DK’s Guide to Healthier Cooking
I’m passionate about teaching others to cook for a few reasons. First, I believe that the key to a healthy lifestyle is knowing how to prepare your own food! Going out, even to healthy establishments, almost always means you will consume more calories and fat than if you prepared the same meal at home.
When you understand the basics, you are empowered to take your health into your own hands and can lighten-up almost any recipe. Cooking for yourself also means saving money (most of the time), better ingredients (yay for local farmers markets that are cheaper than the grocery store!), and small portions (if you like).
As an RD and cooking instructor, I am always asked for tips for healthy cooking. There are lots of great secrets out there, but here are my top tricks. AND since blogging is a community sport, be sure to share your favorite tips in the comments below.
1. Cook with less oil:
I know, even I put in a tbsp. here, a tsp. there but really, you don’t need oil in most dishes. Yes, extra-virgin olive oil is healthy, but it’s also got 120 calories per tbsp. That quickly adds up in dishes where 1/4 cup or more is called for. Instead, try substituting ½ olive oil and ½ vegetable broth. I promise you will get the same results, with ½ of the calories. This works well in soups, stews, stir-fries, and roasting vegetables, not so well in baked goods. There, you can add ½ fruit puree like applesauce, date puree, ect.
2. Bake, not fry:
I think most of my clients have garage-sale-d their deep fryer for good, but if your still holding onto one, maybe it’s time to part ways. While I rarely fry foods anyways, sometimes I want a good crust on my tofu, eggplant, or seitan (a la’ fried chicken). What’s a health conscious cook to do? Bake my friends. You can still get the crispy, crunchy coating without plopping your food in a bucket of grease. Dredge food as you normally would (try subbing ½ ground nuts for breadcrumbs for a yummy, crunchy treat) and place on a wire rack on top of a sheet pan. Lightly spray with cooking oil and bake at 425-450° until crispy.
3. Cream a ‘la no Cream:
You know the secret to all my creamy, dreamy sauces? Nuts! And once you go nut-cream, you really don’t go back. Considering that dairy-cream, even the light kind, has lot of cholesterol and saturated fat, it’s not that much healthier than fuller fat counterparts. No worries, nut-cream to the rescue. It’s so easy and so much more flavorful than regular dairy cream. Simply soak nuts in water for 2+ hours, drain and puree with equal parts broth or water. Add more broth/water for a thinner sauce. Season and add to everything! Dollop into vegetable chili instead of sour cream, add to tomato sauces, sprinkle in fresh herbs for a no-cook pasta sauce, and on and on. It’s magic!
4. Watch the salt:
Even for those of us who eat farily healthy, I’d bet that our salt intake is higher than the recommended 2,300mg per day. Almost everything has salt in it: nuts, bread, soups, packaged goods, ice cream, you name it. Unless it’s an uncooked fruit or vegetable, it has sodium. And, really, sodium isn’t such a problem unless your potassium levels are also low. Which, for the average American is also the case: a diet high in salt, a diet low in potassium containing fruits and vegetables. If you notice that you always reach for the salt shaker, gradually try cutting back. If done over time, your taste buds will adapt and you won’t even notice the difference. Of course, fresh herbs and toasted, ground spices add lots of flavor without the salt, calories, or fat.
5. Add vegetables wherever you can!
Mac and Cheese, Spaghetti, Potato salad, and other one-pot dishes can always benefit from added vegetables. My rule of thumb when cooking is- what vegetables can I add to this dish? I’m Italian and love my pasta, but almost always add a full serving of vegetables into every dish. Roasted vegetables pair extremely well with baked pasta dishes, broccoli and cauliflower can go into just about anything, as do carrots, bell peppers, and fresh peas. If you’re making pasta, just throw the vegetables into the pot the last few minutes of cooking pasta. Drain as normal and toss with sauce. Even my college kids can make this one.
6.Nutrient Dense, Nutrient Dense, Nutrient Dense!
Along the same lines, calorie dense foods should always be paired with nutrient dense ones. I use these terms often to describe the relationship between foods that pack a lot of calories per bite (calorically dense) and those that contain more nutrients than calories per bite (nutrient dense). If you’re in the mood for say fettuccini alfredo, enjoy a serving and fill up the rest of the way with a vegetable side or salad, Or, using tip #5 above, add in chopped broccoli, spinach, bell pepper, and asparagus to the alfredo.
7. Cut the cheese
If you cook with cheese, vegan or dairy based, see where you can reduce your intake. Most recipes call for way, way too much cheese. The amount can be cut almost in ½ without affecting the flavor. Cheese imparts saltiness and fat, both of which can be substituted with nut based cheese alternatives (like macadamia nut pesto, almond parmesan) or by adding nutritional yeast- a savory, salty sprinkle that’s low in fat, calories, but mimics a cheesy taste. If you can’t find nutritional yeast in your local store (Ask your manager to start carrying it) online retailers like iherb.com, amazon, and others sell it. It lasts for a long time, so buy a bag and start experimenting! Most of my cheese-based recipes on this site use nutritional yeast.