Preparing Health Full Meals

Much has been learned about how to prepare healthful foods that are enjoyable, convenient to make, and economical. Many of the leading chefs of Europe and the United States have abandoned cooking styles that once depended on fats and oils and are now using healthier cooking methods.

This “new” cuisine uses the cook's culinary skill to create delicious meals that bring fruits, vegetables, and grains to center stage. Simple yet innovative techniques can be used to modify favorite recipes to maximize the nutritious value of the meal without jeopardizing its taste.

When you modify an existing recipe, it is generally best to start slowly, making one change at a time. Persistence, willingness to experiment, and a few tried-and-true hints can help you prepare healthful and flavorful meals.

Recently, fat, sugar, and salt have been vilified for the roles they play in increasing the risk of certain diseases such as obesity, diabetes, coronary artery disease, and high blood pressure. However, they are only “bad” when eaten in excess. The key is not to banish them from the kitchen but to use them in moderation.

Fat provides flavor, substance, and a mouth-pleasing creamy texture. Sugar adds sweetness, crispness, tenderness, and color. Salt heightens the flavor of foods and is necessary in baked goods made with yeast.

The art of cooking is to put the proper amounts of these ingredients in each food. Recipe modification is one of the more useful cooking skills. In some instances, modification of the fat, sugar, or salt content actually can make the food tastier, moister, and more satisfying than it was originally.

When Should a Recipe Be Modified?

Sometimes it is difficult to know whether a recipe can be adjusted without sacrificing taste, texture, and appeal. Try modifying a recipe if you answer “yes” to any of the following questions:

  • Is the recipe high in fat, sugar, or salt?
  • Is this a food I eat frequently?
  • Is this a food I eat in large amounts?

Keep in mind that not every recipe needs to be modified. If, for example, a certain high-fat dessert is a family favorite and it is prepared infrequently, there is no need to change it. As long as it is treated as an item from the top of the Food Guide Pyramid—the occasional food—enjoy it in its familiar form.

Because every recipe is different, experimentation is necessary. There are numerous ways to make a recipe healthier. Of course, not every experiment works. It may take several attempts to achieve the desired taste and consistency. Once the modified recipe meets your expectations, file it for future use.

As a start, try these five methods:

  • Reduce the amount of fat, sugar, or salt.
  • Delete a high-fat ingredient or seasoning.
  • Substitute a healthier ingredient.
  • Change the method used to prepare the recipe.
  • Reduce the amount of meat in the recipe.

Can the Amount of an Ingredient Be Reduced?

Start by reducing the amount one ingredient at a time. In most baked goods, sugar generally can be reduced by one third to one-half without substantially changing consistency or taste. Because sugar increases moisture, as a rule retain one-fourth cup of sugar, honey, or molasses for every cup of flour in baked goods.

To maximize the sweetness of foods, when appropriate, serve the dish warm or at room temperature rather than cold. In addition, there are spices that can enhance sweetness. Some possibilities include cinnamon, cloves, allspice, nutmeg, and vanilla and almond extract or flavoring.

Eliminating a cup of sugar in a recipe saves about 800 calories. Fat also can be reduced by one-third to one-half in baked goods. Use puréed fruit or applesauce to replace the fat in a 1:1 ratio. For example, use one-half cup of oil plus one-half cup of unsweetened applesauce (instead of 1 cup of oil).

Eliminating 1 cup of oil or fat saves about 2,000 calories and 225 grams of fat. Another way to decrease fat and cholesterol is to substitute egg whites or egg substitute for a whole egg. For every egg, use 2 egg whites or a quarter cup of egg substitute.

With this replacement, approximately 5 grams of fat, 2 grams of saturated fat, 200 milligrams of cholesterol, and 60 calories are saved. Reduce but do not totally remove salt because a small amount of salt frequently is required to facilitate the chemical reactions that occur during cooking.

Salt is always required with yeast-leavened items. The cooler the food, the saltier it will taste. Try under-salting hot foods that will be chilled before serving. Using a half teaspoon of salt instead of 1 teaspoon in a recipe saves about 1,200 milligrams of sodium.

Can an Ingredient Be Omitted?

Determine whether any ingredients can be omitted. Sugar, fat, and salt are likely candidates because in many instances they are used mainly for appearance or by habit. To reduce sugar, omit candy coatings, sugary frostings, and syrups. Nuts, although nutritious, are high in fat and contribute significant calories.

Additional condiments that add unwanted fat and calories include coconut, whipped cream, mayonnaise, butter, margarine, and sour cream. Pickles, catsup, olives, and mustard are low in calories. However, because these condiments are high in salt, persons who have high blood pressure or heart disease generally should limit their use.

Can a Substitution Be Made?

Substituting ingredients that are lower in fat, sugar, and salt can make a significant difference in a recipe. For example, use skim milk rather than whole or 2 percent milk. Products made from pureed prunes and apples or mashed bananas often can be used as a replacement for butter, margarine, or oil.

These products also can be used in homemade baked goods or box mixes. Be cautious when using fat-free spreads (such as fatfree margarine or cream cheese), “artificial” sweeteners, or salt substitutes in cooked foods. Most fat-free spreads contain a significant amount of water.

This can change the outcome of the recipe by affecting its leavening or by leaving the food runny. Some sweeteners (such as aspartame) lose their sweetness when exposed to heat. Heat can make some salt substitutes (such as those containing potassium chloride) strong or bitter tasting.

For these reasons, these products generally should be restricted to recipes that do not require cooking or are used as condiments when foods are served at the table. In most instances, success depends on patience and a bit of creativity. If one substitution does not yield the desired result, try again. Another substitute or a different amount of the same substitute may work better.

Can the Amount of Fruits, Grains, and Vegetables in the Recipe Be Increased?

Increasing the amount of vegetables, grains, and fruits in a recipe can both improve taste and increase the nutritional quality of the food. For example, when cooking a soup or stew, use three times as many vegetables (by measure) as meat. Add generous portions of mushrooms, tomatoes, broccoli, and green pepper to pizza.

Make pizza even lower in fat and calories by omitting or decreasing the cheese. Alternatively, choose a lower-fat cheese, such as mozzarella (made from skim milk), and use less of it. If possible, eliminate the meat or add only a small amount of lean meat. If you are making your own crust, make it thin and use whole-grain flour.

Pizza, if served with a salad and eaten in moderation, can be an enjoyable and nutritious meal. To get at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables a day, add them to foods that do not typically include these ingredients.

For example, add chopped pieces of fruit or vegetables to rice, add fruit toppings to toast or pancakes, or top meats with chopped vegetables. For each serving of meat (a serving is 2 to 3 ounces of meat), try to eat at least 1 serving each of fruit, vegetables, and grains.

When possible, start your meal with a healthful salad. This often helps you decrease the amount of high-calorie food that you eat later in the meal. The more servings of grains, vegetables, or fruit, the better, because these are both filling and high in nutrients.