Easy Cooking Hacks for Better Nutrition

Elevate your nutritional game with these super-simple culinary and ingredient tweaks.

Cooking healthy does not have to be complicated or expensive. Unfortunately, with busy schedules and full days, making a nutritious meal can still prove to be an epic challenge. Aside from overhauling your entire pantry, the solution to your dining woes could be as simple as trading one ingredient for another or preparing your food in a different way. Check out these ideas to instantly upgrade your meals — and your results.

According to the National Institute of Health, nearly 50 percent of all deaths in the U.S. in 2017 were caused by diseases associated with poor eating habits. Try these cooking methods and food swaps the next time your in the kitchen — it’s a great place to start.

Cooking Methods

Just because you’ve always cooked chicken a certain way does not mean you can’t improve on your skills. Here are some methods to consider that can replace a less-healthy go-to technique such as boiling, panfrying or deep-frying.

Stewing

Stewing slow-cooks food in a liquid, allowing flavors to blend together while tenderizing the meat or other protein and preserving the nutrients. True, stewing takes a little longer and the texture might be softer than you’re used to, but the ingredients of your favorite go-to meal can remain the same. “You can also stew using minimal kitchen equipment,” says Cara Harbstreet, MS, RD, LD, which can expedite cleanup time.

Tips:

  • Because stew makes a meat/protein so tender, you can use a less-expensive cut such as chuck beef, which might otherwise be considered tough.
  • Veggies take less time to cook than meat, so add them later in the stewing process to prevent them from becoming mushy.
  • A stew takes about two hours to cook, so take that into consideration when planning your prep time.

Broiling

Broiling is a great cooking option because you can season meat, fish, poultry and veggies with a simple dry rub instead of with oil or other fats. And because it’s dry, the seasoning will stick to the food and won’t run or drip off into the bottom of the baking dish, according to Harbstreet.

Tips:

  • The recommended temperature for broiling is about 500 degrees, so give your oven plenty of time to preheat before putting in your food.
  • Speaking of 500 degrees, unwatched meals can easily be burnt, so keep a close eye on your food as it cooks.
  • Generally speaking, steaks take between five to 10 minutes to cook, and chicken, fish and veggies take about 15 minutes.

Grilling

“Grilling is a nutritious way to cook lean protein like chicken or beef because you avoid batters and excess oils,” says Chrissy Carroll, MPH, RD, LDN, ACSMCPT. Grilling also allows the fat from your protein to drip off your food and into the grill, meaning you eat less fat as a result. “Some people worry that grilling can create carcinogenic compounds, but you can minimize your risk by marinating meat beforehand,” Carroll says. Also, make sure your grill is not so hot that you see tall, visible flames licking up between the grates.

Tips:

  • Preheat your grill, then when you’re ready to cook your food, turn the flame down to prevent charring.
  • Close the lid when cooking to preserve the heat and better control the temperature.
  • Reduce the sticky (and icky) factor of a grill by cleaning it with a wire brush after each use. This also will reduce the chance of fire.
Great roasting veggies include broccoli, beats, carrots, Brussels sprouts, eggplant, peppers and zucchini.

Roasting

There is nothing more pathetic than a limp, boiled vegetable or a rubbery boiled protein. Roasting is a healthy, dry cooking method that allows a veggie to keep its crunch and meats and poultry to retain their nutritional value. In other words, the vitamins and minerals of your food don’t get sucked out into the boiling water and tossed down the drain.

Tips:

  • Toss your food in a little high-quality oil to create a delicious crunchy crust, Carroll says. Use just enough to lightly coat a food, not drench it.
  • The ideal temperature for roasting is 400 degrees, a little less than broiling, so allow plenty of time for preheating.
  • Cook veggies until they deepen in color and their sugars begin to caramelize, Carroll recommends.

Steaming

Eating food as close to its pure form as possible is ideal, and here is where steaming is a suppertime superstar. “Steaming cooks food quickly and preserves much of its nutritional value without adding other ingredients,” Carroll explains. And because it only requires water as a vehicle for heat, there are also no added calories.

Tips:

  • Though you want food to be completely enveloped in steam, it should not be submerged in water. Otherwise, you’re just boiling it.
  • Don’t over-steam a food or it will be just as soggy and limp as something boiled. Between 10 and 15 minutes should suffice for most items.
  • Covering a pot, steamer or basket will trap the steam and expedite cooking.
  • You can use a countertop steamer, a bamboo steamer basket or a metal folding vegetable steamer to cook food quickly and efficiently.

Air-Frying

What has more calories, oil or air? (Hello, Captain Obvious.) “Instead of submerging the food in oil, air circulates around it to achieve the same crispy, crunchy texture,” Harbstreet says. And air-frying is versatile, meaning you can use it for vegetables, potatoes, protein and more.

Tips:

  • Don’t overcrowd your air fryer. There needs to be space between items so the hot air can circulate through.
  • Make sure you preheat your fryer to bring the air to the ideal temperature and expedite cooking.
  • Don’t use any marinade, batter or liquid. It will just drip off the food into the bottom.
  • An air fryer not only slashes calories but also saves you a lot of kitchen cleanup — no greasy pans or stove-top oil splatters!

Smart Swaps

Swapping one ingredient for another can instantly make a meal healthier. Change just an ingredient at a time in a recipe so it’s not a complete shock if something tastes a little different.

Yogurt

Sub for: Sour cream, mayo or heavy cream.

Yogurt is a healthy source of protein, calcium and probiotics. “Try subbing plain Greek yogurt into recipes where you’d traditionally use something like mayo or sour cream,” Carroll says. “Not only will you save some calories, but you’ll add extra protein, too.” While it’s not a perfect fit for every dish, yogurt works well in creamy sauces and dips or in dishes like potato salad.

Cauliflower

Sub for: Rice, potatoes and pizza crust.

Known for its fiber, B vitamins and cancer-protective nutrients, cauliflower adds a hearty component to any meal. You can rice it and use in place of traditional rice to save on carbs, or you can steam/boil and mash it to use instead of potatoes in a side or for flour in pizza crust.

Pink Sea Salt

Sub for: Standard table salt.

If you’re going to add salt to a dish, it might as well work for you rather than against you. “Using pink Himalayan sea salt adds trace minerals while enhancing the other flavors in a recipe,” says Kathy Smart, HTC, PTS, CEO of Live the Smart Way. This specific type of salt contains minerals such as calcium, iron, potassium and magnesium, which can stabilize electrolytes and reduce the chance of dehydration. It also helps improve metabolic function, strengthens bones and lowers blood pressure.

Cottage Cheese

Sub for: Fruit-flavored yogurt or protein powders.

Fruit-flavored yogurt often contains added sugar — anywhere from 13 to 17 grams per 100-gram serving. Reduce your sugar without losing out on protein and nutrients by trading up to cottage cheese. A great source of protein, B vitamins and calcium, cottage cheese contains only about 160 calories per cup and has a whopping 25 grams of protein, including casein, which metabolizes slowly, increasing satiety. “Use cottage cheese to boost the protein content of a smoothie instead of using heavily processed powders,” Harbstreet says.

Avocado Oil

Sub for: Other vegetable oils.

Avocado oil is low in saturated fat and high in potassium and vitamin E — key nutrients for optimal heart health. Try it in place of vegetable oil for dressings and sauces, and because it has the highest smoke point of all oils, you can use it in high-heat dishes such as stir-fries, Smart says.

Citrus Zest

Sub for: Processed flavor packets.

Using a little lemon, orange or lime zest in a recipe instead of a commercial flavor packet — which may contain added preservatives and chemicals — is a healthier choice for seasoning a favorite dish. And while most people are only focused on the inside of a citrus fruit, the zest contains many health-preserving nutrients such as vitamins B and C. “It also adds a little zip to baked goods, soups and stews,” Smart says.