When I used to dish out advice to people about food preparation, it was evident that I didn’t cook. “Just bake and steam food,” I would say.
But then when I started to cook, that lean breast of chicken often turned out dry. Thighs, with a little more fat, produced a juicier meal. And no one wanted to eat those steamed veggies. But roasted veggies and tasty salads got devoured.
What I have learned is that the nutrition “shoulds” of cooking can get in the way of true food enjoyment. We all want to maximize nutrition, but if healthy meals aren’t satisfying, they won’t stand a chance. So here are some ways that I have learned to enjoy the best of both worlds:
1. Focus on balance over strict rules: I really love a good, balanced meal. I just think it’s sad to eat sandwich by itself without a salad or fruit or soup (or even better, all four!).
In addition to serving a variety of food groups (fruit, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, protein etc.), I also consider the food preparation. For example, the other night I made baked fish tacos and so I decided to pan fry the corn tortillas. If I have one item really high in fat, the others will be low. This keeps meals from feeling too heavy except for special occasions like Thanksgiving.
2. Experiment: I often try reducing certain ingredients in recipes, or adding a healthful ingredient, to see what happens — maybe it’s less sugar in baked goods or flaxseed meal to a breading mix. Sometimes I love it and other times I realize it’s better with more sugar or without that super food ingredient. Then I prioritize how it fits in the diet and then decide how often to serve it.
I also have a list of items I want to make from scratch “someday,” but don’t feel ready yet. While I make my own pasta sauce and salsa, I haven’t gotten around to making bread or yogurt. So in the meantime, I choose the best products I can find.
3. Fill the true craving: When we go out to eat breakfast, which isn’t often, the kids are already dreaming of having pancakes — they love restaurant pancakes. When they arrive, they have no interest in the fruit that is nearby. And I don’t try to get them to eat the fruit.
I have found that it’s better to honor the true craving than trying to cover it up with food that isn’t wanted at that particular time. Because when the craving isn’t filled, it tends to stick around and even grow.
4. Focus on how food makes you feel: In my early years as an RD, my food choices were just about nutrition and health. So I deprived myself of cravings and eliminated certain foods l liked. But once I adopted a bigger picture view of eating, it all changed.
Food also became about its lasting power. I mean, a salad for lunch is awesome but if I’m hungry an hour later, what’s the use. How satisfying and filling food is can be a very important part of how I choose what to eat. The ultimate in satisfaction, for me at least, is a nice balance of all the macronutrients — carbs, protein and fat. Too much of any one thing throws it off.
5. Enjoy, enjoy and enjoy some more: Above all, food is enjoyed and celebrated in my house. In a recent study, it was found that people who felt guilty after eating chocolate cake gained more weight over 18 months than those who saw the decadent item as a celebration. The study authors say that “Enjoyment of food should receive more attention than it has in the past.”
Food is one of life’s greatest pleasures. And when it stops feeling that way it may be time for a change as Bhanta Gunaratana says so eloquently in the book: Mindfulness in Plain English:
“Make it reasonable. Make it fit with the rest of your life. And if it starts to feel like you’re on an uphill treadmill toward liberation, then change something.”
How do you keep nutrition from becoming a chore in your cooking endeavors?