Happy New Year to all, and gigantic, heartfelt congratulations to everyone who has managed to stick to their new year’s resolutions for two whole weeks so far!
Many these resolutions will involve health, weight loss and therefore food; but I would be willing to bet my last chocolate-chip cookie that at least half of them have gone the way of the Titanic within the first fourteen days of the year, never to rise again. Why is this?
Too many people focus on the chemistry of dieting but ignore the psychology completely. Instead of a perfectly effective scheme like “I’m going to eat three types of vegetables ‘most’ days,” too many people gird up their loins and shout: “I will never touch fried chicken again!”
The problem with absolute statements like the latter is that you just can’t save up enough willpower in January to last you through the eleven months that follow. The moment you eat a chicken nugget, you’ve broken the letter of your agreement with your better self. In your mind, it’s void now in any case, so why not eat as much fried food as you want?
Changing a habit associated with pleasure is one of the hardest things to do. Realize from the start that it is neither something that you can accomplish in an instant nor an all-or-nothing kind of deal. Instead of, for example, going cold turkey as soon as Thanksgiving is over, it’s perfectly acceptable to use gambits like eating your worst but favorite food only on Sundays, or figuring out how to prepare food that’s much healthier for you but tastes nearly as good as your guilty pleasure. The ultimate objective of a healthy lifestyle is to live more freely and fully; removing all joy from your existence is just not a step in the right direction.
Let’s start by framing your dietary goal in the most general way: you probably want to eat more foodstuffs rich in nutrients while backing off on unnecessary energy intake. That’s it. There’s no need to specifically refer to the one or two dishes that prickle your conscience, and certainly no point in including the phrases “never” or “every day.” By insisting on the impossible, you’re just setting yourself up to fail.
Even those of us who turn vegetarian for health reasons can enjoy the occasional hamburger without irrevocably wrecking their diet plan. Think of planned eating as a weekly instead of a daily cycle. If you include portions of veggies and legumes (beans and suchlike) in most meals six days out of seven, and stay away from cholesterol bombs such as candy bars and potato chips, an extra portion of lasagna on Friday night is going to do your diet absolutely zero harm.
When it comes to empty or harmful calories, you can also usually replace the worst offenders with something that will stop those cravings while still feeding your body what it needs. In the interests of living well and enjoying it, we’ve compiled a couple of recipes and workarounds for some of the cravings you might suffer from. In most cases, our alternatives are pretty much 90% as satisfying as the original, and anyone who can hold a fork and follow instructions can make them.
Oven Baked Breaded Chicken with Broccoli
I’ve mentioned deep fried chicken at the beginning, which is no accident. As I’m writing this, it’s half an hour before lunch, I know I’ll be passing the fried chicken place later, and I’m already rehearsing my order in my head!
Let’s look at what I’m going to do instead. I know dinner is going to be a big bowl of pasta with cream sauce, so I’m planning and balancing out my calories for the day.
The thing about such a scrumptious, hearty dish is that it’s complemented perfectly by something lighter. In this case, in keeping with the superfoods theme, I’m choosing broccoli. This one vegetable controls blood pressure and cholesterol, protects you against cancer and contains a whole laundry list of essential nutrients, while also providing the crunch we associate with French fries. It also contains practically no calories, so you can use it to fill up on.
Ingredients for Four Plates:
- 8 chicken pieces (drumsticks, thighs, breasts)
- 2 egg whites
- 1 cup unflavored yogurt
- 1 ½ cup breadcrumbs
- 1 ½ cup crushed cornflakes (without sugar)
- 2 tbsp. sesame seeds
- ½ tsp garlic powder
- 1 tsp mustard powder
- 1 tbsp. paprika
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 large head of broccoli, or about 4 cups of pre-cut florets
- 4 tbsp. salted butter
- 4 tsp lemon juice
For the chicken, we’re going to keep the skin on, because life is short and only comes around once per customer. Just mix together all the dry ingredients in one shallow bowl and the egg whites and yogurt in another. Roll the chicken in the liquid and press down into the breadcrumb mixture to coat, place the pieces on a greased baking sheet without them touching, and bake in a 375°F (190°C) oven for about 50 minutes. Test that it’s cooked through by sticking a knife into the center of the thickest piece; the juice coming out should be clear.
For the veggies, when the chicken has a few minutes left to go, quickly cook the broccoli in boiling water, a steamer or even the microwave for 4 to 6 minutes. It should turn a brighter shade of green, but still be crispy. Melt the butter and lemon juice in a saucepan or a milk jug in the microwave, stir vigorously and either drizzle over (okay) or toss (better) with the broccoli. The total time you spend in the kitchen will be about 15 to 20 minutes.
Nutritional comparison, based on two pieces of chicken a standard serving of fries and a big pile of broccoli:
Takeout fried chicken with French fries: 1250 calories, some protein and nothing else except trans fats.
Oven baked alternative: only 600 calories, all the good stuff from the broccoli, and that’s including the chicken skin and butter sauce. Your move, chicken place.
Goodsy Chocolate Brownies
Dark chocolate, with a high cacao content, is good for your cardiovascular system (not a pound or more per day, be reasonable). Unfortunately, cacao is expensive and only grows in certain parts of the world, so manufacturers resort to adding loads of fat and sugar to make a cheaper product that at least tastes of chocolate. Using the strong flavor of real chocolate, containing 60% cacao or more, allows you to make a sweet treat that won’t add too much to your weight. The key is to use wholegrain flour and oats, which delay digestion and helps prevent fat forming.
- 6 oz. (170g) dark chocolate
- 2 tbsp. butter
- ¼ cup unsweetened cacao powder
- 1 cup wholewheat flour
- ½ tsp baking powder
- ½ cup instant oats
- ½ cup crushed walnuts
- 4 eggs
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 2 tsp vanilla flavoring
- 1 tsp almond flavoring
- ¼ cup vegetable oil
Preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C) and grease up a 9” by 13” (22cm x 33cm) baking tray.
Bowl #1 needs to be made of glass or metal. The key is to melt the chocolate without burning it, so we’re just going to steam it above gently (not in) a pot of simmering water, stirring as you go.
Use a whisk in bowl #2 to mix everything thoroughly while getting rid of any clumps.
Whisk together the eggs and sugar until creamy, then the rest of bowl 3, then whisk in the melted contents of bowl #1. Toss in the dry ingredient mix and use a spoon to fold the batter over until it starts to cohere nicely.
Make a nice layer in the baking tray and bake for 20 minutes, then let cool completely before slicing and dumping (gently) out of the baking tray.
Mac & Cheese & More
Good for children, good when the weather is chilly. Not so good regarding being way too fatty and starchy to qualify as a healthy dinner.
Vegetables to the rescue! Mixing in a few veggies elevates the level of nutrition enormously while maintaining the basic character of the dish.
There is one caveat here: don’t use a mix that comes in a brightly colored box. It’s still largely unknown what effects preservatives and other additives can have on the body, so let’s dodge that potential bullet by doing perhaps 10 minutes of work to create a meal that tastes better, anyway.
- 8 oz. (250g) dry macaroni
- 2 ½ cups grated cheddar cheese
- 3 cups milk
- 3 tbsp. flour
- 4 tbsp. butter
- 1 small finely chopped onion
- ½ cup breadcrumbs
- tsp paprika
- 1 bag of frozen spinach
- 2 large carrots, diced
- 2 cups of cooked cauliflower
You can easily substitute other vegetables, but these three are all superfoods that provide a wide range of the nutrients your body requires. Their textures also go very well together.
Boil the pasta in salted water for 8 minutes and drain.
Fry the flour and onion in the butter, constantly stirring, for 4 minutes or so. Slowly add the milk while still stirring – the mixture should thicken to a cream-like consistency. Stir in the cheese until it melts into the sauce and take off the heat.
Now, just mix the pasta and vegetables together in an oven-proof dish, pour the sauce over evenly and sprinkle the breadcrumbs on top. Bake in a 350°F (180°C) oven for 30 minutes and dinner’s ready.
If there’s any left over, it’s the easiest thing in the world to toss it into the microwave the next day.
Garlic-Rosemary Potato Wedges
We get it: children and teenagers love French fries. The only problem with this is that they are usually drenched in salt and oil, the salt tending to contribute to heart disease, and the saturated and trans fats in the frying oil being some of the unhealthiest things you can put into your body.
One way to go is to purchase an air fryer.
These cheap-is devices are perfect for any of us who love fried food but are also aware of the dangers and needlessly added calories that frying in oil bring about. They’re also versatile enough to bake cakes.
By making your own potato wedges, you can substitute natural flavorings for oil and salt, resulting in a much healthier (and way more elegant) side dish. They’re also a breeze to make, requiring a few minutes of hands-on work followed by an hour or so sitting unattended in the oven. They’re fantastic served with a low-fat dipping sauce.
- 6 large potatoes, cut into eights lengthwise or however thinly you prefer
- 3 tbsp. olive oil
- 3 tbsp. lemon juice
- 3 tsp garlic powder
- ¼ cup rosemary leaves
- 1 tsp salt
Optionally, for crispier wedges, you can put the wedges into cold water in a pot, bring it to the boil and leave to cool, followed by rinsing them, patting them dry with a paper towel, and then continuing as normal.
Put everything in a large plastic container with a lid, seal it and shake it around to coat. Place the wedges on a baking tray and pour any remaining basting sauce over them. Simply bake for up to an hour at 390°F (200°C), turning with a spatula halfway through.
Nutritional information: Potato wedges can have as little as half the calories of French fries, depending on how both are made. The real benefit, however, is that you’re avoiding the carcinogens and unhealthy fats found in oil that’s already been used for deep frying for hours.
You will probably find that there are many recipes you often make that can be adjusted to contain less fat, fewer junk elements, and more vegetables. If you do go for a takeout pizza (and I’ll be the last person to stop you), eat half the amount you normally do and supplement it with a salad or a serving of no-effort microwaveable veggies. Small changes like this will compound in the long term to leave you healthier and willing to try and enjoy more wholesome options.