Here are some practical tips…
1. Use colour
One of the key principles of healthy eating is to ‘eat a rainbow of fruit and vegetables’. The more colour you can get into your family’s diet from varied, brightly-coloured fruit and vegetables, the healthier their diet will be.
The pigments in foods that give them their colour come from natural compounds called phytochemicals. Many of these are antioxidants (natural chemicals) thought to protect against harmful substances called free radicals. The richest sources of these are fresh fruit and vegetables, which are associated with lower levels of diseases such as heart disease and cancer.
For example, red, purple and blue foods such as currants, berries and grapes are rich in phytochemicals called anthocyanins. Studies show that these have antioxidative and antimicrobial activities that might help improve visual and neurological health, and might help protect against various diseases.
Here’s a simple guide to other coloured vegetables and fruit that are rich in protective phytochemicals – use a wide variety:
Red - Tomatoes, red berries, watermelon, cherries, red peppers and pomegranates Yellow - Butternut squash, honeydew melons, lemons, papayas, peaches, persimmons, swedes, yellow peppers Orange - Carrots, butternut squash, pumpkins and sweet potatoes Beige/white - Bananas, celeriac, garlic, Jerusalem artichokes, mushrooms, onions, turnips, white peaches Purple/blue - Aubergines, blackberries, blackcurrants, purple grapes, red cabbage, purple/green vegetables such as purple kale, broccoli and artichokes Green - Broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kale and pak choi.
2. Use your senses
Touching and smelling food during its preparation and cooking activates the hormonal, nervous and enzymatic processes that help us digest it and absorb nutrients.
This can start from choosing fruits and vegetables by smelling for ripeness. It can continue when you appreciate the texture and delicious scents as you chop and squeeze pungent foods such as parsley, garlic and lemon. Cooking healthily is a delicious journey, long before you start eating.
Try to get children involved in this process. Encouraging them to enjoy food preparation with you will help engender an ease around fresh food in them as they get older. Also, studies show children who are involved in cooking make better diet choices.
3. Hide the healthy
Try not to declare ‘We’re going to start eating healthy food.’ This can make the family think they’re getting boring or bland food. Instead, slowly start to include healthy food into meals that look as appetising and delicious as the foods they’re used to. The following tiny hacks can make a big difference:
- When making Bolognese sauce, try substituting half the mince with tinned brown lentils (rinse them off to remove salty residue)
- To use less salt, which is associated with increased risk of high blood pressure, try substituting it with lemon or lime. It sounds odd but it works. Or, use fresh herbs instead (see below). Lower your salt use gradually and your family’s taste buds will adapt
- Try substituting half the mayonnaise in coleslaw for yogurt or cutting potatoes into chip-like shapes and roasting them so they look like chips. If it looks like the food they’re used to, children are more likely to eat it
4. Emphasise wholegrains
One of the simplest changes that will make your cooking healthier is to use more wholegrains. Studies show that 2-3 daily servings of wholegrains might help prevent illnesses such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and colorectal, pancreatic, and gastric cancers.
Wholegrains contain more fibre, which is essential for digestion. They’re also unprocessed and retain many nutrients that their processed hybrids don’t. Many such foods also have a lower glycaemic index (GI), which means they take longer to be digested. That also means they can keep your blood sugar stable for longer so you avoid excessive cravings between meals.
Here are some ways to add more wholegrains to your cooking:
- Short grain brown rice instead of white - It has the same texture but is higher in fibre and nutrients
- Opt for wholemeal sourdough bread - This is high in fibre and contains healthy bacteria that might help with gut health. It’s much more filling than regular bread, too
- Swap porridge oats for whole (sometimes called ‘jumbo’) oats - They’re less processed, cook in a similar way and contain more essential heart-healthy beta-glucan fibres
- Use high-protein wholegrains - This will help increase the protein content of your meals (which can help with satiety as well as bone and muscle growth) as well as adding fibre and nutrients. Wholegrains that are high in protein include quinoa, buckwheat, wild rice, millet and couscous
5. Have a few healthy bases – and use them often
You can’t reinvent the wheel at every meal. And, if you try to create a brand new meal from scratch each time you cook at home, you might start to feel that healthy cooking is a chore. But it needn’t be.
By knowing a few healthy essentials that work for you and using them often, you can save time looking for recipes and buying new ingredients. There’s nothing wrong with a little repetitive eating, if it helps you to make healthier choices.
Here are some suggestions for go-to tricks that can help make healthy food tastier without much thought:
- The healthy salad dressing - Take 2 tbsp olive oil, a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, a tsp honey and a pinch of mustard. Mix together to brighten up a leafy salad
- The vegetable brighteners - Add lemon, fresh herbs and a little avocado, sesame or olive oil to give steamed vegetables more appeal. Foods like broccoli, asparagus and mangetout can be lightly sautéed in a little warm oil for about 2 minutes, then drizzled with lemon or lime and a pinch of black pepper
- The satisfying stew - Use the following as your go-to stew recipe – then all you have to do is change the base. Sauté chopped onions or garlic in a little warm oil, add fresh spices or herbs and stir until translucent. Then stir in the stew base – this could be chicken, lean lamb or beef pieces, or it might be tinned beans or chopped tofu if you’re vegan – until brown. Add a litre of stock, some tomato purée, season and bring to the boil. Then lower the heat and simmer and reduce until the base is cooked through. You can add fresh vegetables near the end of cooking time for added nutrition
- The child-friendly dip - Studies show children are more likely to eat vegetables if they are served with a dip. Try this healthy garlic mayonnaise alternative: mix a little garlic powder, onion powder, a pinch of salt, soy sauce, paprika, and chopped spring onions into a cup of plain Greek yogurt and serve with raw vegetable crudités
6. Use fresh herbs
There’s no better way to flavour your food than using fresh herbs and avoid leaning on salt for taste.
But knowing which ones to use can be confusing. Herbs also have a short shelf life, which makes many people reluctant to use them often.
To minimise waste, figure out your family’s 3-4 favourite fresh herbs, especially those that pair well with lots of different foods. Then, keep these on hand for use in your staple meals. It’s easier to experiment with something you know the family like the taste of, than to constantly test out new flavours on them.
Here are some versatile suggestions:
- Basil - For Italian-based dishes, and tomato-based salads – tomato, mozzarella, avocado and fresh basil drizzled with olive oil and apple cider vinegar is a wonderful quick lunch
- Coriander - For Asian- and Oriental-inspired foods, especially stir-fries and curries
- Flat-leaf parsley - For everything, but especially for Middle Eastern-inspired dishes and fresh fish
- Chives - For fresh fish, dips and salads
For use in cooked foods, buy and chop fresh herbs then put into ice cube trays. Cover with water and freeze. Once they’re frozen, you can pop your herb ‘ice’ into plastic bags for use when you’re ready.
We hope these hacks have inspired you to experiment more with cooking healthy at home. Now, over to you.
Reviewed by: Rhianna McClymont, Lead GP, Livi