Simple Tips to Make Meals Healthier While Cooking at Home
About the Author
Dr. DeMeyere-Coursey chose to practice medicine at Paladina Health because she wants to be a part of the innovative changes coming to the delivery of primary care. She strives to spend productive time with her patients in an environment that fosters individualized, whole-person care.
It's more difficult to control calories and the overall nutritional value of meals when eating out than cooking at home. A study published in 2017 in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine showed that people scored much higher on the Healthy Eating Index when they cooked at home. The researchers from Oregon State University and the University of Washington demonstrated cooking at home reduced the consumption of carbohydrates, sugar, fat and calories – as many as 200 calories per day.
This is good news in light of all the recent shelter-in-place orders keeping people closer to home these days. But if you weren't previously cooking much at home or weren't focused on cooking healthy, you might not know where to start with your at-home menu.
In general, I like to advise my patients to shop preferentially around the outside of the grocery stores and avoid the aisles, for many of the reasons listed below. Fresh will always be better than anything boxed, canned, or packaged! If you take nothing else from this blog and stop reading here, please consider that tidbit. If you’d like to know more about cooking healthy meals at home, see below for some tips to getting started.
1. Consider the mode by which you're cooking your meats and vegetables. Deep frying or pan-frying foods are two of the more unhealthy options. Instead, consider steaming, baking, grilling, braising, boiling or microwaving. With vegetables, microwaving or steaming are preferred methods over boiling in order to retain more nutrients. If you still want to boil, use a small amount of water and be careful not to overboil. Stir-fried vegetables are another healthy option because they are cooked quickly and therefore nutrient loss is avoided. You may also consider scrubbing vegetables rather than peeling them. Vegetable skins can be very nutrient-rich!
2. If you must use oil, I suggest using a cooking spray or applying a small amount with a pastry brush. You could also consider cooking in liquids, such as stock, wine or lemon juice.
3. Avoid high-calorie cream sauces when possible. Consider alternatives such as low-fat yogurt, low-fat milk or evaporated milk. Pesto, salsa, chutneys and vinegars are also good in lieu of sour creams, butter and cream sauces.
4. Salt, while tasty, can worsen health problems such as high blood pressure if used in larger quantities. Fortunately, there are a number of ways to enhance the flavor of food without using salt. Start by familiarizing yourself with some of the more flavorful herbs, such as coriander, ginger, garlic and lemongrass.
5. Beware of hidden sources of salt and get comfortable reading nutrition labels! Even if you don't add salt, the ingredients you choose could already be overly salty and unhealthy for your heart. Canned and pickled vegetables, for example, are often packaged with salt. When possible, use frozen or (even better!) fresh varieties. Limit processed meats, such as salami, ham, bacon, corned beef and hot dogs, as they are high in sodium. Many people are surprised to learn about the levels of salt found in breads and cereals, instant pastas, butter and many soup mixes, so again, it's important to read labels carefully. Several cheeses are also high in salt, as are soy sauce, tomato sauce, mayonnaise and some salad dressings. When possible, look for options specifically labeled as low-salt.
6. In additional to salt, processed foods can also contain chemical additives, hormones, sugar, and unhealthy fats which could adversely affect the brain and overall mood. They can also make you feel tired and bloated. This is why whole grain bread is preferred to white bread, which is processed.
7. Choose lean meats and trim fat from meat, if possible. Remember that fish is a great high-protein alternative to most meats.
8. Finally, try to limit portion sizes, as overindulging can lead to obesity. This doesn't mean you should deprive yourself. Crash dieting, in fact, has proven to be counterproductive and leads to the pendulum swinging wildly in the opposite direction. Eat slowly and mindfully. Try to pay attention to when your stomach feels full versus your tongue wanting to taste more.
To help make cooking at home more fun, try involving the entire family. Even younger children can be assigned easy, safe tasks to feel like they are participating.
In most cases, it's not difficult to alter favorite recipes to limit fat and salt content. Cooking healthy meals provides many health benefits. Most importantly, at a time such as now, it supports a healthy immune system and reduces the risk of illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure. It provides more energy, improves sleep and can help manage existing problems with chronic health issues. And finally, while you're doing so much good for your health, you'll also be lightening the load on your wallet, since cooking at home tends to be much less expensive than eating out!