Learning How to Cook Healthier Meals

 Many people, both friends and patients, have commented that if they just had a chef who could cook them tasty healthy meals, then they would follow a healthful diet.  If you can afford such a service, then by all means, use one if it helps you meet your goals.  For the rest of us, like 99% of the population, you might want to consider learning how to cook and bake.  Seriously, it is time to consider this.

With clear instruction and practice, I think anyone can learn the basics of cooking and baking.  This will allow you to eat well and still meet your health goals.  You will also save a lot of money!  When you first start to cook it will probably take you more time than going out to eat.  However, once you become familiar with meal planning, shopping for ingredients, and basic approaches to following recipes, I think you will find that you can cook from scratch nearly as quickly as the time is takes to go out and get restaurant food.  Before you embark on this adventure, I have some tips for you based upon my personal experience.  


 The Basics

1.      Cookbook 

Do a little research to find a cookbook that has:

ü  recipes that are appealing TO YOU

ü  written instructions that make sense TO YOU

ü  variety

ü  a “fast and easy” section

ü  Nutrition information if you want to select healthier recipes


2.      Equipment

As you start to cook, buy equipment that will make your life easier as you become familiar with the type of recipes that you enjoy following.  I strongly recommend that you go online and check out the equipment review section of “Cook’s Illustrated- it is worth the hassle of joining the trial membership to get access to this information.  I have been using their reviews for years to buy equipment and haven’t been disappointed yet with their recommendations.  Here is a short list of items that I have found to be particularly useful for the beginning cook.  If you want more ideas on equipment, the Dummies website has a quick list as well. 

Chef’s knife, paring knife, and a long bread knife (love Forschner Victorinox for lightness)

1 large sauté pan (5 – 6 qt), 1 medium sauce pot (3-4 qt), 1 Dutch oven (large sturdy deep pot)

3 dishwasher-safe cutting boards (1 large, 1 medium, and 1 mini)

2 “Oxo” brand veggie peelers (I LOVE this brand)

2 – 3 silicone spatulas/spoons (high heat), 1 silicone whisk

2 sets of measuring cups and measuring spoons

1 good sized colander with a stable base and 1 smaller mesh strainer


3.      Plan

Take time to plan your dinner meals a few days in advance so that you can shop for ingredients beforehand and have them in the home when you are ready to cook.  You will learn how far in advance you can buy perishable ingredients – some items keep better than others.  Many items freeze and thaw well, so buying larger quantities of certain cuts of meat can also help you save money (think Costco-packages of pork tenderloin or chops, beef, cheese, etc). My general rule of thumb for storage of fresh items:  use meats/poultry by 3 days or freeze it, use veggies by 5 days, use fish the day purchased or freeze.  If you want more information on the safe storage of food, then see United States Department of Agriculture's "Consumer Corner:  Food Storage and Preservation."


4.      Spices

Be prepared to buy spices and dry herbs – they are worth the cost and you will use them regularly.  You’ll quickly learn that healthier recipes often rely on these ingredients for flavor.


5.      Leftovers

Ellie Krieger, a dietitian and writer, has a motto that many dietitians follow, “Cook once, and eat twice.”  You’ll find that you don’t have to cook 7 days a week if you learn how to use leftovers.  I usually freeze leftovers so that I can pick and choose when I use them again; otherwise, I follow the storage rule in the “Plan” section above.  I do not thaw and then re-freeze items.  Once an item has been frozen and then thawed, I am committed to using it.


6.      Patience


Don’t give up!  It takes time to learn how to cook, shop, and meal plan.   If you cook for your family, there will be some negotiation as to which recipes stay on the roster.  You might find it less stressful to start cooking on your days off, and then gradually add weekday cooking.



My Favorite “Healthier Cookbooks”


“Healthier” cookbooks are those that contain recipes modified to reduce salt (sodium), saturated fat, cholesterol, refined sugars, and calories.  I also look for cookbooks that use whole foods, healthier oils such as olive oil, nuts and fish, and a variety of whole grains (not just wheat).  These cookbooks should include Nutrition information with each recipe.  The following is a list of “healthier” cookbooks that I have continued to use for years.  This is not an exhaustive list – these are simply my favorites.  I should mention that despite my profession as a dietitian, I am not a highly skilled cook.  I had to work my way up the learning curve.  I am at the point now where I prefer my own cooking to most restaurant meals. 


Cooking Light 

This is probably my all-time favorite healthier cookbook and magazine.  It is not surprising to me that Cooking Light magazine won the 2008 Media Excellence Award from the American Dietetic Association.  Dietitians routinely write for Cooking Light so the articles contain accurate and timely information on Nutrition. 

Aside from the accuracy of the articles, I think the recipes are excellent.  I find the ingredients affordable, the instructions crystal-clear, and both the magazines and books have a delightful variety of cuisines.  Vegetarians will also find that they have lot of options.  If you are an inexperienced cook, then I highly recommend that you start with recipes tagged as “Quick and Easy.”  If the selection is wide enough for you, then you can also try limiting your search further to “Quick and Easy” and “Staff Favorites.”

I also appreciate the Nutrition information listing at the bottom of each recipe, for a specified portion size.  For recipes that are typically very high in fat, calories, or salt, there is often a comparison chart that shows you how much lower the Cooking Light recipe is compared to the traditional dish. 

You have three formats to chose from:  online (great recipe finder system), the monthly magazine (includes articles on Nutrition and Fitness) and the annual recipes collection (printed every year in hardcover, e.g. “Cooking Light Annual Recipes 2008”).  Choose which ever format suits you.  I actually use all three modes depending upon what kind of mood I’m in.  If I want a menu, I typically go to the current magazine for seasonally appropriate combinations.


Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home:  Fast and Easy Recipes for Any Day

This is a lovely, mostly vegetarian cookbook filled with delicious recipes that are easy to prepare.  I like the emphasis on healthy fats such as olive oil and fish.  There are also recipes that include dairy products such as cheese and eggs.  All recipes include Nutrition information (Calories, protein, fat, carbs, sodium, and cholesterol).  Since I had the pleasure of working on the Nutritional analysis of the recipes while I worked at CBORD, Inc. (under the direction of Laura Winter Falk, RD at time, now RD, Ph.D.), I can tell you that the authors really do care about Nutrition – they modified recipes after the first round of nutritional analysis to make them healthier. This cookbook is definitely a keeper, for vegetarian and meat-eaters alike!  And, in case you didn’t know, the Moosewood Restaurant is still open in Ithaca, NY.


Betty Crocker’s Diabetes Cookbook:  Everyday Meals Easy as 1-2-3

I LOVE this cookbook It incorporates basic Diabetes education and guidelines by the International Diabetes Center (many Diabetes centers follow their guidelines in the U.S.) along with very easy to prepare, tasty recipes.  All items I have made so far have been delicious.  The Nutrition information that comes with each recipe includes how to count the carb choices as well as food exchanges – it is a great learning tool.  Because this cookbook is geared for people with Diabetes, the recipes are also heart healthy and lower in sodium (in addition to being carb controlled).  And to my surprise, many of the desserts do not rely on artificial sweeteners; they rely on other flavorings and portion control instead.  This cookbook is really for anyone wanting to eat more healthfully, not just for those with Diabetes.  This cookbook is worth the hardcover price.


The Best of Simply Colorado Cookbook

Although I have made some delicious recipes from the Colorado Dietetic Association’s “Simply Colorado” cookbooks, I have also made a few recipes that were so lean and mean that I truly believe only a hardcore do-or-die dietitian could enjoy them.  Having said that, I still think it is worth trying this cookbook since the recipes are healthy, extremely easy, and many are very tasty.  There is nothing fussy about these recipes.  Just be aware that when you use very lean meats, especially beef, take care not to overcook it unless you enjoy jerky or shoe leather.  Amazon.com has the cheapest price for this book, but here’s the publisher’s link as well.  


Some Other Great Basic Cookbooks to Own


The Joy of Cooking

Although not a healthy cookbook per se, I think this is one of the most useful cookbooks I have ever owned.   The authors take great relish in describing how and why to cook or bake something.  I also appreciate that the modern version has tips on how to make healthier ingredient substitutions without losing quality.  There are tons of valuable guides and conversions contained in this book.  I own the hardcover, 1997 edition. I do not recommend the plastic spine editions – my pages fell out like autumn leaves after very little use.



How to Cook Everything:  Simple Recipes for Great Food

Mark Bittmanoffers delicious recipes of different cuisines with a straightforward, no-nonsense approach.  I also like the basic how-to descriptions and illustrations that are sprinkled throughout the book.  It is a great basic cookbook with a lot of useful information, much like “Joy of Cooking” but Bittman-style.  This one definitely stays in my kitchen.  I have the paperback – has held up well for the past year.



The New High Altitude Cookbook

For those of you who live at high altitude (5000 ft or above), then you might want to own this extremely useful cookbook.  I have saved myself lot of time and money by following the recommended modifications.  If you live at 7000 ft or higher, this book is essential to own.  I recommend this book simply to help you make informed choices when it comes to ingredient substitutions at altitude.  This book will also help you learn how to modify your favorite sea level recipes for high altitude cooking and baking.


Dear Readers: 

Ø  Thanks so much for reading my blog!


Ø  Remember that this blog is not intended to serve as medical advice.  If you have been placed on a medical diet by your physician, then please follow that diet.  These cookbooks may or may not be appropriate for certain types of medical diets.


Ø  I would love to hear about your favorite cookbooks that offer healthier recipes - please share these by writing a comment.





3 Responses

  1. Devbani
    Hi Kathy: Another great way to learn to cook is to watch some of the cooking shows on PBS (Saturday mornings here in Denver). I found them really helpful in learning good knife handling skills and just another method to learn techniques for visual learners.
  2. Kathy
    Hi, Devbani: I agree, you can learn a lot about technique! Thanks for sharing that.
  3. Hi Kathy, This is the first time I saw your blog entry. Thank you for the shout-out! Thought I'd let you know I published a book on the culinary history of the Finger Lakes. The book tells the history of food and bevs in the region starting with the Iroquois through present day. Each chapter includes a recipe developed by a regional chef that is indicative of the period covered in the chapter that is paired with currently available wines from the region. Here is the link to the book on Amazon where you can get a preview . http://www.amazon.com/Culinary-History-Finger-Lakes-Riesling/dp/1626195455 Let me know what you think if you read it. All my best, Laura