How to eat to satisfy your tastebuds and your thighs… Part II: simple switches
I’m not a dietitian or food scientist, so while these tips may not be the be-all and end-all of eating well, they are realistic, and I would argue totally achievable. As in, they come from a real person, with realistic cravings for delicious things. Despite all these cravings, and despite giving in to a lot of them, I manage to stay a healthy size (although yes, I will admit it helps that my family are all thin so there’s some genetic advantage I have), keep all my official nutrient levels normal (I will admit I’m a little low in iron though), and keep my food budget in line with my occupation as a full time student. I decided to write this up after lots of contemplation because most of the posts I see from nutritionists and well meaning doctors require way too much translating into normal speak and also don’t clearly help with actual meal planning. They also don’t seem to consider the taste factor – no one wants to eat food that tastes bad, at the end of the day. So I’ve decided to start a several-part series of tips that I find help me (healthily) enjoy everything I eat. Originally it was going to be one long post but a few steps at a time are generally easier to make than one great big leap.
Re-discover flavoursome plant based alternatives to animal products
While I am a staunch defender of butter, and oh boy do I eat a lot of it, I balance this by eating less animal fat elsewhere in my diet. Instead of using bacon or chicken (which aren’t unhealthy in moderation, but much of the time they are just eaten all the time) as the main component in a dish, I will look to something plant based, which generally has fats that are better for you. Olives (especially kalamata, but not those awful Spanish black pitted olives), sundried tomatoes, properly browned mushrooms, garlic and onions (oh boy, sooooo much garlic and onion), avocado, tahini and nuts add both variety in terms of nutrients and flavour. This tip is one of the biggest reasons I very rarely crave meat, and can easily limit myself to eating it once a month. If you love meat too much, use it as a complimentary flavour, not the main affair. When baking, I also often bookmark dairy free recipes, which actually make a really nice refreshing change every now and then.
Cook and bake with a variety of wholegrains and unrefined sugar
This has so far been my greatest challenge – most recipes are steeped in a tradition of using refined flour or grains and refined sugar, and would taste pretty sub-par if you simply swapped white for whole. There are a few exceptions, like couscous, but generally I find wholegrains should be used with taste kept in mind. This doesn’t mean I barely use it though, on the contrary – the nutty flavour of wholemeal flour is always welcome in pastry, for example, I just use 1/3 wholemeal. Since wholegrains are increasingly being recognised as important, there are now heaps of books that have recipes dedicated to using wholegrain flours. “Good to the grain” and “Healthy bread in five minutes a day” are excellent examples, which don’t compromise taste. Blog-wise, 101 Cookbooks and Eat Good 4 Life are great examples. The major bonus of eating with wholegrains is that they keep you fuller for longer – the same goes for veges when eaten with proteins, because the fibre ensures our body takes its time processing the food. Look for recipes with grains you normally don’t cooked with (buckwheat galettes, for example). I find if you’re browsing food blogs the most helpful ones are those which also have unhealthy recipes – they’re a little more realistic in their descriptions, and you know they’ve made those comments even after tasting regular treats. That said…Live a little!
Cook your own beans, lentils, chickpeas and all that good stuff
This is recent discovery that I am really beginning to love, partly because the dried stuff is so ridiculously cheap. Aside from the fact that they are little nutritional powerhouses, they can taste amazing, especially if you cook them yourself. If you want them to end up soft rather than al dente, remember not to add salt or acid to the first two hours of cooking (basically, until the end). However, to let the salt really get in there, sit in salted water overnight before using. When cooking I usually add a bay leaf and a crushed clove of garlic or a halved onion to add a bit of flavour to them. Rosemary is also a welcome companion, especially in winter. Before cooking with a new bean, google it and see what its cooking time is, what it will do, and some classic dishes that use it. Because beans don’t taste of much on their own, I consider them a bit like veges in that they just need to be cooked well and paired well to bring out their deliciousness. Keep in mind that once cooked, you can freeze the beans and easily defrost them in a pan or the microwave, or overnight in the fridge. Soaking also helps reduce cooking time. I try to cook some whenever I have time, then freeze for later use, rather than planning a meal around them, since otherwise I just forget to soak or whatever.
Sneak beans, lentils, and chickpeas in whenever you can
Instead of cheese in a sandwich, spread over some hummus. In your rice, add some red lentils and cook as usual. In your mashed potatoes, add cooked red lentils (you can cook them with the potatoes, they take about 15 minutes of simmering) and a pinch of curry powder. Instead of using all mince or all meat in curries or stews or soups, bulk it up with beans, lentils, or chickpeas.
Don’t demonise fat
Our bodies need fat, and fat does not actually automatically make you fat. Of course, I’m not condoning eating it by the bucketload (in which case, it will make you fat). Fat should be eaten in moderation, but instead of obsessively focussing on eating less of it at all costs, just vary the types of fat you eat, and be sensible about amounts. This will come naturally if you follow the above tips. Most low fat products have added other undesirable additives, and most “fake fats” (eg. margarine) chemically change the original fat so our bodies barely even know what the heck it is. If you know you need to limit your fat intake, pick items that are naturally lower in fat, like beans and lentils (see above), or cottage cheese and feta in place of cheddar. Also, keep in mind that you will need to add flavour if you’re reducing fat. Often in processed food what is added is more sugar, or artificial flavours and colours. However at home you can add herbs and spices – far tastier, and far better for you!
…as in, citrus juices and vinegars. These not only help balance flavour in a lot of dishes but also help enhance it relying solely on salt. Some say it also aids digestion…I just think it helps my tastebuds! These are super easy to incorporate into salads as dressings – just whisk together half vinegar/juice, half oil, some salt and pepper as a base.