Healthy Cooking Basics
Chef K.T. Murphy
Lets get Real!… If you are the person in charge of cooking meals for your family, it is up to you to start making better choices. You can still make many of the same meals you do now, but make small changes in the ingredients and method of cooking to make healthier meals. Here are some tips for beginning to cook healthier.
Define What Healthy Cooking Means to You
The first thing you should do when you want to start cooking healthier meals, is actually define what healthy cooking means to you. There are a lot of definitions out there, based on what you are hoping to achieve. Perhaps you use too many saturated fats in your cooking, and you want to try to reduce that. You might also have more specific needs based on the dietary changes your family is making, such as reducing your carbs, cutting out sugar, or reducing calories and fat overall. These are really important decisions to make.
How to Choose Your Healthy Cooking Preferences
Let’s start by choosing some preferences based on the initial definition of healthy cooking. A good place to start is by keeping track of what you and/or your family eats on a regular basis. Try a day or even a week of recording everything you eat. Don’t try to ‘eat healthier’ during this time, but follow your regular diet. If your kids take a Pop-Tart every morning, by all means let them and write it down. Record every time you grab a candy bar from the vending machine or when your significant other brings home pizza.
Now take a look at your food journal for the last week or however many days you worked with. Do you see any patterns there? What are the areas you think you need to work on the most? This can really help you see what you are eating, as well as where you need to make some improvements.
General Tips For Getting Started With Healthy Cooking
Now that you know what type of healthy cooking you want to do and where to make the changes, you can begin with healthy cooking. Here are just some simple tips for getting started before we really dive into more detailed suggestions:
Keep recording everything you eat. It is eye-opening and helps you keep track of the changes you are making.
Start meal prepping and planning. This involves making a list of all meals and snacks you will eat for the next week or so, plus doing a lot of prep work before the week begins. This helps to avoid last-minute trips to fast food or grabbing donuts because you don’t have healthy food at home.
Get everyone in the family involved in the meal planning and healthy cooking process. It helps the entire household stay on track.
Some Recommended Tools and Appliances
Before talking about some recommended healthy food swaps you can do in the kitchen, let’s list some tools and appliances that are really helpful to have in the kitchen. Take a look at this list and mark any of them that you don’t yet have. While they are not all mandatory to cook healthier meals, they are definitely great to have when you get a chance to pick them up.
Food scale – A food scale helps you weigh out portions so that you get used to what a proper portion of meat and fish is per person.
Portion control containers – These little containers fit ½ cup or 1 cup of snacks and food items to make it easier to meal prep.
Food storage containers – A variety of different sizes are needed when prepping and freezing portions of your meals.
Spiralizer – Get a spiralizer to ditch the pasta and create ‘pasta’ noodles out of veggies.
Sharp knives – The better the knives, the more enjoyable chopping veggies becomes.
Slow cooker – This is great if you have a busy lifestyle and find that you eat out more because of your schedule.
Pressure cooker – Pressure cookers help you prepare healthy meals in a short period of time.
Food processor – Easily chop, dice, and puree ingredients when prepping to free up time and make it easier on you.
Blender and Juicer – Both of these appliance are good when you want to make your own juice and smoothies.
Healthy Food Swaps
Now that we have the basics covered, it is time to talk about healthy food swaps. This is really the start to healthy cooking, because you are swapping out some of the unhealthy ingredients you currently use for healthier ones. It makes healthy cooking quick and easy, not veering off too much to the meals your family is used to. You can make these changes gradually at any pace that feels comfortable for you. Here are some food swaps to try out:
Swap: Egg Sandwich For Scrambled Eggs
If you tend to enjoy egg sandwiches from fast food restaurants, it is time to make your own! Of course you could make a healthier version at home, but go one step further and make yourself some scrambled eggs. Yes, this is slightly more time-consuming than driving through somewhere, but eggs are super easy to cook. All you have to do is beat the eggs in a bowl, add to a pan, and scramble for a few minutes. You can add some diced veggies to the eggs to increase the nutrient content or top salsa on them instead of cheese.
Swap: Fruit Juice For Whole Fruit
Yes, fruit juice is sweet and delicious, but most of it is full of sugar. Fruit already has its own natural sugar, so the last thing you need is to add a bunch more. You can either get a juicer and make your own fruit juice without adding anything to it, or just grab a piece of fresh fruit and enjoy it. You get that same sweet taste without all the additives.
Swap: Bottled Dressing For Oil and Vinegar
When you go to the supermarket, you will find dozens upon dozens of options for salad dressing. These might be tempting, but they also are loaded with ingredients you probably can’t even pronounce. Not only that, they are usually high in fat, sugar, calories, and carbs, with very little nutrition in there. Instead of a bottled dressing, swap it out for some oil and balsamic vinegar on your salad. It is light, flavorful, and much better for you.
Swap: Iceberg Lettuce For Spinach or Kale
Eating salad is already an excellent healthy choice, but you can make it even healthier by using spinach or kale. If you are preparing dinner for your family, consider skipping the iceberg lettuce and go with spinach. It is has a lot more vitamins, including iron, calcium, vitamin A, and tons of vitamin K.
Swap: Sour Cream For Greek Yogurt
If you have a recipe that calls fro sour cream, you can always use Greek yogurt instead. This applies for casseroles, baked dishes, and slow cooker dishes. Regardless of what it is, Greek yogurt is a lighter and healthier option!
Swap: White Pasta For Spaghetti Squash
White pasta is a refined carbohydrate that is good to avoid as much as possible. You can always switch to whole wheat pasta, but to cut the carbs even more, consider shredding some cooked spaghetti squash. It looks and feels just like pasta, and goes great with your favorite marinara or pasta sauce.
Add in Your Healthy Fats
Having fat in your dishes isn’t always a bad thing, it just matters what type of fat you are using. You definitely want your Omega-3 fatty acids and other healthy fats to be used in your healthy cooking, but be smart about it. For example, instead of piling on the butter, reduce the amount of butter and add in some healthy oil instead, like canola or olive oil. Try not to use vegetable oil as these other oils are much better for you. You can also make a light dressing with walnut or avocado oil.
When you want some more omega-3 fatty acids, try having fish like albacore tuna, mackerel, or salmon. These are super easy to pair with a healthy vegetable and whole grains for a well-balanced meal. You can also add in your healthy oils, as well as adding nuts like walnuts and pecans to your salads.
Avocadoes are also a highly-recommended healthy fat! They are creamy, delicious, and very versatile. Add some avocado to your salads, eat half an avocado as a snack, or spread it on toast instead of butter.
Focus on Incorporating Veggies
Now it is time to talk veggies! Vegetables are always on the food pyramid and always recommended whenever you read anything about diets or health. The reason is because they contain so many vitamins and minerals you can’t get elsewhere. If you add enough veggies to your meals, you will be adding more nutrients to them, and can even avoid having to take other vitamins and supplements.
Another reason to incorporate more veggies is because the more vegetables you use, the less unhealthy ingredients you are adding. For example, if you make a stir-fry that consists of mostly veggies, you can actually cut the meat portion of the stir-fry in half and still have a filling meal. If your kids enjoy chips and salsa, chop up veggies to dip in the salsa instead. Start adding veggies to as many meals as you can, such as chili, soup, casseroles, and as a side dish for meals like pot roast, meatloaf, chicken, steak, and fish.
You can even use vegetables like cauliflower to take the place of other food options. Cauliflower can be used to make mock mashed potatoes, cauliflower rice, vegetable steaks, or even meatless buffalo bites.
Reduce Your Sodium Content
If you want to start cooking healthier meals, you should also try to reduce the sodium content as much as possible. Sodium comes from the salt in your foods, and can be from the seasonings you add or the packages you buy. Packaged, processed, and frozen foods tend to have the highest amount of sodium, which leads to bloating and swelling. Here are some tips for reducing your sodium content:
Get Rid of Frozen Foods
The first way to reduce sodium content is to stop making frozen meals and snacks. Instead, tryt o make your own homemade version of your family’s favorite frozen foods, like homemade pizza and homemade pocket sandwiches.
Use Fresh Produce
Vegetables that are canned are usually loaded with salt because it helps to keep them fresh. Try to get fresh veggies as much as possible. It will take a little more time washing and chopping them yourself, but it is so worth it. If you need to use canned veggies, look for a can that says low-sodium. This also goes for canned tomato sauce, soup, and broth.
Stop Adding Salt to Everything
This is something many people do when cooking meals to add more flavor. But remember that salt is not the only seasoning at your disposal! You can make your meals healthier by skipping the salt and instead using other seasonings, herbs, and peppers.
Re-Think How You Do Meat
You don’t need to switch to a completely vegetarian diet just to make healthy meals for your family, but it does help to think about how you choose and prepare meat dishes. Meat is something that can be healthy when choosing lean protein, but can also add a lot of fat and calories, such as in the case of red meat. Here are some tips for adjusting how you use meat in your meals.
Use Lean Protein As Much as Possible – When adding meat to one of your meals, try to use lean protein like chicken or turkey as much as you can. Fish is also a great option. When you want red meat, try to find the leaner cuts, such as those that say loin.
Try the Half and Half Method – If your family can’t get used to ground turkey instead of beef, try a half and half mixture. Use half ground beef and half ground turkey, and they probably won’t notice the difference.
Reduce the Use of Processed Meats – Processed meats like bacon, salami, hot dogs, and luncheon meat are filled with salt and saturated fat, so it is best to avoid them.
Remove the Skin and Drain the Fat – When making chicken, try to remove the skin before you cook it so that you can cut the fat of the dish. With other meat, drain the fat before serving, such as with your steak or hamburgers.
Choose a Healthier Cooking Method – The healthiest cooking methods for meat are baking, broiling, and roasting. Avoid deep frying meat items.
Remember that you don’t need to make all of these changes at once. Work through the list gradually, adding swaps of ingredients, using more vegetables, and choosing leaner portions of meat. Before too long, you will be on your way to cooking healthier meals for your family.