How to Bring Flavor to Healthy Cooking — Cooking for the Holidays

Now that we’re past most of the stress of moving and we’ve gained all the attendant weight that comes from such an event, it’s time to diet. I believe in dieting by eating a nutritious, balanced diet, not by following an extreme regimen or fad. So far I’ve found Weight Watchers to be most effective at this; this will be the second time I’ve done the program (the first time I used the At Home program; this time it’s their online program).

One of the problems with dieting is that a lot of the diet food out there is pretty bland or uninspiring, and my husband and I love to eat and cook well. Yet we find that when we diet we actually eat better than ever. Why is this? Because we put a lot more time and attention into finding ways to make our food taste good, and we don’t simply rely on fat to do it.

Fat adds flavor, mouth feel, and richness to foods. There’s simply no way to avoid the fact that when you reduce your fat intake you’re going to reduce certain flavors in your foods. In part you’ll adjust to this as your body adjusts (I found it to be a kind of withdrawal period complete with cravings and intense restlessness), but there are also many, many ways to increase the flavors in your foods without going overboard on the fats.

Pick recipes well. You don’t have to pick “blah” recipes in order to have a comparatively healthy meal (even holiday meal), and you don’t have to go overboard making “diet food.” Try to pick recipes that are heavy on vegetables, fruit, whole grains, etc. This is easier than it sounds with events such as Thanksgiving, as recipes involving fruits and veggies are highly traditional — think cranberries, potatoes and sweet potatoes, pumpkin, green beans, corn, and so on. Pick recipes that look like they were constructed by a smart cook who understood that there’s a difference between using the necessary amount of fat to make a recipe come out well, and using as much fat as you can pack into a recipe just because fat tastes good.

Substitute with smarts. There are a lot of places where you can at least partially substitute lower-fat or healthier versions of an ingredient, such as fat free sour cream for sour cream, graham cracker crumbs in a crust for Oreo cookie crumbs, Egg Beaters (which are mostly egg white) for eggs, etc. I’m continually surprised at the improvements in healthy foods–they taste a heck of a lot better than they used to just a few years ago.

You can get more creative in your substitutions too. If a recipe calls for some sort of high-fat spicy tomato-based topping, see if you can use salsa, which is surprisingly healthy, instead. You can simply add extra vegetables and fruits to many dishes, which reduces the calories and fat per serving if you keep the serving size the same. Use phyllo cups instead of puff pastry. You get the idea.

Reduce. With practice you’ll learn where you can safely reduce fatty components in a recipe such as oil. I often find that when cooking foods in a few tablespoons of oil, or when adding oil to a dressing, I can safely reduce the oil by a quarter to a third without ill effects. This isn’t always the case, however, so don’t start experimenting wildly when you’re counting on a recipe to come out perfectly for guests!

Flavor well. One of the reasons diet food often tastes bland is because fat provides flavor. When people remove the fat, they often forget to bring in some other source of flavor. Spicing is handy, as are fresh herbs. Small amounts of fatty things (such as a single piece of bacon and/or a tablespoon of cheese crumbled into an omelet) can add fatty flavor without going overboard. Instead of regular cheddar, try extra-sharp or chipotle cheddar, or pepper jack. Go for unusual flavor variants. Use freshly-grated citrus zest to add intensity to many salads, desserts, and even vegetable sides. Roast ingredients such as vegetables to bring out their flavors, or sear them on a cast iron pan — both methods caramelize foods and bring out an inherent sweetness.

Complement well. Many low-fat sauces are intensely flavored precisely because they’re meant to jazz things up. Serve things with homemade relishes, barbecue sauces, mustard-based sauces, Asian soy-based sauces, and other healthy complements.

Keep a “sampler” mind-set. Instead of going for big huge slices or portions of things, go for small samples of everything. Remind yourself that you can always go back for more if you want. It takes time for the stomach to signal the brain that it’s full, and we also tend to grab large portions of the fatty, rich things fastest. This is a great way to approach big holiday meals.

Make small portions and immediately freeze extras. For instance, if you’re making a cheesecake (always a staple at our holiday feast!), make it in those mini cheesecake pans. Split a mini cheesecake with a few friends on the night of the feast and immediately freeze the extras. If you don’t have mini cheesecake pans, immediately slice up the cheesecake and freeze whole quarters or eighths. Make tartlets instead of tarts. Make mini muffins or mini-loaves instead of full ones. If you make a large batch of something like cookies, put them into baggies in smaller batches and freeze those, keeping only one out and available at a time.

Keep track of nutritional information. When we pick out our recipes, we often photocopy them from the cookbooks so we can easily juggle them while cooking, make notes on them, etc. Note any nutritional information you can find out (like points values if you’re on Weight Watchers) on the recipes. Write this on the wrapping for the servings you freeze, and make sure that even if you have a blowout on the holiday itself, you get right back to counting calories or whatever the very next day.

Watch your extras. If you’re throwing a feast, keep particularly low-fat healthy food in the house for the week preceding and the weeks following the feast and be sure to get plenty of exercise. That way you’ll have extra room leftover in your diet for the fattier things from the holiday, which allows you to indulge a bit and helps you to feel satisfied. Consider making a few batches of very low-fat muffins or something similar the weekend before thanksgiving them and freezing them. This also works for more minor splurge occasions such as a night out at your favorite restaurant.

Some of these tips are aimed more at the holiday feast, seeing as Thanksgiving is coming up soon. Others are useful at any time. Diets don’t have to be torture–they can be a source of pleasure and well-being instead.

Posted in Cooking

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