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"healthy" cooking for a fan of "unhealthy" food?

I LOVE food! Specifically salty, fried, meaty food with an emphasis on comfort. However, I've reached the point where I need to think about making a change. I cook regularly, but most of what I make is meat-centric with a healthy does of butter or bacon fat for flavor. How can I EASE myself into a healthier lifestyle? Any good cookbooks that will help? Thanks.

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  1. Ooo - butter and bacon. Hard to give those up! I cook healthy (IMO) and still use both. But they tend to be accents rather than major components of what I cook. I am not a fan of 'substitute' foods, like margarine or turkey bacon. I'd rather have less of the real thing.

    I think one easy way to improve your diet is to add or substitute whole grains. You get more fiber and nutrients (and more flavor) when you use brown rice, whole wheat pasta etc. Another important change to make -increase your servings of vegetables, for instance by adding a salad or vegetable soup to your meals.

    The thing I notice that's off-putting in a lot of 'healthy' foods is how flavorless they can be. I still use strong herbs, sharp cheese, salty cured meats etc. when I cook. But I add them in a way that lets a little bit contribute a lot of taste.

    I think just a few changes could make a big difference without making you feel deprived. Good luck!

    1. Great advice lupaglupa. All of those are good suggestions. I think that the one about trying to get MORE of veggies, etc, rather than cutting back on the tasty (read="bad") is important. A recent study showed that people who tried to get at least 9 servings of fruits or veggies per day, without making any effort to cut back on other food, lost more weight than people who tried to avoid certain things. The theory is that if you get really full on some delicious crunchy salty lemony sauteed asparagus (for example), you will be less hungry and consume just a smaller portion of whatever meaty entree you're cooking. Eating just slightly less of the unhealthy food will make a big difference in the end. Barbara Kafka wrote a great book called Vegetable Love which has some great veggie recipes. It's my bible. Spices will be your saving grace.
      Also, and it might seem obvious, but people still don't drink enough water... drinking a lot (I mean, more than you feel like you need) of water will also make you less hungry for the other stuff.
      I'm also not a fan of substitutes but there is one I like- I recently switched to ground turkey in my (delicious) homemade red sauce with whole wheat pasta- my boyfriend definitely had to adjust to the whole wheat pasta (it tastes different) but he DIDN'T EVEN NOTICE the ground turkey. I swear to god. Later when I told him he said he knew something was different but i swear he ate it and never questioned it. And he hates healthy food.
      Good luck!

      2 Replies
      1. re: CoryKatherine

        I, too, have had success with turkey...we use turkey sausage almost *all* the time now...for dinner (as in Italian cooking) and for breakfast (the Jennie-O turkey breakfast sausage patties have much less fat and salt...I admit, it's a "processed food" but one that my son accepts, no questions asked and is waaaay healthier than our beloved Jimmy Dean sausage--okay, okay, I STILL use that for biscuits and gravy on the RARE occasions that I make it! One of these days, though, I will try subbing in turkey breakfast sausage for the JD's) You can very easily start using ground turkey as a mix with ground beef, and then go totally with the ground turkey...if you mix in spices, you likely will not notice the turkey flavor!

        1. re: CoryKatherine

          We do use ground turkey and the many delicious chicken sausages that are available. At our hose we still use 'white' pasta for some dishes - like pata primavera. The taste of the whole wheat pasta is too strong for some things but it works well with bolder pasta sauces.

          CoryKatherine - I agree with you about drinking more liquids. And don't forget how healthy wine is :)

        2. I really enjoy cooking light magazine and "light"versions of Everyday Food magazine., Nice options for things like pizza (made healthier), burgers, meatloaf, etc. I also worked a healthfood lunch counter many moons ago and we made this fantastic mushroom burger (no meat) that was really soooo hearty, no one missed the meat. If sounds good I'll shoot over the recipe. Good luck.

          4 Replies
          1. re: lexpatti

            Yes, I swear by cooking light; however, I add a bit more spice than they require and use homemade whipped cream instead of 'non-fat whipped topping'. Egh.

            I've also made the transfer from unhealthy-to-healthy food, and one tip I recommend is getting a bunch of veggies on your plate and taking a bite of vegetables with your meat. This helped me associate 'vegetables' that I didn't like with good taste. Now, I pop mushrooms like candy and have broccoli for a snack.

            One last note: as others have said, you can't completely ditch your old favorites. Just dial back on portions. And finally, exercise, exercise, exercise! Even if its just a 30 min. walk, it'll make you feel better. Best of luck to ya!

            1. re: ApprenticeGourmet

              "Eating Well" is another great magazine for healthy recipes and information about nutrition.

            2. re: lexpatti

              Oh those burgers sound amazing!! Could you provide the recipe??

              1. re: STA1985CH

                Here it is, the herbs really make a difference too so don't skip that:
                saute sliced mushrooms (portbella are great too) in tiny oil and splash braggs liquid amino (don't put salt on while sauteing, the mushrooms will release too much water). use a nice big healthy whole grain bun, melt cheese on one side (mont jack is great), the other side of the bun either sliced avocado or guacamole, shredded carrots, sprouts, the mushrooms and sprinkle with Garlic Pwder, Cayenne Pepper and Spike Seasoning. I also do this in a roll up as well. The flavors are addicting.

            3. Yum, I love ground turkey! In addition to using it in red sauce, I've made a shepherd's pie with ground turkey & ground lean pork, whipped potatoes w/ garlic & horseradish (made w/ chicken broth for part of the butter), and various chopped up veggies that was tasty and satisfying.

              I agree with the good advice to not 'cut out' all these foods. You'll feel deprived, which is not a very nice way to be.

              I like salads to begin with, but they take on a whole new dimension when you add delicious, meaty flavours. Like little bits of real bacon /pancetta /back bacon crisped up on the stove-top, or briney olives, or salty feta, or deeply savory double-smoked cheeses. Or vary the texture with some radishes, toasted nuts, or apples for crunch. Often, I find what seems "lacking" for me in a non-meat dish is more the chewy texture of meat, rather than the meat per se (mushrooms, esp portobello, are also great to mimic this). This way, you get the delicious salt-savory flavour of meat, but embedded in a big plate of healthy vegetables.

              Homemade thin crust pizzas, for me, always feel like a healthy indulgence (I buy dough balls at the grocery store). I find you end up using a lot less of the ingredients than you think you'd need (you have to, otherwise the crust gets soggy!), but still get the great flavour. Plus, it's super easy to incorporate veggies like mushrooms, peppers, arugula, spinach, onions...etc. and still get your fix of spicy Italian sausage, for instance.

              Legume-based recipes are surprisingly satisfying. Hummous (sprinkle some smokey paprika onto it), white bean dips (I add a bit of chicken broth and... yes, a smidge of bacon fat... for depth, but you can always omit), split pea soup... all these things satisfy that craving for rich, creamy food, but with little of the health-related costs. If you're craving some thing deep fried, try a falafel... deep fried balls of mashed chickpea may not be the absolute healthiest thing in the world, but you get that satisfying crunch without the saturated fats, and with the added benefits of fiber and vitamins.

              If you're looking to cut back on sodium (I am a sodium fiend myself), I've found that roasted garlic (or garlic in general) added to sauces, etc., is really helpful. I read some research recently about why it's so hard to come up with a sodium-replacement (a myriad of reasons), but the food scientists recommend garlic as having a similarly satisfying flavour profile. Adding heat in place of salt seems to help in some dishes too.

              I think the advice to fill up on delicious vegetables is great. If you start your meal with a really fantastic salad that includes tastes you really enjoy, or have appealing vegetable or whole grain-based side dishes, you won't go crazy with the meat main.

              One blog I really like for healthy cooking is Smitten Kitchen (www.smittenkitchen.com). The author eats meat, but used to be a vegetarian, and so includes a lot of vegetable or grain-centric dishes in her repertoire. It reminds me that a main course doesn't *have* to include meat to be delicious, and her gorgeous photography pushes any last vestiges of doubt from my mind. Be forewarned though, if you have a soft spot for baked goods, you will need to excercise some willpower... this woman is quite the baker!

              1. due to my husbands heart health issues, we've changed our diet considerably over the last year or so....think first about ADDING good things- veggies, raw or roasted Whole grains...think polenta, brown rice,.
                I have used turkey bacon in the past as a way to transition.....sort of like methadone. just don't expect it to taste like the real thing, and enjoy it on it's own.
                There are some good brands of chicken sausage, the one I buy is a local store brand.
                I still prefer butter to substitutes, just use more sparingly. I use olive oil when appropriate.
                Explore different types of seafood.....
                vegetarian meals came later, now we really appreciate them.
                I also have made meatballs/ meatloaf using a combination of ground bison, pork and small amounts of beef.
                after a while, you don't miss the fatty stuff. (salt, on the other hand, is a more difficult thing to avoid)
                good luck

                1 Reply
                1. re: maomi

                  One of the nutrition experts on Oprah last week - an M.D., if memory serves - said turkey bacon is no healthier than regular, and has the same amount of fat. She questioned him on this and he repeated it - next time I'm shopping, I'm comparing labels.

                  I think another good trick involves plating your food. Instead of the typical "pie chart" arrangement, mentally divide the plate into thirds going straight across, so that the middle strip is the largest, and make that the vegetables, with starch and meat on either side of it. The eye is tricked into thinking there's more meat than is really there.

                2. I'm sometimes puzzled by what people mean by "healthy food." To me that means low carbohydrate, but only because we don't work physically hard enough to eat a lot, moderate protein, and some lipds, especially from olive oil but also including butter in moderation or even pure lard, which contains less cholesterol than butter. (Not lard with hydrogenated fats in it.) When I learned I was borderline diabetic, healthy food for me meant cutting way back on bread and pasta. It was easiest to go cold turkey on them. Though I still cook them and sample them when I do. And I've had to cut back on cheese because of cholesterol issues. But as for meat vs. no meat? Or red vs. white meat? I think it is often the way the animal is raised than the meat itself that is the problem. In any case, Barry Sears has published a Zone cookbook that works nicely. For the diabetics, Richard K. Bernstein has a wonderful diabetic cookbook out. Sally Fallon of the Weston A. Price Foundation (see their website) has a good cookbook. Generally, what I've found most successful is not to try to imitate something I can't eat, but enlarge my tastes to embrace something that works better. So in place of spaghetti alla carbonara I look for a bowl of bean soup or, when I am cooking, a ginger-basil stir fry. And, yes, I sometimes use bacon fat for flavor in a pot of beans. I always use a lipid of some type, but not enough to constitute a major part of a recipe. Keep in mind that some flavor esthers are fat soluble. So cook the onions (and celery and carrots) in oil to bring up their flavor and maybe caramelize them a bit. And don't be afraid to add a bit of oil to an otherwise lean soup. In fact, to my mind, nothing beats a bean soup with herbs and bit of olive oil.

                  3 Replies
                  1. re: Father Kitchen

                    lot of good advice here but I just wanted to say that I would beware of cutting too many carbs- the "carbs are bad for you" myth is just that. Vegetables are straight carbs! So is fruit. Refined white flour and sugar is the real issue, and you're right that cutting back on white bread and pasta is good- but whole wheat bread and pasta will not only keep you full and stop you from over eating, they can actually be cardioprotective because of all the fiber. Carbs are not the enemy- in fact, I believe you need something like 28 grams of carbs a day just to operate your brain. Carbs= glycogen= energy. For diabetics, glucose also equals a health problem, so I totally understanding your diet- no criticism- but for the average person (meaning with no prediabetic issues such as insulin tolerance), carbs are okay!

                    1. re: CoryKatherine

                      But of course! But compared to what most Americans eat, a balanced diet with moderate amount of carbs still looks pretty low in carbohydrates. And I think everyone can benefit from cutting out high fructose corn syrup and a good portion of the sucrose that Americans typically consume.

                      1. re: CoryKatherine

                        For many people - diabetic or not - substituting complex carbohydrates eliminates the problem of easily acessed sugars in carbs. It's how we (over) refine our carbohydrates that makes then so unhealthy.

                    2. I have also fallen in love with roasted vegies and potatoes - the flavors are excellent and as mentioned - if you fill your plate with mostly vegies, br rice, polenta and just small portions of meats - you'll be making a difference. Roasted potatoes, then tossed in just a tiny bit of blue cheese and chives really gives you that fatty flavor without too much fat.

                      That mushroom burger I mentioned is with sauteed mushrooms in braggs liq. amino (healthy soy sauce), some melted cheese, grated carrots, sprouts all on a big healthy multi grain bun.

                      1. As others have said, adding vegetables (flavored w/ a bit of meat/bacon fat/pancetta) along with whole grains while reducing the portion of meat is a great start. Nutritionists recommend a 4 oz serving of meat. Add fish to your diet twice a week.
                        Or make an Indian style curry w/ boneless chicken thighs and veggies served w/ brown rice.
                        I found Whole Grains by Lorna Sass helpful -- and became a fan of fiber-rich chewy, yummy barley. I use short grain brown rice instead of white. Vegetarian cooking for everyone by Deborah Madison and Alice Water's Vegetables are great inspirations for more veggie dishes. (my fave is a bit of pancetta sauteed w/ shitake mushrooms and sliced savoy cabbage; you can do the same w/ brussel sprouts omitting the mushrooms)

                        1. To continue with the awesome suggestions, I'd say try making some small changes to some of your favorite recipes. We had a favorite chicken pot pie that included dark meat, cream, potatoes, and of course, pie crust. I started reducing the cream until it was entirely eliminated (the roux alone now thickens it), adding lentils and mushrooms, moving to white meat (and now no meat), and replacing the pie crust with cornbread. We STILL love it, even though it's much different now. I did the same thing with mac n' cheese, going from the regular stuff to a version made with whole wheat pasta (Barilla makes great ww pasta) and cauliflower - it's a new favorite.

                          I think the suggestions of adding better things to your regular diet while reducing the bad elements is a good one. I thought we were eating too much bacon, so I started cutting the strips in half before cooking (see - you're still getting 4 slices!) and adding things like sauteed spinach or sweet potato hash browns...just moving in the right direction.

                          Finally - and people always think I'm crazy for saying this - try out the fake meat (like morningstar meal crumbles...or meal starters...) in place of real meat in chili or sloppy joes or "meat" spaghetti sauce. It works wonders. We actually now prefer this over ground turkey in some of these dishes - shocking, I know. But give it a shot.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: RosemaryHoney

                            Not to open up a can of worms but there's a considerable baody of opinion that the processed soy in things like the Morningstar crumbles is less than healthy for you.....

                          2. I think one of the best ways to start easing yourself into a healthier lifestyle is to take your list of favorites from above: "Specifically salty, fried, meaty food with an emphasis on comfort" and start seeking out healthier recipes that still incorporate your favorite qualities - that way you won't feel like you are giving up anything rather expanding your recipe routine into new and healthier areas.

                            For example, if you enjoy meaty food, try looking for recipes that include wild mushrooms, chicken thighs, buffalo meat, and other ingredients that can often satisfy a meaty craving without needing the saturated fat of a steak. For comfort food, what is comforting about it? Warmth, smooth creamy textures, cheese? Try to identify those characteristics too and you can enjoy a thick creamy butternut squash soup or minnestrone soup with a touch of grated parmesean while still maintaining your waistline. If you like the crunchy/salty aspect, try "breading" shrimp or chicken in panko bread crumbs and baking them on a rack for a crispy crunchy texture without the deep frying.

                            If you feel like you are "giving up" on flavors/textures that you enjoy it will never last. Instead the challenge is to still achieve those flavors and textures only in a new and healthy way.


                            1. I don't know if you've seen the thread - and I'll add the caveat that I don't have the book - but this month's "Cookbook of the Month" is Sally Schneider's "A New Way to Cook". It might be just what you are looking for - or, at least for now, you could follow along the threads and see if anything piques your interest.


                              1. If you are moving towards a plant based diet, make sure to add enough salt for it to taste good to you. If you consider the fact that a lot of animal products like cheese and chicken have salt added to them before you get them, you might still be reducing your sodium intake. The same goes for oil. Use enough to make it taste good. If you aren't eating as much fatty animal products, you might end up consuming less fat anyway. Since you are wanting to EASE into a healthier diet make sure each step you take in the right direction is one you can live with long-term, or else you'll be reverting back to unhealthy food. I agree with KoryKatherine that you should focus on increasing the good rather than decreasing the bad.

                                I eat legumes at least 3 times a week as the main protein in my meal, and there are so many directions you can take with them that I absolutely never get tired of them.

                                One of my favorite cookbooks is World Vegetarian by Madhur Jaffrey. I think of it more as a recipe collection than a cookbook, but it has lots of flavorful exciting meatless dishes with a ton of variety. The chickpea flour pizza with rosemary and tomatoes is a great place to start.

                                1. I'm a firm believer that you should eat real food, and foods you like, but in moderation AND without excess. What I mean by "without excess" is that you should cut the less healthy ingredients (fats, sugars) in places where you really won't miss them, and use them where they have maximum effect. For example, many recipes call for cooking ingredients in much more oil than you really need. You can cut the amount of oil in half (or more) and not even notice it's gone. The fat you save you can use to put some REAL sour cream on your baked potato. Experiment with what and when you can cut something without noticing. Do some experimenting, too, to find out what "healthy" foods you like and/or ways to prepare them that are satisfying. Maybe you'll find out you love farro if it's cooked like risotto!

                                  But mostly, instead of following other people's rules, really educate yourself on nutrition. What does "healthy" food really mean? What does is mean for your particular lifestyle/health status? Maybe you don't need to cut down on salt -- only a relatively small number of people really have to worry about salt raising their blood pressure. Same with cholesterol -- these days it appears that foods that are high in cholesterol are not the only (or even the main) culprits in high cholesterol levels.

                                  Only you can determine what's "healthy" for you!

                                  1. In place of sourcream-- try 2% fage greek yogurt. Mix with some spices- salt pepper garlic rosemary. Very healthy and shockingly satisfying!! I promise!! I am a HUGE sour cream fan and this has always really worked for me....

                                    1. Dr Joel Fuhrman has a new set of books out " Eat For Health" that would point you in a good direction http://www.drfuhrman.com/. Taking up his entire program may be a long stretch to start, but adding a few of his concepts would be good. Add at least one or two salads each day filled with raw veggies. Whatever you have for dinner, a good salad before the meal will fill you up! Bonus meals include cooked or raw veggies, beans and fresh fruit. Cut down on meat and dairy.

                                      Buy a good blender and make your own smoothies with plenty of fresh fruit and add flax meal and greens. The best breakfast ever!

                                      1. Read Michael Pollan's " In Defense of Food". Not a cookbook, it will influence your entire thinking on food.

                                        1. Try doing hearty stews and sauces where you can decrease the amount of meat. For example, a rich tomato sauce with lots of basil and mushrooms, but half the amount of meat you'd normally put into it. You can make really hearty pureed vegetable soups with half stock half water + lots of vegetables, simmered until tender and then pureed. I find they taste better when you leave out the cream. Spanish rice has a bit of bacon in, but is mainly rice and tomatoes, and is very satisfying.

                                          Use bacon as an accent, rather than the heart of a meal, and use butter as a garnish for healthy foods. I actually save the bacon fat, keep it in the fridge, strained, and use it as a starter for potato onion soup, or toss it with steamed vegetables (I love bacon). Or fresh steamed vegetables with a dash of garlic herb butter.

                                          And use lots of flavour - explore different spices, hot peppers, garlic, ginger, and lemon juice to boost the flavour without adding a lot of fat or salt.