Blake loves to cook and takes great joy in the fact that she provides a homemade dinner almost every night for her husband and two young children. She pays attention to fat and calories when it comes to her own eating, but when it comes to the kids, “I try to make sure they have a little bit of everything so they don’t feel deprived.” As to how salt fits into the health equation, however, she’s not sure. “The new Dietary Guidelines are the first things to make me pay attention, and I don’t know where we stand.”
Blake has already made the single best decision to help control her family’s sodium intake: She cooks at home. It’s the first strategy doctors and dietitians recommend to people who need to shake high-sodium habits. Now she just needs a basic primer on the salty stuff and tips for making her homecooked meals even healthier.
- Know your limits. The daily sodium intake limit for children 1 to 3 is 1,000mg; 1,200mg for kids 4 to 8; and 1,500mg to 2,300mg per day for adolescents and adults up to age 51. The variation derives from children’s lower calorie requirements.
- Brush up on label terminology. Many snack foods, canned goods, and jarred sauces offer an option with less sodium. You’ll likely recognize them by phrases such as “low-sodium,” “reduced-sodium,” “unsalted.” (The Food and Drug Administration regulates these claims.) To be “sodium-free,” a product must contain less than 5mg of sodium in each serving. “Low-sodium” means a serving has less than 140mg. If a product says it has “no salt added,” the company added no salt during the manufacturing (although the food may still contain naturally occurring sodium). For a full list of sodium labels and what they mean, see How to Read Salt Labels.
- Pick a smarter salt. Because of its larger crystal size, a teaspoon of kosher salt contains almost 25% less sodium than a teaspoon of table salt. (Sea salt and flake salt are other large-crystal salts.) When cooking, use the same amount that the recipe calls for, and you’re automatically reducing your intake by about a quarter.
- Add salt in stages. Start with less, then slowly add it throughout the cooking process, tasting as you go. You may end up not needing all the salt the recipe suggests.
- Rinse canned foods. Canned foods are notoriously high in sodium. Draining and rinsing may wash away more than a quarter of it. In one study, adding this step cut more than 40% of the sodium from canned beans.
- Marinate your own proteins. Premarinated meats you buy at the grocery store are usually loaded with added salt. Marinades take minutes to prep, and you can save yourself and your family hundreds of milligrams of sodium. See a gallery of our favorite healthy marinades.