We’ve all heard it so many times that you’d have to be pretty clueless not to know of at least a few tricks for eating healthier.
Cut down on all those saturated fats and don’t overdo the sugar, for starters. Make sure there’s a variety of colors on your dinner plate. Choose fresh ingredients over packaged and processed foods. Go for leaner meats and more fish. And of course, eat more fruits and vegetables. Yada yada yada.
It sounds so easy, but yet can seem so hard when you arrive home at the end of a long day feeling hungry and anxious to prepare whatever’s quickest on the table. For me, the siren call is often a bag of kettle-cooked potato chips and a carton of French onion dip I buy just for the kids, even though the kids are all away at college. And heaven forbid if there’s a jar of Nutella on the table.
But it doesn’t have to be so. Most people can make at least a little good on their New Year’s resolution to get healthy by being conscious of their diets, individualizing their game plans and making a few simple food swaps. You won’t suffer for it and in fact might even find that your food tastes better. It definitely will be better for you.
So where do we start, especially when coming off the season of overindulgence?
The first thing is you have to be mindful of what you’re eating so you know where your starting point is, says Leslie Bonci, former UPMC nutritionist and owner of Active Eating Advice in Point Breeze. Take an hour or day and write it down: How many times a day do you eat? When do you feel most hungry? What is so overly tempting that you cannot harmoniously co-exist with it in your kitchen? Get rid of it or at least have less of it in the house.
“That can really help,” says Ms. Bonci, along with having the foods (i.e. fruits and veggies) you want to eat more of on hand, even if it means just a couple of oranges in the fridge or some broccoli in the freezer. And yes, even if you buy it in a can it still counts as a vegetable, and in fact it may be even easier to use than the fresh stuff.
Next, consider portion sizes. If they’re too big, go to the dollar store and buy smaller plates and containers. If you make soup and transfer the leftovers in a big pot, chances are you’ll eat a lot of it the next day, Ms. Bonci says. “But you can only pour so much into small containers,” she adds. The same goes with measuring spoons and cups. Don’t rely on your eye to get it right.
As for the food itself, one mistake people often make when they want to eat healthier is to give themselves a death sentence of eating only bland foods. Crispy and flavorful implies “fat.”
“You can get the same taste out of a sauteed potato as fried, only using less oil,” Ms. Bonci says.
If you love the taste of creamy things made with a flour roux, add some pureed cannellini beans. You’ll get the same mouth feel but it will have more protein and fiber and fewer calories and fat. Plus, you’ll sneak in an extra serving of vegetables.
Other easy food swaps Ms. Bonci suggests are: Use Greek yogurt instead of sour cream in recipes; substitute shredded cheese instead of hunks (it will save calories and fat); and saute foods in olive oil instead of cooking them in the deep fryer. Also, consider substituting barley for couscous or white rice.
“It makes a really nice risotto,” she says.
Heather Mangieri, a registered dietitian nutritionist who often works with athletes in her practice, Nutrition CheckUp, echoes that sentiment by telling her clients to opt for brown rice in place of white. A whole grain, brown rice also contains the bran and germ, leaving it with more fiber and essential nutrients than white rice, and it also can help reduce cholesterol and lower the risk of diabetes, stroke and Type 2 diabetes, she says.
When shopping for bread, make sure the first ingredient on the list says whole grain or whole wheat. This goes for crackers, flour, tortillas or other grains as well.
Zoodles, or strips of zucchini, is a great alternative to pasta not only for its nutritional value but also for its color, texture and belly-filling fiber. The best part is you don’t have to worry about your portion size because zoodles are much lower in calories and carbohydrates than traditional pasta.
Anne-Marie Alderson, a certified functional diagnostic nutrition practitioner and owner of Alderson Endurance and Wellness, suggests starting your day with some protein. The American diet, she says, is usually high in refined carbs, such as cereal, bagels and muffins for breakfast, “which can spike blood sugar and make you tired midmorning,” she says. Instead, make a batch of hard-boiled eggs over the weekend for a quick breakfast or add-on, swap out your cereal for some cottage cheese with fresh fruit or make a hash with fresh vegetables.
She also suggests replacing breads with an extra serving of veggies. For instance, fill half a pepper instead of two slices of bread with tuna or egg salad or wrap lettuce around sandwich fixings. Also, trade canola and vegetable oils for coconut oil and animal fats or ghee (clarified butter) , which are higher in natural saturated fats.
But the biggest tip for eating healthier in the new year, she says, is to plan ahead. That way, when Monday rolls around and you’re scrambling, you won’t reach for the convenience food or fast-food takeout. Plan a big salad with lots of vegetables and precooked protein for at least one meal, and consider making the humble frittata your best friend. “And grate some yellow squash in it,” she says. “No one will know it’s there.”
Also, know that tastes change over time so if you think you don’t like a particular vegetable (Brussels sprouts come to mind), try it again or cook it a different way — maybe roasted instead of boiled.
Broccoli Carrot Soup
Cheddar and yogurt add a silken texture to the soup. When you blend the soup, make sure you cover the top of the blender with a clean kitchen towel to avoid any explosions; you may want to do it in batches.
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound broccoli, cut into small pieces
½ pound carrots, peeled and cut into small pieces
4 cups chicken broth
15-ounce can cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
¾ cup plan Greek yogurt (2 percent)
½ cup shredded extra-sharp cheddar cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
Dash of cayenne pepper
Dash of nutmeg
Heat olive oil in a pot over medium-high heat. Add onions and garlic, and saute until golden. Add broccoli, carrots and chicken broth, and bring to boil. Lower heat to simmer and cook until broccoli and carrots are tender.
Puree cannellini beans in blender. Add the broccoli-broth mixture, yogurt, cheese and spices, and puree until smooth.
— Leslie Bonci, Active Eating Advice
Turkey and Veggie Hash
“One of the things I really emphasize with my clients is getting protein at breakfast and getting in enough veggies each day,” says Ann-Marie Alderson, a certified functional diagnostic nutrition practitioner. “This recipe takes care of both, and it makes a great breakfast, lunch or dinner.” I cooked the eggs sunnyside-up style in the middle of the hash.
2 tablespoons ghee, butter or coconut oil
½ cup chopped sweet potato
½ cup chopped bell pepper
½ cup sliced mushrooms
¼ cup chopped red onion
2 cups fresh spinach or chopped greens (optional)
½ pound ground turkey, pork or chicken
1 tablespoon dried Italian seasoning
¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
2 eggs (optional)
Sea salt to taste
In a large saute pan, heat fat of choice over medium heat. Add sweet potato, pepper, mushroom, onion and greens; saute for 10 minutes.
Add meat and spices, and cook until cooked through, another 10 to 15 minutes.
Eggs can be scrambled in during the last 3 minutes of cooking or fry or poach them separately to serve alongside the hash.
— Anne-Marie Alderson, Alderson Endurance and Wellness
This easy recipe makes the perfect make-ahead breakfast or snack, especially if you’ve got a hectic schedule. Unlike traditional oatmeal, it’s served cold.
½ cup (dry) old-fashioned oats
6 ounces unsweetened almond milk
6 ounces plain Greek yogurt and ¼ teaspoon vanilla or 1 scoop chocolate or vanilla protein powder
½ cup berries (frozen is OK)
1 tablespoon chia seeds
⅛ cup almonds, pecans or walnuts
Combine all ingredients in a container.
Close lid and refrigerate for 8 hours, and then it is ready to serve.
Makes 1 generous serving.
— Andrew Wade, Case Specifics
Reduced-Fat Buffalo Chicken Dip
Buffalo chicken dip is a Pittsburgh classic, especially during football season. This version has less calories but just as much flavor as a traditional preparation.
32 ounces chicken breast, raw, skinless, boneless
⅓ cup hot sauce (such as Franks Red Hot)
1 (8-ounce) package ⅓ less fat, plain cream cheese
½ cup reduced-fay Greek yogurt ranch dressing (recipe follows)
½ cup shredded cheddar cheese
2 tablespoons green onion, fresh green and bulb, sliced
Preheat oven to 250 degrees.
Remove any visible skin from the boneless, skinless chicken (you do not want any fat from the chicken in this dish). Cut each breast into 4 pieces and place in a baking dish.
Bake on low heat for 40 to 50 minutes (the chicken will be tender and shred easily when cooked at this low heat).
Remove chicken from oven and put it in a large bowl. Set aside liquid that resulted from cooking the chicken. Using your hands or a fork, pull the chicken apart until it is shredded in the bowl.
Add ½ cup of the liquid to shredded meat. Pour remaining liquid into a separate bowl. Increase oven temperature to 350 degrees.
Mix hot sauce, cream cheese and ranch dressing in a bowl. Once blended, stir into the chicken. If you feel the mixture is too dry, add more liquid.
Transfer chicken mixture back to baking dish, making sure to spread it evenly. Sprinkle shredded cheddar. Bake for 20 minutes or until cheese is melted. Garnish with green onion
— Heather Mangieri, RDN, Nutrition CheckUp
1 cup skim milk
½ cup plain Greek yogurt
½ cup light mayonnaise
1 package Ranch salad dressing and seasoning mix
Mix all ingredients together and pour into a Mason jar or other salad dressing container. Chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes. Stir before serving.
Makes 18 servings.