Healthy Food Choices—Choosing The Right Option

From The Lecture Series: The Everyday Gourmet — Making Healthy Food Taste Great

By Chef Instructor Bill Briwa, The Culinary Institute of America & Connie Guttersen, Ph.D., The Culinary Institute of America

Maybe you are already trying to eat healthily, but you find that the foods don’t taste that great or that the meals are difficult to prepare. Discover how easily healthy meals can be prepared and how enjoyable they can be with these healthy options rated from good, to best.

Healthy salad bowl with quinoa, tomatoes, chicken, avocado, lime and mixed greens, lettuce, parsley
(Image: Elenadesign/Shutterstock)

The Science of Healthy Eating

Rather than looking at food and eating as a diet, think of it more as a lifestyle, where meals are celebrations and where you indulge in healthy and delicious foods. Words like “healthy,” “indulgence,” and “celebration” typically don’t go together, but you will find that good food that is prepared well is actually a treat to the palate.

Ingredients used in Mediterranean cuisine
(Image: Yulia Davidovich/Shutterstock)

Multiple studies are confirming the health benefits of Mediterranean, Asian, and Latin American cuisines to protect people against lifestyle-related diseases, mostly by reducing risk factors for obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and even certain cancers. For example, an eight-year study that followed 20,000 Greek men and women found compelling evidence for the Mediterranean diet to help people live a longer and healthier life.

Studies have shown that in addition to what you eat, how you eat can impact your health. Keys to a healthier lifestyle include eating mindfully, taking the time to savor your food—maybe even enjoying your meal with a glass of wine—and emphasizing wholesome meals that are seasonal and sustainable. The emphasis should be on creating foods that are so good that you want to savor them.

This is a transcript from the video series The Everyday Gourmet: Making Healthy Food Taste Great. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Breakfast of Champions

The following is a strategy for making incremental changes to your diet that can move your food choices in a positive direction nutritionally—from good to better to best food choices.

Learn more about one of the simplest strategies for healthy eating

Good Food: Instant Oatmeal

If you are trying to eat a healthy breakfast and decide that you are going to have oatmeal—a good whole grain—you might choose instant oatmeal, which is ground and rolled very finely. You cook it by boiling some water and then pouring it on top of the oatmeal, and after about 20 seconds, it’s ready for you to eat. As much as you like the idea of oats, you realize that you would be happier if you poured some heavy cream on top, along with a pat of butter. When you taste it, you decide that it’s not quite sweet enough, so you add some white sugar as well.

Learn more about Mediterranean cooking

Better Food: Rolled Oats

Instead of instant oats, you could eat rolled oats for breakfast. They take a little bit longer to cook, but they don’t take longer than about 10 or 15 minutes. Instead of heavy cream, use warm milk, and instead of white sugar, add a little bit of honey—but not before you sweeten the oats with some fresh fruit, such as peaches and plums.

Best Food: Steel-Cut Oats with Yogurt, Flaxseed, and Berries

Healthy Steel-Cut Oats with Yogurt, Flaxseed, and Berries

proportions to taste

Ingredients

  • steel-cut oats
  • water
  • almond/soy/coconut milk or cow’s milk
  • coconut oil or butter
  • yogurt
  • flaxseed, toasted
  • cinnamon
  • selection of berries, such as blackberries, raspberries, and blueberries
  • honey

Cooking Instructions

Begin by pre-heating the oven to 375°. On a baking sheet spread your preferred amount of flaxseed evenly and bake for 5 to 10 minutes, checking halfway through to gently shake the sheet for more thorough toasting. This can be done in a toaster oven and even in a skillet. If in skillet, cook the flaxseed in dry skillet over medium-high heat and stir or toss frequently to avoid burning. You will know they’re done by the color and the smell of lovely toasted flaxseed. Set aside.

For the steel-cut oats begin by using a ratio of 1:4 cups of (steel-cut oats:liquid). In large saucepan, combine liquids (usually 3 parts water and 1 part milk). Melt coconut oil in pan and when fully melted add steel-cut oats. Toast them, tossing or stirring for around 2-3 minutes, until golden, to enhance flavor.

Next when liquid reaches a simmer or gentle boil add the steel-cut oats, a large pinch of salt, a pinch of cinnamon and stir to combine. Lower the heat to around medium-low and cook until they reach a slight, simmering boil. It should have one or two bubbles per minute, a gentle simmer. As they cook stir occasionally to ensure they aren’t sticking to the bottom of the pot and to check your desired consistency.

When the steel-cut oats are ready, place them in a bowl, top with berries, drizzle with honey and enjoy a healthy breakfast.

Learn more about whole grains in Nutritious and Satisfying Whole Grains

Doing Lunch Right

Good Food: Chef’s Salad

To keep you on track with your commitment to be healthy, you decide to eat a salad for lunch. You choose a chef’s salad with iceberg lettuce (which is sort of the white bread of lettuces). It is covered with luncheon meat, cheese, and bacon, but you ask for the ranch dressing on the side. It is great to have a salad for lunch, but each time you add ingredients, ask yourself if you are getting the most benefits and the least drawbacks that you possibly can. Hardboiled eggs are a beneficial topping, but luncheon meats, cheese, and a creamy dressing don’t come with as many rewards as they should to be worth the calories. In addition, while the idea of asking for the dressing on the side is a good one, if having the dressing on the side means that you are going to use too much of it, then just have them dress it in the kitchen and let them do the work for you.

Better Food: Caesar Salad

In contrast to a chef’s salad, a Caesar salad has darker, leafier greens that likely have more nutrition. Caesar salad also has cheese on it. A little bit of cheese—especially a full-flavored cheese like parmesan—can be leveraged to bring a lot of nutrient-dense food like lettuce to you in a tasty way. The dressing on a Caesar salad is a little bit creamy, but grilled chicken adds some lean protein to this salad. The croutons are made from white bread, so ask yourself if you can make those healthier.

Learn more about health benefits you can get with complex carbohydrates and whole grains

Best Food: Niçoise Salad

Niçoise Salad

proportions to taste

Ingredients

  • tuna, canned or seared
  • salt
  • olive oil
  • green beans
  • potatoes, roasted
  • eggs, hard boiled
  • olives
  • tomatoes
  • anchovies

Cooking Instructions

The best Niçoise Salad is made with fresh tuna steaks however canned tuna can be just as delicious when made with love. You can skip the next section by draining the water or oil from the canned tuna and go directly to the potatoes!

For seared tuna steaks: preheat the skillet until it is barely smoking, add a generous portion of oil and give it a few seconds to heat up. Salt your tuna steak on both sides and lay in the oil beginning the steak near you and laying down in the opposite direction of you to prevent oil splashing your direction. Sear each side for around 2 minutes for a medium – medium well steak. Less time for those who like it rare. Slice steaks into appropriate sizes.

For the roasted potatoes: the best roasted potatoes are small and boiled first. Boil a pot with water and a large pinch of salt, add your potatoes and boil until a fork goes through without tension. Drain the potatoes, place in mixing bowl and toss with oil (olive or coconut is best). Lay these potatoes out on a baking tray lined with foil or parchment paper and salt them well.
Place in the oven at 375° and cook for around 10-15 minutes checking halfway through (ovens vary) until dark-golden brown and crispy on the outside. The boiled inside will be scrumptiously fluffy and soft!

For the green beans: Set a medium pot to boil with a generous pinch of salt. Chop off the very tips of the beans and slice in halves or quarters, whatever you like, add to the pot when at a rolling boil. While they’re boiling fill a mixing bowl with water and ice. After around 3-5 minutes of boiling, drain the green beans and add to the cold water, shocking them to retain texture and color.

For the salad: chop your tomatoes, olives and hard boiled eggs into appropriate sizes depending how many are eating. Lay a slice of red lettuce in the bowl. Top with the tuna steaks surrounded by the anchovies, roasted potatoes, tomatoes, green beans, nicoise olives and hard-boiled eggs. Generously drizzle olive oil over the entire presentation, add a touch of salt and serve.

What’s for Dinner?

Good Food: Fish and Chips

For dinner, you might think about eating fish because it seems healthier than red meat, so you decide to eat fried fish, french fries, and a little bit of coleslaw with a really rich mayonnaise dressing. After all, you are eating fish, and there are some vegetables on the plate, but this dish is not really representative of making great nutritional choices.

Better Food: Sautéed White Fish with Rice and Broccoli

The better option is plain boiled white rice with steamed broccoli and a small piece of white fish that has been sautéed but does not have a rich sauce. The problem with this dish is that there is nothing enticing about it, so it doesn’t matter how healthy it is. If it’s not eaten, it’s not food—it’s nutritional garbage.

Best Food: Wild Salmon, Zucchini Carpaccio, and Brown Rice Pilaf

You need to find the middle ground between being unhealthy and being bland. You want to find something that looks good, tastes good, is appealing, and is also healthy—for example, wild salmon with zucchini carpaccio and brown rice pilaf.

Learn more about ordinary foods with extraordinary health benefits 

Common Questions About Making Healthy Food Choices Taste Great

Q: Can you make healthy food taste good?

Yes, you can most definitely make healthy food taste delicious. Healthy food is naturally tasty with salt alone, but if you desire extra flavor, there are a range of cooking techniques such as marinating, crisping, using oil on rice pilaf, using healthy oils like coconut which impart flavor, and, of course, using spices.

Q: How does salt make food taste good?

Salt is a primary taste, of five, that our body recognizes, and sodium chloride is a chemical we need. Salt helps unravel proteins, which allows the tongue to react to more of them. Additionally, salt acts as a valet for subtler flavors, bringing them in contrast with itself to amplify them.

Q: Does salt preserve food?

Salt can preserve food by pulling out via osmosis the water which causes spoiling and surrounding it in a cake of dry, chemically-clean, bacteria-fighting crystals.

Q: Why do chefs use salt in desserts?

Chefs like to pit salty against sweet foods because 1) our mouths like the blend and 2) it provides a contrast to thicker, richer foods like chocolate or caramel in the same way a pickle provides a cleansing contrast to heavy meats.

This article was updated on 8/8/2019

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