Learn how to cook smarter and healthier
If you are someone who enjoys food and cooking, but still want to watch your weight and eat healthy nutritious foods, it can sometimes be difficult to find a balance between the foods you love to cook and the diet you are supposed to be following. Food often seems to fall into one of two categories (this is the general belief), the delicious – but calorie and fat laden, or the healthy -low calorie but completely boring and tasteless.
Fortunately, watching your weight does not mean you have to give up cooking and eating your favourite meals and dishes. With a few simple modifications in cooking techniques and ingredients, most dishes can be modified to improve their nutritional value and lower their fat and calories without losing too much of their flavour. Whilst some things are more difficult to make healthier than others, if you are a keen cook, this is a great opportunity to expand your skills and experiment with different ingredients and cooking methods to create healthier versions of your favourite dishes.
10 Cooking tips for healthier and calorie friendly meals
To start you on your way to healthier, flavour packed meals for all your family, here are some tips to improve the nutritional value using various cooking techniques and ingredient substitutes.
Baking can refer to any cooking that takes place in the oven and generally does not require much added fat, although a little may be used to stop foods from drying out. This means it is a relatively healthy cooking technique for foods such as fish, meat, and vegetables. Baking fish in a foil parcel with some vegetables and a little olive oil, herbs or spices is an easy way to cook moist fish which retains its natural juices.
Baked foods such as cakes, pastries, pies, and biscuits are not such healthy choices, but recipes for your favourite sweet treats can often be modified to improve their nutritional value and lower fat and calories. Good substitutions in baking include:
- Butter or olive oil for margarine
- White refined flour for wholemeal varieties
- Reducing sugar, or substituting with artificial sweeteners if you prefer
- Using apple sauce or fruit to sweeten rather than sugar
- Making yogurt or olive oil based pastry as this has less saturated fat
- Adding nuts or bran increase fibre
- Using low fat ingredients such as milk and yogurt in baking.
2. Healthier cooking methods
By opting for healthier cooking techniques you can really cut down on the amount of fat that is added to the dish and thus also reduce the calories. Healthier methods include, grilling, poaching, baking, broiling, steaming, and stir-frying as these require minimal or no fat to be added to the dish. Often foods that are normally fried can be cooked in the oven or grill with similar effects but much less fat, for example fries.
Methods such as frying, deep frying, and roasting can add a lot of fat to the dish and really bump up calorie content. However, there are a few methods you can use to make them as healthy as possible, if you really feel a dish needs to be cooked this way.
- When deep frying, make sure the oil is as hot as possible, as this means the food will absorb less of the oil. If the oil is not hot enough, the food is soggy rather than crispy and you are also eating a lot more of the fat.
- Dry frying is a good method to replace frying, and basically involves frying without oil in a good non-stick pan.
- When roasting, try to add minimal fat before cooking, and baste roast during the cooking progress to keep moist.
- If you do use fat, try to use an unsaturated fat such as olive oil, rather than butter.
3. Choosing the healthiest versions of foods
Starting with healthier ingredients will result in a healthier dish in the end, so it is worth looking for low fat versions of products such as yogurt, milk, cream and cheese.
- Try to choose low fat cuts of meat, and trim any visible fat before cooking, as well as removing chicken skins.
- When buying pre-prepared foods such as minced meat, look for lean varieties, it is worth paying a little extra for meat that is lower in saturated fat.
- Fish is also a great alternative to meat as it is lower in saturated fat and higher in omega three fatty acids which are good for heart health.
- Always try to choose fresh, unprocessed foods where possible as these contain no artificial colour, flavours, preservatives, sodium and fillers that may be found in processed foods.
- Fresh vegetables are ideal, but frozen are often just as good as they are snap frozen soon after harvesting, meaning that they retain their nutritional value better than vegetables that are sitting on supermarket shelves for weeks.
4. Ingredient substitutes
When cooking, substituting one ingredient for a healthier alternative can make a big difference to the nutritional content of your meal. Good substitutes include:
- low fat yogurt instead of cream in soups
- Olive or canola oil instead of butter for all cooking that requires fat
- Low salt tinned foods instead of normal varieties
- Low fat cheese or a smaller amount of strong flavoured cheese in pastas and other dishes.
- Wild rice instead of white
- Whole grain pasta instead of white
- Yogurt and a little lemon juice mixed with tuna on a sandwich rather than mayonnaise
5. Flavour options
Flavourings can add a lot of calories, or other undesirable things such as sodium to a meal. Instead of adding salt and fat to food for flavour, try to use options such as herbs, spices, vinegars and lemon juice as these add loads of flavour, but very few calories. Condiments such as tomato sauce, mayonnaise and salad dressing can also add a lot of calories so look for low fat /sugar/salt alternatives or make your own so you can control the amounts of oil, sugar and salt that go into them.
6. Sneaky Vegetables or legumes
By adding vegetables or legumes such as lentils, chickpeas, and beans to cooking you not only increase the amount of nutrients in the dish, but also the amount of fibre. (See also: How much fibre should we eat in a day). As an added benefit, this can also be used to make a dish go further as it increases the quality with cheap ingredients. Legumes and vegetables are low in fat and calories and therefore generally reduce the calorie content of a dish when used to replace some of the meat. This is also a good way to get children to eat vegetables, as if they are chopped finely or grated, they are unlikely to even know they are there.
Dishes which lend themselves well to these healthy additions include:
- Hamburgers; mix grated zucchini or carrot into the mince mixture
- Lasagne: Mix grated or finely chopped vegetables into mince, or replace some of the mince with cooked lentils.
- Pies: reduce the quantity of meat and add extra veggies or legumes to fillings
- Tuna sandwiches: mix grated carrot with tinned tuna and a little low fat mayo or yogurt
- Cheese sauce: purred up white vegetables such as cauliflower and stir into sauce for a hidden veggie boost. Alternatively if you don’t mind the strange colour, try purred carrots or broccoli.
7. Avoid unnecessary fats
Think about if you really need the fat you add to certain foods. Often you will find you taste very little difference without them, for example butter on the bread of a sandwich, or oil in the pan when you fry an egg.
A sure way to cut down on calories in a meal is to eat a smaller portion. Sometimes this can take a little getting used to, but to make it less obvious, try using a smaller dish or plate. This means a smaller portion of food still fills the plate and doesn’t look so lost. Studies have shown that people who eat from smaller plates generally eat less calories over a day.
It is also important to allow yourself a good twenty minutes to digest after finishing a meal. If you are still hungry after that, you can go back for seconds, but often this is the time required for the body to register that it is full.
9. Serve all meals with vegetables
It is suggested that vegetables should make up the largest portion of your plate in every meal, so make sure you serve all meals with a salad, or vegetable side. By filling up on vegetables, rather than carbohydrates, protein or fat, you will get more vitamins and minerals in your meal. You will also reduce you calorie intake, as vegetables are very low in calories and fat.
10. Avoid accidental calories.
Remember when cooking that calories consumed whilst cooking, such as licking the bowl or tasting a spoon or two of the dish before serving all count. You may in fact be eating a lot more than you are sitting down to on your plate. Try to limit snacking whilst cooking, or compensate by serving yourself a smaller portion afterwards.
Similarly, finishing up the scraps off someone else’s plate or the unfinished food of a child also contributes to calories. If you are no longer hungry stop eating and store leftovers or feed to a hungry pet to avoid waste.