30 Ways to Be a Healthier Cook
After three decades of creating delicious, nutritious recipes, we've mastered the art of healthy cooking. Use these insights to boost your own skills in the kitchen.
Since Cooking Light launched in 1997, nutrition science and our food culture have certainly evolved—and so have we. Not that we're fickle, mind you. We've never been about chasing after fleeting trends; our goal—always—has been to distill the rather nuanced and complicated world of nutrition science into recipes, advice, tips, and techniques that make sense for home cooks. After all, the journey to healthy starts in the kitchen. We've taken a look back over our history to share our most game-changing healthy cooking lessons. Use them to become a smarter, more intuitive cook.
1. Cook more often.
It's the healthiest thing you can do for yourself and your family. You will automatically make better choices that have you eating less saturated fat, sodium, added sugar, and processed foods.
2. Use salt wisely.
Think about where the salt goes. Flaked salt, for example, will hit the palate first when sprinkled onto a plated salad—so you use less and still have a big impact. Cut back on the salt in a marinade or breading (half of which will get tossed), and reserve some to add at the end.
3. Embrace affordable aquaculture.
You (yes, you!) can make a difference in the health of the planet's fish stocks by purchasing sustainable seafood, such as farmed mussels or salmon, or laying off species that are overfished, such as Atlantic cod. One of the most affordable ways to do so is to look to aquaculture—farmed fish and shellfish raised in a responsible way. Download the Seafood Watch app from Monterey Bay Aquarium for guidance, or ask at the seafood counter.
4. Use quality ingredients.
When you're cooking in a healthier way, it's crucial to start with the best ingredients you can afford. Without a ton of butter, sugar, or salt, you can't make up for poor quality.
5. Buy an instant-read thermometer.
Ever look forward to a juicy steak, only to find it more gray than pink inside? Leaner meats can be easy to overcook. Don't risk it; use a meat thermometer.
6. Cook seasonally.
In-season produce—kale in fall, tomatoes in summer—tastes far superior to out-of-season produce and has likely traveled a much shorter distance to reach your market. There are nutrition bonuses, too, including more vitamins and antioxidants.
7. Go savory at breakfast.
Many sweet breakfast options (pancakes, doughnuts, pastries) are full of refined carbs and added sugars. Even wholesome foods like steel-cut oats and whole-grain toast can go awry if you pile on jam, syrup, or honey. The USDA recommends limiting added sugars to 10 percent of daily calories—that's 12.5 teaspoons for a 2,000-calorie diet. We aim to consume as little added sugar as possible. Start your day savory with a veggie omelet or a hearty breakfast salad, and you're much more likely to stick to that goal.
8. Weigh meat, pasta, and cheese.
At least until you've done it enough times to accurately eyeball it. You might be surprised at how much you underestimate when winging it: What looks to you like a 6-ounce chicken breast might be 11 ounces—which means almost double the calories.
9. Pair bold flavors with whole-grain pastas.
Depending on the product, whole-grain pastas can taste mildly nutty or profoundly earthy. Match the robust taste with equally hearty ingredients. Think garlic, red pepper, anchovies, tangy tomato sauces, and strong cheeses.
10. Stock up on healthy convenience items.
Unsalted canned beans and tomatoes, precooked unseasoned brown rice, and unsalted chicken stock are the hardworking convenience heroes of a healthy kitchen because—let's get real—they allow a healthy meal to happen when you have almost no time to cook. Use fresh ingredients to perk them up: a little citrus, perhaps, or some herbs.
11. Wield flavor bombs from a global pantry.
Some of our favorite flavor boosters are miso, fish sauce, harissa, sambal oelek, and chipotle chiles. Don't think you only have to use them in "ethnic" recipes; any of those ingredients would make for a killer take on mac and cheese.
12. Get a cast-iron skillet.
Once seasoned, it will be one of the most versatile pans you own, with a nonstick surface for gently scrambling eggs or heating screaming-hot for seared scallops. One we love: Lodge 10.25-inch, $27.
13. Eat more flora, less fauna.
Doing so is better for your health and the health of the planet. We're not saying you need to go vegetarian, but do try to eat a more plant-based diet. Maybe that means Meatless Monday and Wednesday or using meat as an accent rather than the center of the plate. When you do eat more as an entrée, use the 50/25/25 rule to keep portions in check: half the plate devoted to vegetables and fruit and a quarter each to starch and protein.
14. Use a timer.
How many times have you trusted yourself to take the nuts our of the oven after 10 or so minutes, but then you forget about burn them? Life has a way of constantly distracting us—we need the "ding."
15. Drink up!
If you drink alcohol, enjoy a guilt-free glug. All types offer heart-healthy benefits when enjoyed in moderation: one serving (5 ounces of wine, 1.5 ounces spirits, a 12-ounce beer) per day for women and two for men.
16. Learn how to balance textures and flavors.
Sometimes, a one-note dish is a good thing. A sloppy joe, for example, is a delightful monotextured combo of squishy filling inside smushy bun. More often, though, dishes need balance. A creamy pureed soup might be A-OK as is, but it turns into a phenomenal experience when topped with crunchy croutons. And consider salted caramel, arguably the superior caramel. It's delicious precisely because the sweetness is balanced by the contrasting taste and crunch of the salt; without it, the flavor might simply be cloying. Sautéed greens too bitter? Balance with a splash of acid from vinegar or lemon juice. Embrace the idea of culinary yin and yang.
17. Master the technique of charring.
Those deliberately over-browned edges make an enormous flavor impact with zero added calories, sodium, or fat. Charred vegetables—onions, cabbage, Broccolini, Brussels sprouts—are particularly delicious.
18. Use fat where it will have the biggest impact.
If you're cutting back on saturated fat, use it where it counts. If you're making a potpie or these desserts bars, for example, put the butter in the crust; the filling can do without.
19. Make snacks count.
First, make sure they offer some fat, protein, and fiber, not just carbs, so they'll satisfy your hunger. Try Greek yogurt and berries, an apple with almond butter, grape tomatoes with a stick of string cheese, or carrots dipped in hummus. And think of your snack as opportunities to fill your daily fruit and veggie quota. If dinner ends up being pizza delivery, well, at least you will have had all those carrots earlier in the day.
20. Toast for flavor.
Nuts taste nuttier when toasted, and butter takes on caramel richness when you brown it—making a small amount taste bigger. Toasting also enhances the flavor of everything from tomato paste to spices.
21. Be gentle with lower-fat dough.
It can toughen easily if overworked, so use a gentle hand: Pat our biscuit dough, lightly tamp crumb crusts into place, and softly glide a rolling pin over cookie dough.
22. Eat more whole foods.
Opt for whole grains, use fresh and frozen produce, and buy fresh fish, meat, and poultry instead of pre-seasoned. You'll get more vitamins and antioxidants and less sodium. This applies to dessert as well as dinner—go whole-grain for sweet treats.
23. Be good to your gut.
Science is uncovering more and more potential benefits to having a thriving gut microbiome (the bacterial community in your GI tract): lower risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, dementia, depression, and more. Put more of the good bugs into your gut by eating probiotic-rich foods, such as yogurt and kefir, and fermented foods like sauerkraut, kombucha, and kimchi. And be sure to fuel your bacterial team with plenty of prebiotics (food for probiotics), including whole wheat, garlic, onions, asparagus, and leeks. So what's not good for your gut? It's not surprising, but try to avoid artificial sweeteners and highly processed foods, and cut back on sugar.
24. Don't stress too much about dietary cholesterol.
We're recently removed it from the numbers we report with our recipes. The link between the cholesterol you consume and the cholesterol that ends up in your blood is not as direct as once thought. The USDA's 2015 Dietary Guidelines removed the daily cholesterol cap in favor of advising that you "eat as little dietary cholesterol as possible". Bottom line: If you eat an overall healthy diet that goes easy on foods high in saturated fat, you shouldn't have to worry.
25. Bake with precision.
Making a cake successfully depends on exact measurements. Lighter baking requires even more precision; there's a smaller margin of error when you're using less fat and sugar. So weigh your flour: it's the most accurate way to measure. Use a spouted liquid measuring cup for milk, oil, and other liquids, and check the amount at eye level. Your cakes (and your family) will thank you.
26. Be patient.
Full preheat your oven or skillet; otherwise, you won't get the proper rise or sear. Thoroughly mix ingredients until they're emulsified, creamed, or pureed. Use restraint when you're tempted to futz with the steak you're trying to sear. And let food stand after it's cooked if necessary: Rest meat to allow juices to settle, or cool a cake to prevent the glaze from sliding off.
27. Eat mindfully.
Mindless eating—scarfing down food with little thought to what it is—is not a healthy practice. But mindful eating—appreciating each bite with an awareness of what you're putting into your body—it's just a healthier approach; it's a deeply joyful way of eating.
28. Get a sturdy dutch oven.
Like a cast-iron skillet, this durable pot has limitless uses: boiling pasta, braising pot roast, simmering soup, baking bread, and more. go for an enamel-coated cast-iron one, like Le Creuset's 51/2 Qt. Round Dutch Oven, $330; or Lodge's 4.6 Qt. Dutch Oven, $100.
29. Deploy herbs and citrus.
If you think of fresh herbs as a garnish, you're missing out. A handful can turn ho-hum pasta into a fragrant delight. Or if a dish tastes flat, a spritz of lemon or lime juice—or a sprinkling of zest—will bring it to life. Oh, and with basically no calories, sodium, or fat.
30. Add, don't subtract.
It used to be that healthy eating was about what you shouldn't eat. Now, our focus is on all the fresh, delicious interesting foods you should be eating—from avocados to beets, mussels to fried eggs, kimchi to artisan salumi. Healthy eating is a celebration of color, variety, balance, and the intrinsic pleasures of food that makes you feel good. And if you eat this way, you'll be a much healthier, happier cook.