One thing that helped me lose excess weight, increase energy, and provide satisfaction of knowing what I’m eating is cooking at home. I started slow and used packaged products when I cooked. As I became comfortable with preparing meals, I started to stray from following recipes and only looked to them as guidelines to start creating a meal. Packaged foods were used less as well, and I now try to only use whole foods bought in bulk or fresh produce departments. Basically, shopping the perimeter for the majority of your food will keep you away from the boxed items packed with sugar, sodium, preservatives, and other things you would not use from your own kitchen.
Over time, through reading, watching, and trial and error, I have picked up on a few tips to use when cooking. Hopefully these will help those who currently cook at home and encourage others to start cooking at home instead of eating out. Cooking doesn’t have to be a daunting task; you will find gratification in the health benefits and money savings you gain!
1. Use herbs, spices, vinegar, salsa, and mustard to in place of fat and salt. Salsa and mustard already have sodium, so be sure to not add any more salt. If you buy seasoning mixes, look for a salt-free version as the content can add up fast. Remember, companies are concerned with maximum flavor for their products, and will add sugar, salt, and fat most of the time.
2. If cooking for 2, make enough for 4 and freeze the leftovers for a quick, ready-made meal when short on time or motivation. The same applies for however many you are cooking for, just double the amount and save. The leftovers can also be kept in the fridge and used as a great meal for lunch.
3. Don’t stress about following most recipes exactly as written. A 1/2 cup of oil or butter simply cannot be healthy or necessary unless cooking for 10 or more. Substitute ingredients for what you have on hand , it might come out better than the original anyway. Here are some helpful substitution guides;Allrecipes.com Guide, Healthy Substitutions, Another Healthy Sub Guide, and Baking Substitutes.
4. Skip canned veggies and opt for the frozen selections instead. If you must buy canned, look for “No Salt Added” on the label and read the ingredients to make sure it’s just the vegetable inside; I see many canned products with added sugar and preservatives. Make sure to read the label on frozen veggies too, some types have added sauces you should stay away from. If I can’t find low or no salt in canned tomatoes, I will make sure not to add any more salt to the meal I prepare with that can. Frozen chopped onions and peppers are a huge time saver, just dump them from the bag into a heated pan to start your stove-top meal fast.
5. Speaking of canned tomatoes, these are a great way to add flavor and nutrition to most stove-top meals. If cooking grains like brown rice, quinoa, millet, hulled barley, etc, use the tomatoes as part of the liquid called for to cook the grains. They will absorb the tomato juices and give a fat free flavor enhancement to your meal.
6. When baking, replace the fat called for in a recipe with mashed ripe bananas, fruit or squash puree, plain, fat free yogurt, or low-fat cottage cheese. Use a substitute that will compliment the baked item you are making; bananas are great for pancakes and applesauce works well for most quick breads. For the measurements, 3 mashed bananas can replace 1/2 to 3/4 cup; the other substitutes can be measured 1 for 1. If you don’t like how it turns out, only replace 1/2 or 3/4 of the fat and see if that is any better. I am usually happy to sacrifice the outcome of texture in place of a healthier item.
7. If a baking recipe calls for all purpose flour, use whole wheat or another whole grain flour instead. Whole-wheat flour can be substituted for up to half of all-purpose flour. For example, if a recipe calls for 2 cups of flour, try 1 cup all-purpose flour and 1 cup minus 1 tablespoon whole-wheat flour.
8. For cream-based soups, omit the heavy cream or loads of cheese and use refried beans or pureed veggies to thicken the meal. Use an immersion blender to blend the food right in the pot, or add a few spoonfuls at a time to a blender and blend. This is also a great way to make your own dips if cooking veggies with beans or lentils. Just use less liquid than the soup recipe to ensure a thick and cream puree of flavor!
9. Don’t buy the leanest ground meat. The super lean ground beef usually costs more per pound than 85/15 or 90/10 versions; cook the less lean meat in a sauté pan until browned then drain in a colander over warm running water. You will end up with cooked lean beef as most of the fat will be cooked out in the sauté pan or drained. For cuts of meat, you should still look for the leanest options. Keywords for lean cuts are loin, round, skinless, and shoulder. Trim as much visible fat as possible, I always ask the butcher to trim when able.
10. Canned tuna is your friend. Buy the low sodium, water packed version if able. Never buy the oil packed seafood. This is a great way to add protein to a rice dish, just open the can, drain if needed, and mix into cooked brown rice (or another whole grain) and veggies.
11. Go fast with a slow-cooker. If you don’t have a slow-cooker, or crock-pot, get one! These convenient cookers are great for making healthy meals for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert. Since everything is cooked slow, leaner cuts of meat, poultry, or fish can be cooked without drying out and becoming tough. Check out this link for a list of crock pot recipes for every meal type.
12. A little cheese for a lot of flavor. Adding just a 1/4 cup of shredded parmesan or asiago cheese can really flavor a meal for 4. This cheese is bursting with flavor so not a lot is needed. When you want to create the “extra special” meal, splurge on some good parmesan; any leftover can be wrapped in plastic and stored in the fridge for a month. Save the rind in the freezer and put it in a slow-cooker recipe to extract all the flavor you can.
13. Microwaving is quick and healthy. As long as you use a good, microwavable glass container to cook in, you can nuke frozen veggies for a quick steam. Since it cooks fast and little to no water is needed, microwaving reduces the amount of nutrients lost from cook time or in water . On a daily basis, I dump a mixture of frozen veggies and beans in a glass bowl, cover, and cook for 3 to 4 minutes depending on how much I have. After draining the small amount of water from steam, I season with pepper, cumin, garlic and onion powder, and random dried herbs for a quick, healthy, and flavorsome meal in minutes.
14. Add bulk to your meals with veggies. As mentioned above, microwaving veggies is quick and healthy; strive to fill half your plate or bowl with assorted vegetables. When cooking beans or grains on the stove, toss a healthy mix of frozen or fresh veggies to cook at the same time; this makes for a one-pot meal you and you’re family are sure to appreciate.
15. Non-stick cookware needs little to no oil to start cooking. Use liquids like broth, vinegar, wine, lemon juice, or water instead of butter or oil as most recipes call for. Save the nice extra virgin olive oil or other healthy oils to use sparingly on salads. This way the healthful fats won’t be damaged from heat when cooking. I like to save mostly empty containers of mustard, salsa, or salad dressing and fill with water, shake to combine, and use as liquid in my next stove-top meal.
Using rational cooking methods, replacing fat with healthy substitutes, and adding more vegetables, fruits, and whole grains to recipes are assured methods to create a better nutrient dense meal. These techniques will also help lower risk for chronic diseases such as cancer and provide more energy in your everyday routine. Once you start cooking on a regular basis, you will find what works for you; trial and error is the best way to learn. Maybe you can give me some tips; I’m all ears when it comes to anything food related so please share!