One of the biggest obstacles against eating healthier is learning how to cook. The meals you make yourself, where you can choose fresh ingredients and prepare food from scratch, are usually the healthiest. But home cooking has become rare in our culture, and has been supplanted by restaurant food, take–out food, and processed food from supermarkets. It’s not just that we don’t know how to cook; we’re also too busy. There are two sacrifices we make when we cook less. One is that we’re not as healthy, which ultimately leads to us not being able to live our lives and do what we’re meant to do as much as we’d like. The second is that we lose out on one of the great pleasures of life. And by pleasure I don’t just mean what we get out of a great taste and wonderful smells. There’s also the pleasurable feeling you get when you’ve eaten food that heals and supports your mind and body, improving your mood and your energy.
Why does home cooking do this for us? Well, putting your own energy and personality into your food is already a step in the right direction, even if you’re not using super–healthy ingredients. Cooking sends a message to your body that you’re taking the time to feed it. This is not only a loving thing that you do for yourself but it also gets your body ready to digest food in a way that just ordering some fast food does not.
Cooking can be a great social and family activity, and it can be a therapeutic one as well. Cooking, like art, requires mindfulness. You have to be focused on what you’re doing to make it come out right, but the smells and colors and anticipation all combine to make it a pleasurable experience.
Although it takes some time to learn how to cook, you end up saving a terrific amount of money in the process. Meals you buy cost far more than the ingredients they are made from. Basic ingredients like fruit, vegetables, grains, beans, and meat are very inexpensive when compared to takeout or boxed, processed food.
Most importantly, home cooking allows you to prepare your meals with fresh and healthy ingredients. Most processed foods are made with dozens of unpronounceable artificial and chemical ingredients that don’t really belong in your body. You also don’t know how fresh the natural ingredients used in them were. Nor do you really know about the quality of ingredients and the cleanliness of most restaurants or fast food places—or maybe you know more than you would like. In cooking for yourself, you have the opportunity to create a really healthy, balanced meal from fresh, natural ingredients, a meal that tastes better than anything you’ve ever bought.
Cooking turns ingredients into a form that can be consumed. There are definitely different levels of cooking. Even if you just boil some pasta and add a jar of tomato sauce—that’s cooking. It’s a big improvement over simply ordering pizza or Chinese food because you can at least read the ingredients. In the kind of cooking I recommend, to use the same example, you would go a step further and try making your own tomato sauce from scratch, using whatever ingredients you like (for me, that would be onions, garlic, pepper, basil and olive oil in addition to fresh tomatoes). One step beyond that would be making your own pasta. But, uh, unless cooking is also your full–time job, such an undertaking can probably be saved for special occasions.
In general, then, my recommendation is that you try to make from scratch as much of your food as you can while relying on just some knives, a cutting board, some pots and pans, and maybe a food processor. Do your best to bake your own desserts and cook your own meals 51 percent of the time, and you’ll notice a huge improvement in your health and happiness.
Cooking with whole foods means having on hand the following ingredients: fresh vegetables, whole grains and whole grain flour, beans, nuts and seeds, meat (if you’re a meat eater), dairy products like milk, butter, and cheese, eggs, natural sweeteners, fruit and dried fruit, and most importantly, herbs, spices and condiments. Healthy food without seasoning is just…bleh. In fact, it’s not even that healthy; your body won’t be able to work itself up to digest bland food.
Cooking is vast art that incorporates many different ingredients and techniques. Huge cookbooks contain thousands of recipes and exhaust every last detail about food. I can’t come close to reproducing that. But I do have some suggestions for incorporating whole foods into what you already know. Most cookbooks have recipes that use refined, processed, and prepackaged ingredients. Instead of tossing out the many good cookbooks we have because they don’t rely exclusively on whole foods, we just perform some substitutions to make our recipes healthier. Below is a list of helpful steps you can take to improve the health and flavor of any recipe.
1. Use brown rice instead of white rice.
Even though it’s becoming common knowledge that whole grains are much better for you than refined grains, many cookbooks still rely on white rice. White rice doesn’t add any nutrients to your body, and worse, the nutrients you already have are used to digest it. Too much of this refined food and you can get malnourished. Worse, since it’s not filling, you can eat way more calories than you need. Those calories are turned into extra fat. It’s very easy to substitute brown rice; it just takes a little more water and a little more cooking time. See the recipe here for basic brown rice. If you are making something like a pilaf that requires the rice to be cooked with other things, and the recipe calls for white rice, you can half cook the brown rice (that is, get it to soak up half the amount of water needed for it to be done) and then use it in place of the white rice, just like your recipe says.
2. Substitute some whole wheat flour or other grain flours for white flour.
White flour has the same flaws as white rice. However, many baked goods need at least some white flour to maintain their texture. We usually take a recipe that calls for 100% white flour and make it 50% white, 50% whole wheat. Spelt flour and rye flour can also be used in place of whole wheat, and they provide some nice variety.
3. Use less sugar or use natural sweeteners
Many recipes that call for sugar call for a lot more than you actually need. When it comes to cookies or other baked goods, try removing a third of the sugar and see if you notice any difference—you probably won’t. Sugar, like white flour and white rice, is an extreme food that can drive your blood sugar wild. Reduce the sugar and you’ll have steadier energy levels after eating without sacrificing a sweet taste. You can also substitute liquid natural sweeteners for white sugar. Maple syrup, barley malt, brown rice syrup, molasses, honey, and agave nectar are all excellent natural sweeteners. Usually, the natural sweetener comes in a jar with directions on what proportions to use in substituting for sugar—but you may also just want to experiment and see what works for you!
4. Soak and add kombu to your beans first.
Beans are a healthy food and I recommend that you cook with them often, but the problem is that they are difficult to digest, and most cookbooks don’t tell you how to prepare them so that they can be digested. Before you include beans in a recipe, first soak them for 4 to 8 hours or overnight. Soaking helps them release an indigestible compound called phytic acid; this is the compound that causes gas. Also include a strip of a sea vegetable called kombu (also called kelp) to beans as they cook; kombu furthers digestibility. Vinegar provides similar benefits as kombu, but add it near the end of cooking. Don’t add salt until the beans are completely cooked, as salt hinders the cooking process. Try to reduce using canned beans, as they have a ton of added sodium (and they probably haven’t been soaked to reduce phytic acid).
5. Use fresh vegetables instead of canned or frozen.
Fresh vegetables have incalculable advantages over their canned or frozen counterparts; they contain much more nutrition, provide better energy, taste better, and are brighter in color and more pleasant to look at. It might take a little more time to cook your own vegetables, but in turn they will provide you with the increased energy you need. In my opinion, it’s not about how much time we have; it’s about whether we have the energy to make efficient use of our time.
However, canned or frozen vegetables are better than no vegetables at all, and frozen are better than canned. Don’t let this recommendation be an excuse for not making vegetables a solid part of your diet.
6. Use organic produce and grass–fed meat.
Good cooks use good quality ingredients. It’s not possible to use organic meat, dairy and vegetables all the time because of the cost (cooking mostly with whole foods is a big step in itself), but the absence of chemical pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics and hormones in your food leads to a better feeling both during and after eating.
7. Add greens.
You can usually find good recipes for most other vegetables, but with the exception of broccoli and spinach, dark leafy green vegetables tend to get the shaft. Unfortunately, these greens are the foods that will probably make the single greatest difference in your health. So just cook them separately as a side dish and add them to whatever else you’re doing. Kale, collard greens, mustard greens, bok choy, swiss chard, cabbage and arugula are all good choices. Just chop them up, lightly boil them and they are ready to serve.
8. Don’t skim off the fat.
Many recipes advise using low–fat ingredients because they think that’s what health–conscious people are looking for. However, reducing fat can actually be dangerous to your health—see my extensive article on fat. Recipes aren’t just made better by including brown rice and greens—they’re improved by making sure you have plenty of fat! So stick with whole milk, cream, real butter, cheese, etc., whenever you can; just try to get your dairy products from grass–fed cows. Usually, low–fat foods substitute sugar for fat, and since sugar is more addictive that it is satisfying, we end up eating far more calories worth of low–fat food than we did of high–fat foods, which makes us fatter and our hearts less healthy in the end. Also take a look at my article on omega-3s, a culprit in the indemnification of saturated fat.
9. Include a variety of flavors.
One reason why people resist healthy eating is because they think it’s going to be bland. “Eating healthy” means no fat, no salt, no sugar, no spices, in other words, no flavor at all. You might as well be eating cardboard. However, the view that healthy cooking means leaving out flavor is just a popular misconception. Healthy eating is really all about balance. If you follow the above steps—that is, if you use whole grains instead of refined grains, natural sweeteners more than sugar, good quality meat and fat, and plenty of vegetables, then plenty of salt, spices and fat and sweeteners are the perfect complement. The only reason these things were ever given a bad name is because processed foods contain excessive amounts of poor quality fat and sugar (corn syrup, hydrogenated oil) and pure, mineral–free sodium. If you’re cooking with whole foods, you absolutely ought to add flavor from healthy sources.
10. Keep it simple.
In popular media cooking is often looked at as something that is either done by a professional or as a hobby. But in my opinion, cooking is as natural to every family as working and sleeping. That means that cooking doesn’t always have to be some gourmet delicacy with specialized ingredients. It’s something that’s straightforward, but eternally refreshing due to the endless simple variations that are possible. The animated movie Ratatouille, in addition to being funny and touching, has an excellent perspective on cooking. The main character is a rat living in the French countryside who has a natural talent for cooking. He refuses to just wolf down garbage like his friends and family. Eventually, he winds up in a famous French restaurant in Paris that is on the decline, and after befriending a garbage boy who works there he sets to work secretly improving their recipes. Plenty of complicated gourmet dishes are whipped up over the course of the movie. But what stands out is his appreciation for good food made from fresh, whole ingredients, and his willingness to experiment. Cooking takes some practice, and you’re liable to mess things up when you don’t follow the instructions. But if you’re willing to try cooking for yourself, you’ll soon reach a point where every meal increases not just your health but your happiness as well.