Eating Healthy…ish

Sunday, January 24th, 2016

It seems there’s a trend afoot. One that says “I’ve worked hard; I deserve a treat after a long day at the office… but I don’t want to lose momentum for all that hard work!” That trend is Eating “Healthy…ish”.

What, you might ask, is healthy-ish eating, exactly?

Well… let me start by filling you in on my vision of “healthy”.

Swaths of green, purple, orange and red veggies, as far as the eye can see… Tender beans, lentils, peas, corn and fish replace those fatty fillets of beef and pork… starches and processed grains are banished, replaced by whole grains and hearty pasta… Hydrogenated and animal fats are avoided, replaced by their kinder, gentler cousins Canola and Olive.

That’s “Healthy”.

Throw a little cheese on top…

That’s “ish”.

Welcome to the world of healthy-ish eating!

In general, I like to feed my family wholesome foods that nourish the body in the long run rather than something just “quick and dirty” to fill the void. I feel confident that these foods will provide a great foundation for future growth.

One small hitch: wholesome foods only work if they’re eaten.

Enter “Ish”

Cooking “Healthy-ish” lets me add a moderate amount of cheese on that veggie whole-wheat-pasta casserole. It lets me add a smidgen extra olive oil to those colourful sautéed veggies in my scrambled eggs.

Thanks to “Ish”, I can rest assured that while, yes, my toddler will eat a bit more cheese that I would like, more importantly, she’ll also get her veggies.

Now, I’m not advocating Doritos for breakfast, but a little flavour (and let’s be honest, “flavour” usually means “bad”) carefully added to an otherwise a-okay meal can help keep me and my family eating the greens along with that tasty, tasty cheese.

But how?

There are two approaches that work for my family, the goal being “Make good food that’s edible”. One: find a healthy recipe and tweak it until it tastes good. Two: take an indulgent recipe and strip out some of the badness. Let’s take a look at these two approaches.

Good food… but who’ll eat it?

First, find a recipe that your family is willing to try (say my One Pot Pasta Recipe). Sometimes, (like the pasta) it just works. Great! Other times (steamed veggies and rice, for example) there’s just something missing.

Well, when something’s too plain, I find a few of these “secret weapons” work:

  • Add salt. One draw-back of “all fresh” meals, is that it can lack that something to bring out the flavours. A little salt goes a long way (just a pinch can be enough), so add a dash, taste, and repeat until it’s yummy!

  • Add oil – but only the “good” kind (olive oil and canola oil have good reputations). Usually a Tablespoon in a large family meal will be enough to enhance any natural flavours. This is good for anything sautéed (lightly fried), as well as most sauces.

  • Add complementary seasonings. This one’s a bit tricky. A lot of recipes online are click-bait, meant to draw you into some site that has a bunch of recipes and lets you muddle through what’s good or not. Other sites (like one of my favourites: Oh She Glows) have carefully crafted their recipes and only present their best and most flavourful.

    When a recipe is missing that tender love and care, Cumin or garlic may be what you need.

  • Add cheese – just a little, though. To make sure you’re not obliterating the healthiness of your choice, carefully measure the cheese, say a shredded tablespoon per portion. You’re going for a hint of indulgence, not “ooey-gooey”.

  • Add something bad, but in a carefully controlled portion. Examples of this include adding a single slice of garlic bread with that wholesome pasta dish, or adding a little batter to that baked fish. Use caution, though. It’s a small step from “single slice of garlic bread” to “cheesy-bread-splosion!”.

For the above (as in life) moderation is key. Try a bit, taste, and adjust until you find the right fit.

Oh, and don’t forget to write down what you did so you can do it again! I have a handy organizer, but I’ve been known to keep a notepad on my microwave for cooking notes.

When it’s a matter of texture or appearance instead of flavour (i.e. my toddler won’t eat certain vegetables), try blending, mashing or straining part of the meal (the side vegetable or sauce, for instance). For my One Pot Pasta Recipe example above, I blend the healthy veggies together into a uniform sauce before I cook it. I get all the healthy advantage of the meal, plus my picky eater will, you know, eat it!

Tasty food… but not so healthy

This one’s easy to find, hard to fix. You have to know what the “problem” is in order to fix it, so let’s break down some of the common sources of badness:

  • Too much fat. The best way to reduce fat is to simply not include it in the first place. Remove chicken skin before cooking (this takes away that top layer of fat). Trim excess fat from fatty cuts of meat or even choose lower-fat cuts. If you’re adding butter, peanut oil or vegetable oil, use canola oil or olive oil instead (hey, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em).

  • Too much starch. If you’re using potatoes (common here in Newfoundland), try replacing a portion with that wonder-veggie cauliflower. Mix it into mashed potatoes and you hardly notice. If you’re using another source of starch, reduce the portion size and add a side of something green in its place, like steamed green beans.

  • Highly-processed grains (e.g. white flour, white rice, or minute-anything). Replace white pasta with whole wheat, and white bread with whole grain bread. If you’ve got picky eaters who refuse to try something new, there are some brands of bread out there that offer “disguised” versions – whole wheat bread that looks like white bread, or bread with cauliflower dough baked right in.

  • Not enough veggies/too much meat or grains. Reduce the portion size of the meat, pasta or rice and up the amount of veggies. For example, instead of a meal of fried chicken and fries, try a few pieces of chicken on a bit of rice plus a side of steamed veggies. When cooking different kinds of meat, certain veggies go better than others. Some tried and true veggie/meat pairings include: carrots and chicken; green beans and pork; or broccoli and beef.

  • Too “from-a-box”. Let’s be honest, we all love the ease of just throwing something into the oven and walking away for 20 minutes. Ta-da! It’s like magic! Except for all those preservatives, fats, extra carbs and salt.

    But what can we do?

    Never fear! There are plenty of alternatives to work with: Chicken strips can be made from home made ingredients and custom-made seasonings; Home-fries can be baked with a carefully controlled amount of oil or using a low-oil frier; Home-made versions can be whipped up quickly (think home-made quesadillas instead of pre-fried easy-bake mini-tacos, or “do it yourself” side dishes using whole wheat pasta).

    Plus, there are some reputable brands out there. This takes a bit of leg work, but finding a brand you trust for those “easy-peasy” meals can take a bit of strain off the day-to-day meal planning.

One of the keys to successfully reducing the unhealthiness of a dish is in smaller portions. Sometimes, that’s a smaller amount of the indulgent food on your plate. Other times, it’s a smaller amount of “the bad thing” in the dish itself.

Welcome to dinner…

In my ongoing quest for a healthy family, “ish” has made its home here. “Ish” is here to stay.

Thanks for keeping my family well, “Healthy”. And thanks for helping them enjoy it, “Ish”.

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