I'd rather starve!
September 27, 2012 2:30 PM   Subscribe

How can I make my healthy meals taste less, well...healthy?

I need to figure out ways to eat "clean" without going insane or just resorting to not eating enough. I want to make like Staci from Nerd Fitness and go from my present 15 lbs over fighting weight to bounce-quarters-off-me fitness.

I have a GREAT trainer helping me with the lifting part, but I'm not going to get there without the fastidious attention to diet part. I know, because I've tried: lifting + eating in "moderation" = better muscle tone and slightly looser pants, then plateau; intense cardio + eating in moderation = slow road to joint injuries; intense cardio + eating barely anything = lose weight quickly and then gain it all back immediately plus 5-10%. Lifting and a strict but nourishing diet until I get to goal weight looks like the only effective route FOR ME. Complications ensue.

I am a live-to-eat person rather than an eat-to-live person, and I'm pretty picky about the quality of my food, to the extent that I occasionally end up in situations where I'd rather eat nothing at all than eat food that doesn't taste good. I'm not picky about healthy food, per se - I eat a wide variety of foods and can't think offhand of a fruit, vegetable, or common protein that I am averse to - but the ways that I enjoy preparing or eating many foods are just not conducive to an extended period of eating for fat loss, because they're either too time-intensive to sustain over several weeks or months or they've got too many extra calories. I am a decent home cook, but I feel like I just have nothing to work with to make this healthy food taste good!

What am I doing wrong? People manage to eat "clean" all the time. Are those people just less picky about eating tasty food than I am, or is there some secret treasure trove of tasty, healthy, AND time-efficient recipes out there? Please share your advice and recipes -- encouragement is also welcome! (Let's assume for the purposes of this question that "clean" means fruit, veg, meat, dairy, seafood, and whole unprocessed grains that aren't wheat.)
posted by dynamiiiite to Health & Fitness (31 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
Check out some of the recipes at The Epicurean Bodybuilder.
posted by ludwig_van at 2:35 PM on September 27, 2012

"Tasty" means very different things to different people. How do you like to prepare your food? What particular elements do you need that are hard to come by when you eat healthy? Are there specific "clean" recipes that you love but don't have time to make often?
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 2:35 PM on September 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Do you like spicy food? Spicy foods (peppers, cayenne, etc.) do not carry a ton of calories but they pack a punch. A spicy salsa works on chicken, fish, whatever.

Lemon, limes and herbs are all really great ways of adding a flavour and aroma to food without calories.
posted by Rodrigo Lamaitre at 2:44 PM on September 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

There's no objective way to define tasty, which is why I didn't even attempt it. I will say, though, that I like the types of balanced flavors that usually (unfortunately) require about 5 different seasoning ingredients, which is why "steam your kale, mix it with brown rice and add a little salt, grilled chicken breast on the side" emphatically does NOT work for me. hence, the need for recipes or at least seasoning strategies. when cooking normally, I like to dredge in flour and saute in butter, deglaze with wine, add a bit of parmesan cheese, that kind of thing. I also like to roast/caramelize my veggies with a good lashing of olive oil and herbs, and the palatable amount of oil is maybe a diet-defeating amount of oil? I don't know. halp.
posted by dynamiiiite at 2:45 PM on September 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Can you describe some more what kinds of things you're cooking and what it is that you dislike about them?

Often, flavor is lacking. Don't shy away from salt and spices (unless your coach specifically says something about salt); find a good seasoned-salt blend and use it on your vegetables. Also, look for intense flavors: sundried tomatoes, pickles, chilis, etc. and use those to make plainer food more interesting.

Often, textures go away because you're not using oil to get a crispy crust. There's hardly anything that steaming is the absolute best way to prepare - baking or roasting is generally much tastier. The drier surface concentrates the flavors, and you get just a bit of caramelization. This is great for broccoli, asparagus, root vegetables, brussels sprouts, corn, even green beans. If you're in a hurry, do a quick zap in the microwave (steaming, but don't add extra water) to get the veg almost soft, then hit with seasoned salt and run it in the toaster oven to get a dry tasty surface.

Sometimes, yes, it's just about getting used to the new healthy-substitute flavors. I find it helpful to work on appreciating things for what they are (plain tangy yogurt, for example) as opposed to what they aren't (sour cream in my chili, or mayo in a chicken salad recipe). Chicken salad with yogurt is delicious, though it does taste different from chicken salad with mayo.
posted by aimedwander at 2:46 PM on September 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

I found it far easier to just eat blah but healthy during the week and then use the weekends for foods I enjoyed (while still not over-doing the carbs.) But oil, cheese, butter and a small amount of wine are fine for low-carb eating, as are roasted veggies. I try not to eat rice or potatoes or pasta during the week.
posted by Ideefixe at 2:48 PM on September 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

To me, the natural oils in good salmon, mackerel, and other fatty fishes give a super rich mouthfeel with no added fats, while still being relatively healthy. Would those types of fish fall into your "clean" category?
posted by CheeseLouise at 2:48 PM on September 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

I tend to cook quite "clean," and find that there are a few elements that I consistetly rely on to bump up the tastiness/richness factor: good olive oil, good butter, heavy cream (even used sparingly -- though I have been known to glug it on, because my cholesterol is low), wine, and Better than Bullion bases (for things like risotto and soups).

I also tend to follow the principle, "when in doubt, find a way throw in some pine nuts/herbs/shallots/good parmesan/greek yogurt." Also, a tip from my grandmother: try seasoning vegetables with celery salt (it makes roasted broccoli taste divine).
posted by scody at 2:48 PM on September 27, 2012

to answer aimedwander, a lot of times when I'm trying to eat like this, I'll get home from work (or the gym after work) at like 9pm and find lean proteins and vegetables lurking in the fridge. as I'm usually starving by this point, I'll just try to throw it all in a pan and half-assedly season it, and then I can barely choke it down and have convinced myself that tomorrow I should just fuck it and get takeout. I've had some success making something like a black bean chili and eating it all week, but I'm not sure that's the most balanced way to eat (and even if that's fine, I need more up my sleeve than just that one chili!)
posted by dynamiiiite at 3:03 PM on September 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Sounds like you might enjoy a lower-carb, higher-fat approach. It works well for people like you (and me) who like tasty food. I've never eaten as good as in the phases where I stick to some kind of paleo/primal way of eating. Conventional carbs/starches are really just boring fillers that taste like cardboard. Ditch them. Have more good fats instead. Don't worry - you'll automatically eat more vegetables and fruits this way, not just bacon and butter. I used to 'eat healthy' the way you describe it (lean protein, brown rice, etc), but had terrible cravings and was always struggling to eat healthy. A bowl of cereal would always sound better than a piece of fruit... Now on a (moderate) low carb diet, I crave brussel sprouts and cabbage and often eat 9 servings of fruit/veg a day, voluntarily. When I get cravings, I add some fat (lots of olive oil on those veggies!) and they go away. Oils, avocado, fatty meats and especially fish, cream, other high-fat dairy and nuts are not restricted at all in my diet, which makes tasty cooking quite easy...
posted by The Toad at 3:24 PM on September 27, 2012 [15 favorites]

TVP chili. Just use TVP reconstituted with vegetable or animal broth in whatever chili recipe. I also like to add a bunch of kale or turnip greens or something like that.You'll have the pot all week, and if you don't tell anyone they'll think it's regular chili. Eat it with rice, add beans. Whatever.

Lots of soups. A few days ago I browned a bunch of chicken sausage (it's what was here. I'd use ground turkey and season it in the future) added a bunch of onions, carrots, celery and mushrooms til they started to soften, then garlic for a moment before broth and water, kale, some cooked beans (chickpeas would be ideal) and some tomatoes that were roasting while I did that other stuff. When the kale is cooked it's done. Again, you'll have it all week.

Take a fish, stick some smelly plants in it, put some olive oil and salt on the outside and broil it, or grill it.

One night roast a chicken. At some point put some brussels sprouts and/or broccoli with olive oil and salt in there with it. Eat that with the the dark meat. The next day, shred the breasts, make a stock with the carcass, toss in some vegetables and the shredded chicken. Chicken soup. I like to make the noodles separately so it'll keep without getting mushy noodles when I reheat it.

Press some firm or extra firm tofu for a while, then put it in a marinade of equal parts sherry, apple cider, or balsamic vinegar and soy or worcestershire sauce. Let it sit overnight, take it out and press it again briefly. You can do it in bulk and it's good cold baked with a little olive oil on it, or steamed.
posted by cmoj at 3:28 PM on September 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

If you have a grill pan, I used to use a spice rub (specifically Nantucket Off-Shore Mt. Olympus), on skinned, de-boned chicken. I liberally coated the chicken breasts in the rub and threw them on the grill pan. Although I had a cheap Ikea non-stick grill pan, I did coat it the surface with a bit of olive oil. It was quick and easy and any leftovers were used chopped up in salads. As a side dish in the spring, asparagus, drizzled in olive oil, also cooks quite well on the grill pan and can be served simply with a squirt of lemon and some salt.
posted by kaybdc at 3:32 PM on September 27, 2012

Get a shaker of MSG (it goes under a bunch of names including "Accent" and "Flavor Enhancer" and just "MSG") and use it as you would salt. If you're worried about health effects, the Wikipedia article is pretty comprehensive, so you can make your own decision.
posted by griphus at 3:47 PM on September 27, 2012

Get some olives, capers, and anchovies and have them in the house at all times. A little of any of those thrown into things wakes the flavor up like whoa. (Seriously, I bet some capers thrown in with the "vegetables and lean protein" would perk things up a lot.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:52 PM on September 27, 2012

Penzeys sells a lot of seasoning mixes that help make for a quick (but still clean!) dinner. My very favorite thing to do is sprinkle chicken pieces (the diet I follow encourages fats, so I use the skin) with the Greek seasoning; if I use it very liberally and then bake the chicken in the oven, I swear it gives the effect of breadcrumbs. About midway through the baking process, I baste the pieces with some of their own juices to help keep the spice blend from burning. I also really like the Tuscan seasoning on pork. I, too, am a bit of a food snob following a seriously clean diet without a lot of time for prep, and I was highly skeptical of these blends as I would typically prefer to make my own, but they are really delicious. In general, I think you could try out a few of their offerings on things like veggies and simple proteins and it might help you enjoy your food more.
posted by katie at 4:11 PM on September 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

as I'm usually starving by this point, I'll just try to throw it all in a pan and half-assedly season it,

This is the part you can learn to do better, and then it will take you only an extra minute or so each time to make something delicious instead of something half-assed. Heidi Swanson's Super Natural Every Day is aimed exactly at this problem - how to take some basic ingredients and get delicious flavor without overly complex preparation. Every recipe of hers I've ever tried ends up being much greater than the sum of its parts - really terrific combinations and preparations I would not have considered, even though I consider myself a very good cook.
posted by judith at 4:12 PM on September 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, and along the lines of what EmpressCallipygos suggests, I like to keep marinated artichokes and good quality jarred roasted red peppers and sundried tomatoes around to liven things up on the fly. If you have access to a Trader Joe's, it is worth checking out for these sorts of add ins. I like Trader Joe's because their stuff is affordable and often clean enough for my standards (namely, no MSG, ever - it gives me migraines for sure, and is seriously out for my diet).
posted by katie at 4:13 PM on September 27, 2012

experiment with spices and sauces (auces don't have to be unhealthy! They can be made with water or broth and a tiny bit of thickener, and spiced as you like).

Cilantro, cumin, coriander, pepper, turmeric, anchovies are all interesting flavours that I've been playing with lately. You can put them places where you might not expect- be playful! Experiment!

If you're the type to come home starving and just start cramming bread in your mouth because you are SO HUNGRY (I am not judging. I do this with cookies), prepare food in advance and/or keep some healthy snacks always prepared and on hand to tide you over until you can cook.

You also might be successful modifying recipes that you already like to make them healthier. I'm not sure what healthy means to you, but I recently made a modified veggie lasagna with sliced zucchini instead of noodles, and I only cooked it until it was soft enough to eat and warm and melty- not until all the life was cooked out.

I also like cooking with broth, clamato, V8 or other juices instead of water.
posted by windykites at 4:18 PM on September 27, 2012

Check out thefoodie.com and the cookbook, Well Fed. I have found so many great strategies and recipes to address exactly your question.
posted by ms_rasclark at 4:39 PM on September 27, 2012

My two favorite flavor enhancers: fats and ferments.

Use the butter and the olive oil; if they're good-quality, they're probably good for you. Just don't, you know, go crazy on them.

Ferments, though, eat as many of those as you want. Vinegars, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, fish sauce, miso paste. Lately, we've been slicing up summer squash, sauteing it in the cast iron, and adding fish sauce right at the end. DELICIOUS. I like to cook fish with soy sauce, chicken with soy sauce & balsamic vinegar. You can use miso paste as part of a glaze for fish, or salad dressing, or a bunch of other things. (Google it.) If I've made a lackluster soup, a bit of any of the above can go a long way, and I use them instead of salt. They add that umami flavor things might be lacking, and the acid brings out other flavors in the food.
posted by linettasky at 4:51 PM on September 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

I've recently acquired some e-cookbooks from Stonesoup which have been really helpful in making quick, healthy meals with a limited amount odf ingredients (like, when you get home at 9pm and are starving). You can get them for free if you sign up to the newsletter or memail me and I can send you copies as she is keen for them to be sent around. (She also has this paid cookery class thing but I haven't done that).
posted by latch24 at 5:14 PM on September 27, 2012

Sorry I forgot to say that these recipes seem to fit the treasure trove of tasty, healthy, AND time-efficient recipes
posted by latch24 at 5:18 PM on September 27, 2012

A shake of Jane's seasoning salt makes all sorts of steamed vegetables, bland carb-y things, and lean meats much more appealing to me.

And yeah, I think for the nights when you arrive home at 9 p.m. already starving, it's good to have something that you've made in advance and are consuming over the course of a few days. Stew, soup, chili, curry, wheat-free lasagna (e.g. with zucchini in place of noodles, as windykites mentioned), casserole, etc. If you are OK with coconut milk, you can make lots of easy curries by combining chicken broth and coconut milk with a spoonful of curry paste, then simmering cubed chicken breast and veggies (I like to use a frozen bagged "California mix" or "stir-fry mix"). Some of the veg-heavy Indian dishes might be compatible with your diet, too; maybe palak chicken.

If you're concerned about eating the same thing too many times in a row, stash a couple servings of each "big dish" you make in the freezer, and then pull them out the following week in alternation with each other. Just don't leave stuff in the freezer too long or it will get freezer-burned and gross.
posted by Orinda at 5:48 PM on September 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

You want Skinnytaste. Gina's site is filled with recipes that are designed to be Weight Watchers friendly, so she posts all the nutrition info, as well as the points, for those who use them. However, she refuses to sacrifice taste for calories, and so makes sure things are yummy as well. That's certainly been my experience with her recipes.
posted by booksherpa at 6:50 PM on September 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

Yeah, if you're getting home starving you need to have something ready to go - something you can just pop in the microwave or oven for a couple of minutes while you change your clothes, check your messages, get the mail, whatever.

Although, you can make a great omelet in like five minutes, very healthy with a nonstick pan and a small amount of fat (or just cooking spray). If you have some veggies already cooked you can put veggies in the omelet, or you can put in a few gratings of parmesan (a little goes a long way).

If you're concerned about the amount of oil you're roasting veggies in, start scaling it back and see how you feel about it. Like, I love brussels sprouts roasted in oil and butter, but they're still pretty good roasted with cooking spray. But actually, even though I am pretty careful about my weight and what I eat, I find I tend not to overeat on fats the way I do on carbs, so I roast my veggies in olive oil (maybe not as much olive oil as I would use in a perfect world, but plenty). A tablespoon of olive oil has about the same number of calories as a half cup of brown rice. I will choose the tablespoon of olive oil damn near every time.
posted by mskyle at 7:11 PM on September 27, 2012

steam your kale

Yeah steam your kale (10 minutes), then add a bit of olive oil, some lemon juice, salt and a bit of parmesan. Mix together and OH YEAH. The amounts of oil and parm needed to make this delicious are very small. I can eat this every day. Probably all day?
posted by grapesaresour at 11:22 PM on September 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

First off, god(s) bless you for asking this question.

Second, my own votes go to

1) Strong, fresh flavours like lemon, lime, chilli, garlic, tons of fresh herbs, fresh spices, fish sauce etc etc.

2) Yoghurt, as a basis for creamy-type sauces, dips and so on.
posted by ominous_paws at 2:51 AM on September 28, 2012

seriously AWESOME ideas here. thanks, everyone...I can't wait to try these.
posted by dynamiiiite at 7:04 AM on September 28, 2012

If part of your problem is the effort involved in cooking, definitely go for batch-type planning. Soups/stews. Big batch of lean protein instead of having to cook it every time you want to eat. Surprisingly, this also goes for vegetables - true, nothing beats roated veg straight out of the oven, but in my book microwave-reheated roasted veg beats freshly-steamed bland veg any day! Read over some of the old ask Q&A here about batch cooking and cook/freeze/eat planning.

A yogurt marinade like this on chicken breasts or chunks is really tasty, low-fat, low-sugar, high-spice. Pan-fry is hard, takes a lot of oil to keep the marinade from sticking, so go with some kind of rack/grill instead; I cook outside on the grill in summer, inside on skewers (combination of oven/broiler) in winter. Also delicious as leftovers in a wrap sandwich, especially if you set aside some of the spiced yogurt before you marinade. (lavash bread with chunks of chicken, a spoonful of yogurt sauce, and way more lettuce or kale or other greens than you'd think would fit (seriously, a head of lettuce makes about 3 sandwiches))

Pork tenderloin rolled in a dry spice blend and oven-baked is delicious, and you can cook more than one at a time, then use it sliced in sandwiches (or diced in wraps) as well as having it spare for later dinners, or dicing and tossing in soup, or whatever.

Chicken meatloaf: by Cook's Illustrated's experiments, meatloaf benefits from adding about 1/4-1/2 tsp of gelatin to hold moisture in. Thus you can use chicken or turkey with a much lower fat content than the traditional beef/pork, and not have it come out dry. Now add delicious things: chicken/apple/sage and turkey/mushroom/thyme are two of my favorites. Lots of onion, garlic, and other spices in any case. Make a double batch: cook up one loaf for this week, and bake up the rest in muffin tins or small pyrex bowls. Pop those out of the pans, put in a big ziploc bag in the freezer, and you can pull one individual serving size puck out for dinner any time.
posted by aimedwander at 8:17 AM on September 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm seconding booksherpa's recommendation to try Skinnytaste. I also like Prevention RD--she also has nutrition info on her recipes and they are light in calories, low in carbs, and high in flavor. She's an RD and has some weight-loss advice on her site, plus you can submit questions she'll then answer.

It sounds like maybe you need to be a little more organized, as well, and try cooking ahead. What I used to do was to make a couple of entrees on the weekend, then feed off those during the week. If you have a good block of time, you could make, say, four entrees, freeze them in single-serving packages, and you'd have a nice variety of things to eat.

If you like Indian food, there are a lot of healthy, flavorful options there. Here's a Curried Roasted Cauliflower recipe that I make a lot and serve with brown rice.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 1:45 PM on September 28, 2012

Hard boiled eggs are a great way to buy yourself a little time while you cook. I make them once a week and then keep them in the fridge to grab.

Every 3 days buy a pound of salmon. Cut it into 3 portions and poach it all at once. I like it cold but you could warm it in the pan with the quick sauté of veggies you are doing. Squeeze a lime on top and put a couple of scoops of fresh salsa or bruschetta topping on top.

Once a week, roast two chickens. Pull the meat off and put it in a tupperware. Take the bones and make a stock. Then when you get home and are tired, toss a couple of cups of stock, some shredded chicken, a glug of coconut milk and the juice of a lime. Throw in some veggies. Let it simmer while you change clothes and settle in. Then top with some cilantro and enjoy.

Are you into braises? You can braise some beef stew, bolognese sauce, lamb or beef shanks. Chicken soup or minestrone soup work well too. Keep them either in the fridge or put them in the freezer for longer keeping. If any of those sound good I'd be glad to give you my recipes.

What about a big, giant salad? You can chop all the veggies on one day and then when you get home tired, just throw them together with some protein like your roasted chicken or tinned tuna or some chopped hardboiled eggs.

Unsolicited suggestion: Have you thought about tweaking your macronutrient ratios? Dieting and feeling hungry is a total bummer and isn't really sustainable as it seems like you've found. Fat is very satisfying. You may find like I did that if you stick to quality foods and shift towards fat and away from carbs you are naturally eating fewer calories without putting effort into it. Just one more option to consider.
posted by tinamonster at 11:16 PM on September 28, 2012

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