We all know that January is a popular time for trying to improve one’s health. People join gyms, they start fitness routines and they promise themselves they will start to eat healthier. These are great goals and I want to discuss the latter goal – eating healthier. One of you asked me how to make healthy food tasty as she has some health conditions that require her to watch what she eats. As I researched her concerns, I realized that what her diet advises is also a very healthy way for us all to eat. I will be writing a few Cooking Tips that will help you to cook/eat healthy but in a way that does not sacrifice flavor and satisfaction. In this first Tip, I want to discuss some general principles. In subsequent ones, I will dig deeper into some of these points. I do want to caution you, though, that you should always check with your health care provider about his/her recommendations. They may wish you to alter some of what I am going to say
If you have been reading these Tips for very long, you know that my purpose is not to provide you with recipes. Rather, I want to encourage you to seek out quality ingredients and learn good cooking techniques. With that, you can cook whatever you want to cook. It is the same with cooking healthy. You do not need any special ingredients or equipment. You probably have everything you need; you just need to cook with some guidelines in mind. I will, though, be giving you some recipe ideas in the upcoming Tips.
Cook from scratch
The number one thing you can do to cook healthier is to eliminate as many prepared or processed foods as you can. If you cook mostly from scratch, you will automatically be cooking healthier.
Limit processed foods
There are so many convenience (aka processed) foods on the shelf and in most of our pantries and refrigerators. That convenience comes at a cost. I like The American Fitness Professionals Association’s definition of healthy foods – “Healthy foods … are those that are close to how we would find them in nature, have undergone few industrial processes, and contain few to no additives.”
What does that mean? It means not using boxed mixes for dishes. No Hamburger Helper. Rather, make your own pot of pasta and fresh sauce with healthy ingredients from your pantry and refrigerator. Add herbs and spices that you like. Just a sprinkling of a good quality, flavorful cheese on top before serving. By doing this, you are decreasing the sodium of the meal along with many additives and preservatives, which are in those boxed items. If you choose to make a whole grain pasta, you are upping the fiber content. Not only is this healthful but will also make you feel fuller longer.
Another example is purchased salad dressings. A worthy goal is to eat more greens and veggies. A simple way to do this is to have a salad before each dinner. If you drown those greens in a high sugar and processed store-bought salad dressing, you are not doing yourself any favors. If, instead, you make your own vinaigrette, you are using minimal ingredients and those that you do use are minimally processed. You do not need to sacrifice flavor to do so. A simple vinaigrette is easy to make and can be very tasty. See this prior Cooking Tip for how to do this.
Cook a wide variety of foods
It is so easy to get into a rut of making and eating the same things all the time. Not only is this monotonous but you are missing out on so much. Don’t eat just white rice. Branch out and experience brown, red, black and wild rice.
There are also so many other grains out there that will be better for you than white rice and do not take much more effort to cook. Try quinoa, farro, barley, couscous or bulgur. Cook them in a low-sodium broth rather than just water. Add interest with herbs/spices, nuts and unsweetened dried fruit.
Go for whole foods
As much as you can, cook with whole foods such as fruits, veggies and whole grains. Try to include these at most of your meals. Remember that frozen fruits and veggies are just as good if not better than the fresh variety as long as they are not packaged in a sauce or had sugar, salt or other ingredients added to them.
Fruits can be incorporated into your cooked dishes. Many meats are complemented nicely with a light sauce that includes fruit. Pork and apples is a classic but you can also use fresh figs, peaches, grapes, pears, etc.
As mentioned before, incorporating a salad into your lunchtime or evening meal is a great idea. For more variety, try roasting, grilling or sauteing veggies as a side dish.
Have fun with herbs and spices
Experiment with adding herbs and spices to your dishes. They will add a pop of color and flavor to your grains, meats etc.
Use smaller amounts of some foods
Rather than opting for a low-fat variety of something or trying to eliminate the ingredient entirely, just use smaller amounts of the full-fat variety. For example, choosing an extra sharp cheddar cheese will allow you to use less and still have amazing flavor. Many low fat cheeses are not a good idea. They do not taste as good and often have a binder added to improve texture. Another example is cutting down on the amount of oil called for when cooking. Don’t just dump in whatever the recipe calls for. Start with less and then, if you need more, you can add a bit more.
Fats and sugar
Which of these is worse for you? That continues to be somewhat of a debate but there are a few things we know. As for fats, limit your use of saturated fats. These are fats that are solid at room temperature such as butter and lard. Saturated fats are also found in animal products such as most meats & dairy products and also in tropical fats. When cooking, opt for monounsaturated and polyunsaturated oils such as olive, canola, safflower or sunflower. Swap out your beef and pork for seafood.
A type of fat you should try to completely eliminate is trans fats. Although there is a very small amount that can be found naturally in nature, most come from a certain type of food processing. Therefore, once again, you will automatically decrease your intake of it when you cook from scratch. Also, food labels are required to list the amount of trans fats. Note that foods containing less than 0.5 grams of trans fats per serving are labeled as having 0 grams of trans fats.
With sugar, the most important thing is to limit your use of added sugar. Pay attention to food labels for sugar content. Recently, the FDA updated the requirements for food labels and they must now show not only sugar content but “added sugars”. This should help you make smarter choices.
Consider some meatless meals
You do not have to be a vegetarian but you can make a concerted effort to have at least some meals without meat. A fun and tasty way to do this is with Grain Bowls (aka Buddha Bowls). Although these bowls can contain meat, many do not. Here is a prior Cooking Tip with more information on this dish.
Keep your pantry and freezer stocked
If you have what you need to cook healthier already in your pantry and/or freezer, it will be much easier to follow through.
Finally, have the attitude that almost nothing is forbidden but many things should be eaten in moderation. One example is butter. I love to finish a pan sauce with just a small pat of butter. This adds a richness both in terms of flavor and texture. If you only use a small amount, you can do this without feeling guilty.
If you have made a resolution to cook and eat healthier this year, I wish you the best of luck. You can do it and it is not that difficult to do so. I hope these few tips will help you get on the right track.