How to eat more healthily without depriving yourself
Okay, first things first: I’m not perfect at eating healthily. Far (far, far, far) from it, in fact. You all know about my penchant for all things cheesy – add a heap of carbs and I’m satisfied. There are a plethora of white pasta recipes on this blog, along with plenty of other recipes that completely contradict the tips given below. However, even I manage to make some of these small changes every now and then, and I’d like to think that even little changes can make a difference if you implement them regularly. If I can manage to make these small changes every now and then, anyone can.
The picture you see above is my summer vegetable pasta in garlic butter sauce, and that recipe utilises a few of these tricks to eat healthily without depriving yourself. I’m certainly not claiming that this is diet food, not least because I don’t like the idea of ‘diets’ per se, but it’s certainly healthier than the enormous bowl of macaroni cheese I’d be eating if calories didn’t exist (excuse me a moment while I fantasise about that world). And it’s still absolutely gorgeous to eat – it still has pasta, it still has cheese. No deprivation required.
Anyway. Here are a few of the small changes I like to make to lighten up my meals a little, without making them any less delicious.
1. Switch white grains to wholemeal
Who says you have to resist pasta just because you’re trying to eat well? Although the calorie difference in white and wholemeal pasta is minimal, wholemeal pasta contains significantly more protein and fibre, which means that you’ll either get full off a smaller portion, or that it’ll just keep you fuller for longer – both of which mean you’ll end up eating less. The same goes for brown vs. white rice. Also, remember that eating more healthily isn’t just about eating fewer calories, and wholegrains have been reported to reduce risk of diabetes, heart disease and stroke, amongst other things.
I’m generally quite happy to eat whole grains – after all, once your rice or pasta is smothered in sauce, who cares what colour it was, right?
2. Bulk up ‘naughty’ foods with more healthy ingredients
A bowl of macaroni cheese that consists of nothing but carbs and fat isn’t the healthiest way to go about getting your pasta fix, even if it is wholemeal. Try making the pasta go further by bulking it up with more healthy foods like vegetables (as seen in the summer vegetable pasta recipe photo above) or (as in the deconstructed pesto pasta shown below), protein-rich chickpeas. That way you can feel pleased that you’ve had pasta for dinner, but you’ve still had plenty of nutrients too.
3. Use large pasta shapes instead of small
I know, I know – another one about pasta. Can you tell it’s my problem food? I personally find that when I use really small pasta shapes like macaroni, I end up eating more than when using larger shapes like penne or fusilli. The larger shapes fill the bowl more quickly and make me feel like I’ve eaten a proper portion – I guess that because they don’t interlock as well as really small shapes do, there’s more air filling up the bowl instead of pasta. Obviously, this only works up to a certain extent – stick two sheets of lasagne in a bowl and it’ll be pretty obvious that it’s mostly air, but I’m sure you could have figured that out.
4. Add cheese on top of a meal instead of stirring it through
This is a trick that I often use when making things like risotto. Obviously in a perfect world, the risotto would have plenty of cheese mixed through it, plus loads more on top. However, that would be a bit ridiculous. I find that cheese that’s mixed through a risotto (or a pasta dish, surprise surprise) melts away and gets a bit lost, and it’s the stuff that’s been added on top right at the end that you can really taste. So, if you’re trying to cut down on cheese but don’t want to deprive yourself of it completely, try only adding it on top rather than mixing it through – you’ll be able to taste it a lot more easily. I usually compromise by just mixing a tiny bit of cheese into my risottos to help with the creamy texture, and serving the rest on top. It’s also worth using a strongly-flavoured cheese like goat’s cheese or parmesan rather than something more mild, because you’ll be able to use less to get the same amount of flavour.
5. Try dry-roasting or water-sautéing vegetables to cut down on oil
When roasting or sautéing vegetables, it’s all too easy to go a bit mad with oil, drizzling it all over the place. However, this really isn’t necessary. It’s true, oil can stop the vegetables sticking to your pan, but as long as you have good quality equipment (I have this pan and I LOVE it) or a good non-stick oven mat, it’s not necessary. Certain vegetables will cook perfectly without any oil at all – and at around 120 calories per tablespoon, cutting out oil can make a massive impact. I sometimes add a dash of water when sautéing vegetables, but many (e.g. mushrooms) produce their own liquid anyway. If you really need the extra flavour that the oil provides, try adding just one tablespoon of olive oil after cooking, so that you get the full flavour of the oil rather than it all being lost during cooking. You can also use a lot less this way.
I used this method of water-sautéing for the leeks in my leek, feta and bulgur wheat patties.
6. Hide vegetables in other things
I love vegetables, but even I sometimes don’t want a meal full of them. There’s something strangely satisfying about having a meal that seems really simple – just pasta and pesto, for example. But just because you don’t want to be able to see the vegetables, it doesn’t mean they can’t be there (this works well for kids who won’t eat their vegetables as well). We all know that a varied diet is a healthy diet, so the more different types of vegetable that you can hide in your meal, the better. Add a handful of spinach to your batch of pesto, add finely chopped carrots to your pasta sauce, you know the drill.
7. Make things from scratch
I would be lying if I said I make everything from scratch, but considering that it only takes about 5 minutes to cut up a potato into chips (that’s fries to the non-Brits among you), there’s no real excuse for using the fatty, additive-packed shop-bought version. You can control exactly how much oil you add (see #5!) and you can switch up the flavour with your preferred herbs and spices rather than having them taste the same every time. The same goes for sauces – shop-bought sauces are notoriously packed with salt, flavourings, colourings and preservatives, but if you make them yourself, you can control exactly what goes in. And really, how long does it take to stick some basil in a blender and call it pesto?
8. Portion things out
This is one I do have a little trouble with myself, but I’ll write it here nonetheless. It’s a common suggestion to allow yourself a little bit of what you like, but only a little – perhaps just a couple of squares of chocolate, or just a few crisps. However, if you’re anything like me, that rule is pretty much impossible to enforce when the chocolate bar is lying open in front of you and all you have to do is reach your hand out. So instead, portion things out right after you’ve bought them, and then put them away. Break the chocolate into small chunks, wrap each one separately in foil and put it back in the cupboard (the foil can always be reused for the next bar if you’re worried about waste). This way, you can tell yourself you’ll have one portion, and one portion only. It’s a lot less tempting to have ‘just one more square’ if it means you have to get up and fetch it from the kitchen cupboard – as well as admitting to yourself that you ate twice what you said you would.
So there are my tips. As I said, I certainly don’t implement every one of these every time I cook (I’m sure there will be some nice cheesy white pasta back on the blog very soon…), but they’re just things to think about next time you’re in the kitchen. Some of these ideas I use more often than others – for example I water-sauté things all the time, but I do eat white pasta about as often as I eat wholemeal. Oh well – do as I say, not as I do!