It’s not uncommon for people to equate “healthy food” with “bland food.” But in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Some of the leanest countries in the world—places like India and Japan—also have some of the tastiest cuisines out there, capable of exciting the most adventurous of palates.
The secret: Adding fragrant spices, unique ingredients, and fresh produce to natural, whole foods.
We took a cue from cultures and regions around the globe and rounded up five great ways to incorporate new flavors into your everyday meals. Take a tour of the world and you’ll find cooking tips to make your dishes mouth-wateringly delicious – and also packed with healthy vitamins and minerals, while staying low on calories.
Instead of eating one super-sized dinner every night, people in Spain often nibble their way through a few smaller dishes, called tapas.(Middle Easterners have their own version, too, called mezze platters.) Diners have a few bites of several dishes,and the diversity of foods and flavors help keep their tongues satisfied—and their stomachs satiated.
THE TIP: Serve Your Meals in Tapas-Sized Portions
Forget the typical hearty dinner. Instead of fixing a single plate for your family or guests, arrange one large platter of different foods for everyone. Some good options include sautéed lentils, roasted red peppers, grilled vegetables, chicken skewers, whole-wheat pitas or sliced baguettes. Serving the meal on one large spread will encourage people to share their food, making them less likely to overeat.
When Europeans need to jazz up a simple salad or plate of roasted veggies, they choose sea salt—not the table kind. Unlike its processed counterpart, sea salt is all-natural, and contains more raw minerals, says Lauren Talbot, R.D. And even though both varieties contain the same amount of sodium, sea salt is often coarser than table salt, so you get a stronger flavor from a smaller amount.
THE TIP: Start Using Sea Salt
You don’t have to fear salt. Used in moderation, it can be an important part of a good diet, says Talbot. And just a sprinkle of it can make healthy foods taste even better. For example, smoked salt is a great addition to grilled meats, flaky fleur de sel adds crunch to a tomato-mozzarella salad, and mineral-rich black Hawaiian salt tastes (and looks) great on homemade pita chips.
THE MIDDLE EAST & INDIA
Watching your sodium intake? There are other ways to boost a meal’s flavor without reaching for the salt shaker. “Even if you don't have hypertension, cutting down on sodium can help to reduce your risk for developing high blood pressure,” Rutledge says. Plus, many spices might be able to fight inflammation in the body.
So take a cue from people in the Middle East and India, who use rice, couscous, lamb, and chicken as the base for their meals, but completely transform each food with unique combinations of spices. With smoky cumin, bright yellow turmeric, floral coriander, tart sumac, and warm cinnamon, salt becomes almost completely unnecessary.
THE TIP: Be Creative with Spices
Create your own blend of fragrant spices to use on boneless, skin-on chicken breasts. Try blending some cinnamon, cumin, coriander, and ground ginger together in a bowl; taste frequently, adding more or less of each particular spice until you arrive at a blend your enjoy. Rub the mixture on the chicken and marinate it for an hour before putting the meat on the grill.
Many meals in Japan are cooked entirely in stackable bamboo steamer baskets—a quick-and-easy method that makes the food’s nutrients easier to digest. When vegetables are lightly steamed, it softens the food’s cell walls, which makes it easier to absorb the vitamins and minerals, according to Lauren Talbot, R.D. Steaming also keeps the food’s colors looking bright and is a great way to preserve the natural flavor.
THE TIP: Cook with a Steamer Basket
To create your own Japanese-inspired steamer supper, look for stackable baskets in Asian specialty markets. (They usually only cost a few dollars.) Then prepare a pot with a few inches of water or broth. The pot should be large enough to hold the steamer. Bring the liquid to a simmer, then line the baskets with lettuce or cabbage leaves to prevent food from sticking—you can even use herbs to infuse food with their flavors.
Place the food that requires the longest cooking time on the bottom tier and build up from there. Place the lid on the steamer, and steam the food until it’s finished cooking—usually no more than 10 minutes. Try red snapper fillets sprinkled with soy sauce; layer some cilantro sprigs on the bottom tier and baby bok choy and red bell pepper strips on the top tier. Drizzle everything with a bit of toasted sesame oil before serving.
AFRICA & THE MIDDLE EAST
There are two ways that Americans typically eat starchy carbohydrates: by the plateful, like pasta, or as an afterthought, like a side dish. But African cuisine uses whole grains as part of the main course; for example, stew with rich sauces is typically served over rice. One popular dish that also is enjoyed throughout the Middle East is the tabbouleh salad, which pairs cracked wheat with chopped tomatoes, cucumber, parsley, lemon juice, and olive oil.
THE TIP: Choose Healthier Grains
Opt for whole grains over refined ones. This means skipping the white rice, potatoes, or pasta and stocking up on millet, quinoa, and buckwheat. “Whole grains keep us feeling fuller longer than refined grains and often have lower GI values,” explains Rutledge, so they can help you lose weight and stay energized.
Create a pilaf by toasting a grain in olive oil and cooking it in with chicken, vegetables, or beef broth. Then finish the dish by tossing in a handful of slivered almonds and raisins. You can also mimic the tabbouleh salad by chopping up in-season vegetables and herbs and mixing in some olive oil.