Every year more and more of us are getting bigger and bigger. Obesity is becoming a huge (pardon the pun) problem in America. One of the primary reasons for the weight gain in our society is that fewer of us are cooking healthy meals at home.
About 60% of the meals eaten at home are prepared elsewhere, and of those that are cooked at home, many of them are prepackaged. These prepackaged and take-out meals might be convenient, but they are not always healthy.
Maybe you are one of the hundreds of thousands of people who resolved to make healthier eating decisions this year. If that’s the case, we have some tips and ideas for you to make cooking healthy meals for you and your family easier than you thought it would be.
Healthy eating doesn’t mean you cut out all your favorites. It doesn’t mean you deprive yourself. It doesn’t mean you eat only kale and carrots. You can still have chocolate cake, pizza, and French fries; you just learn to prepare them differently.
According to the USDA’s website ChooseMyPlate, healthy eating begins with finding the balance of the five food groups, choosing from a variety of options for each food group, and starting with small steps to lead to healthier eating. One of the most reputable healthy eating websites, ChooseMyPlate.gov has online tools, tons of resources and recipes, and tips to improve the eating habits of the whole family.
Each of the five food groups should make up a portion of each day’s food. Here are some cooking tips for each food group, in order of the amount of your diet they should comprise. These tips can help you make easy and healthy meals.
Vegetables and Fruits
About half of your daily food intake should be fruits and vegetables. Fresh fruits and vegetables, eaten as snacks, and 100% juice drinks are included in this amount.
While raw fruits and vegetables are probably healthiest, eating everything raw has its disadvantages. However, boiling all vegetables, as our grandmothers did, has its disadvantages, too—not the least is that boiling vegetables to death also boils out most of the nutrients. Some of the best ways to create healthy and tasty vegetable dishes are listed here.
Steam – You can steam vegetables on the stove, in the microwave, or with a vegetable steamer. The point of steaming is to keep the nutrients in the food while cooking out the crunch.
Sauté and Stir-Fry— Sauté or stir-fry vegetables in a large skillet or wok with oil. Using a tiny amount of olive or coconut oil, instead of butter, with a few spoonsful of water will prevent the health value of vegetables from being lost in the fats of cooking. The primary difference between stir-frying and sautéing is the heat and the speed. Stir-frying is usually done faster over higher heat.
Roast—Oven roasting is for more than just potatoes. Any vegetable, from asparagus to zucchini, can be roasted in an open pan in the oven. Sprinkle the veggies with some seasoning and drizzle with a bit of olive oil, place the pan in the oven, and keep an eye out for over crisping.
Grill—Grilling vegetables can be done on an indoor or outdoor grill, over a gas flame or wood fire. Similar to roasting, grilling offers vegetables a unique taste. Slip chunks of vegetables (pre-steam the carrots and potatoes) on to a skewer for a fun, healthy kabob.
All of the above methods can be used to prepare fruits, too. You haven’t experienced the burst of flavor from a granny smith apple until you’ve had a chunk of it grilled with a bit of sugar and cinnamon. Even berries can be roasted and served with frozen yogurt for a yummy dessert.
When you are cooking healthy meals for you and your family, you should include about half as much grain as you do vegetables. The problem with most of our meals today is that the grains consist of refined grains like white rice and pasta. These are the least healthy grain options for you.
Any food made from oats, wheat, barley, corn or rice is considered a grain. Stick to whole grains for the healthiest meal choices. Most whole grains are cooked the same way: season with a little salt, submerge in water, bring to a boil, reduce heat and let simmer until the grain is cooked. The difference is in the ratio of water to grain.
Here is an incomplete list of grains you can add to your menu for healthier cooking and eating.
- Barley – cook like pasta for about 45 minutes
- Buckwheat – cook like pasta for about 15 minutes
- Rolled Oats – cook in water at a 1:2 ratio
- Steel Cut Oats – 1:3 ratio
- Quinoa – 2:3 ratio
- Brown Rice –1:2 ratio
- Wild Rice – cook like pasta for about 45 minutes
Of course, whole grain bread also provides the nutrients of the whole grain. Look for brands that are 100 percent whole grain, contain no enriched flours and do not have a long list of ingredients.
One of the nice things about grains is that you can cook them in advance. Grains can be cooked, bagged, and stored in the freezer for up to six months. Since most of these grains take a while to cook, freezing meal-sized portions in advance is a timesaving trick that will help you with your healthy meal planning.
If fruits and vegetables make up about 50% of your daily food, grains about 25%, then, when cooking healthy, proteins should be about 15% of your daily food.
Proteins vary in cooking times and methods. A whole turkey, a brisket, or a rack of ribs can take hours to cook in the oven or on the grill. Our list here will look at proteins that can be cooked quickly, for daily meals.
Chicken breast: Purchase the boneless, skinless chicken breasts for the healthiest options. Healthy ways to cook chicken are broiling, grilling, sautéing, stir-frying, roasting, and baking. Thinly sliced chicken breast or chicken tenders can be cooked in under 15 minutes by any of these methods. Be sure to completely cook chicken to avoid potential foodborne illnesses, such as salmonella.
Pork: The healthiest cut of pork is the loin chop. Chops can be grilled, baked, roasted, stir-fried, broiled, or pan seared. Cooking time will vary depending on the thickness of the chop or the size of the pieces of meat. At most, a thick cut pork loin chop should cook in about 15 minutes; thin cuts can be cooked in less than ten minutes. Avoid overcooking to dryness, but also avoid undercooking.
Beef: Red meats have been relegated to the back-burner of healthy meats, but in limited quantities hold no real health threats. Choose the leaner cuts of beef, such as flank, NY strip, and skirt steak. Avoid cuts with lots of fatty marbling. Beef can be cooked in any of the methods mentioned above. Broiling and grilling are healthier than pan searing or sautéing because any fats will drop off and away from the meat.
Fish: Fish and other seafood are recommended for healthy eating because of the omega-3 acids and other nutrients that are good for the brain. Fattier fish include salmon and mackerel and take longer to cook than the leaner fish, like cod, flounder, and sole. Most fish can be grilled, baked, broiled or pan-seared. The cooking time will depend on the thickness of the cuts, but most can be cooked in fewer than 15 minutes. Shrimp and scallops can be pan-seared, grilled, or broiled.
The final food group in your healthy eating plan is the dairy group. Dairy should make up about ten percent of your daily food intake. Dairy includes cheese, milk, and yogurt.
Most dairy products require no cooking, but are added to other food groups or served as is.
The key to cooking healthy at home is planning your meals. Meal planning not only makes it easier to cook healthy recipes but also helps cut down on food waste and keeps you from having to grab an unhealthy meal because you don’t know what to do for dinner.
Where to Find Good Healthy Food Recipes
There are so many resources for recipes. So, so many. Looking for a reliable website with good healthy recipes using good healthy foods can be like falling into the cooking vortex. To help you avoid getting lost in the recipe rabbit hole, here are two websites that offer several healthy cooking recipes.
allrecipes.com offers a large selection of recipes for all kinds of meals and dishes. No membership is required, but you can sign up for an email newsletter if you like. You can also search for recipes by ingredient.
The foodnetwork.com website features a selection of healthy eating recipes, most with beautiful images of completed dishes. The site also has menu ideas to keep the whole meal healthy.