Healthy Cooking Tricks

How learning to cook can help you resolve your issues with food.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on February 04, 2011
From the WebMD Archives

If you feel like you're losing the fight against food -- scarfing chips and cookies when you should be munching on carrots -- maybe it's time you learned the rules of healthy eating and healthy cooking. Learning to feel more comfortable in the kitchen can help you feel closer to your food -- and closer to a healthy lifestyle.

Diet Secret: Eat at home and learn healthy cooking tricks

Americans eat a lot of food they didn't cook themselves. While three-quarters of us eat most dinners at home, less than 60% of us prepare them in our own kitchens. In 2005, the trend of combining the convenience of take-out food with the comforts of home found each American buying an average of 57 restaurant meals to eat elsewhere, up from 33 meals 20 years ago. And when we do cook, we seldom cook from scratch. Last year, less than half of main meals prepared at home included even one fresh product, according to research from the NPD Group.

Why don't we cook more often? Many of us are just too busy--and too tired to face the kitchen after a long day of work. Others don't cook because they see food as the enemy, and are afraid they'll eat what they've made--maybe even all of what they've made, says therapist Karen R. Koenig, author of The Rules of "Normal" Eating and The Food and Feelings Workbook. Another cause for kitchen avoidance is the fear of making mistakes. According to Koenig, some people see the food they make as an extension of themselves, so they worry about being judged by the outcome. Ordering in takes a load of pressure off the perfectionist's back--you can blame a lousy dinner on the restaurant it came from, instead of on yourself.

Some of us hope that, by steering clear of the kitchen, we can keep the numbers on the scale from creeping slowly upwards. But when it comes to what we eat, ignorance is not bliss. And avoiding the issue won't keep us from getting fat. In fact, studies show that we're more apt to eat too much, too fast when we don't keep an eye on what goes into our mouths. And how can we make sure our meals are healthy and low-calorie if we don't know how they were prepared?

Learn healthy cooking tricks -- and resolve your food issues, too

One of the best ways to watch what you eat is to make it yourself.

"I love shortbread cookies," says Vicki Smythe, 26, a personal trainer. "But I had no idea how much butter was in them until I baked a few batches last week--an entire cup of butter in just 1 dozen cookies! I used to eat up to 4 or 5 cookies at a time, but now I'll definitely be stopping at 2!"

There are more reasons than just a reality check.

"Cooking helps food matter," Koenig says.

Many of us are disconnected from food because we're disconnected from our bodies. Cooking helps us tune in to how food smells and looks (real food - not its fake, processed equivalent), as well as to the whole process of feeding ourselves; a process in which food is energy and nourishment--not the enemy. If your biggest food issue is speed eating (which often leads to overeating), cooking can help you slow you down and connect with your senses, she says. Tasting and smelling food as it cooks encourages you to do the same as you eat. You're also more motivated to slow down and really enjoy a meal after working hard to make it.

Food and cooking have emotional associations, says Koenig, and paying attention to how you feel as you cook you get in touch with feelings you have about the past that relate to food. Were you often urged to finish your dinner because a parent worked so hard to make it for you? Or was your childhood spent eating frozen dinners and fending for yourself? The process of cooking can help you understand why you feel the way you do about food.

Ready to get started? Here are 4 healthy cooking tricks that can help you be just as comfortable in the kitchen as you are on the couch.

Healthy Cooking Tip #1: Stock your kitchen.

Healthy cooking starts with filling your cupboards. Keep these basics on hand, and you'll be able to whip up delicious meals in less than the time it takes for pizza to be delivered.

Basic healthy cooking tools:

  • good set of pots and pans
  • vegetable steamer/rice cooker
  • soup pot
  • food processor
  • grill
  • crock pot
  • good utensils

Basic healthy cooking ingredients:

  • fresh fruits and vegetables (just an amount you'll be able to use before spoilage)
  • frozen vegetables (They're fairly equal to fresh veggies in terms of vitamin levels, says Lola O'Rourke, a Seattle-based dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.)
  • yogurt
  • cheese
  • eggs
  • low-fat cuts of meat such as chicken breast or pork tenderloin (both fresh and frozen)
  • rice (brown, red, black and mixed rice varieties)
  • pasta (preferably whole grain)
  • whole grain bread and/or pita
  • beans (pinto, black, white, etc., both dried and canned)
  • canned chopped tomatoes
  • salsa (fresh, if available)
  • vegetable or chicken stock
  • garlic
  • onion
  • olive oil
  • vinegar
  • herbs and spices (fresh, if possible)

Healthy Cooking Tip #2: Plan ahead.

Simplify dinnertime prep by making as much as possible ahead of time, O'Rourke suggests. Make double or triple the amount the recipe calls for, and freeze the extra for future use. (Be sure to label and date each item). Minestrone soup is a great example of something that freezes well and thaws into an instant healthy meal, says Carol Hildebrand, co-author, with her brother Bob Hildebrand, executive chef at The Three Stallions Inn in Randolph, Vermont, of 500 3-Ingredient Recipes, 500 5-Ingredient Desserts and 3-Ingredient Slow Cooker Comfort Foods.

For example:

  • Clean and chop vegetables.
  • Peel and chop potatoes and store in cold water in the fridge.
  • Cut chicken breast into strips or bite-sized pieces for stir fry.
  • Make vegetable or chicken stock to use as a base for soup.
  • Prepare a basic marinara sauce for use over pasta or with polenta.
  • Cook a big batch of beans for minestrone, chili or beans and rice.
  • Cut up fruit for quick snacks. (According to research in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry, it's just as nutritious as fruit cut directly before eating.)

Healthy Cooking Tip #3: Keep it simple, sweetheart!

Using just these basic healthy cooking tools, ingredients, and pre-made foods, you can make any of the following healthy meals in minutes:

  • Stir fry. Fix quick-cooking rice or use a rice cooker (some can even be set to start on a timer, just like your trusty coffee pot), and serve with stir fry made with your pre-prepped chicken and vegetables and your favorite spices.
  • Pasta. Cook whole wheat pasta and serve with pre-made marinara sauce. Round out the meal with a salad of pre-washed and prepped greens. Sandwiches. Grill chicken breast and serve on a pita or whole grain sandwich, again using pre-prepped chicken and veggies.
  • Beans and rice. Cook black or pinto beans, and eat with rice, salsa and a salad.
  • Soup. Here are two quick recipes from Carol and Bob Hildebrand:
    • Quick chicken soup: Saute pre-cut chicken breast, garlic and onion in bottom of a soup pot with a small amount of olive oil. Add chicken or vegetable soup stock, chopped basil, and either a half bag of your favorite frozen vegetables or the equivalent amount of pre-cut vegetables, and simmer.
    • Carrot ginger soup: Saute pre-cut minced fresh ginger, onion and garlic in a small amount of olive oil. Add finely chopped carrots (can be done in food processor ahead of time), saute a few minutes more, add chicken or vegetable stock to cover, and simmer until the carrots are soft. Puree the whole thing in a food processor and serve topped with a dollop of yogurt. Add a salad and some crusty rolls and you're all set!
  • Dessert. Serve fresh fruit anytime for a quick and nutritious snack or dessert. For a special treat, try one of the following ideas from Dawn Jackson Blatner, a registered dietician at Northwestern Memorial Hospital's Wellness Institute in Chicago and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association:
    • Quick apple crisp. Microwave chopped apples topped with sprinkled cinnamon. Serve with a sprinkle of rolled oats and sugar.
    • Grilled fruit. Grill pineapple, peach or banana, and top with a small scoop of ice cream.
    • Fruit 'n' yogurt sundaes. Spoon low-fat yogurt and chopped fruit into a sundae glass. Pile high, and top with a cherry and reduced-sugar chocolate syrup.

Healthy Cooking Tip 4: Fold in flavor.

Garlic and onion add flavor depth to any dish, Hildebrand says, and you can up the ante even more with spices like basil, oregano and cilantro--fresh, if possible. A sprinkle of chopped cilantro over black bean soup, for example, adds punch to the entire dish, she says. And salt, when used judiciously, brings out flavor like nothing else.

To save on fat and calories, use low-fat plain yogurt in place of sour cream or mayonnaise, and buy low-fat cheese and milk instead of full-fat versions, says O'Rourke. Add flavor to vegetables with low-fat cheese, nuts, salad dressing or margarine with no trans fat; then add herbs and spices. Blatner suggests an Italian blend on green beans, curry on cauliflower, cumin on sauteed bell peppers, and lemon pepper on broccoli.

And there you have it: 4 healthy cooking tricks for a lifetime of good taste. Bon appetit!

Show Sources

SOURCES: Karen R. Koenig, LCSW, MEd, therapist; author of The Rules of "Normal" Eating and The Food and Feelings Workbook. Lola O'Rourke, MS, RD, Seattle-based dietitian; spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. Carol Hildebrand, co-author, with her brother Bob Hildebrand, executive chef at The Three Stallions Inn in Randolph, Vermont, of 500 3-Ingredient Recipes, 500 5-Ingredient Desserts and 3-Ingredient Slow Cooker Comfort Foods. Dawn Jackson Blatner, RD, registered dietician at Northwestern Memorial Hospital's Wellness Institute, Chicago; spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. MSI. The 2005 Gallup study of home meal replacements. Multi-Sponsor Surveys, Inc., Princeton, N.J. NPD Group. 20th Annual Eating Patterns in America Report. 2005. NPD Group. 21st Annual Eating Patterns in America Report. 2006.WebMD Medical News: "Big Portions May Prompt Overeating." WebMD Feature: "Why Mindless Eating Can Pack on Pounds." Gil, M.I. et al. Quality Changes and Nutrient Retention in Fresh-Cut versus Whole Fruits during Storage. J. Agric. Food Chem, Jun 2006; vol 54: pp 4284 -4296.

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