Recipe revival: How to make your favorite meals healthier

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You can do a variety of things to improve the nutritional value of the foods you make.

What does healthy cooking mean to you?

Making dishes that are low in fat may come to mind. So, healthy cooking can mean looking for recipes that use nonfat milk or require less butter.

Healthy cooking also can mean making meals with fewer calories. That can translate to serving smaller portions of food or changing your cooking methods.

It’s great that you’re thinking about ways to make more healthful meals. But as you thumb through your collection of favorite recipes, you might wonder if some of them belong in a nutritious meal.

You might find yourself asking, “Can this recipe be saved?”

Maybe, says Katherine Tallmadge, MA, RD, a former spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

“There are some underlying principles to healthy cooking,” she says, and learning some of them may help you trim the fat from an old favorite.

In some cases, one or two simple substitutions may be all a recipe needs to remain in your collection. But if you have to say farewell to some less-than-healthy favorites, that’s OK, Tallmadge says.

“There are so many healthy cookbooks available today,” she says, you’ll find new ones to take their place.

Principles of healthy cooking

The No. 1 rule for healthy cooking, according to Tallmadge, is to minimize animal fats and maximize healthy oils.

Your primary source of fat should be healthy oils—like olive, canola and nut oils.

Second, reduce refined starches, grains and sweets. Emphasize whole grains, fruits, vegetables and beans.

There are times when these rules collide with reality, Tallmadge acknowledges.

“It’s very hard to make a flaky pie crust or a croissant without using a hard, solid animal fat,” she says.

And it’s difficult to keep calories low if a recipe calls for deep-frying. But there are many things you can do to help make recipes more nutritious.

Healthy substitutions and cooking techniques

Here are a few tips for revising your old favorite recipes to make them healthier:

Fry with care. “Fried isn’t always unhealthy,” Tallmadge says.

If a recipe calls for frying, try stir-frying, which involves cooking food over high heat and using only a small amount of oil.

“Make sure the pan is hot, and use canola—not olive—oil,” suggests Tallmadge. The high heat will evaporate water from vegetables quickly, frying them to a crispy crunch instead of a steamed lump.

“And all you need is about 1 tablespoon of oil,” Tallmadge adds.

If you must deep-fry, choose a heart-healthy oil.

Cut the fat. When cooking with red meat and poultry, trim visible fat and remove the skin. And consider using light and leaner cuts of meat, such as breasts, instead of legs and thighs.

Look for places to substitute. Look over a recipe’s list of ingredients and search for areas that need nutritional improvement. For example, use low-fat or nonfat versions of cheese or dairy products, Tallmadge advises.

“If a recipe calls for sour cream, you can almost always replace it with low-fat Greek yogurt,” she says.

Know when to start from scratch

Not every recipe can be altered, says Tallmadge.

“Fat and sugar and other ingredients can play scientific roles in how a product turns out,” she says. “They can play important roles in the flavor of a dish.”

Your healthy substitutions may make a meal that’s, well, inedible. And therein lies another principle of healthy cooking, notes Tallmadge: It has to taste good.

“When you say: ‘This is healthy. It’s good for you. Eat it,’ it turns people off,” she says. “What you want to say is: ‘This is delicious. You’ll love it.’ That goes for adults and kids alike.”

So, rather than try to rework old recipes, you may want to start from scratch with new ones.

A good place to start your search for new recipes is your local library or bookstore’s cookbook aisle.

Look for recipes that are easy to prepare, suggests the academy. It’s great if each one lists nutrition information too—such as calories and grams of fat per serving.

One of Tallmadge’s recommendations is The New American Plate Cookbook: Recipes for a Healthy Weight and a Healthy Life, from the American Institute for Cancer Research. You can find more information and sample recipes here.


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