When you make the decision to eat a healthier diet, the prospect of cooking wholesome, nutritious meals at home can be a major change: You want to eat right, but you don't want the same bland, boring meals every day.
While some healthy home-cooking practices follow common sense, such as steaming vegetables instead of sauteing them in gobs of oil, others can be a bit murkier. But don't fret. By avoiding some common healthy-cooking mistakes and dispelling some of the misconceptions about eating right at home, you can create interesting, tasty meals that will tickle the taste buds.
Frozen organic fruits and veggies can be just as nutritious as fresh and are great for smoothies and last-minute side dishes for lunch and dinner.
E.A. Stewart, registered dietitian
Mistake No. 1: Solely Relying on Fresh Fruits and Vegetables
Don’t forget the freezer, registered dietitian E.A. Stewart says.
“Frozen, organic fruits and veggies can be just as nutritious as fresh and are great for smoothies and last-minute side dishes for lunch and dinner,” she said.
Since vegetables and fruits are frozen at the peak of their freshness, their vitamins and minerals are abundant — even more so than their fresh counterparts, particularly those that are imported, Stewart says. Imported produce may have been sitting in storage crates and grocery produce shelves for a week or more, causing it to lose many nutrients.
Mistake No. 2: Relying on the Standbys
“Salads don’t always have to mean lettuce,” said Laura May-Roelse, a Dallas-based registered, licensed dietitian and nutrition consultant. “Try a mixture of blueberries, tomatoes and walnuts or a salad of chopped avocado and fresh strawberries.”
If you do choose to have greens as the base, consider other leafy veggies, such as kale, red cabbage, Swiss chard or watercress. Treat tougher greens like a slaw, and marinate them in dressing an hour before serving.
Brown rice is certainly a wholesome side dish, but don't be afraid to experiment with other grains. Quinoa, bulgur wheat and millet take about half the time to cook as brown rice and offer a crunchy texture and nutty flavor — a welcome departure. Consider using them as a base for an Asian stir fry or even as a hot cereal in the morning.
Mistake No. 3: Cutting Out All Fats
Not all fats are the same.
“Besides being a source of energy, fats provide essential fatty acids, which are important for brain and heart health,” Stewart says. “Plus, fat provides flavor and satiety so you will feel full even when eating less.”
Instead of cutting all fat, reduce your intake of saturated fats and try to avoid trans fats completely. Saturated fat, mostly found in animal products such as butter, whole milk and fatty meats, is the main dietary cause of high levels of LDL, the bad cholesterol. Trans fats, formed when hydrogen is added to vegetable oil, not only raise LDL, they also lower the good HDL cholesterol. Fried foods, processed foods, commercial baked goods and some margarines can contain high amounts of trans fats.
For cooking, choose a vegetable oil such as olive, canola or soybean, which are unsaturated. Avocados, fish and nuts all contain unsaturated fats, such as omega-3 fatty acid found in fish, that are the healthiest to consume. Of course, fats mean extra calories, so it’s best to eat them in moderation.
Mistake No. 4: Not Planning Ahead
Trying to cook healthy on the fly won't get you very far.
“Perhaps the biggest detriment to healthy eating is not planning out your meals and your shopping list,” Stewart said.
To make the most of your time, she recommends taking an hour or so on the same day each week to plan out meals and snacks, see what you have on hand in your pantry, refrigerator and freezer, and then make a list of everything you’ll need for the week. When you go to the supermarket with a list in hand, you’ll be less likely to buy foods that don’t fit into your healthy meal and snack plan.
When you bring everything home, prep as much as you can. Wash and trim fruits and vegetables and store them with a damp paper towel in airtight containers, and divide snacks into zip-top bags for easy portion control.
Mistake No. 5: Following an “All-or-Nothing” Diet
By not excluding any foods, including treats, you’re more likely to stick to wholesome choices instead of binging on unhealthy foods, May-Roelse advises.
“One of the main principles of healthy eating is balance,” she says.
Be selective about what you choose not to eat. For example, rather than cut out all carbohydrates, avoid refined carbs and choose whole grains instead. If chocolate is your weakness, indulge in a small bite of dark chocolate or a glass of chocolate skim milk a few times a week.
Instead of telling yourself “no” all the time, May-Roelse suggests focusing on the many nutritious “yes” foods. Remind yourself that nothing is completely forbidden, but there may often be a healthier choice.
Building a Healthy Pantry
To make healthy cooking easy, E.A. Stewart, a registered dietitian, recommends keeping some of your favorite meal supplies on hand for those nights when you're too exhausted to think about dinner.
From quesadillas and wraps to simple soups and chili to spaghetti and meatballs, you can pull together many simple, fast meals when you have a well-stocked kitchen. Here are some go-to, nutritious items to keep on hand:
In the pantry: whole-wheat pasta, bulgur wheat, quinoa, millet, whole-wheat couscous, quick-cooking brown rice, canned beans, dried lentils, extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, Dijon mustard, jarred marinara sauce, canned tomatoes, tomato paste, chicken broth --always choose low-sodium canned goods.
In the refrigerator: whole-grain tortillas, shredded cheese, 1 percent or skim milk, plain yogurt, eggs, skinless chicken breasts, lettuce, lemons.
In the freezer: grass-fed ground lean beef, ground turkey breast, frozen organic fruit and vegetables, phyllo dough, veggie burgers, whole-wheat bread, walnuts. Store the bread and nuts in the freezer to keep them fresh.
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Katie Farmand is a writer, food stylist and recipe developer based in Orlando. She is the coauthor of the forthcoming farm-to-table cookbook, "Florida Field to Feast: Year-Round Recipes Celebrating Farmers, Chefs & Artisans" (University Press of Florida). She maintains her own blog providing original recipes and holds a Master of Arts in mass communication from the University of Florida, Gainesville.