We all lead busy lives which leaves us with little time to shop for food and cook healthy meals. It is all too easy to order pizza, boil up a box of macaroni and cheese, or heat up chicken fingers and fries when life gets in the way. The reality is that with some simple strategies, it can be easy to create home cooked meals in 15 – 30 minutes that are packed with nutrients and free of saturated fat, and is lower in cholesterol sugar and salt, and are tastier than what comes in a cardboard box or plastic wrapper.
My approach is to get creative and not worry so much about the perfect recipe and having every conceivable ingredient in the house. Cooking, and eating, is about having fun. Know these 10 principles and cooking healthy will be easy and fun:
- Use recipes as inspiration, not instructions: When you watch food and cooking shows today, most of the time they just show the ingredients and pass over the amounts. Hey, they can even gloss over on technique. But, what really matters is understanding flavors. Use the recipes to understand what flavors go together from food to seasonings then experiment.
- Keep your favorite whole foods always at hand: There are going to be some go-to foods that you love and always use when you cook. If you open my fridge on any given day there are assorted salad vegetables, mushrooms, cauliflower, sugar snap peas, zucchini, beets, eggs, spinach, lowfat cheeses, skyr yogurt, 1% milk, and chicken bacon. I always have fruit bowl with apples, and bananas. My cupboard always has brown rice, German whole berry rye, multigrain English muffins, and oatmeal. This gives me a foundation for my shopping list and variations happen because of seasonal items and sales.
- Never waste your leftovers again: Do your leftover vegetables get put away after dinner only to rot for weeks in your fridge? Stop. Grab that grilled asparagus or red pepper and throw it on your salad. Take your steamed vegetables and throw them into chicken broth with that left over rice, pasta or couscous for a hearty soup. Left over tuna steak makes amazing tuna fish salad for a sandwich the next day.
- Its all about the kitchen sink: Building on 1, 2, and 3, your fridge and cupboards will offer you options to push anything into a bowl, salad or new meal. Mix and match your flavors and colors. To change things up, have Asian, Indian, Mexican, Cajun and Caribbean sauces and seasonings on hand. A veggie chicken noodle soup turns Chinese with a splash of soy and sesame seed oil. Whip up a hash with chicken chorizo, corn, black beans, pine nuts, and spaghetti squash.
- Get to know your farmer’s markets: I’ve traveled through food deserts and know how hard it can be in some places to get healthy affordable food. I am not in one of those areas and live in a twenty minute distance to 2 Whole Foods, a Trader Joe’s, a hydroponic farm, two butcher/meat markets, and turkey farm. Oh yeah, and three micro breweries. But, my favorite time is at the Farmer’s market where I meet the growers, get beautiful organic produce, bread, meat and fresh caught fish. I also can grab local honey and syrup, Lebanese food, and local bakery sweets. Add in the jazz band, llamas and my neighbors and going to the market is as much social experience as shopping trip. And, I support our local growers. Some will even deliver to your house – how is that for convenience?
- Only substitute if you like the food: Don’t deprive yourself of things you love. It is easy for me to eat Shirataki noodles instead of real pasta, but you won’t see my husband doing that. And as much as I mostly eat vegetarian, I love eggs, cheese and seafood too much to give them up. All those eating hacks you see are suggestions. The goal is to find the healthy foods you like, that don’t feel like substitutions, and make those the new foundation while the ‘bad food’ is there for the occasional indulgence (just not binge). This is how you eat for life.
- If you don’t like it, try it another way: Eggplant is not my favorite on its own. But, I will put it across the mandolin to make ‘lasagna noodles’ for a turkey and vegetable lasagna. Some foods are just tough to eat in their pure state and need a little help. But, if you need to up your vegetable intake and vegetables aren’t your thing, sauces and seasoning (just go easy on the salt and watch for sugars in sauces) go a long way to making veggies yummy.
- Half your plate is filled with fruits and vegetables: Portion control will be key. That 10 oz. steak is three times what you should eat. That small spoonful of vegetables filling up less than a quarter of your plate is only half to a third of what should be on the plate. Those starches of rice, potatoes and pasta can be ignored, but if you need them, they are a bit less than a quarter of the plate.
- A plate is 10 inches: Just as portion sizes have supersized, our plates have as well making it hard to understand how much is really there. Today’s dinner plates can be 12 – 13 inches in diameter. Forty years ago they were 10 – 11 inches (I know, I collect antique dishes and you can see the difference). That means you are able to place at least 20% more food on your plate. To overcome this, eat on the salad or sandwich plates, or portion your food before it hits your plate.
- Your plate is a canvas: As much as I love a bowl of chicken and rice with a rich gravy over the top, this beige on white color spectrum is a good indicator that what I’m eating is limited in nutrients and high in fat, salt and cholesterol. That doesn’t mean that if I chop parsley over the top it makes the dish healthier either. Monochromatic foods don’t make healthy meals. Instead, decorate your plate with colorful foods that make your meal look enticing. Remember, there is a reason why all those food pics on Instagram and Pinterest are colorful, they draw us in and make our mouth water.