Enjoying healthy home-cooked meals shouldn’t be a flash in the pan. With restrictions from the COVID-19 pandemic starting to ease more and more each week, we can start to consider dinners in restaurants and bars with our family and friends again. And while those moments are going to be great to experience again and with more frequency, we should still remember not to overdo it with restaurant meals. It’s helpful to know a few ways for how to cook healthy at home.
Adjustments during the pandemic
One thing many people have found to be a positive during the COVID-19 pandemic is cooking more meals at home. Whether that means trying new recipes or learning to cook for the first time, it has become an opportunity for creativity, as well as a learning experience.
By choosing to cook at home over ordering takeout or heading to your favorite restaurant, you’ve already chosen a healthier option. That’s because a lot of restaurant food is made with more sodium, butter or other heavy-fat additives, which you have the choice to limit when you cook at home. So, for example, grilling steak and potatoes on your own can be a more nutritional option than getting that same combo at your local steakhouse. And the health benefits can be even greater when you make some simple choices and substitutions. Choosing a lean cut of steak and preparing potatoes with fresh herbs in place of butter and tons of salt will reduce your fat and sodium intake without sacrificing savory flavor.
What makes up a healthy meal?
To build a balanced meal, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends focusing on five major food categories: fruits, vegetables, grains, protein and dairy. They recommend setting a goal to include something from each group on your plate at each meal. It might sound difficult at first, but with practice it’s becomes easier, and even second nature.
A lean or low-fat protein is typically the centerpiece, but shouldn’t be the biggest portion on your plate. Proteins burn off slowly, so a little can go a long way in satisfying your appetite.
Fruits and vegetables should combine to make up half of your plated portion. You can serve them roasted, grilled or raw instead of cooked in a fatty or salty sauce. If you’re not sure about adding fruit to your dinners, just consider the wide range of food items considered to be fruit. For example, tomatoes are a fruit that can be great on their own, or chopped into a healthy salsa to be eaten over many different proteins and vegetables.
Beans and whole-wheat grains, like brown rice, will provide fiber and nutrients. Low-fat or skim milk can be used as a refreshing beverage, and you can also consider low-fat cheeses (in limited quantities) or plain yogurts in place of fattier toppings, like sour cream.
To learn more about the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s healthy eating recommendations and resources, visit myplate.gov today.
Planning ahead is key
It’s easier to put together tomorrow’s lunch or dinner using a planned menu with all the ingredients in your kitchen. Preparing the night before can be much easier than trying to put together a yummy and nutritious salad after you’ve hit snooze a few times, woken up late, and need to run out the door. In this case, you might end up with take out or fast-food options for lunch, loaded with fat and salt.
Making your lunch the night before can help ensure you’re eating healthy—especially if you’re using leftovers from a healthy, home-cooked dinner! Leftovers are the perfect food to pack and take for lunch because you can control portions and calories to ensure it will be nutritious, filling and delicious.
Whenever you do your grocery shopping, be sure to take some time and plan out at least three home-cooked dinners for the week. By planning for multiple meals, you can often discover more uses for several ingredients or side dish options that can help keep your grocery budget lower. Grabbing a few different low-fat proteins, like fish, chicken, tofu or pork tenderloin can lay the groundwork for meal planning to help you choose your toppings, marinades, side dishes and even your snacks for in-between meals. It also helps you avoid last-minute calls for pizza or Chinese takeout!
Anyone can be a good cook—maybe you just need help to get started
Maybe you’ve had some bad experiences cooking from home, or aren’t great at remembering to buy ingredients ahead of time. We all have some cooking-gone-wrong stories to share! But thanks to delivery meal kits, we have access to some great and healthy home-cooking options that come complete with easy-to-follow recipes and all the ingredients!
Many of the services out there not only help you customize your menus to your preferred tastes, but they also give you options for specific nutritional needs, like paleo and Keto diets, vegan or vegetarians foods, and lactose-free items. And they are great for tracking your nutritional intake and controlling portions.
These services are also great for helping you avoid those nights of indecision that can lead to throwing up your hands and calling your local restaurants for something fast and easy (and often loaded with fat and calories). Don’t underestimate how much NOT having to stress about what you should make after work can do for your mental health.
A few highly rated home kit services we found online for healthy options include: Sunbasket, Home Chef, Green Chef and Blue Apron. But there are many more great options to try, so take some time to research the ones that sound most appetizing and appealing to you.
Swap in healthier ingredients when you can
While it won’t always be possible, trying healthier ingredients as substitutes for ones high in fat, salt or sugars can be a fun way to make a recipe healthier—and to make an old dish taste fresh and new! Here are a few simple ingredient substitution ideas to consider next time you’re cooking or baking at home:
- Choose ground turkey or ground chicken over ground beef. You can get wonderful flavors from chilis, meatballs, burgers and lasagna made with ground turkey or chicken instead of beef—and you’ll be cutting out a significant amount of calories and fat while doing so.
- Use fat-free or Greek yogurt in place of sour cream. Plain yogurt is lower in calories and saturated fats. Just remember to buy plain yogurt, and not a fruity version that’s higher in sugar.
- Replace butter, margarine, oil or shortening with applesauce or prune puree. Using applesauce or prune puree in half the amount of the recipe’s listed fatty ingredient will still give the binding affect desired and won’t overpower the taste.
- Replace a whole egg with two egg whites or a quarter cup of egg substitute. Egg whites have fewer calories, fat and cholesterol than the yolk. Just keep in mind, egg yolks also contain much of the vitamins, minerals and protein, so depending on how many eggs a recipe calls for, it could sometimes be better to just use one whole egg.
- Add flavor by using spices such as cinnamon, ginger, garlic powder and nutmeg in place of added salt. Choosing simple spices over table salt is a great way to add flavor while restricting sodium. If you have fresh herbs available, they provide a brightness to the dish that also cuts saltiness.
- Substitute dry breadcrumbs with oatmeal or crushed bran cereal. Breadcrumbs are usually high in sodium and have no nutritional benefits; they just offer flavor. However, oatmeal, crushed bran cereal or rolled oats can be used instead for your breaded dish, or as a binding agent in ground meat recipes. Oats are high in fiber, healthy carbs and nutrients.
- Swap white sandwich bread for whole wheat. While making a sandwich might be stretching the definition of “home cooking,” it’s probably the most universal entrée out there. And by simply changing the bread to a whole wheat selection, you’ll be adding fiber and nutrients that are lacking from white breads.
- Same applies for choosing brown rice over white rice.
Keep home cooking at a staple in your week!
While it will be great to start going back to restaurants in person as pandemic restrictions lift, don’t forget about healthy eating options and how to cook healthy. Especially the fun and benefits that comes with making healthy home-cooked meals for you and your family—and even for house guests when you throw a dinner party at home!