You want to eat a more nutritious diet, but you're afraid of losing all the good flavor that comes with old-fashioned home cooking. However, eating healthily doesn't have to be flavorless and lackluster. With a few helpful cooking hacks, you can give just about any meal an extra boost in both nutrition and taste.
These tips help you lighten up the calories and boost the nutrients in the meals you're already skilled at creating — all so that your healthy diet becomes a long-term habit.
1. Sub Cauliflower for Just About Every Carb
Cauliflower is the current darling of the health food world for good reason. It can sub in for lots of carb-laden comfort foods such as potatoes, pizza crust and rice. Cauliflower even blends into a creamy base for macaroni and cheese that adds nutrients and fiber. In fact, just one cup of cooked cauliflower boasts 3 grams of fiber for less than 30 calories.
To make a creamy mashed potato stand-in, mash boiled cauliflower with a small spoonful of butter, salt, pepper and a dash of quinoa flour and then blend until smooth.
For a low-carb rice substitute, finely grate cauliflower and steam it to make cauliflower rice. You can serve it with stews or as a base for lean proteins and other veggies.
You can also make your own cauliflower pizza crust. Cook cauliflower rice and squeeze out all the water in cheesecloth until the rice is almost dry. Winner of Top Chef All-Stars and Morton Salt spokesperson Richard Blais suggests salting the cauliflower with kosher salt and then wringing it. "The salt draws out some of the moisture and the kosher salt flakes are perfect for seasoning the crust," Blais says.
HelloFresh chef Melissa Knific then recommends mixing the dry cauliflower with an egg, soft cheese (try goat cheese, which lends the crust a better texture than shredded cheese) and some seasonings. Then, flatten the dough with your hands or a spatula and bake the crust at 425 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 minutes before adding the toppings, Knific says. Then, add your toppings and bake for another 10 to 15 minutes, until the crust is golden.
2. Get Creative With Greens
Tired of baby spinach, kale or lettuce tossed with tomatoes and light dressing? A salad is only one way to enjoy greens. You can add these leafy nutritional powerhouses to just about anything:
- Stir into soups or chili.
- Mix into marinara sauce for pasta or lasagna.
- Toss into eggs as you scramble.
- Add to a stir-fry.
- Blend into a smoothie.
Greens are mild in flavor but big in nutrients. You may not even notice that they're a part of your meal, but your body will benefit from the added antioxidants, fiber, vitamins and minerals.
3. Don’t Depend on Salt
Season foods with spices, garlic, onions, peppers and lemon or lime juice to boost flavor instead of relying on salt-heavy seasoning mixes and bottled sauces. Fresh herbs add flavor to all types of dishes while boosting nutrition.
A March 2019 review in the Journal of AOAC International notes that spices and herbs possess a great deal of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. The tannins, vitamins, flavonoids and polyphenols in choices such as rosemary, sage, oregano, cinnamon and clove make them excellent additions to meals.
4. Cut the Cream
Creamy sauces are divine — but not always the easiest on your waistline or heart health. Instead of using cream or half-and-half in a recipe, opt for low-fat buttermilk or whole milk. They both make for ideal substitutes for cream in pancakes, scones and biscuits.
If you're looking to thicken a soup or stew, use a cornstarch slurry consisting of cornstarch mixed in a small amount of water or opt for mashing boiled potatoes and stirring them in.
5. Swap Out Fat and Sugar in Baked Goods
Use applesauce instead of butter or oil in homemade muffins, bread, brownies and cookies. Not only will you reduce the fat content in your baked goods, but you'll also benefit from some added fiber and natural sweetness. Start by replacing half the fat in a baking recipe with applesauce.
If applesauce isn't your thing, mashed bananas and sweet potatoes are also great substitutes for butter in baked goods. They also naturally sweeten your recipe, which means you can cut down on the amount of refined sugar you pour into the batter.
To further reduce the sugar content in your baked goods, choose healthier, low glycemic substitutes for refined sugar such as dates. A May 2011 study in Nutrition Journal found that dates don't spike people's blood sugar significantly, making them an ideal choice of sweetener for people with diabetes as part of a healthy, balanced diet.
6. Cook en Papillote
You're putting all this time into your kitchen, so why not impress your friends with an elegant, healthy meal? Cooking en papillote involves making food in a packet such as foil or parchment paper — and the method will surely make you look like a master chef.
All you have to do to cook en papillote is lay a delicate fish, such as flounder, on a sheet of parchment with herbs and spices (try fresh thyme, marjoram, salt and pepper) and then surround it with slices of lemon, carrot and zucchini and a splash of chicken broth. Then fold it up and bake it in the oven.
"You'll have an elegant and easy dish packed with moisture, flavor, color, fragrance and nutrition," says Beth McCarthy, a chef, certified yoga therapist and nutrition health coach from Colorado Springs, Colorado.
7. Use a Beer Marinade
Marinate plain proteins, such as chicken breast or flank steak, in a flavorful mix of spices, herbs, citrus or vinegar and olive oil. And try low-sodium soy sauce, chopped garlic, lemon juice, olive oil and grated ginger for chicken or shrimp. The marinade penetrates the protein and creates a tender entrée while eliminating the need for sugary barbecue sauce, fat-filled ranch or batter-frying.
If you add a splash of beer to that marinade, you could help reduce the formation of potentially cancerous substances in grilled meats, determined research published in a March 2014 issue of the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. Beer reduces the amount of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) that can form when meats are cooked at very high temperatures.
8. Cook in Stock or Bone Broth
A box (or can) of low-sodium chicken or vegetable stock transforms plain brown rice, quinoa and buckwheat. Use it in lieu of water to cook these grains as a side dish for grilled or roasted meats or to serve under a flavorful veggie stir-fry.
You could also make your own vegetable stock using onion, garlic and vegetable trimmings, such as kale stems, carrot tops and mushroom scraps. Add a few black peppercorns, bay leaves and parsley stems for more flavor. Simmer these in a vat of water over low heat for about an hour, strain and use for a flavorful addition to grains, soups and stews. You could also add chicken or beef bones to the mix to make collagen-rich bone broth.
An April 2012 study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry discovered that adults who supplemented with just 2 grams of collagen a day for 70 days significantly reduced their joint pain and were able to engage in physical activity more easily than those who skipped the collagen supplements.
9. Get Bean Savvy
Beans aren't just a side dish for your takeout taco plate. They add fiber, nutrients and creaminess to a number of dishes.
Use them to boost the heft and creaminess of a soup by cutting out cream or milk and swapping in a quarter cup of cooked, pureed beans. Beans also make a healthy secret addition to cookies, pies and brownies.
You can use an entire 15-ounce can of black beans to substitute for an entire cup of butter or oil in a baked goods recipe, recommends Knific. "The beans need to be rinsed and drained, then blended until smooth in a food processor before being incorporated into the batter."
Add hummus or chickpeas to tomato sauce to get the mouthfeel of a creamy pasta sauce with more nutrition than heavy cream can provide. Also, try blending a quarter cup of white beans into your next fruit smoothie to make a creamy, satisfying shake with added fiber and no detectable beany taste.
10. Use Precut Vegetables
Who really enjoys peeling and cubing a butternut squash, ricing cauliflower or spiralizing zucchini? And even if you do enjoy it — do you have the time?
Many stores offer pre-cubed squash, chopped onions, frozen cauliflower rice and zucchini noodles. Place a few of these easy supermarket buys into your grocery basket during your next shopping trip. If they're as easy to use as a box of penne or boil-in-the-bag rice, you're more likely to include them as part of your meals!
11. Skim the Fat
Some fat in your diet is healthy — especially the unsaturated kind found in avocados, nuts and oily fish. But saturated fat in meat and full-fat dairy is best eaten in moderation to keep your heart healthy. If you make a stew or soup with a fattier cut of meat, such as brisket or chicken thighs, refrigerate leftovers and skim off the fat with a spoon before you reheat and serve.
When cooking ground beef, drain off any fat onto a paper towel after it's been browned. Then, add the meat to chili, pasta sauce or casseroles. You'll get that coveted meaty flavor without the added saturated fat!