Healthy cooking made easy
Cooking healthy meals doesn’t have to be tricky. Our Senior Dietitian Victoria Taylor explains how you can keep it simple but still look after your heart.
From endless recipe books to the dizzying array of ingredients in the shops, sometimes it’s hard to know how to start constructing a meal. But often what we want to cook, and feel like eating, is something simple. So whether you’ve not cooked much before, are short of time, or just prefer plainer food, meals that don’t require lengthy instructions or exotic ingredients are a recipe for success.
There’s nothing wrong with plain food, but if you want to add flavour there are simple ways to do it, without adding the salt, sugar and saturated fat which can come with ready-made sauces and condiments. For example, season plain grilled or baked chicken and fish with black pepper and lemon juice.
Adding flavours to a simple tomato sauce forms the basis for many meals. Make the sauce with tinned tomatoes, onion and a teaspoon of olive oil. Go Mediterranean with dried oregano (great with white fish, pulses or vegetables). Make a simple curry sauce by adding curry powder (goes with most meats). Add smoked paprika for a Spanish flavour, which is great with fish, vegetables or rice.
Build your skills
If you don’t feel confident about your cooking skills, remember that food cooked in a sauce is more forgiving, as it doesn’t dry out as easily if overcooked. Try dishes like chilli or bolognese – use extra-lean mince, beans or lentils, or a mixture. Minced meat is easier to cook right through than larger pieces of meat. These dishes are also good for making in batches if you want leftovers for the next day or to freeze.
Food cooked in a sauce is more forgiving, as it doesn’t dry out as easily if overcooked
There are many theories on the best way to cook rice and pasta, but the simplest way is to follow the packet instructions, as different types vary. The instructions will guide you on portion size, too. Jacket potatoes are an easy-to-cook starchy food. Give them a wash, prick with a fork, then stick in the oven until soft (about an hour) or in the microwave (usually five to 10 minutes for one potato or a bit longer for more than one).
Pouches of plain brown rice and wholegrains that can be microwaved are even easier and cook in a couple of minutes. They do cost more, though, so stock up when they’re on special offer if you like to have these in the cupboard. Supermarket own-brands tend to be cheaper.
Building your appetite
If you've been unwell or had surgery, your appetite may be less than usual, but it's important to try to eat and drink to help stimulate it. Choosing meals that are simple to prepare and eat can help. Eating little and often (six small meals or snacks a day) might help too, so you don't feel overwhelmed by a big plate of food. If your appetite doesn't return within a few weeks or you've lost weight without meaning to, get advice from your doctor.
Make your plate look great
Making your meals look good enough to eat is important, especially if your appetite isn’t great. Choose foods of different colours to make your plate more attractive. A sprig or two of a fresh herb, like parsley or basil, can brighten up your meal. Many chefs think that food looks best on a plain white plate – if you’ve got a few different plates, try them all and see if there’s one you prefer.
Everyone has days when there isn’t time to cook, or you’re not feeling up to it, and it’s good to plan for this. If you know in advance that you won’t be able to cook as much as usual – for example if you know you’re going to have an operation – then one option is to cook in bulk and freeze extra portions to eat during your recovery.
Ready meals are convenient, but aren’t always healthy, so read the packet nutritional information. Look for those with mostly green colour coding on nutritional information, especially for saturated fat and salt. Check that your meal contains starchy carbohydrate and fruit or vegetables. Often ready meals will be more balanced (and filling) with a side of extra vegetables or salad.
Frozen peas are cheap and easy to cook, but there are lots of other frozen vegetables available, which can help avoid wasting food. Or you can buy ready-prepared vegetables or salad – just make sure they don’t have anything added such as salty seasonings or flavoured butters.
What makes a meal?
Meal planning can sound daunting, but the basics are simple.
A balanced meal is made up of three food groups. Choose a wholegrain or high-fibre starchy carbohydrate, a protein food (which includes meat, fish, eggs, vegetarian alternatives, as well as dairy products), and at least one portion of fruit or vegetables. Aim for at least five portions of fruit and vegetables per day.
Below are some example foods from each group. Choose one from each group (You can combine them however you like) to create a balanced meal:
- Brown rice
- Wholemeal bread
- Potatoes with skin on
- Wholewheat pasta
- Brown rice
- Low-sugar wholegrain breakfast cereals
- Lean red meat
- Beans and lentils
- Poultry (skin-off)
- Low-fat dairy
- Low-fat milk
- Low-fat plain yoghurt
Fruit and veg
- Tomatoes (tinned or fresh)
- Frozen peas
- Salad veg
- Bananas, oranges, apples, pears
- Tinned fruit in unsweetened juice
You can find detailed information about what kind of foods you should eat, and in what proportions, by looking at the Eatwell guide.
Examples of balanced meals:
- Wholegrain toast, a boiled egg and half a grapefruit
- Tinned sardines on toast with sliced tomatoes
- Jacket potato with reduced sugar-and-salt baked beans and salad
- Grilled or baked chicken breast served with boiled new potatoes and green beans