbers–and salty foods can help you feel thirsty for those extra fluids!

Exercising in humid hot weather makes you especially sweaty because sweat takes longer to evaporate when the air is already full of moisture, so your body is still hot and makes more sweat! The hotter and more humid the weather, the lower the level of physical activity that feels like “exercising”–sometimes, I break a sweat just getting out of bed! And that means it’s a good day to have at least a dash of salt in my breakfast.

Really working hard all day in hot weather can cause you to lose 12-15 grams of salt per day–that’s about a tablespoon! The research shows that people lose less sodium as they get used to working in the heat, so it’s important to be especially careful when you’re exercising more than normal and/or the weather has just gotten hotter. Cook up some Chinese-style salty string beans or eat some pickles or just sprinkle Real Salt on your food.

My family has been making homemade electrolyte replenisher by the glass, as needed, for 10 years now. It includes two different kinds of salt for better fluid regulation and muscle calming, and it’s lower in sugar than bottled sports drinks. We’ve learned a simple rule: If it tastes really good, you need it; if it tastes weird, you don’t. Listen to your body, and you’ll learn to recognize when you need salt to feel better. Taking in too much salt will raise your blood pressure to a point that’s uncomfortable and increases your risk of heart trouble, so don’t go overboard!

Don’t Sweat Over the Dishes!

Kitchen Stewardship® isn’t just about cooking–we have to clean up after ourselves, too! I can say honestly that I have never used instant garbage (disposable dishes) just to avoid the sweaty work of washing dishes, but I do understand the temptation, and I have to admit that the main way I get through it is by being flexible about how long after eating the dishes get done!

Set aside dirty dishes during the hottest part of the day. (You may need to rinse them to avoid odor.) Wait until the kitchen is cooler to set up your sink of hot soapy water, and then put in the dishes to soak for a few minutes while you’re out of the room, letting the water cool a bit before you stick your arms into it. Soaking loosens food from the dishes so you’ll spend less time and effort scrubbing.

In the most relentless hot seasons, my kitchen is still very warm at bedtime–and my feet are swollen by the end of the day, which makes me reluctant to stand there washing dishes. Instead, I set my alarm early and wash the dishes at 5am, wearing my lightest nightgown. It’s kind of peaceful hearing the birds wake up while I’m working and the rest of the family is still asleep, and I don’t mind being all sweaty by the end because it’s shower time!

If you have a dishwasher, then you don’t have to be in the room while your dishes are getting washed! To keep utility bills down and minimize the heat and humidity released into your home, only run your dishwasher when it’s full. Many electric companies have off-peak pricing, meaning that the price per kilowatt-hour is lower at times when consumers are using less electricity, like late at night. Starting the dishwasher just before you go to bed, or using a timer to run it in the middle of the night, can cut costs as well as releasing the heat into your kitchen when nobody’s in there. Additional air-conditioning compensating for the dishwasher’s heat will be reduced in the cool of the night and also take advantage of off-peak pricing.

Venting Helps You Feel Better!

When you do need to cook something indoors, staying near it while it’s cooking, on a hot day, ventilation helps to move the heat away from you. This is especially crucial if you don’t have an air conditioner circulating and cooling the air–but if you are using AC, be aware that venting hot air out of the house (rather than to an unoccupied room) makes your AC work harder, running up your electric bill. However, ventilation isn’t just about keeping the cook cool; it also removes air pollution created by cooking.

The easiest way to pull hot air away from your stovetop is to use the stove vent fan, also known as a range hood. Most of them exhaust the air outdoors, but some send it into the attic or simply blow it back into the house! (Here’s how to tell where your range hood is venting.)  Unfortunately, my kitchen doesn’t have a stove vent fan–there’s a hood over the stove, but it’s just empty, with no vent!! So we’ve had to work with other options.

Opening windows helps a lot. Our kitchen window stays open most of the time when the temperature’s above 70 degrees F, bringing fresh air into the kitchen whether we’re cooking or not. When it’s really hot, I make sure the window in the adjacent bathroom is open, too, and the door into the bathroom is wide open; it really makes a difference in air circulation. The downside is that, on really windy days, the breeze coming in perpendicular to the gas stove can be strong enough to make the flames gusty–the part nearer to the window goes out and relights, while the other side can flare out from under the pot–which could be dangerous either by putting more natural gas into our indoor air or by catching a potholder on fire.

Another concern when opening windows is that a west-facing window in the evening, or a south-facing window at midday, may bring in very hot air if it’s not shaded by trees or another building. My back yard has lots of trees, so we don’t have this problem even though the windows face west.

A fan blowing out of the kitchen–positioned in a window or doorway, blowing outside or into another room–also helps to move heat, air pollution, and cooking odors away from the cook. It’s also possible to feel cooler by pointing a fan at yourself. It’s important to understand, though, that a fan does not actually lower the temperature of the air–in fact, its motor creates a little bit of heat. Use fans only to move hot air out, pull cooler air in (when outdoors gets cooler than indoors), or cool someone who’s in front of the fan.

Don’t prop a fan on a windowsill unless it’s the kind designed to be used in a window! Regular freestanding fans can tip over from the windowsill and damage themselves, furnishings, or people when they fall. We’ve had several of these affordable window fans from Target, and they work very well through about 10 summers of heavy use.

Not all heat in the kitchen comes from cooking. Don’t forget to keep your refrigerator tuned up so it doesn’t make more heat running its motor more than it should to keep your food cold!

Don’t hold open the freezer or refrigerator. Every time you open that door, you’re losing up to 30% of the cooled air inside. You might think it’s making you cooler, but every bit of coolness you let out of that box has to be replaced–by a motor that gives off heat as it works, and that heat goes right back into your kitchen! Wasting your refrigerator’s coolness just drives up your energy bills. It also lets your food warm up a bit, which may cause it to spoil faster. In humid weather, even a very short time with the door open causes a lot of condensation to form inside the fridge or freezer, leading to soggy labels on your food packages and yucky ice crystals on your ice cream.

Instead, do a freezer inventory and then maintain a list of what’s in there–maybe even a diagram–so that you can avoid opening the door until you’re ready to reach in and grab a specific food. Maybe on the hottest evenings of summer, you could just have homemade freezer pops for dinner. . . .

What menus and strategies help you beat the heat while cooking real food?
Unless otherwise credited, photos are owned by the author or used with a license from Canva or Deposit Photos.

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4 thoughts on “Healthy Strategies for Real Food in the Summer”

  1. good reminder about the crockpot! i tend to think of crockpot meals mostly in cooler temps, but it would definitely keep the house cooler than using the oven.

    i was bummed to see the microwave recommended, though, even for heating up leftovers. all the nourishing aspects of the food we work hard to create being zapped away in the microwave doesn’t seem worth keeping the house a little bit cooler.

    we use our toaster oven to reheat leftovers and it doesn’t warm the house too much, and have also moved a crockpot to the garage or outside to keep the house cooler!

    thanks for the tips 🙂

    1. Actually, if cooked at the correct temperatures, the microwave preserves the nutrients in foods. A lot of the nutrients in veggies are lost when cooked in water, but preserved when cooked in a microwave

      1. Thanks, Nancy. Microwave cooking mostly affects water-soluble nutrients such as Vitamin C, and the intensity of the effect is mediated by the short cooking time, so it’s really not that different from other methods of cooking. You’re right that steaming is better than boiling for vegetables–but don’t take for granted that that makes microwave cooking superior: I’ve seen several people put water in the dish with veggies, microwave them, and then pour off the water, losing some vitamins along with it!

        Here’s Katie’s research on microwave safety. The most important info there is that you should not microwave breast milk. (A better way of thawing breast milk or warming a bottle is to heat a bowl of water, in the microwave or with an electric kettle or whatever, and set the bottle in the water for a few minutes.)

        My personal approach is to use the microwave mostly for reheating individual portions of leftovers. Because of that info on human milk, when I reheat leftover coffee I add cold cow’s milk AFTER microwaving. When I have an emergency need for steamed broccoli for my daughter, if there really isn’t time to steam it on the stove in a steamer basket in a pot of water, I put the frozen broccoli in a covered dish in the microwave with no water.

  2. I feel ya! We have no AC in Michigan and the humidity is brutal! Lucky we insulted the heck out of the house last year and it’s not too bad if we cool it off at night and close it up in the mornings. I have an outlet on my porch so the crockpot and instant pot got out there for cooking. We just bought a grill for the rest. No cooking in the house when it’s this hot! Thanks for all the other tips. I have gotten fairly good at cooking bacon on the grill!

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