When you’re studying abroad, you’ll no doubt be caught up in experiencing the best of what your new country has to offer. Spending time with new friends, exploring new neighbourhood, sampling the local cuisine—all these roads seem to inevitably lead to… eating out. But relying on restaurant food for your day-to-day meals can be a major drain on your wallet. Not to mention that it’s definitely not the healthiest way to live.
Most people know that a meal prepared at home tends to be the healthier choice. The basic guidelines for healthy eating include consuming lean meats, low-fat foods, and lots of veggies—and it’s much easier to stick to these guidelines when you do your own cooking. But for some, the taste and convenience of already prepared meals is far too appealing. Want to avoid takeout temptation? Keep reading! This article will share with you the many ways to make the meals you prepare at home both tasty and nutritious.
Add flavour without adding salt
A common cooking misconception is that without salt, your meal will lack flavour. For those who don’t cook from scratch, using ready-made sauces or marinades is often a quick and easy way to ensure a flavourful meal. However, many people are unaware that most premade sauces are made up of too much salt, sugar, and fat, as well as too many of those preservatives you want to avoid. If you choose to use natural, basic ingredients to season your meals, you will increase the amount of disease-fighting antioxidants and phytochemicals you consume and boost the nutritional value of your meals.
Replace bouillon cubes, for example, with spices and herbs. And try to avoid salt altogether! To optimize on flavour, use this trick: Add spices when you first start cooking, and avoid using herbs until the end. Both can be used either fresh or dried, but dried herbs should be crushed to extract more flavour. Onions, lemons, and limes (either the fruit or its juice) are particularly useful for adding flavour to a dish.
Visit the Dietitians of Canada website for a list of suggested seasonings for particular foods and specific dishes.
Choose the right cooking oils
Not all oils contain the same nutrients or have the same reaction to heat. When choosing an oil to cook with, you should consider both its nutritional value and its smoke point. When oils are heated at a temperature that is higher than their smoke point, their molecular composition changes, and they form toxic compounds that can irritate your eyes, nose, and throat. Even more worrisome is that these toxic compounds can create free radicals, which research indicates are linked to the development of certain cancers. To prevent the overheating of your cooking oil, use one with a high smoke point and frequently change the oil you use for frying.
If you want to make sure you are cooking with oils that have high nutritional value, you will likely need to start a collection. Why? Because different oils contain different important nutrients. Get your collection started with cooking oils that have:
- the most omega-3 fatty acids (e.g., flaxseed oil)
- the most monounsaturated fatty acids (e.g., olive oil)
- the most polyunsaturated fatty acids (e.g., safflower oil)
- the least saturated fatty acids (e.g., canola oil)
It’s important to choose the right oil for the right dish. While olive oil is popular because of the monounsaturated fatty acids it contains, it should not be used when cooking at high temperatures as it does not tolerate heat well. Try to reserve your olive oil for salads and other cold dishes. Grape seed and peanut oils are a good choice for cooking at high temperatures, but they both lack omega-3 fatty acids. Canola oil, however, is fairly resistant to heat and has a better nutritional profile than both peanut and grape seed oils. This means that you should try to use canola oil more frequently than grape seed and peanut oils when cooking at high temperatures (when frying onions or garlic, for example).
Keep the nutrients in your food
The nutritional value of your food may change a lot depending on your cooking process. While minerals contained in foods are resistant to change, vitamins and antioxidants can be destroyed by high or low acidity, high heat, exposure to oxygen, or even contact with a metal knife. Considering these factors is especially important when it comes to preparing fruits and vegetables because they are the main source of most of our vitamins and phytochemicals. Make sure to keep the nutrients in your food by following these steps:
- Try not to cut fruits and vegetables in advance. If you are preparing a meal earlier in the day and can’t avoid this, cut them in large pieces to limit the number of surfaces exposed to air and light.
- Avoid peeling fruits. An apple, for example, can lose up to 50 per cent of its nutrients when it is peeled and cut, so you should always try to eat fruits and vegetables with their skin on.
- Use the smallest amount of water possible when cooking vegetables. Nutrients tend to leak into the cooking water. When possible, try to use the cooking water to make a vegetable broth or sauce.
- Avoid overcooking vegetables by removing them from the heat as soon as they get soft. The longer you cook your veggies, the more vitamins will be destroyed.
- Place vegetables in iced water to help maintain their bright green colour and vitamin content. (Although colour doesn’t directly affect health, it is much more appetizing to present a plate of green veggies rather than grey-green ones whose colour indicates they have been overcooked.)
The website EatRight Ontario provides other tips to get the most nutrients from the foods you eat.
Quick tips to keep you on the right track
To make your homemade meals even healthier, here are some quick tips you can follow.
Make the switch to whole grains. Eating whole-grain bread is a good start. But choosing whole-wheat pastas, brown rice, and all sorts of unrefined grains will increase the amount of fibre in your meals.
Eat fish once a week. Even the fattiest fishes are low in fat compared to most meats, and they are still a good source of protein and omega-3 fatty acids.
Add one new fruit or vegetable to your grocery list every week. Most people do not get their recommended number of servings per day, so challenging yourself might be a good way to try and reach that goal. The more varieties you enjoy, the more often you will find yourself eating fruits and veggies!
Use lean meats and low-fat dairy products. The main type of fat in dairy products and meat is saturated fat, which makes it particularly important to choose their lower-fat alternatives.
Prepare bigger portions of your favourite recipes and pack some for your lunch the next day. Bringing leftovers to work has the added benefit of saving you some extra cash. The Dietitians of Canada website provides interesting ideas on how to prepare lunches quickly.
Making the move to incorporate natural spices and healthier oils into your cooking routine, and working on keeping the nutrients in your foods, will help make your homemade meals healthier—without compromising the flavour! You’ll be eating food that’s just as delicious as restaurant fare in no time. And, if you make smart choices at the grocery store and start packing leftovers for your lunches, you’ll find yourself with plenty of extra time and money during the week—a perfect way to help you explore your new surroundings to the fullest!
For more tips, check out the Ingle International blog.
(Last reviewed September 15, 2014)
- Canadian Nutrient File. (2012). Canadian Nutrient File. Retrieved from http://webprod3.hc-sc.gc.ca/cnf-fce/start-debuter.do?lang=eng.
- Extenso. (2011). 10 questions sur les matières grasses en cuisine. Retrieved from http://www.extenso.org/pleins_feux/detail.php/f/1735.
- Brown, Amy. (Ed.) (2010). Understanding food: Principles and preparation (4th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.