March marks Nutrition Month and while we're proponents of being healthy any time of the year, we particularly enjoy having an excuse to pick dietitians' brains to discover how they actually eat well.
Considering the recent news from a Memorial University study that found the rate of obesity in Canada had tripled in the last 30 years, now seems like a pretty great time to remind everyone that making healthy choices can not only improve everything from your cardiac health to your skin, but also your quality of life.
So take these tips from the Dietitians of Canada to heart — literally. We're going to challenge ourselves to try to do at least one of these each day all month. Are you in?
1. Get Ready In Advance
Make weekday dinners easier on yourself by getting started on the weekend. Peel wash and chop vegetables for the next couple of dinners, buy, marinate and freeze meat in small portions, or cook a big pot of whole grain pasta, barley or quinoa so it’s ready to reheat when you need it.
2. Cheat With Healthy Convenience Foods
For people in a rush, there are some prepared foods that retain their healthy properties. They include:
• Light canned tuna or canned salmon
• Pre-cut butternut squash
• Canned legumes such as chickpeas or lentils
• Canned diced tomatoes
• Shredded cheese
• Plain frozen fish fillets
• Frozen vegetables and fruit
• Fresh or frozen whole wheat tortellini
• Whole grain pizza crusts
3. Don't Fear The Sandwich
Just because bread and gluten have been called the enemy of healthy eating for years doesn't mean sandwiches are out of the question (or, for that matter, that you shouldn't eat bread). Great combinations include a sandwich with fresh roasted turkey breast, avocado, tomato and lettuce; cheddar cheese, thinly sliced pear and spicy red pepper jelly; or hummus, thinly sliced cucumber, shredded carrot and lettuce.
4. 20-Minute Meals Do Exist
Don't be so quick to reach for the takeout menus — that gets expensive, and of course, unhealthy, very quickly. Some ideas for those 20 minute meals?
• Quesadillas filled with black beans, diced sweet pepper, salsa and Monterey Jack cheese
• Shrimp or tofu sautéed with broccoli, garlic, ginger and a pinch of hot pepper flakes, served over whole wheat couscous
• Whole grain pita pizzas topped with mushrooms, spinach, leftover grilled chicken and mozzarella
5. Double The Brunch
If you have more time to cook breakfast on the weekend, don't be afraid to make double the amount and save it for weekdays. Items like pancakes (which can be reheated in the toaster), oatmeal (which can be frozen in portions) and vegetable frittatas (which refrigerate well for a few days) can all work.
6. Cook Once, Eat Twice
Embrace "planned extras" and make more than you need for dinner so that certain ingredients will work for breakfast, lunch and beyond. Grilled chicken works perfectly on a sandwich the next day, roasted veggies top a pizza beautifully and chili can be transformed into enchilada in a snap.
7. Six-Ingredient Meals
Put the intimidating cookbooks away, and try these super simple recipes that are just as delicious:
• Cheesy Frittata – eggs, spinach, diced potato, red onion, milk and old cheddar cheese
• Lemony Pasta – whole grain pasta tossed with grilled zucchini, cherry tomatoes, roasted garlic, chickpeas and lemon juice
• Loaded Sweet Potato – baked sweet potato topped with black beans, green onion, tomato, cilantro and a spoonful of plain yogurt
8. Know Your Tools
According to the Dietitians of Canada, you can have a whole kitchen full of supplies, but there are five you really need to cook your meals:
• Sharp knives – including a paring knife for small slices
• Box grater – for grated vegetables, citrus zest and shredded cheese
• Immersion (hand-held) blender – perfect for puréeing vegetable soups right in the pot
• Steamer basket – makes cooking tender-crisp veggies a snap
• Instant-read thermometer – so you know when food is cooked to safe temperatures (no more guessing!)
9. Read Your Recipe
It sounds simple, but is a step many people plunging into cooking for the first time forget: read your recipe the whole way through so that you know what's involved. Get your ingredients and tools ready accordingly and make cooking that much easier.
10. Keep The Basics On Hand
There are certain items you should always have in your kitchen. While fresh produce and dairy products are great to buy regularly, these ingredients can be stocked at any time:
• Frozen vegetables and fruit
• Whole grains, such as quinoa, oats, brown rice and barley
• Canned salmon and chunk light tuna
• Canned or dried legumes, such as chickpeas, black beans and lentils
• Spices, garlic, vinegars and oils
11. Stick To One Pot
Suggestions for meals that use only one major cooking tool (therefore reducing clean-up time by half):
• Go quick: Cook simple skillet fajitas with sautéed onions, garlic, chicken and bell peppers. Serve the mixture in warm tortillas with avocado, cheese and salsa.
• Go slow: Make satisfying slow-cooker stews with beef, pork or dried legumes, root veggies, herbs and spices, simmered in flavourful broth.
12. Marinades Are Your Friend
Marinating inexpensive cuts of meat, such as pork shoulder, lamb shanks or beef brisket, adds flavour while it tenderizes, explain the Dietitians of Canada. It's easy to marinade meat in a plastic freezer bag, anywhere from 30 minutes to a few hours. Check out the recipe for sesame flank steak here.
13. Soups Are Actually The Easiest Meals Ever
Once you create your own stock (which just needs a bit of time, some vegetables, chicken or beef if you'd like), you can have soup any day by adding in pasta, more veggies or whatever your favourite ingredients are.
14. Stop Relying On Meat For Protein
Besides the benefits of vegetarianism, which we know are myriad, using proteins like chickpeas, lentils, black beans instead of meat will cut the cost of your grocery bill significantly.
15. Make Your Own Spaghetti Sauce
Eliminate hidden salts and fats, and make your own pasta sauce like this:
• Lightly sauté onions and garlic in a little olive oil
• Add low-sodium canned tomatoes and simmer
• Season with freshly ground pepper and herbs such as basil or oregano
16. Get The Family Involved
You may be scared to give your kids knives, but even getting them to do things like measure ingredients or mix up a salad (or even better, cleaning up!) teaches them from an early age about making healthy meals regularly.
17. Create-It-Yourself For The Teens
Teens who eat meals with their families and help out in the kitchen are more likely to make better food choices, according to the Dietitians of Canada — they’re also less likely to have eating disorders. Make it fun for them by letting them put together their own meals, whether it's tacos, fajitas or pizza created buffet style.
18. Get Competitive
It's always a good idea to add a little interest into the mix, especially once your regular meals start getting tired. Challenge your family or friends to pick a new recipe to try a month, and each person has to take the responsibility for it. Once they make it, judge away — and more than likely, discover a new favourite.
19. Smooth It Out
Smoothies are massively trendy right now, and even better, they're so easy to make. Literally, it's a blender, and the healthy, fresh ingredients you choose to combine. This is another great way to get kids involved in cooking — let them pick the foods, and even hit the blend button (which you know they'll love).
20. Breakfast For Dinner
Especially for those cooking for one, there's no reason why you can't eat breakfast for dinner. To bulk it up, try adding veggies like sautéed spinachs and mushrooms to poached eggs, yogurt on top of French toast or a Greek omelette complete with feta, tomatoes, red onions and olives.
21. Stay Small With Stir-Fries
When cooking for one or two, throwing whatever veggies are in your fridge together can be a great choice. Literally, the formula for stir-fries is a few veggies, some olive oil, maybe a bit of garlic, a protein and a grain. A complete meal in one!
22. Make Friends With Salad
Don't even look at the iceberg lettuce — if you want to get serious about salads, it's all about baby spinach, mixed greens or arugula. And try out these additions:
• Sliced fresh pear, dried cranberries, toasted almonds and crumbled blue cheese
• Grilled salmon, green onion, grapefruit or orange pieces, and celery, and serve with a side of crusty whole grain bread
• Cherry tomatoes, English cucumber, minced red onion, lentils and barley
23. Dinner Party In Bulk
If you're planning to entertain friends, you can do it without ordering in. Try preparing things like leafy green salads, chilis, lasagnas, curries and stews a day in advance, or pasta salads a couple of days prior. And just ... make a lot of it. If it doesn't get eaten that night, it can always be leftovers after.
24. Cook In A Group
If you're crunched for time in general but still want to be social, be amazingly productive by inviting your friends over for a cooking party. Settle on two or three recipes, split up the ingredients (or at least, the cost) and quadruple the serving size. Then, have fun and cook! Everyone gets a meal, and hopefully, a bit to take home as well.
25. Use Ingredients That Count
Forget adding in filler — if you put nutrient-rich ingredients into dishes, they'll help fill you up and add serious health factors. For example:
• Cheese – just a sprinkle of strong-tasting cheese such as Parmesan, Asiago or aged cheddar fills your food with flavour
• Pesto – it’s bursting with basil, so you just need a spoonful to turn plain pasta into a gourmet meal
• Nuts – toasting nutrient-rich nuts brings out their rich flavour, so a handful will do
26. Don't Dismiss Steamed Vegetables
It may seem like a boring way to eat your veggies, but guess what? Steaming vegetables is also incredibly healthy, and incredibly simple. Try out new produce you've never had that's in season to spice things up if you like.
27. Where Veggies Have Never Gone Before
We've talked a bit about sneaking fruits and veggies into your diet, but these ideas are truly inventive.
• Blend a handful of spinach or kale into a fruit smoothie
• Mash cooked cauliflower together with potatoes
• Add puréed butternut squash to homemade macaroni and cheese
• Shred carrots, zucchini or onions into spaghetti sauce
• Stir canned puréed pumpkin into whole grain pancake or muffin batter
• Sprinkle berries onto breakfast cereal or yogurt
28. Know Your Baking Swaps
You know what's great about the Dietitians of Canada? They encourage dessert — albeit with a healthier edge. Check out these ideas for making your favourite baked goods more nutritious:
• Replace at least half of the enriched white flour with whole grain flour
• Replace a quarter of the sugar with skim milk powder
• Replace half of the fat in muffins, quick breads and cookies with mashed fruit or vegetables, such as unsweetened applesauce or puréed sweet potato
• Use milk instead of water
29. Heck, Know Your Cooking Swaps
Dessert is the part of the meal that gets the bad rap, but there are plenty of hidden (read: unnecessary) fats in meals as well. Check out these ideas for keeping the flavour, but losing the fats:
• Use evaporated milk instead of cream for a luscious pasta Alfredo
• Substitute lower-fat yogurt for mayonnaise to make a creamy salad dressing
• Sweeten whole grain hot cereal with fruit, such as bananas, apples or peaches, instead of sugar
• Use lemon juice, garlic, herbs and spices instead of salt to flavour savoury dishes
30. Embrace The Flavour
Bland food is just that — boring. Here are five flavours to add that will make seriously anything taste better:
• Red pepper flakes deliver delicious heat to lightly sautéed greens
• Fresh lime juice is a tangy addition to fish, avocado or fresh tomato salsa
• Garlic is perfect for pasta, potatoes and peas, and it makes a tofu-and-veggie stir-fry sizzle
• Ginger spices up butternut squash soup and adds depth to beef and pork dishes
• Cinnamon pairs sweetly with apples, squash and sweet potatoes