Time spent preparing fresh nutritious food at home is one of the most valuable gifts you can give yourself. By taking control over your meal ingredients you can avoid blood pressure-boosting salts, artery-clogging fats and unnecessary calorie loads while boosting your nutrient intake.
To help you get the greatest health-boosting benefits from your time in the kitchen we've gathered some of our favorite cooking tips.
1. Wait to add salt until food is ready to serve. “If you insist on using a little bit of salt when you're cooking, always add it at the very end,” recommends Elisa Zied, registered dietician and author of “Nutrition at Your Fingertips.” That way salt's flavor comes through stronger, so you won't need to use as much of it. “Potato chips don't actually have to have a lot of sodium to taste like they do because the salt's right on the surface,” Zied explains.
2. Fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables. “Try using meat as more as a condiment than as the focus of the plate,” says American Heart Association spokesperson Rachel K. Johnson, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.D. Meats are heavy in fat and protein, which most of us get plenty of already. “Focus on vegetables, whole grains and fruits as the main part of the plate,” Johnson suggests.
3. Portion out leftovers ahead of time. Cooking for more than one meal kills two (or three!) birds with one stone, but extra food within reach can prompt unwarranted second trips to the kitchen. Wrap up future meals into pre-portioned containers before you sit down to eat, recommends Barbara Rolls, Ph.D., chair of Nutritional Sciences at Pennsylvania State University and author of “The Ultimate Volumetrics Diet.” To add even further precaution put the containers in the fridge or freezer first.
4. Use a brush or spray bottle to apply olive oil to your food. “That still gives you the flavor and the potential health benefits of olive oil without all the fat,” says registered dietician Elisa Zied. “You want those healthy mono and unsaturated fats, but you want to limit the quantity.”
5. Don't be afraid to substitute low or nonfat dairy products. “If recipes call for whole milk,” Johnson says, “you can substitute low and nonfat milk.” Nonfat milk has about half the calories of whole milk, so in dairy-heavy recipes that substitution can save you some serious calories.
6. Buy choice or select grades of beef. “Prime grades of beef are heavily marbled,” Johnson explains, “while choice or select grades will be lower in fat.” Less marbling equals less fat, which equals better heart health and few calories.
7. Use nonstick pans. That way you'll need to use less fats and oils to keep things moving on the stove, says Johnson. And that means fewer calories in your meal overall. Just to be safe, we recommend avoiding nonstick pans that contain PFOA (Perfluorooctanoic acid), which the E.P.A. has identified as a toxicity concern.
8. Add bulk (and nutrition) to your dishes with extra vegetables. You can even hide vegetables from the veggie-wary by pureeing or finely chopping them, says Rolls. She recommends substituting some of the cheese in macaroni and cheese with pureed cauliflower, putting pureed squash in brownie batter, and substituting vegetable purees for half to two-thirds of the fat in quick breads or muffins.
9. Think beyond salt. “Use various spices and seasonings to enhance flavor instead of salt,” says Zied. Lower your sodium intake and tingle your taste buds by pairing thyme or marjoram with beef, oregano or rosemary with chicken, curry powder or dill with fish, and allspice or coriander with root vegetables.
10. Find the whole-grain versions that work for you. “People are not consuming enough whole grains, and they need at least three ounces a day,” says Zied. But let's face it—sometimes the whole-grain version just doesn't taste as satisfying. Don't settle for cardboard-flavored whole-wheat pasta, find a brand you like. We're fans of Bionature's whole durum wheat pastas, they're wholesome without overwhelming the flavor of your sauce. If you don't usually enjoy whole-wheat breads, try crustier or sourdough whole-grain loafs.
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