Whether you make formal New Year's resolutions or not, the changing of the calendar often leads to contemplating what changes we might like to see in our lives. On the nutrition front, these are my top five picks for habits worth developing in 2017.
Cook more: Creating and serving even the simplest of meals is a profound way of caring for yourself and your loved ones. Homemade meals tend to be more healthful than ones you purchase, because when you cook from scratch, you know exactly what you're eating. That makes it much easier to eat in a way that aligns with your health goals.
Think that cooking is difficult or time-consuming? It can be, but it doesn't have to be. Even inexperienced home cooks can do wonderful things when they learn a few core skills: A few ways to cook vegetables; the ingredients for a simple vinaigrette; how to cook a pot of beans or whole grains; what to do with a piece of meat or fish, or a block of tofu or tempeh.
Nail down a few basics, assemble a small collection of condiments and seasonings that appeal to your taste buds and you're set. For inspiration, look for cookbooks and food blogs that embrace real-world "let's get dinner on the table" cooking with short ingredient lists that emphasize easily available fresh foods and pantry staples. Save any "project" cooking for the weekends.
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Consider why you eat: Sure, you eat when you're hungry, but what are the other reasons you eat? Boredom? Stress? Loneliness? Anxiety? Many people use food to meet needs that food simply wasn't meant to meet. When you find yourself reaching for food or mindlessly browsing the contents of your refrigerator, get in the habit of asking yourself, "Am I hungry?" If the answer is "No," ask yourself what you are expecting food to do for you in that moment. Usually, there are better, more meaningful ways of entertaining or soothing yourself.
Reduce added sugars: According to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, it's difficult to get enough of the nutrients we need for good health without exceeding our calorie needs if we get more than 10 percent of our total daily calories from added sugar. The average American does get more than that, especially children, teens and young adults.
Added sugars are different from the natural sugars found in vegetables, fruits, grains, beans and dairy products. Added sugars, which include white sugar or other calorie-containing sweeteners, are highly refined from their original source and add calories without nutrients. Beverages are the biggest source of added sugars, followed by desserts and snack foods, but sugar is added to many prepared foods - including salad dressings and frozen meals - another reason home cooking is better for health.
Eat more plants: If you make one change to your eating habits for 2015, a great choice would be to eat more whole plant foods: vegetables, fruit, whole grains, beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, herbs and spices. Simply put, adopting a plant-based diet is one of the best moves you can make for your health if you want to make your meals more nutrient-rich and reduce your risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, cancer and other chronic diseases.
The good news is that plant-based diets can take many forms, from vegan to vegetarian to flexitarian to omnivore. The common denominator is that they put plant foods at the center of your plate. If you also choose to eat animal-based foods (meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy), they play smaller, supporting roles. While the benefits of a plant-based diet come from eating a variety of plant foods, you can't go wrong by making vegetables the star. They are packed with vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients - compounds that reduce chronic inflammation and disease risk - while being lower in calories than other foods.
Let go of rigid rules: Although it's hard to go wrong with eating plenty of plants and minimizing a reliance on highly processed foods, the fact is that there's no single perfect eating plan. A nutritious diet allows for flexibility and shifts over time to suit your tastes and nutritional needs. Trying to find and follow a "perfect" eating plan is not only an exercise in futility, but it also often leads to all-or-nothing thinking: You're either perfect or you're a failure. This can lead to feelings of shame, and shame is a lousy motivator for positive change. Perfection is the enemy of progress.
If you have a history of all-or-nothingism, why not try something new this year: Start small, start today and keep moving forward. Pick one or two areas to focus on - adding more vegetables to lunch and dinner, bumping up protein at breakfast, eating regularly instead of skipping meals and curbing mindless snacking are a few favorites - then add another only when you feel solid in your new habits.
Sautéed kale with peanut sauce
Just when you thought kale had achieved its zenith, here’s a different and winning way to prepare it quickly. The sauce does not have the expected Asian flavor, which we found to be a nice change. Serve with grilled chicken or fish.
Adapted from “The Endurance Training Diet & Cookbook,” by Jesse Kropelnicki (Harmony Books).
2 tablespoons natural creamy peanut butter
2 teaspoons liquid aminos (may substitute low-sodium soy sauce)
1/4 cup no-salt-added vegetable broth, or more as needed
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
Pinch chili powder
Pinch ground cumin
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
1/3 large yellow onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
Leaves from 1 bunch kale (no stems; about 8 ounces)
Whisk together the peanut butter, liquid aminos or soy sauce, broth, coriander, chili powder and cumin in a medium bowl. The consistency should be that of heavy cream; if it’s thicker than that, add more broth.
Heat the oil in a large, nonstick saute pan over medium heat. Once the oil shimmers, stir in the onion and garlic; cook for 3 to 5 minutes or until softened, then add the kale. Cook for about 3 minutes or just until the leaves have wilted.
Add the peanut sauce; toss until the kale is thoroughly coated. Serve hot.
Per serving: 120 calories, 5 g protein, 9 g carbohydrates, 8 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 150 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 3 g sugar
Braised chicken thighs with tomatillos
Serves 4 to 6
With a slight refinement in the recipe’s original directions – breaking up the tender cooked chicken so it stays moist in the sauce – this Mexican-inspired, one-pot dish is officially ruled a keeper.
Make ahead: This tastes even better after a day’s refrigeration; skim off any congealed fat (from the chicken skin) before reheating in a pot on the stove top.
If you have trouble finding boneless, skin-on chicken thighs, buy bone-in thighs and see how to remove the bones in the note below.
Adapted from “The Eat Fat, Get Thin Cookbook,” by Mark Hyman (Little, Brown and Co.).
8 boneless, skin-on chicken thighs (see notes)
2 teaspoons ground cumin
3/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon avocado oil
1 large yellow onion, cut into 1/4-inch dice
3 cloves garlic, minced
6 tomatillos, husked, rinsed and cut into quarters
1 medium jalapeño pepper, thinly sliced (seeded, if desired)
2 cups no-salt-added chicken broth
1/2 cup chipotle-flavored mayonnaise, for serving
Finely grated zest and juice from 1 lime, plus lime wedges for serving
1/4 cup coarsely chopped cilantro leaves, plus a few leaves for garnish
Flesh of 1 avocado, cut into chunks
Season the chicken thighs with the cumin, salt and pepper.
Heat the oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Once the oil is shimmering, add the chicken, top sides down. Cook for 3 or 4 minutes or until browned then turn them over and cook for 2 to 3 minutes. (The chicken won’t be cooked through.)
Stir in the onion and garlic; cook for about 2 minutes or until softened, then add the tomatillos, jalapeño and broth. Once the mixture comes to a boil, reduce the heat to medium, cover and cook for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the chicken is tender and cooked through. Uncover; remove from the heat.
Meanwhile, stir together the chipotle mayonnaise, lime zest, half the lime juice and the chopped cilantro in a medium bowl, until well blended.
Use large forks or a couple of table knives to shred/break up the chicken in its sauce. Discard the chicken skins. Add the remaining lime juice and half of the avocado, stirring until the sauce gets a bit creamier. Taste, and add salt as needed.
Divide chicken and sauce among individual wide, shallow bowls. Top each portion with a dollop of the chipotle mayo, cilantro leaves and the remaining avocado chunks. Serve warm, with lime wedges.
Note: To remove the thigh bones, invert the thighs so they are skin side down. Use your fingers to locate the main bone that runs through the thigh. Use a small, sharp knife to scrape away the flesh from either side of the bone, clearly exposing the bone but keeping the flesh intact as much as possible (do not shred it away in pieces). Finally, cut away any cartilage or flesh to release the bone, which should not have any flesh on it.
Per serving (based on 6): 410 calories, 52 g protein, 9 g carbohydrates, 17 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 200 mg cholesterol, 510 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 4 g sugar
Egg roll bowls
Serves 2 or 3
Here, the textures and flavors you might find inside an egg roll fill dinner bowls instead. You can save some prep time by picking up shredded carrots and sliced mushrooms from the supermarket salad bar.
Adapted from “Skinnytaste Fast and Slow: Knockout Quick-Fix and Slow Cooker Recipes,” by Gina Homolka with Heather K. Jones (Clarkson Potter).
7 ounces ground pork (may substitute lean ground chicken)
2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
1/2 small onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon peeled, freshly grated ginger root
3 cups packed, thinly sliced napa or green cabbage (from less than 1/2 head)
2 cups thinly sliced baby bok choy (from 2 pieces)
1/2 cup loosely packed shredded carrots
2 1/2 ounces stemmed, sliced shiitake mushrooms (may substitute mushrooms of your choice)
1 1/2 teaspoons mirin or dry sherry
1/2 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
1 scallion, sliced on the diagonal, for garnish
Heat a wok or large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add the pork and half the soy sauce; stir-fry for about 3 minutes, breaking up the meat.
Add the onion, garlic and ginger; stir-fry for about 3 minutes.
Add the cabbage, bok choy, carrots and mushrooms, then the mirin or sherry, the remaining tablespoon of soy sauce and the toasted sesame oil; stir-fry for 3 to 4 minutes or until the cabbage and bok choy have wilted a bit yet still retain some texture.
Divide among wide, shallow bowls. Sprinkle each portion with scallion slices. Serve right away.
Per serving (based on 3): 190 calories, 24 g protein, 12 g carbohydrates, 6 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 50 mg cholesterol, 490 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 5 g sugar
Black rice, banana and coconut breakfast bowls
Because black rice is high in fiber, this is a warm and comforting dish that may keep you feeling satisfied longer.
Black glutinous rice is the unprocessed whole grain of traditional sticky rice; it’s lower in calories and carbohydrates than white and brown rice. You’ll find it in some health food stores and Japanese markets and via online purveyors. We tested this recipe with Lotus Foods brand Organic Forbidden Black Rice as well, and that’s an acceptable substitute.
Make ahead: The rice needs to be soaked overnight. It can be cooked, cooled, covered and refrigerated a day in advance.
Adapted from “Skinny Soups: 80 Flavor-Packed Recipes of Less Than 300 Calories,” by Kathryn Bruton (Kyle Books).
3/4 cup black glutinous rice (see headnote)
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
One slice (quarter size) peeled fresh ginger root
1 cup coconut water
1/2 cup cold water
1/2 cup unsweetened plain fresh almond milk (from the refrigerated case)
1 banana, sliced (may substitute a fruit of your choice)
2 1/2 tablespoons pomegranate seeds (arils; optional)
2 tablespoons low-fat coconut milk
A few mint leaves, for garnish (optional)
Place the rice in a bowl and cover it with water. Let soak overnight.
Drain the rice and rinse it until the water runs clear, then place it in a small saucepan. Add the cinnamon, ground ginger, fresh ginger, coconut water and cold water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then give it a stir, reduce the heat to medium-low, cover tightly and cook for about 30 minutes or until tender. Not all the liquid will be absorbed.
Uncover; stir in the almond milk and increase the heat to medium; after the rice begins to bubble at the edges, cook for about 5 minutes, then discard the slice of fresh ginger.
Divide between bowls. Top with the banana, the pomegranate seeds, if using, and the coconut milk. Garnish with the mint leaves, if using; serve warm.
Per serving: 360 calories, 9 g protein, 82 g carbohydrates, 5 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 35 mg sodium, 7 g dietary fiber, 14 g sugar
Dump ranch dressing
16 servings (makes 2 cups)
This is a “clean” (read: no sugar, no preservatives) version of the salad dressing Americans love most. You’ll need a wide-mouth quart-size jar with a tight-fitting lid. The recipe calls for a raw egg. If you are concerned about the risk of salmonella, use a pasteurized shell egg or egg product, available in select supermarkets.
By blending the herbs in with the other ingredients, you’ll wind up with a pale green dressing. If you’d rather keep it “ranch white,” blend the ingredients without the herbs. Chop them finely and stir them in.
Make ahead: The dressing can be refrigerated for up to 1 week. It will thicken in cold storage; use a little water to thin it out as needed.
Adapted from “The Whole30 Cookbook: 150 Delicious and Totally Compliant Recipes to Help You Succeed With the Whole30 and Beyond,” by Melissa Hartwig (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016).
1 large egg, at room temperature (see note aove)
1 cup olive oil, preferably light (light in flavor)
1/2 cup full-fat coconut milk, well shaken
1/2 cup packed, chopped fresh cilantro, parsley and/or other herbs
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3/4 teaspoon onion powder
3/4 teaspoon granulated garlic (garlic powder)
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Combine the egg, oil, coconut milk, herbs (see headnote), vinegar, lemon juice, salt, onion powder, garlic powder and black pepper in the jar. Use an immersion (stick) blender to blend for 1 minute, until well incorporated. The yield is 2 cups.
Use right away, or seal and refrigerate for up to 1 week.
Per 2-tablespoon serving: 140 calories, 0 g protein, 0 g carbohydrates, 16 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 10 mg cholesterol, 75 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar