25 Healthy Food Hacks the Pros Use
Do you want to know how chefs, dietitians and other nutrition pros make nutritious meal prep a cinch? Here are their shortcuts, go-to ingredients, cooking techniques and must-buy gadgets for making life easier—and food tastier.
Whether you have a closet full of appliances and cookbooks or multiple kitchen drawers stuffed with take-out menus, the verdict is clear: Love it or hate it, cooking food at home is one of the best ways to improve your diet, lose weight and transform your health.
Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation
(Penguin 2014), author Michael Pollan calls home cooking the “single most important thing we could do as a family to improve our health and general well-being.” First Lady Michelle Obama has focused on home cooking as part of her mission to get America moving and eating in healthier ways. And scientists have studied the topic as well: One study in the journal
Public Health Nutrition
found that people who frequently cook dinner at home were more likely to eat fewer calories—both at home and when eating out—compared with people who rarely cook (Wolfson& Bleich 2015). Another study published in the same journal found that people who cook up to five times a week were 47% more likely to be alive 10 years later, compared with those who cooked less (Chen et al. 2012).
Yet, as any busy person—self-proclaimed home cook or not—can attest, whipping up a healthy, nutritious meal at the end of a long day can be time-consuming and stressful. In fact, research by the American Sociological Association found that cooking can make many people—moms, in particular—stressed, anxious and unhappy. Researchers at Rush University in Chicago found that the more time middle-aged women spent cooking at home, the more likely they were to suffer from metabolic syndrome, upping their risk of developing heart disease and diabetes (Appelhans et al. 2015).
However, cooking doesn’t have to be all drudgery and no joy. Producing healthy meals at home is a lot easier (and quicker!) than you might think.
Skeptical? We asked top dietitians, chefs and nutrition pros to share the healthy-cooking hacks that help them prep delicious, nutritious meals in a flash. Here are their secrets. You and your clients will want to start using them in your own kitchens—stat.
Ellie Krieger, RDN
Krieger is a registered dietitian and the host of the Food Network show
Healthy Appetite with Ellie Krieger.
“When you’re pressed for time or don’t know what you’re doing, cooking can be really stressful,” Krieger says. “I can relate on a personal level. I’m juggling a million things, like everyone else, and I also love food and want to eat well. I come home and need to get dinner on the table fast, and having just a few simple recipes and tricks in my toolkit really helps me do this.” Krieger’s healthy hacks:
1. Remember This Trio
There’s a simple formula for my 30-minutes-or-less dinners: Choose a quick-cooking protein (fish, chicken or lean meats are my faves), a quick-cooking whole grain (like whole-wheat couscous or those no-seasonings-added brown rice packets) and a prewashed green (like arugula, spinach or snow peas). You can have a super-tasty dinner on the table in as little as 10 minutes if you know how to simply prepare these three things.
2. Sharpen Your Skills
Skip the spendy kitchen gadgets, and just invest in one good, sharp chef’s knife. It’ll save you so much time—as long as you know how to use it. Which is why I also say that if you take one cooking class, make it a knife-skills class.
3. Cheat on Chopping
No time to prep veggies? No problem! Even though you preserve optimal freshness and nutrition if you cut your veggies right before eating them, it’s okay to take some shortcuts if it means you’ll be cooking dinner rather than ordering in. If it’ll save you time, go ahead and buy presliced carrots, mushrooms or squash. These foods are still packed with nutrients.
4. Shop the Frozen Aisle
All too often, we’re told to “shop the perimeter” of the grocery store, so we steer clear of the frozen foods section. While those TV dinners and sodium-laden boxed foods aren’t good choices, go ahead and stock up on frozen fruits and veggies. Since they’re picked and frozen at peak freshness, their nutrients are comparable to those in fresh produce. And if you’re in a pinch, you can just toss some frozen greens and shrimp into a stir-fry and you’ve got dinner on the table in minutes.
Blais is a chef, a restaurateur, a cookbook author and a winner of Bravo’s
Top Chef All-Stars.
5. Get Misty
It’s so easy to overuse olive oil and other healthy fats when you’re cooking. If you’re watching your calories and looking to lose weight, invest in one of those oil misters. Or simply buy a 99-cent water spritzer bottle and add your olive oil to that. Then, instead of pouring olive oil straight from the bottle into your pan or over your salad, mist or spritz the olive oil, which will help you use less.
Bayless is an award-winning chef, star of the PBS series
Mexico: One Plate at a Time
and a winner of Bravo’s
Top Chef Masters.
6. Dress to Impress
Make a big batch of vinaigrette and keep it in the fridge. Having a delicious dressing on hand makes the prospect of salad fast and irresistible. My simple proportions for an easy-to-customize vinaigrette are ¾ cup oil to ¼ cup vinegar or lime juice and, of course, a bit of salt. Then, add herbs and other seasonings you love.
7. Make Greens More Tempting
Wash and dry your greens as soon as you get home from the market, and then store them in a plastic bag with a paper towel so they keep well for days. Do this, and salads will suddenly become that much more tempting.
8. Spice Things Up
Toss a can’s worth of chipotle chilis into your blender, turn them into a paste and store it in your fridge for adding a smoky, flavorful taste to everything from meats to veggies. A lot of people equate healthy food with bland food. Adding a little kick to everything from your go-to chicken dish to a pot of steamed broccoli can help get everyone excited about even your same-old healthy recipes. The best part? You can add a little or a lot, depending on your audience.
9. Blend Ambition
Buy a cordless immersion blender. It’s one of the most amazing kitchen appliances that not enough people own. You can use it to grind spices and chilis, or to make a healthy soup—in fact, the list is endless. Often it’s much quicker than using the regular blender, because cleanup is a lot easier.
10. Know the Cheats
To capture the essence of the Japanese word
in your cooking, you want to eat food at the peak of its deliciousness. In the middle of winter, however, this can be tough to do. A recipe that calls for fresh tomatoes just isn’t going to be as good when you’re chopping hothouse tomatoes that have traveled long distances to get to your grocery store.
So I say, Know the cheats. Using canned organic fire-roasted tomatoes in my recipes saves me time (no chopping required) and tastes a lot better. The same goes for frozen corn in winter. Essentially, when foods aren’t in season, look for the best-quality canned or frozen version—to save yourself time and add a whole lot of flavor.
Waters is a chef, an author and the proprietor of the world-renowned restaurant Chez Panisse. She’s an American culinary pioneer whose philosophy maintains that cooking should be based on the finest and freshest seasonal ingredients produced sustainably and locally.
11. The Daily Grind
I use my mortar and pestle every single day. It’s something a lot of people don’t think of, but it is so great at doing so many things. I love making vinaigrette in mine: I pound garlic to a paste along with salt, then add herbs, lemon juice, vinegar and spices—all within the mortar and pestle. I also use it to make homemade hummus (crush the fresh garlic and salt, then add chickpeas, lemon juice, tahini and so forth).
The mortar and pestle give you this wonderful texture that’s not blended or completely puréed in the way you get with food processors. Instead you get a really natural and unique consistency without completely emulsifying everything. Bonus: The mortar works as a beautiful serving dish as well, so you don’t even have to transfer the final results to another dish.
Moulton is one of the original Food Network stars and the host of the PBS show
Sara’s Weeknight Meals.
12. Cheat When You Chop
Dust off your food processor, insert the grating disk and use it to “chop” your veggies. Vegetables can take a significant amount of time to prep and even more time to cook—especially root vegetables. For example, beets take 45 minutes to cook if you steam or boil them and 1 hour or more in the oven. However, they cook in minutes when they’re grated and sautéed.
By grating carrots, parsnips, beets and other veggies in your food processor, you can cut the cooking time (not to mention the prep time) by more than half. Even better, when veggies are finely grated, they’re a lot easier and more palatable to eat raw. If you’re really pressed for time, just toss the raw vegetables with a little bit of olive oil, salt and pepper, then sprinkle a handful of nuts on top. It’s an instant, delicious and healthy side dish.
Falkner is a James Beard Foundation Award nominee who was named Pastry Chef of the Year by
magazine. She’s also been a three-time competitor on
Food Network Challenge
and a contestant on Bravo’s
Top Chef Masters.
13. Get Inspired
Break out of your comfort zone when you’re cooking. Buy a new cookbook, cozy up with a recipe blog your friends rave about or make it your goal to try one new recipe each week. It’s a great (and fast) way to have a lot more fun in the kitchen and remember how much you love making food for your family. Trying something new—especially when that something is super-delicious—is the best way to stop thinking of cooking as a chore and start thinking of it as an exploration that literally nourishes you.
Lillien created the Hungry Girl empire, which includes cookbooks, low-calorie recipes, specialty products and TV shows.
14. Keep Portion Size in Check
When I’m following recipes that call for cheese, I like to blend a light string cheese in a food processor so I know that I’m not getting more than about an ounce in each serving.
Morimoto is known to millions as the star of
Iron Chef America.
He’s also executive chef at his eponymous Morimoto restaurants in Philadelphia, New York City and other locations around the country.
15. Skimp on Soy Sauce
When you’re having sushi, pour only a little bit of soy sauce into your dish. Do not ever fill it up! When you dunk your sushi into a dish full of soy sauce, you will end up consuming too much, which means you’re consuming too much sodium. Also, let the fish side touch the soy sauce—not the rice, which absorbs sauce easily. Every time you eat a piece of sushi, you need only a touch of sauce.
Christopher Mohr, PhD, RD
Mohr is a registered dietitian, a consulting sports nutritionist for the Cincinnati Bengals and an expert contributor for Reebok ONE.
16. Winner, Winner Chicken Dinner
I like to pick up a rotisserie chicken at the store as a quick, ready-to-eat source of protein. I’ll slice it onto a green salad, use it as the base for a pasta dish or make a healthy chicken salad for lunch.
17. Zest for Flavor
I use plenty of seasonings as replacements for salt and sugar. Citrus zest works particularly well when you want to boost flavor without adding calories, fat, sugar or salt. To easily zest lemons, I use a microplane—one of the best kitchen gadgets out there.
18. TV Dinner Redux
To be honest, my real secret weapon when I’m in a bind is to hit the frozen food section at the grocery store and grab a Stouffer’s® Fit Kitchen Bourbon Steak meal. With 27 grams of protein, this is perfect for the on-the-go trainer (or client). I’ve paired that with a Green Giant® Steamers bag of veggies. So, yes, two frozen options in one meal, and in just a few minutes I can get plenty of colorful veggies and high-quality protein—without loads of calories.
Sanna Delmonico, MS, RDN
Delmonico is a nutrition and food safety instructor at The Culinary Institute of America® at Greystone.
19. Be a Woman (or a Man) with a Plan
I think the best way to make cooking dinner every night easier is to plan ahead for the week, starting with vegetables. I often do this while I am at the farmer’s market on Saturday morning, basing all of my purchase decisions on what is fresh. I’ll think about what we’ll need to eat in the next day or two, such as tender arugula or lettuce, and what can keep for meals later in the week, such as beets or kale.
Once I have a plan for the vegetables, I think about whole grains and legumes (like gigante beans, farro for a salad, brown rice to go with my vegetable curry and so on). I usually consider meats and seafood last, thinking of them as flavorful condiments for meals that are made using mostly vegetables, whole grains and legumes.
20. Double the Trouble
Try to get two meals out of most things you prepare. For example, if I’m making butternut squash, I will cube and roast two squashes so I have plenty to serve over whole-grain pasta or in tacos made with fresh corn tortillas, black beans and queso fresco one night, and enough to purée into a quick soup another night.
Another of my favorite ways to use extra meat or shrimp and vegetables is to have a make-your-own-spring-roll night: You can fill the rolls with julienned carrots, cucumber or celery, plus jalapeños, leftover meat or shrimp, and rice noodles. I just make a quick peanut sauce for dipping.
21. Get Fresh
To boost flavor in almost any dish, nothing is better than fresh herbs, fresh chives and fresh lemon juice and zest. In our backyard we have a lemon tree as well as an herb garden, and what we grow can instantly dress up any dish. Plus, herbs and lemon make an instant sauce for everything from white beans to grilled fish: Chop parsley, chives, lemon zest and thyme, then add lemon juice and olive oil, salt and pepper. That’s it.
22. Upgrade Your Ingredients
Some of my favorite pantry staples include apple cider vinegar (which adds freshness to my vinaigrettes), dried porcini mushrooms (when I need that umami for pasta sauce, stews and casseroles), different kinds of soy sauces and tamari (I am partial to mild Aloha™ Hawaiian soy sauce, for example) and sriracha (of course).
23. Keep the Basics On Hand
I rarely recommend kitchen gadgets, because most things can be done with a chef’s knife, a paring knife and a nice big, wooden cutting board. I also keep a variety of sizes of strainers handy for washing small quantities of fruit and vegetables.
Irvine is a chef and the host of
one of the Food Network’s highest-rated shows. He has also written two cookbooks,
(HarperCollins 2007) and
Impossible to Easy
(William Morrow Cookbooks 2010), and one healthy-living book,
Fit Fuel: A Chef’s Guide to Eating Well and Living Your Best Life
(Irvine Products 2015).
24. Oil Change
I prefer to use grape seed oil rather than olive oil for cooking, as it’s a healthier alternative. Also, when it comes to dressings and marinades, I go “bottleless” for a fresher, more flavorful experience. This means making fresh citrus marinades with oranges, vinegars and herbs, as opposed to buying bottles of sauces and marinades.
25. Build a Balanced Bite
When it comes to cooking, flavor is a very personal experience. Some people love spices; some can’t handle any at all. Some people pile on the salt; some never touch the stuff. Some people can do without dessert; some have an insatiable sweet tooth. You can’t please every palate, but you can do your best to combine the flavors you enjoy so that there is a little bit of everything in every bite. No one flavor should overpower another, and the dishes that achieve a perfect balance are usually the most successful.
Meghan Rabbitt is a freelancer writer and editor whose work is published in Women’s health, Dr. Oz The Good Life, Prevention, Yoga Journal, Refinery29, Well+Good NYC and more. She just completed her first 200-hour yoga teacher training with Annie Carpenter in Los Angeles. You can read her work and contact her via her website, http://meghanrabbitt.com.
Appelhans, B.M., et al. 2015. Meal preparation and cleanup time and cardiometabolic risk over 14 years in the Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation (SWAN). Preventive Medicine, 71 (Feb.), 1-6. ÔÇ®
Chen, R.C., et al. 2012. Cooking frequency may enhance survival in Taiwanese elderly. Public Health Nutrition, 15 (7), 1142-49.ÔÇ®
Wolfson, J.A., & Bleich, S.N. 2015. Is cooking at home associated with better diet quality or weight-loss intention? Public Health Nutrition, 18 (8), 1397-1406.ÔÇ®