'It's Just a Bunch of Salads' and Other Healthy-Cooking Common Mistakes


It's 7 p.m. You've been eating healthful, home-cooked meals and responsibly-portioned snacks all day. But now you've just arrived home from work, and you're starving. You could put a pot of lentils on the stove, or… Next thing you know, you're elbow deep in a box of Wheat Thins and a block of cheddar.

We've all been there. But if you want to limit the amount of fat, salt, sugar, preservatives, and additives you consume, there's no better way than making your own meals. And in order to change your eating lifestyle, the food you make has to taste good. It seems obvious, but if it's not tasty, you won't want to eat it; no matter how healthy it is (looking at you, raw kale). With that in mind, here are the most common mistakes people make when cooking good-for-you food.

1. Underestimating the Power of Spices and Herbs


We'll admit it: Sometimes we rely on fat and salt to add big flavor to our food. (Hello, butter is delicious). But that's not the only trick in the book. Herbs and spices, both fresh and dried, are the most powerful tool in your clean-eating arsenal: You just have to know how to use them.

For example, fresh basil has much more intense flavor and fragrance than when it's dried. Chop herbs and add them to finished dishes just before serving. Add them too early, and they'll lose their vibrancy, freshness, and color.

When it comes to spices, it's best to buy them whole and grind or grate them just before using, although that's in a perfect world. Pre-ground is totally fine, but know that the older they are, the less flavorful they become. If you do buy them whole, you have two tools available for grinding: Large spices, like nutmeg can be grated on a Microplane zester, while smaller spices, like cardamom pods, can be blitzed in a clean coffee grinder. Spices benefit from longer cooking times, so add them to soups, stews, and braises. Always toast them in a dry pan before using; it increases their flavor.

If you're sensing a general theme of "Maxing out the flavor," you're onto us.

2. Using Plain Old Water


Cooking grains? Making soup? Braising meat? Swap out water for a liquid with actual flavor. Trust us, it's a difference you'll notice. Although chicken, beef, or vegetable stock are all great, don't stop there. Simmer rice or farro in apple cider, add a cup or two of wine to your short ribs, and go ahead, steam chicken in a little sake. Just be wary of alcohol around your stovetop's flames. Unintentional flambés aren't as fun as they look.

3. Going Too Austere


Sure, you're trying to trim the fat, both literally and figuratively. But take it from us: "Healthy-ish" is a much better idea than "diet." Spend too many evenings snacking on dry crackers and carrot sticks, and you'll find yourself elbow-deep in a bowl of party mix. Aim to strike a balance when indulging: Use whole-grain flours in baked goods and use less sugar (replace it with natural sweeteners, like honey or maple syrup). You can still have your steak. Just eat it with a side of greens, rather than fries.

4. Cooking with Low-Fat Ingredients


Rejoice: You have permission to eat burrata. Well, in moderation, anyway. This seems counter-intuitive, but cooking with full-fat version of things like dairy and dressings will keep you fuller longer. A more full you translates to a you that's less likely to mindlessly eat a tube of Pringles.

Not to mention, full-fat versions don't contain any weird chemical after-taste (fat-free bottled vinaigrette, the prime offender). Besides: full-fat combines better with other ingredients, making for silkier, smoother texture that's more satisfying to eat. Don't cut out the fat: Just eat a little less of it.

But also: more salads.

tasting, livingRyan Durkin