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Sure, you can zoom through the drive-thru or zap some frozen dinners. But if you really want to eat healthier, get chopping. “With home cooking, you know what’s in it, you can adjust it to taste, and it’s a good way to keep your portions under control,” says JoAnn Cianciulli, TV food producer and author of L.A.’s Original Farmers Market Cookbook.
If you’re skeptical about the power of DIY meals, consider: Over the past 30 years, the number of restaurants in the U.S. increased 89 percent along with the average calorie intake, which rose by 615 calories, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Can you say obesity epidemic? But homemade eats can reverse that trend. We polled chefs, bloggers, registered dietitians, and other foodies for their healthiest cooking tips. The take-home? Small cooking changes can make a big diet difference.
Bring home the bacon (flavor, that is). In recipes that call for bacon, substitute smoked Spanish paprika or chipotle powder (add when sautéing onions and other ingredients). “You’ll get the smoky flavor without the calories and saturated fat,” Cianciulli says.
Makeover mashed potatoes. “Replace potatoes with steamed cauliflower, for a lighter texture, a boost of nutrients, and fewer calories,” says Manhattan dietitian Natalia Strasenko.
Go Greek. Substitute plain, low-fat or fat-free Greek yogurt for just about any recipe (dips, sauces dollops on a baked potato, or nachos) that calls for sour cream, saving 45 calories per two tablespoon serving. Greek yogurt’s creamy texture and tangy taste mimics sour cream with little or no fat and as much as 50 percent more protein. “You’ll never know the difference,” says Illinois dietitian Rene Ficek.
Embrace the secret sauce: balsamic vinegar reduction. “It’s a healthy substitute for buttery, salty sauces, or sugary barbecue sauce,” says Rene Ficek. Bring balsamic vinegar to a boil, then simmer until it’s reduced by half (about 20 minutes). Add a tablespoon or two of fruit-infused flavored vinegar for an additional layer of flavor, such as strawberry vinegar for chicken, or pomegranate vinegar for fish.
Whip up a dream cream. “When you’re making whipped cream, use 1 cup skim milk plus one tablespoon cornstarch instead of heavy cream to reduce to avoid saturated fat,” says dietician Jenna Allen, a spokesperson for the Western Dairy Association in Denver.
Cut the cheese. To reduce a recipe’s sat fat and calories, forget swapping in low-fat or nonfat cheese. Yuck! Instead, “cut the amount of cheese a recipe calls for in half and substitute a sharper cheese that’s naturally low-fat, such as parmesan, romano, asiago or manchego to intensify the flavor,” says Jonas Falk, a Chicago-based chef.
Slash sugar, get zesty. With desserts, such as pudding or even your grandmother’s sugar cookie recipe, “cut the sugar in half and add orange or lemon zest or a teaspoon of vanilla, hazelnut, rum, caramel, or almond extract,” says Jennifer Iserloh, chef and owner of skinnychef.com. Zest can emulate sweetness and halving the amount of sugar won’t change a recipe’s texture or diminish its nutrient content. At 16 calories per tablespoon of sugar, you’ll save 256 calories per omitted cup. “You’ll put any dessert recipe on an instant diet,” Iserloh says.
Get picky. While preparing meals, stop and look at the recipe, or what’s on your plate and think, how can I make this meal healthier? “Pick one thing; it could be to add a vegetable, increase protein, use a leaner meat, or switch from a refined grain like white rice to whole grain like quinoa,” says Dr. Samantha Brody, a naturopathic physician in Portland, Oregon.
Sneak in produce. The next time you’re making a batch of tomato sauce for pasta, lasagna, or meatballs, give it a nutrient and fiber boost by adding pureed white beans, frozen spinach, finely chopped mushrooms, and pureed zucchini, Natalia Strasenko says.
Reserve butter for baking. Forget using applesauce, pureed prunes, or mashed bananas instead of butter in baking (old think). Just use butter. “You don’t want butter in every aspect of your meal, but it’s okay to reserve it for dessert,” says Kristy Lambrou, M.S., R.D., culinary nutritionist at Rouge Tomate in New York City. The restaurant’s philosophy: “Dessert should taste like dessert.”
Skip the rinse cycle. Skip rinsing raw chicken before cooking. “Any bacteria present can be splashed around your kitchen, potentially contaminating other foods,” says David Acheson, M.D., a food safety expert in Washington, D.C. Harmful bacteria on chicken is destroyed during cooking anyway. Poultry can go from package to baking dish, pan, or grill. The same goes for beef, pork, and fish. Similarly, consider prewashed, ready-to-eat lettuce good to go. But do rinse all other produce. “Anything that comes from a field that isn’t prewashed should be washed,” Acheson says.
Make your own dressing. Forget bottled salad dressing, with its long list of iffy ingredients. Make your own with lemon or lime juice or apple cider, red wine or balsamic vinegar and olive oil. “An acidy ingredient like lemon juice or vinegar helps the body absorb the iron and minerals in greens while the oil allows us to absorb fat-soluble compounds, such as vitamins and antioxidants,” says Ali Miller, R.D., certified diabetes educator in Houston.