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Healthy Cooking: There's No Place Like Home

Nancy Clark, MS, RD


Eating take-out food on the run has become a standard routine for many of us, especially if we are active. But most of us would actually prefer healthy home-cooked meals—if we just had the time and the know-how. The truth is you can enjoy simple meals at home that are good for you.

Smart Shopping

The key to healthful cooking starts with healthful shopping. This means don't shop when you are hungry! Otherwise, instead of fresh fruits and vegetables, not-so-healthy treats and goodies may end up in your grocery cart. Post a shopping list in a convenient place in your kitchen so you and other family members can easily add to it before you run out of a food. Also, plan your menus at home and add the ingredients to the list so that you'll be more organized once you are in the store.

When shopping, take advantage of foods that make cooking easier: Frozen or precut vegetables (freezing doesn't destroy their nutritional value), prechopped garlic, and dried onions instead of fresh are all good examples. Choose low-fat or nonfat versions of milk, yogurt, cheese, sour cream, and salad dressings. Stick to the leanest cuts of meats and protein-rich foods (flank steak, extra-lean hamburger, and skinless chicken breasts, for example). And remember to stock your pantry with some standard nonperishables such as low-fat broths, tomato sauce, pasta, and canned beans.

Smart Cooking

Once your kitchen cupboards are well stocked with wholesome foods, meal preparation becomes easier. Still, the trick to having enough energy and patience to cook a healthful dinner is to eat enough at breakfast and lunch. If you arrive home ravenous, you'll be more likely to devour a boxful of crackers than prepare a balanced meal.

Try cooking in quantity. Double the recipe so there'll be "planned overs" to either refrigerate and enjoy in the next few days or to freeze and then reheat later. Before starting to cook, read the recipe completely to be sure you have (1) a clear understanding of the whole process, and (2) enough of all the ingredients.

The healthiest meals are planned according to the Food Guide Pyramid, which means carbohydrate-based meals with generous servings of pasta, rice, potato, or other dinner starches as well as colorful (nutrient-dense) vegetables. Meats and other protein-rich foods should accompany—not anchor—the meal. For example, instead of preparing a big steak that crowds the plate, take a small portion of the steak and convert it into stir-fried beef and broccoli to have with a big plateful of rice. (For recipe sources, see "Healthy Cookbooks,".)

Low-Fat Strategies

Eating less meat will help you cut back on saturated fat (one of the biggest health problems in the American diet). Experiment with replacing part of the meat in casseroles, soups, and stews with beans and tofu. Good examples would be chili that has more beans and less meat, and lasagna that has more tofu and less hamburger and cheese. You can cut saturated fat in other ways, too:

  • Use low-fat or nonfat dairy foods to replace cream in sauces.
  • Steam, poach, broil, grill, microwave, and bake-rather than sauté or pan-fry foods. Cook meat on a rack so that fat drains off.
  • When sautéing, replace butter with olive oil. But remember to measure the oil and try using less than a recipe calls for because even though olive oil is lower in saturated fat than butter, it still has calories. Better yet, use a nonstick skillet and cooking spray.
  • When making soups or stews, skim the fat off the top. If possible, cook the broth in advance, chill it in the refrigerator, then remove the hardened fat layer. Or try a fat separator cup that pours broth from the bottom. By cooking the soup ingredients in the fat-free broth, you will eliminate the grease they would otherwise absorb.
  • Thicken gravies with a mixture of flour and cold water (rather than a mixture of flour and fat); slowly add this mixture into the skimmed pan juices.
  • Season vegetables with herbs and spices, rather than high-fat butter and sauces. Some tasty combinations include dill with steamed carrots, rosemary on boiled potatoes, and vinegar on spinach.
  • Spice up your entire diet by experimenting with new herbs and spices. With soups and stews, add the herbs during the last hour of cooking.
  • Other low-fat flavor boosters include balsamic vinegar, sun-dried tomatoes, Dijon mustard, Tabasco sauce, salsa, catsup, canned green chilies, and small amounts of sesame and hot chili oils.
  • With salads, make your own reduced-fat dressing by using more vinegar and less oil. Lemon juice and Italian herbs add fat-free flavor.
  • Adapt your favorite recipes by cutting back on fat by one-third. For example, if a cookie recipe calls for 1 cup of butter, try using only 2/3 cup. Replace the missing butter with applesauce or (in chocolate baked goods) prune puree, which help retain moisture and improve the texture of foods.

Tools of the Trade

Another trick to healthful cooking is having the right cookware—in particular, a microwave oven, vegetable steamer, and nonstick pots and pans.

Microwave ovens are not only helpful for reheating leftovers, but also for retaining nutrients. The vitamins in vegetables are easily lost with extended exposure to heat, water, and air. A microwave oven will cook the vegetables quickly with very little or no water, preserving nutrients.

Steamer baskets that fit into a saucepan with a tight cover are an alternative way to cook vegetables healthfully. Vegetables steamed only for a few minutes (until they are tender but still crisp) will retain more nutrients than those boiled in water for a longer time. If you have no steamer basket, simply put about a half inch of water in the bottom of a pan, add the vegetables so that most of them are above the waterline, cover them tightly, and cook for only a few minutes. Another tip: Reserve that same cooking water for soups, sauces, or even as a broth, and you'll recover the small amount of nutrients lost.

Nonstick cookware not only can make cleanup easier (which may enhance your desire to cook) but will also help to reduce your fat intake. For example, when you stir-fry vegetables in a nonstick skillet, you can use just a small amount of oil for flavor. Add the veggies, stir them around, and then cover the pan tightly to let them cook in their own steam.

Pressure cookers, though thought to be an old-fashioned cooking method, are coming back in vogue. The modern cookers are very safe and can cook a meal in minutes. Because they use moist heat, they are especially good for lean-meat cooking. Pressure cookers will also quickly cook rice, beans, and soups.

Healthy Rewards

Tasty, nutritious meals cooked at home can be a nice reward at the end of an active day. By getting organized, taking the time to shop, filling the cart with wholesome foods, and then cooking wholesome low-fat meals in quantity, you'll be making a sound investment in your health and fueling your active lifestyle.

Healthy Cookbooks

Almost Vegetarian, Diana Shaw, New York City, Clarkson Potter, 1994

Healthy Homestyle Cooking, Evelyn Tribole, RD, Emmaus, PA, Rodale Press, 1994

The High Performance Cookbook, Susan M. Kleiner, PhD, RD, and KarenRae Friedman-Kester, MS, RD, New York City, Macmillan, 1995

Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook, Nancy Clark, MS, RD, Champaign, IL, Leisure Press, 1990

The New York City Marathon Cookbook, Nancy Clark, MS, RD, Nashville, TN, Rutledge Press, 1994

Quick & Healthy Recipes and Ideas, vols I and II, Brenda Ponichtera, RD, The Dalles, OR, ScaleDown Publishing, 1991 (vol 1), 1995 (vol 2)

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Remember: You, your physician, and your nutritionist need to work together to discuss nutrition concerns. The above information is not intended as a substitute for appropriate medical treatment.

Ms. Clark is director of Nutrition Services at SportsMedicine Brookline in the Boston area. She is a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine, a fellow of the American Dietetic Association, and a member of its practice group, Sports and Cardiovascular Nutritionists (SCAN).