Healthy Cooking: Simplified

By Steven McPartland

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Cooking an enjoyable meal every night for yourself can be a daunting task, and making it a healthy meal can make the difficult seem downright impossible. You’re strapped for time, you don’t want to spend a fortune. You want something that will taste good enough to be worth the effort without making you gain 10 pounds just by looking at it. Against those odds you might feel like giving up and trying for something more attainable, like turning dust into gold or blowing up the sun.

But don’t go hungrily eyeing the moon just yet – if it really is made of cheese it probably has a lot of fat anyway. These obstacles may make a healthy home-cooked dinner feel like a world away, but tackle each individually, and they will fall before you.

First off, how exactly does one go about eating healthier? A big part of healthy eating is a varied diet, and that may mean trying new foods. More importantly, it may involve trying old foods – maybe some you’ve tried and didn’t like – in new ways that make them more appealing.

Start with these tips: Buy a recipe book, or find a good website with recipes. Look for ways to incorporate more beans, vegetables, fruits and whole grains into your diet. For example, many chili recipes include beans and vegetables and are readily prepared in a slow cooker. Also, look for recipes that use little or even no meat. Meat is healthy , but eating less of it may encourage you to eat more plant foods, and may even save you some money in the process.

Don’t be afraid to retry a food you’ve had bad history with. Maybe you never cared for raw broccoli florets, but you may find that stir-fried in the right sauce broccoli becomes a new favorite vegetable.

Now, new recipes are all well and good, but what about your old favorites? While there’s no need to give them up completely, take a look at your old recipes to find ways you could make them healthier. For example, when recipes call for oil, try using a healthy oil like canola, peanut or olive oil. These oils are higher in healthier “unsaturated” fats, and lower in saturated and transfats, which can have some nasty effects on your cholesterol. Instead of using regular noodles, try whole-wheat pasta. You will find little, if any, difference compared to the processed stuff, but it has three times the fiber. On that note, in recipes that call for white flour, replace half of the flour with whole-wheat flour to increase the fiber of the recipe without compromising the texture and quality.

While you shouldn’t load up on artificial sweeteners, they can be an effective way to cut calories out of sweet recipes. Try replacing just half the sugar in recipes with a substitute to reduce calories without adding so much artificial sweetener to your diet to be of concern. Most artificial sweeteners have been shown to be harmless in any reasonable dosage. Just make sure you use a sweetener suited to the task – use one designed for baking if that’s what you need it for.

All this may be starting to sound like a lot of work, but don’t give up yet. Simple inconvenience can be a surprisingly powerful obstacle to eating healthy, but don’t let a busy schedule or fatigue it stop you. There are some ways to cut some time and effort out of cooking. Remember that slow cooker I mentioned earlier? It really is your friend; these nifty little contraptions can make cooking a whole meal incredibly easy. Many recipes are easy to find in books and online, and often include ways to incorporate veggies into a tasty dish.

Slow cooker or not, try making meals that combine all the ingredients into one pot, pan or dish. By mixing foods you like with foods you’re less fond of or uncertain about, you’ll vary your palette and save time and hassle before, during and even after cooking. No one likes having five pots to clean after dinner.

For other ways to save time, buy pre-washed, pre-cut vegetables – they’ll save you the trouble of having to cut, peel or de-seed on your own. In many cases, frozen vegetables can be more convenient to store and use than their fresher counterparts, and they’re about as healthy. Consider them if you think they’d be more convenient. If the main course is a bit time-intensive, make a quick and simple side-dish, like a salad, to avoid over-burdening yourself.

What about cost? All this sounds good on paper, but if it costs too much, it may be out of the question. Ultimately there’s no one answer when considering how much healthy eating will or should cost, and a lot will depend on your available funds. Here are some guidelines: Give yourself a reasonable food budget. There’s no reason why food should cost you a fortune, but consider healthy eating a worthwhile investment. Take advantage of store loyalty cards – they’re usually free to get and make more sales available to you. A slow cooker is a reasonably-priced one-time expense, and it could prove quite valuable to your future cooking efforts.

At the market, look over the produce section for some healthy ingredients with an eye for which ones are the cheapest, or offer the best bang for the buck. Then look up recipes that specifically use those ingredients and you’ll be all set. If on any given week you see a sale on certain ingredients, such as potatoes or turkey, look up recipes that use those ingredients and give them a try, or make an old favorite recipe that uses those ingredients.

Cooking can be a lot of fun, and knowing that you’re cooking something healthy can be a great feeling. See how many of these tips you can incorporate into your eating schedule, and you may find you actually enjoy making meals.

Steven McPartland and other members of the UMass Nutrition Association, UMNA, would like to answer your nutrition-related questions, and can be reached at [email protected]