By Jess O’Toole
Preparing nutritious meals at home can be overwhelming. Every day a new fad diet promises you can lose weight and feel great fast. Counting calories is tedious and grocery shopping becomes as complicated as solving the fiscal cliff situation in Washington. Sometimes it helps to go back to basics and remember that common sense paired with a little creativity in the kitchen are the keys to maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Nutritious meals benefit the body and mind in several ways: giving pleasure, providing energy and aiding the body in fighting disease.
Making good choices about what goes into our bodies is a journey we set out on each day, and every meal is an opportunity to start fresh. Here are a few easy tips for putting nutritious meals on the table every time, no matter how busy your life is or how many mouths you have to feed. Opportunities lie in each part of the process, from buying ingredients to cooking techniques to plating the food.
The Plan is There is No Plan
Most of us don’t have time to write out detailed meal plans for the week, and those who do have a difficult time sticking to the plan. Life is hectic and unpredictable. You don’t need the pressure of a fridge full of produce going to waste because you’re too exhausted to make that complicated recipe with 15 fresh garnishes from the latest celebrity chef cookbook.
A well-stocked pantry is your best ally. Maintaining a varied selection of whole grains, dried legumes, vegetable and nut oils, vinegars, canned fish, nuts and spices means a balanced meal is always at your fingertips.
Stock Up on Whole Grains
Whole grains have been minimally processed (or not at all) and still contain the germ, bran and endosperm. This means they retain valuable nutrients and fiber but often require overnight soaking and longer cooking times. Don’t be deterred, just cook a big pot on the weekend and keep them stored in the fridge to enjoy throughout the week. Whole grains like oats, brown rice, barley, wild rice, bulgur, wheat berries and farro have a variety of uses. Add them to salads, soups, stews and stir-frys, risotto, patties or as stuffing for roast poultry or squash. Quinoa comes in a rainbow of colors, lending variety to your plate. It’s not a true grain (though it’s lumped into classification), but it’s delicious, high in fiber and a complete protein. Whole wheat pasta and Asian soba noodles are other alternatives you can try.
Load Up on Legumes
Dried legumes (beans and lentils) are good sources of protein and fiber, giving heft to meatless meals. Treat them as you do whole grains, cooking up a big pot on the weekend and incorporating them into soups, stews, salads and pastas throughout the week. The pressure-cooker is a nice luxury to have for speeding up the cooking process.
Pureed bean dip made from black beans, garbanzos (the base for hummus) or white beans (like cannellini) are healthy and satisfying. Red and yellow lentils break down to a softer consistency and are perfect for pureed soups (like tomato or red pepper). And dark green lentils keep their shape and are therefore best served as a side dish, stirred into vegetable soups or sprinkled throughout your salads.
Try Exotic Fruits
Once the pantry is stocked with healthy staples you’ve got a base for cooking meals with fresh produce. Go beyond the everyday and taste a new fruit once a week. Instead of your usual navel orange, pick up a hybrid like Cara Cara (a cross between a grapefruit and a navel orange) or blood oranges. Experiment with citrus by using the juice and grated zest in salad vinaigrettes or marinades for meat and fish. Garnish savory dishes like steamed fish or stir-fried vegetables with citrus slices. Citrus has a way of brightening up meals and stimulating the taste buds with its lively acidity. Tropical fruits are excellent sources of vitamins and antioxidants, especially in early spring, before local berries and stone fruits come in season. Bring home an exotic papaya, kiwi, pineapple or mango for your next smoothie or salad. Resist the temptation to overload your shopping cart, and instead grab one or two thoughtful purchases to try. You’ll have fun cooking with the fruit of the week.
Taste the Rainbow of Vegetables
Seeking out a rainbow of vegetables makes things more interesting. Farmers markets tend to have multiple varieties of the same vegetable, and grocery stores are offering more options every day. Instead of baking a russet potato, try a nutrient-rich sweet potato sprinkled with cinnamon, cayenne and lime zest. Or try boiling or roasting purple potatoes. It’s time to move beyond spinach and arugula. The slightly bitter taste of curly chicory and crimson radicchio leave makes an interesting addition to salads, but also tastes delicious after a minute or two on the grill.
Sturdy leafy specimens like purple kale, beet greens, rainbow chard, spicy mustard greens and broad collards are bursting with vitamins and minerals. Wrapped carefully in paper towels and a loose plastic bag, the leaves will keep in the fridge for several days. Quickly sauté them in olive oil and serve with crushed red pepper or a drizzle of balsamic vinegar; or, tenderize finely shredded kale, cabbage or beet leaves by soaking them in salad vinaigrette and serve raw.
Another benefit of sturdy greens is that they hold up well in soups and stews. See what looks the freshest at your local market and bring home a handful to sample. Mushrooms (fresh and dried) come in all shapes and sizes, and offer important vitamins and minerals with few calories and no fat. Store them in a paper bag in the fridge at the ready to cast into soups or sauté with fresh herbs, onions and garlic. With a rich flavor and texture that’s perfect for meatless meals, they combine especially well with protein- rich lentils. Portobello mushrooms can be stuffed with cooked vegetables and whole grains, then cooked in the oven or on the grill.
Use Flavor Boosters
A key to making nutritious meals is boosting flavor without contributing saturated fat, refined sugars or excess sodium. Take it a step further by adding health benefits with fresh herbs, chili peppers, roots and spices. Scatter intensely aromatic fresh herbs like mint, dill, tarragon and basil into salads or add as garnishes to soups. They’re also great for livening up the flavor of steamed vegetables (such as carrots, artichokes, peas or asparagus). Use woodsy herbs like rosemary, thyme and sage during cooking to infuse dishes with their heady aromas. Chili peppers, famous for their anti-inflammatory properties, vary greatly in heat intensity. Whether dried and ground or freshly sliced, chili peppers lend a punch to steamed fish, meat marinades, soups and stews, vegetable side dishes, salsas, pastas and grain salads. Chili peppers can also exhibit flavors of smoke, citrus, chocolate or coffee.
Roots like garlic and ginger don’t look like much but are essential to every pantry. Both contain antioxidants that help the body fight disease and promote digestive health. Garlic is delicious roasted and tossed into salads or pureed into dips, and once peeled and finely grated or sliced, fresh ginger brings an intense hot-and-sweet character to sautéed dishes, salad vinaigrettes, fruit smoothies, soups and marinades.
Remember: Whole spices stay fresher longer, so buy whole pods and grind them as needed with a mortar and pestle.
Each Meal is a Fresh Start
Nutritious meals needn’t be boring or flavorless, but they begin with a well-stocked pantry, allowing you to cook in the moment by pairing the basics with fresh, seasonal produce. Lean meat, poultry and fish should be eaten in moderation, with protein-rich legumes, eggs, low-fat dairy and nuts standing in their place for meatless meals. Each meal is an opportunity to try something new: an unfamiliar ingredient, cooking technique, or combination of flavors. Start fresh today by putting something green on the plate, trying a new type of fruit or picking up fresh herbs for tonight’s supper.