Healthy cooking means different things to different people. For some, it means cutting calories. Some consider it to be a full-on vegan diet with organic only produce. Personally, I try to go down the path of the real food and slow food movements. I’m not afraid of butter, I do eat meat (though I try to keep it to a low amount), and I try to make my meals from scratch when possible (which is, thankfully, very often). I try to use foods that would have been around in my great-grandmother’s day, and as unrefined as possible. I try to shop organic, I try to use whole grains, and I try to practice moderation.
However, I have an extremely limited budget and few available healthy or organic options. So, sometimes my “healthy” food consists of making mac and cheese better than it was by adding chicken, veggies, and nutritional yeast. Sometimes I can even get my hands on some flax or wheat germ or bran to throw in there as well. Nobody is perfect, but at least we all try.
I am more concerned with nutrition and strengthening my system than I am cutting calories, and I go for enjoying what I eat rather than pouring over the various ills or benefits of various foods and processes. Life is about living, and I’d rather gather a few healthy habits than gather a ton of media induced guilt or fear. So, I keep it simple and stick with what I enjoy. I just don’t have enough time here on Earth to spend listening to people arguing with each other over the finer details of what “healthy” is. I do have enough time to carefully research a few things that catch my interest though, and I try to do so in a balanced way considering both sides of the argument.
Here’s some of the things I’ve learned, both for health and for cooking in general.
- Every method of cooking has some flaw (but the raw food movement is way too involved for me). The least toxic stovetop cooking utensils are cast-iron and stainless steel. (There’s some chance of chromium with stainless steel especially if it is scratched. Use bamboo utensils and soft cloth to wash it. There’s a chance of iron toxicity with cast-iron, especially if you use supplements. Well-seasoned pans will leech less iron into your food, and if you are worried about too much iron, don’t cook acidic items in it. I wouldn’t loose sleep over it. Don’t let the fear-mongers drag you down.) Besides, you can’t sear food in Teflon, nor can you deglaze with it. That’s just bad food.
- Try not to use water when cooking. Besides the chance of added nutrition, there’s a chance to add flavor. Homemade stock is my go-to liquid most of the time, and “bone broth” is supposed to be a superfood. I enjoy making it, and it adds flavor. Also, you can try juice or purées or herbal teas. If you have a steamer, save the water from that and use it as well. Try to be creative. I make instant cocoa with peppermint tea quite often, “desert” becomes a digestive aid that way.
- Not using water is an especially good practice in sauce making, and don’t be afraid to try sweet juices in gravies (orange chicken, apple-glazed pork, and similar meals can demonstrate how well that may turn out).
- Sauces are also a good chance to throw in culinary herbalism. Feel a cold coming on? Toss some ginger or basil into that sauce. Is it a meal you tend to not digest well? Throw in some peppermint, or ginger.
- Nutritional yeast is awesome. It tastes kind of cheesy or chickenish. It blends well into many soups, sauces, and casseroles. When you are going to sprinkle something with cheese on top, sprinkle a light layer of this on first. We top our popcorn with it too. More B vitamins than you can shake a stick at. Get the kind with B-12 in it, that’s the most common vitamin deficiency in America. I get it in the bulk bin at Whole Foods (it’s one of the two or three things I can afford at that place), the cost looks high, but a pound will last me a very long time and has more volume than you would think. On the internet, it’s sometimes called “nooch”.
- Blackstrap molasses is the “waste” from refining sugar. When they get the sugar all pretty and white, they skim off the nutrients with all that flavor. It’s a more complex carbohydrate that contains a lot of iron, as well as calcium, magnesium, manganese, potassium, selenium, and more. Get the unsulfured version. Use a bit of it in baked goods and herbal teas. Things that may taste good with brown sugar or honey will taste good with blackstrap. Speaking of nutritional yeast, it’s sometimes grown on this.
- Try to pick up and learn to use one or two new healthy ingredients once a month or so. Get enough to make two or three recipes out of it, try it different ways and figure out how it might fit into your usual type of meal. I’m a casserole girl, so my usual method of eating wheat germ is tucked into a sauce that I pour on a casserole. You might use it more in a hot cereal or sprinkled on a salad. Find your groove with one or two healthy habits at a time, don’t try to do it all at once to avoid burnout and to give yourself time to learn how to maximize flavor or techniques that bring out the best in your food. Besides, you can tell what is actually making you feel better this way, if you change too many things at once you may be making unnecessary changes that aren’t benefiting you or treating what you intend them to treat.
- Try to not overcook your veggies. Besides degrading nutrition, this just tastes nasty. If you rely on canned veggies, you are eating them overcooked. Save that stuff for emergencies, if you don’t feel ready to go with fresh veggies, go for the frozen and steam them until they thaw.
- Make your own snacks. Store bought snacks are high in sugar because sugar is a preservative, in fact the recipe may be altered so it doesn’t taste like it has as much sugar as it does. If you make your own, you can add healthy substitutions or additions. Consider the most nutritious options for flours and sweeteners, then maybe toss in some flax or dried fruit when you can. Look at my cookbook page; I have a few cookbooks that I love that focus on this. It’s fun to eat cookies that I don’t need to feel as guilty about.
- Get a cookbook (or check one out from the library) that focuses on technique and not recipes. Learn the basic skills well, go beyond boiling pasta. The better your cooking is, the more likely you are to do it. The more you cook yourself, the more likely your food will be healthier than a store-bought version. Some of us are really busy people, but there are crock pots and casseroles, and methods for preparing foods once a week, freezing them, and then cooking them when you need them. In essence, preparing your own frozen convenience meals. Or, do what I do. Make a huge meal once or twice a week, then enjoy leftovers. A lot of the time I make it in a way that I can make it a little differently it when I reheat it, like a stew I add different seasonings to, or different toppings and sides for a casserole.
- Learn to sprout. I sprout all of my beans and lentils before cooking, sometimes just enough to see roots beginning and sometimes enough to see true leaves. Sprouting reduces some of the phytic acid, increases some of the valuable nutrients, and promotes enzymes that aid digestion. A lot of health food stores (though oddly enough not my local Whole Foods) sell other seeds for sprouting. Many of them are full of nutrition and anti-oxidants. These are perfect for salad toppings, or to throw into healthy smoothies and juices. Cooking reduces nutrients, but a healthier beginning ingredient can’t hurt the final dish. Throw them in soups, and stir-fry. Some sprouts can also be chopped and added to casseroles or sauces like a fresh herb.