Cooking healthy doesn’t mean you suddenly start counting calories, checking your cholesterol or monitoring your sodium intake. It means making better food choices. More whole grains, less white flour; more leafy, hardy greens; more heritage-breed pork instead of plastic-wrapped supermarket meat; more sustainable fish and organic chicken. When we build our meals around these ingredients, we don’t think “health,” we think “delicious.” Celebrate what good food has always been about: the best possible ingredients, prepared well and consumed with portion restraint. For many of us, learning to develop healthy eating habits takes a little more discipline than it does for others. By making small changes with every meal, you can start developing healthier eating habits in no time.

Here are a few small steps that can lead to giant leaps for you and your family’s health.

Start by changing the “snack ratio” in the house. Slowly and gradually have more fruit and healthier choices around, rather than the typical, higher-calorie junk food. For instance, have three types of fruit (apples, oranges, grapes) to replace some of the small bags of chips or candy bars. Start replacing unhealthy snacks with alternative choices, such as oatmeal bars, granola bars or peanuts and yogurt.

Easy snacks:

  • Toss sliced apples, berries, bananas and a tablespoon or two of whole-grain cereal on top of fat-free or low-fat yogurt.
  • Put a slice of low-fat cheese on top of whole-grain crackers.
  • Make a whole-wheat pita pocket with hummus, lettuce, tomato and cucumber.
  • Pop some low-fat popcorn.
  • Microwave or toast a soft whole grain tortilla with low-fat cheese and sliced peppers and mushrooms to make a mini-burrito or quesadilla.
  • Drink fat-free or low-fat chocolate milk (blend it with a banana or strawberries and some ice for a smoothie).

When shopping at the grocery store, spend more of your time in the outer aisles. That’s where you’ll find the healthier foods, such as fresh fruits, fish and vegetables, which are naturally lower in fat and cholesterol and do not have added sugar, salt and other preservatives that add on the pounds.

A better choice because these chips contain just corn, oil and salt and less than 150 calories per serving.

Begin reading the labels of the foods that you eat. Foods that are labeled “low in fat,” or “light,” are not always the healthiest choice. Many times, if a product is lower in fat, it may be higher in sodium, or, if it’s lower in sugar, it may be high in fat. Read the “Nutrition Facts” chart on the back of the box, can or bag, so you know what you are eating. Reading the label of every food item while you’re shopping is not easy. A better way to start is with your favorite packaged foods and snacks at home. Notice the differences in the amounts of sodium, carbohydrates, sugar and calories per serving between the different foods that you have in your pantry. The next step is to slowly begin making adjustments in your shopping choices by looking for alternatives with fewer calories, sodium and fats.

Don’t get caught up in the calories. Instead look at the portions and calories per serving. Most consumers read the number of calories and assume that’s the number of calories for the entire package, rather than the number of calories per serving – buyer beware.

Comparison of Portions and Calories 20 Years Ago to Present Day
20 Years Ago Today
Portion Calories Portion Calories
Bagel 3” diameter 140 6” diameter 350
Cheeseburger 1 333 1 590
Spaghetti
w/meatballs
1 cup sauce
3 small
meatballs
500 2 cups sauce
3 large
meatballs
1,020
Soda 6.5 ounces 82 20 ounces 250
Blueberry
muffin
1.5 ounces 210 5 ounces 500

Develop a healthy habit of selecting sensible-sized food portions. If your plate has a serving of rice that can’t fit into the cupped palm of your hand, then, in most cases, the amount of food you’ve chosen is too much. Using this “cup of your hand” technique is a good way to mentally measure the amounts of foods that go onto your plate. Some people use the size of their fist as a measurement. The size of your fist, or a cupped hand, is about the same size of one measuring cup. You can also use the Healthy Eating Plate pictured at the top of this post as a guide to portion control.

Retrain your taste buds and attitude toward better food choices. The natural sweetness of an orange or apple can’t compete with the sugary taste of a candy bar. You can retrain your palate to like foods that are good for you. Eat more fruits and vegetables as snacks or as replacements for some of the fats that you would tend to add onto your lunch tray or dinner plate and your taste buds will get used to it.

The more color on your plate, the better. Not only does this keep things interesting and exciting for you and your taste buds, but it’s healthier. The nutrients that create the different colors in our fruit and vegetables, represent different nutrients for your body. Feed your body as many varieties as possible. The fight against the common cold, cancers and other illnesses can be prevented by having variety in your diet. Don’t skip meals (especially breakfast). Skipping meals, or starving your body will cause it to go into a starvation mode – it will start to hold on to fat rather than burn it. In fact, allow yourself to snack a little more, just make them healthy snacks. Your metabolism will actually pick up steam and start to burn more of what you’re giving it – especially with an accompanying daily exercise program.

Basic alternatives to fattening foods.

  • Choose mustard instead of mayo (mustard naturally has less calories/fat).
  • Choose brown rice, whole wheat, rye or oat bread over white bread (brown foods don’t have extra fats added to them to change their color).
  • Choose the white meat of turkey or chicken over dark meat, red meat or pork (most of our fat intake comes from animal fat; white meat contains less fat).
  • Choose baked or broiled instead of fried, battered or breaded.
  • Choose water over juice and soda. Some juices contain just as many carbs and calories as a small bag of potato chips. Try slowly weaning yourself off caffeinated soda with tea or water – have two glasses of water or cups of tea for every can of soda you drink. (Also, don’t drink your calories – those 100 calories of juice could be two pieces of fruit or a cereal bar, a more filling feeling for you and your stomach.)
  • Choose low-calorie sauces and ask to have sauces and dressings served on the side when dining at a restaurant. (Usually more sauce is poured on than is needed. Dip your fork into the sauce, then dip your fork into the food. This will give you the flavor with every bite, but without the extra, unnecessary fat.)
  • Choose fat-free milk and skim milk cheese, as opposed to whole milk (again, most of our fat intake comes from animal fat).
  • Choose vegetables as side orders over fries and chips. Oven roasted or stir fried veggies are preferable over creamed veggies (vegetables naturally carry less fat).
  • Choose to pack fruit and nuts to hold you over to the next meal, rather than opting for fast food or snacks from a vending machine. Fruit snacks will help you get to the next meal without the extra fat intake). Fruits like bananas and oranges are convenient and have their own protective packaging.

Italian Sausage Soup

This soup stores well in the refrigerator for easy reheating. If you use a slow cooker, combine everything together except the cabbage, kale, beans and tomatoes; add those during the last 30-45 minutes of cooking. Serve with rustic bread.

10 servings

Ingredient

  • 1 (20-ounce) package pre-cooked, all-natural Italian chicken or turkey sausage, sliced diagonally
  • 1 cup chopped red onion
  • 1 stalk celery with leaves, sliced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 5 cups low-sodium stock or broth (chicken, beef, or a mixture)
  • 1 1/2 cups peeled, cubed potatoes (about 2 medium potatoes)
  • 1 cup peeled, chopped carrots
  • 1 small fennel bulb, chopped (about 7 ounces)
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried fennel seed
  • 2 teaspoons Italian seasoning
  • 4 cups thinly sliced green cabbage
  • 3 cups thinly sliced kale leaves, tough center stems removed
  • 1 (15-ounce) can cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
  • 1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes in juice
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, for garnish
  • 1/4 cup sliced fresh basil leaves

Directions

Brown sausage in a Dutch oven or large saucepan for 5 minutes. Add onion, celery and garlic and sauté for 5 minutes more. Drain off any fat in the pot.

Add stock or broth, potatoes, carrots, fennel, fennel seed, Italian seasoning and salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer, covered, for 35-40 minutes or until vegetables are nearly tender.

Stir in cabbage, kale, beans and tomatoes. Return to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer 10-15 minutes more. Ladle into bowls and serve with grated Parmesan cheese, fresh basil and crusty bread.

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Quinoa-Stuffed Winter Squash

This vegetarian dish can be prepared up to three hours ahead and reheated just before serving time.

8 servings

Ingredients

  • 4 small acorn squash
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for brushing
  • 2 cups vegetable broth
  • 3/4 tablespoon sea salt, divided
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, divided
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons allspice, divided
  • 1 red onion, cut in 1/4-inch dice
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/3 cup dried cranberries
  • 2 cups cooked quinoa
  • 1/2 cup toasted pine nuts or slivered almonds
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh mint
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley

Directions

Preheat oven to 375˚F. Cut squash in half lengthwise and scoop out seeds. Place halves, cut side down, in a lightly greased, large baking dish. Bake for 35 minutes, until just tender.

Turn cut side up, brush each half with olive oil and place 2-3 tablespoons of vegetable broth into each of the eight cavities. Season tops with ¼ teaspoon salt, ¼ teaspoon pepper and ¼ teaspoon allspice. Return squash to the oven and bake until browned on the edges, another 5–10 minutes. Remove from oven and drain any broth from the squash into a bowl with the unused broth. Set baking dish and bowl with broth aside.

Place 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large saucepan over high heat and add onions. Stir until they begin to soften and then reduce the heat to medium. Add garlic, cranberries, remaining salt, pepper and allspice. Cook, stirring often, for another 5–10 minutes, until the onions are tender. Add cooked quinoa and reserved broth; mix well.

Remove saucepan from the heat and stir in nuts, mint, parsley and salt to taste. Divide mixture among squash halves. Return to the oven and warm through.

Chicken and Gnocchi with Squash Sauce

Serves 4

Ingredients

  • 1 pound shelf-stable potato gnocchi
  • 1 small acorn (or butternut) squash, halved and seeded
  • 1 pound chicken breast tenderloins
  • 1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
  • 3/4 cups low sodium chicken broth
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage
  • 2 tablespoons low fat milk
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • Tiny whole sage leaves
  • Grated nutmeg

Directions

Prepare gnocchi according to package directions. Drain. Cover and keep warm.

While the gnocchi are cooking, place squash, cut sides down in a microwave-safe baking dish with 2 tablespoons water. Cook in the microwave, covered, on high (100 percent power) 7 to 10 minutes; rearrange once. Let stand, covered, 5 minutes.

Sprinkle chicken with Italian seasoning, salt and pepper. In large skillet cook chicken in 1 tablespoon hot oil over medium heat 4 minutes on each side, until no longer pink. Remove; cover, keep warm.

Scrape flesh from the squash; mash. Transfer to the hot skillet where the chicken was cooked; stir in broth and chopped sage. Bring to boiling; simmer 1 minute. Stir in milk. Add gnocchi and stir carefully.

Spoon gnocchi with sauce into 4 serving bowls. Top with chicken and sprinkle each with Parmesan cheese, sage leaves and nutmeg.

Creamy Spinach Lasagna

8 Servings

Ingredients

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 1/4 cups chopped onion (about 2 medium)
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 (16-ounce) package frozen chopped spinach, thawed, drained and squeezed dry
  • 1/3 cup all-purpose flour (about 1 1/2 ounces)
  • 3 cups reduced-fat milk
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground red pepper
  • 1 (26-ounce) jar or 3 ½ cups homemade marinara sauce
  • Cooking spray
  • 12 cooked whole wheat lasagna noodles
  • 1 1/2 cups (6 ounces) shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese
  • Chopped parsley

Directions

Preheat oven to 375°F.

Heat oil in a large skillet with a cover over medium heat. Add onion; cook 10 minutes or until onion is browned, stirring occasionally. Stir in garlic and spinach. Reduce heat, cover, and cook 3 minutes or until spinach is tender. Set aside.

Combine flour, milk, salt, black pepper and red pepper in a small saucepan, stirring with a whisk. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring frequently. Reduce heat and simmer 1 minute, stirring frequently.

Add 2 cups of the milk mixture to the spinach mixture. Cover remaining milk mixture and set aside.

Spread 1/2 cup marinara sauce in the bottom of a 13 x 9-inch baking dish coated with cooking spray. Arrange 3 lasagna noodles over the sauce; top with half of the spinach mixture.

Top with 3 lasagna noodles, 1 cup marinara sauce and 3/4 cup of the mozzarella cheese.

Layer 3 more lasagna noodles, remaining spinach mixture and remaining 3 lasagna noodles.

Top with remaining marinara sauce. Pour reserved milk mixture over the top and sprinkle with remaining 3/4 cup cheese.

Bake at 375° for 50 minutes or until lasagna is browned on top. Garnish with parsley.

Raspberry Tiramisu Parfaits

2 Servings (recipe is easily doubled)

Ingredients

  • 1/4 ounce ladyfingers, cubed (6 halves)
  • 2 tablespoons espresso or strong coffee
  • 1/4 cup reduced-fat cream cheese (Neufchatel)
  • 1/4 cup light dairy sour cream
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/4 cup frozen raspberries, defrosted
  • Fresh mint sprigs and additional raspberries for garnish

Directions

Divide half of the ladyfinger cubes between two 5- to 6-ounce dessert dishes. Drizzle ladyfinger cubes with half of the espresso. Set aside.

In a medium bowl stir cream cheese to soften. Stir in sour cream, sugar and vanilla. (Beat smooth with a wire whisk, if necessary.) Stir in the defrosted raspberries with a spoon, mashing slightly.

Spoon half of the cream cheese mixture over the ladyfinger cubes. Add remaining ladyfingers and drizzle with remaining espresso.

Top with remaining cream cheese mixture. Cover and chill for 1 to 24 hours. Garnish with fresh mint sprigs and a few raspberries before serving.

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