A plate full of broccoli, limp from extended boiling, with a small piece of skinless chicken breast. Does that sound yummy or not? Probably not.
If that’s where your mind goes when you think about following a healthy diet, you have good reason to be less than enthusiastic.
But how about roasted tomatoes, onions, and squash — all seasoned with lemon, garlic and olive oil — accompanied by a grilled filet of fresh-caught fish — crisp and glistening on the outside, tender and juicy on the inside? Now, that’s more like it!
Preparing and eating healthy dishes does not mean denying yourself pleasure. In fact, it can mean doubling or tripling your pleasure if you follow a few basic principles, says Mary Mittiga, a registered dietitian and certified nutritionist at Massena Memorial Hospital.
“Food is best when it’s fresh; straight from your garden or the local farmers’ market,” Mittiga said. “Visit the market in the morning, then serve and eat the produce for dinner.”
If you are focusing on foods that are fresh and local, Mattiga said, you are also moving away from the canned, packaged, and processed foods that have become so dominant in our culture. Most processed foods rely on additives, colors and flavors designed to attract your attention and keep you coming back to eat more and buy more.
Salt, sugar and fat are the magic triad of junk food. Eat too much, and you’re increasing your risk of another triad: obesity, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes.
In junk food, sugar is typically a major part of the flavor profile, and it sneakily comes in numerous forms: fructose, com syrup, high-fructose com syrup and plain sugar (which may be healthiest of the group). And then there is fat for a rich “mouth feel,” and salt for a burst of flavor that overwhelms the taste buds.
For instance, Mittiga said, compare that bag of chips in your hand with a fresh strawberry or peach. You may be devouring the chips, but you’re not going to be feeling so good in an hour or two. By comparison, the fresh fruit has complex flavors that linger and tease the taste buds. Eat a plateful of berries or cherries, and you are taking in only a few calories and numerous vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals that will protect you from hypertension, heart disease and other illnesses.
For Tasty Healthy Dishes, Preparation Matters
Luckily for us, Mittiga said, some of the world’s healthiest foods are also extremely tasty. Berries (raspberries, strawberries, or blueberries); beans (black, red, or white); nuts (almonds, walnuts, pistachios); and whole grains (wheat, rye, or corn) are all healthy, delicious ingredients we can use daily to prepare meals.
Also high on anyone’s list of good nutrition is the sweet potato. The orange color (also found in squash and carrots) derives from beta-carotene, an antioxidant that strengthens the immune system and protects against heart disease, cancer and age-related diseases.
To deliciously prepare a sweet potato, bake it and crush in a small amount of butter and eat. Or slice the potato and roast it in the oven with olive oil, salt, and fresh rosemary. The caramelized flavors are lovely.
Of course, sweet potatoes are sweet, but researchers have found that they increase blood levels of adiponectin, a protein hormone that helps regulate how your body metabolizes insulin.
When preparing fresh vegetables, roasting is an excellent method. It concentrates the flavors and makes them more mellow. Toss your veggies with a little chopped garlic and roast for about 20 minutes in a 425 degree oven. Add a little lemon or balsamic vinegar just before serving. Try mixing several vegetables together – tomatoes, onions, and bell peppers, for example. The flavors caramelize and meld beautifully with the olive oil.
Other good cooking methods for vegetables include sautéing or stir-frying them in olive, walnut or sesame oil with broth or wine. Be sure not to overcook them – the crispy, crunchy mouth feel of a slightly under-cooked carrot or green bean is pleasing and indicates that most of the nutrition of the vegetable has been preserved.
Choosing fresh herbs, such as rosemary, thyme, basil or sage can add a healthier dimension to seasoning meat, fish, poultry and vegetables, instead of salt and pepper. Fennel, celery, radishes, and carrots are other flavorful options when baking, roasting, or steaming a variety of foods. Nuts, seeds and Parmesan cheese add a nice finishing touch.
The limp broccoli and skinless chicken breast mentioned above are two examples of how not to prepare otherwise delicious foods. A good chef knows how to create delicious dishes starting with the freshest ingredients and then highlighting their flavors and textures through proper cooking and seasoning.
When you start cooking with fresh, natural ingredients, you will find it exciting to discover what culinary delights you can create. Just remember: healthy dishes can taste great!