Eating healthier might be one of your resolutions for this year, but it can be a tough one to stick with when you’re faced with dull, unsavory meal options.
Perhaps you’re mustering the fortitude to face another bowl of lumpy oatmeal for breakfast. Or you’ve resigned yourself to a lunchtime plate of wilty lettuce and low-fat dressing. Dinner? One more boneless, skinless chicken breast. Let’s face it: These foods just aren’t that exciting.
It turns out they aren’t all that healthy, either.
Beyond drab, these choices are relatively low on nutrition, leaving your palate uninspired and your body undernourished.
“If what you’re eating is bland and boring, then it’s not healthy — even if it is packed with nutrients,” says Andrea Beaman, holistic health coach and author of Health Is Wealth. “Food should satisfy you on many levels, not just physically.”
To give these health-food staples a taste makeover, we assembled a team of nutrition experts and flavor-savvy authors, including Beaman; Paul Kriegler, RD, assistant program manager at Life Time Weight Loss; and Melissa Joulwan, blogger and author of Well Fed.
Their top advice: Start by reframing what you consider “good for you.” Worry less about calories and fat, and instead focus on foods that provide nutrient density, good blood-sugar regulation, and a healthy dose of satisfaction that will carry you through your day.
Oatmeal: A Breakfast Classic Reborn
Often served with a dollop of brown sugar and a splash of low-fat milk, plain cooked oatmeal underdelivers on taste, texture, and satisfaction. Start by thinking of oatmeal as a blank canvas, and draw from a palette of colorful, crunchy, chewy, creamy, nutritious mix-ins to enjoy a new creation each day. “Aim to make it into a great taste experience,” advises Beaman.
- Why you think it’s healthy: Oatmeal earned its stripes as a health food for its ability to reduce “bad” LDL cholesterol. Whole-grain oats are a complex carbohydrate that offer a dose of soluble fiber, along with health-supporting nutrients like B vitamins and minerals.
- Why it’s not our favorite: It’s incredibly bland on its own — and too often lumpy, runny, or gluey. The ho-hum factor is high.
- Why it’s not all that great: The big dose of carbs that oatmeal supplies can have a less-than-ideal metabolic effect on many. Quick-cooking and instant oats are particularly likely to spike blood sugar. Top oatmeal with sweeteners and low-fat milk in an attempt to make it palatable, and you’re setting yourself up for even bigger blood-sugar fluctuations and a major crash (plus carb cravings) later in the morning.
- Upgrade to steel-cut oats: The carbs in the less-processed steel-cut variety require more digestive work to break down, equaling more sustained energy and less spike-and-crash for you. (If you have digestive issues, though, steel-cut oats may not be your best choice.)
- Add healthy fats: Coconut oil provides a wealth of benefits, including enhanced nutrient absorption and longer-lasting energy and satiety. Grassfed dairy — butter, whole milk, or heavy cream — is higher in omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin K2 compared with dairy from grain-fed cows. Plus, it tastes great and gives the oatmeal a rich, smooth, creamy texture.
- Trade out dairy if you are sensitive to it: Try coconut milk or coconut cream, which are high in minerals like iron, magnesium, selenium, and manganese; they’re also a good source of medium-chain triglycerides, which the body burns easily as fuel. They’re similar to milk substitutes like cashew and almond milk, but are not as great a source of protein.
- Choose sweetener wisely: Maple syrup, honey, and dried fruits boost flavor better than sugar. A little goes a long way, though, so use sparingly.
- Spice it up: Cinnamon is a classic oatmeal enhancer that also helps moderate blood sugar and improve insulin sensitivity. But Beaman encourages people to expand their taste range beyond this staple spice: Try fresh-grated nutmeg, ground cardamom, pure vanilla extract, turmeric, or ground ginger.
- Mix in fresh fruit, nuts, and seeds: Almonds and walnuts offer healthy fat as well as protein, vitamins, antioxidants, and phytochemicals. Berries add vitamin C, potassium, fiber, and more anti-inflammatory phytonutrients. For an added twist, try shredded coconut, chopped apple, or dried goji berries. You can soften the chopped apples by adding them to the cooking liquid before you add the oats.
Salad: A Jazzed-Up Lunch
Vegetables are among the most nutritious foods on the planet, and a big green salad is one of the best ways to up your intake. “But it’s also easy to get salad fatigue,” says registered dietitian Paul Kriegler, “especially if you put together the same combination of vegetables every time.”
Different types of veggies provide different nutrients, so it’s important to mix things up. “We thrive on nutrient density and variety,” Kriegler says.
- Why you think it’s healthy: Often promoted as a low-calorie option, a green salad with a few veggies on top and a light dressing on the side has been sold as the “heart-healthy” lunch choice for decades.
- Why it’s not our favorite: Too often, predictable salad fixings come up short on both satisfaction and nutrition. The default greens are nutritionally empty iceberg or (just slightly better) romaine. Salad bars are often stocked with lackluster toppings like mealy pink tomatoes, stale croutons, and dried-out chicken breast. You’re left dissatisfied — and hungry.
- Why it’s not all that great: Studies show that many of the conventionally grown vegetables (the kind stocked in most salad bars and served in most restaurants) have lower nutritional density than 50 years ago. Many also have agricultural-chemical residues. So unless you’re choosing your ingredients carefully, you may be getting fewer health benefits than you think. Processed dressings sully your salad with low-quality refined oils, sweeteners, and artificial preservatives. And without ample protein and healthy fat, your salad won’t provide much lasting energy.
- Upgrade your greens: There’s a wide variety of flavorful — and nutritious — greens out there. “Spinach, chard, red lettuce, butter lettuce, and arugula are all great for flavor variety and nutrient density,” says Kriegler. Kale has enjoyed a lot of popularity in recent years with good reason: Technically a crucifer (like cabbage and broccoli), kale is loaded with vitamin K (important for heart and bone health) as well as antioxidants like vitamin C, beta carotene, and quercetin. It’s also a source of calcium, iron, and magnesium, not to mention fiber. To tenderize kale and bring out its best flavors, tear and massage the leaves with a little olive oil for a minute or so before adding it to your salad.
- Buy local and eat in season: Veggies grown for local markets can be picked and sold when ripe — providing a tastier, more nutritious alternative to produce grown with long-distance transportation and storage in mind.
- Dress with style: Fat-free dressing is not the way to go. Kriegler notes that without healthy fats and oils, you miss out on your salad’s important fat-soluble nutrients. Also, you’ll likely be hungry soon after eating. Play around with oil and spice options — Kriegler’s fave is avocado oil and Dijon mustard — to keep the dish interesting. But don’t stop there. Try adding fresh salsa, or drizzle some sriracha over the greens for a kick. (For homemade salad dressing recipes, see “Dress Up Your Salad: Homemade Salad Dressings“.)
- Power with protein: Try adding grassfed steak, cooked eggs, wild salmon, bacon, avocados, beans, and nuts to help keep blood-sugar levels steady, build muscle tissue, and support bone health and immune function. “Protein is what morphs a salad from a forager’s snack into a meal,” says Kriegler.
This article originally appeared as part of “Bland to Grand” in the January/February 2016 issue of Experience Life. To get swaps for Chicken, order a back issue by calling 800-897-4056 (press option 3 when prompted). To get all the articles from each issue of Experience Life, subscribe online at ELmag.com/subscribe.