Equipping a healthy kitchen sounds daunting and expensive, but it doesn't have to be. I should know: I've been developing and testing healthy recipes for almost two decades; I even built a test kitchen/cooking show set in my home not long ago. Probably most important, I have a hungry family for whom I try to provide healthy, tasty, sustaining meals. Over the years I've learned which kitchen gadgets are essential for efficient -- and healthy -- cooking.
I'll start with the smaller, less-expensive kitchen gadgets:
1.Nonstick Frying Pans, Saucepans, and Skillets
Cost: $20 to $50.
Nonstick pans are a must for light cooking. You need a lot less oil or fat in your pan when using good-quality nonstick cookware. I don't have a particular brand I recommend. I look for pans that are nice and thick and have handles that don't get hot -- and I try to buy them on sale.
2.Blender or Food Processor
Cost: From $30 for a minifood processor to more than $100 for some blenders.
When you cook healthful sauces or spreads, sometimes you need a little help combining the ingredients and smoothing the texture. That's when you pull out your blender or food processor. You can also use your blender or food processor to make smoothies with fresh or frozen fruit, ground flaxseed, low-fat dairy, etc.
Cost: About $40.
I've actually got two slow cookers! I'm not greedy; I just find myself in situations (like barbecuing, catering small parties, or doing food shoots) when a second one comes in handy for serving or keeping foods warm. In the winter, I tend to make spaghetti sauce, stews, or chili in the morning and then let them simmer all day in the slow cooker. Not only is your dinner ready to serve when it's time to eat, it fills the house with a comforting aroma.
4.Hand Food Chopper
Cost: $15 to $20.
This is for all those veggies you'll be adding to your recipes now that you are cooking healthfully. Cooking light means using ingredients that boost flavor without adding fat and calories. Many of these healthful ingredients require chopping (like onions, bell peppers, fresh herbs, nuts, etc.) These choppers make it easy to chop without nicking a finger -- or shedding a tear, because they completely encase onions while you chop.
Cost: About $10.
Often, you need a little oil to help your food surface brown and crisp nicely. These sprayers are a great way to disperse a small amount of olive or canola oil onto the surface of a food or pan instead of drenching it in oil. You can buy cooking sprays in your supermarket, but then you have to throw the cans away in your garbage. Another option is to buy the refillable sprayers.
6.Flexible Plastic Cutting Mat
Cost: About $4 for a set of two.
These bendable, thin, plastic chopping mats work great for all your healthful recipe ingredients (like fruits, veggies, onions, and herbs). Just chop on the mat, pick up the mat along with the chopped items, bend the mat and tip it up, and the food pours easily into your bowl or saucepan. Cutting mats are also easy to wash in the dishwasher.
Cost: $6.95 or more.
Use these for tenderizing lean meats and flattening boneless, skinless chicken breasts. Many of my chicken recipes call for flattening chicken breasts. This way, the chicken cooks more evenly and you're less likely to overcook it.
8.Microwave Vegetable Cooker
Cost: $15 and up.
One of the easiest, most nutritious ways to cook vegetables is to lightly microwave them. And a great way to do this is with one of these steamers. Some are made in the shape of a saucepan with a cover; you just sprinkle water over your vegetables, then cover and cook. With other containers, the vegetables sit above the water in separate compartment. Either way works wonders.
Cost: $60 to $100.
It's nice to have the easy option for making your own half whole-wheat cinnamon rolls, pizza, or bread dough. You can use whichever oil you want, in whatever amount you want. You can add ground flaxseed if you like. And you can use half whole-wheat flour for every single recipe. Either way, bake the bread right in the machine, or use the "dough" cycle and bake it in the oven.
Cost: $80 to $250.
When you make your fruit or vegetable juices with a juicer, you don't have to worry about added sugar or salt. One store manager told me their best-selling juicer was the Jack La Lanne brand. The fitness and bodybuilding guru I remember from my youth (the '60s and '70s) is still with us, and is still a great advertisement for juicing.
11. Hand Citrus Zester
Cost: About $7.
This is one of my favorite kitchen gadgets. It has about five tiny cutting holes on one end that create threadlike strips of peel when you pull the zester over the surface of a lemon, lime, or orange. It removes only the colored outer portion of the peel (the zest), which holds wonderful aromatic oils. Adding finely chopped zest is an easy, zero-calorie way to punch up the flavor of your healthful recipes for muffins, cakes, bars, pies, and pancakes.
12. Silicone Basting Brush
Cost: About $7.
Oil sprays can coat a food or cooking surface with a light layer of oil. But sometimes, the job calls for a little more coverage or a more thorough application. That's when you need oil and a brush. Other times, you need to coat a food's surface with a thick sauce or marinade. Again, your silicone basting brush comes to the rescue! The silicone threads stay separated, and work very well to coat surfaces with liquid. The brushes are dishwasher-safe, so cleaning is easy. They are heat-resistant to 600 degrees, and can handle just about every basting situation.
Big-Ticket Kitchen Gadgets
Here are some larger, more expensive items on my most-wanted list of kitchen gadgets.
13. Gas Stove or Cooktop
Cost: Varies widely depending on type and brand.
I think you can control the heat better with a gas stove. This is important when making lower-fat sauces, which are a lot less forgiving than their high-fat counterparts.
14. Convection Oven
Cost: Varies widely, depending on type and brand.
A convection oven uses a fan to distribute heat evenly as your food bakes, and it comes in especially handy for low-fat bakery recipes. You want to slightly undercook lower-fat renditions of brownies and cookies so you'll get the desired chewy texture. In my experience, you're less likely to overcook these foods when using a convection oven. I put a convection oven/microwave in my test kitchen. My gas oven also has a feature that lets you use convection heat by flipping a switch.
15. Indoor Grill
Cost: Varies widely depending on type; up to $100 for a regular plug-in grill.
Indoor grills produce a grilled look and taste for meats without the potentially higher cancer risk from the charring and flame flare-ups you get with an outdoor grill. These come in several different types: the top-and-bottom plug-in grills like the George Foreman; indoor/outdoor grills; fancier stovetop attachments; and the kind that comes with a new stove. When I invested in my Dynamic Cooking System stove/oven five years ago, I had a lapse in judgment and chose the griddle feature instead of the grill. How many times have I fired up this big ol' griddle over the past five years? Zero. How many times have I wished I'd opted for the grill in the center of my stove? I've stopped counting.
16. A Good Mixer
Cost: $230 to more than $350 for professional models.
I totally rely on my hard-core, "I can't believe how much it cost" stand mixer. If you're trying to cook most of your meals at home, you need a good mixer so you can make your own baked goods, mashed potatoes, etc. Don't get me wrong, a less-expensive hand mixer will do the job for some of your recipes, but it's nice to have a mixer with a whisk or beater attachment; one that is strong enough to take on bread dough or extra-thick cookie dough without missing a beat.
Published May 26, 2006.