Help me get variety without the salt
July 18, 2013 9:41 AM   Subscribe

So due to high blood pressure I've been advised to give up most of the sodium in my diet and lose weight. And the last week I've managed to do it, but only with a very limited array of foods. How can I get more variety within my limits? Lots of special snowflake details inside.

OK, so: I am not a vegetarian, but mrs graymouser is. She's been pretty gracious about cooking chicken on the grill, which is what I've been eating for the past week, mostly with rice or in salads or as sandwiches; one time with spaghetti and a low-sodium tomato sauce. We tried a rice & beans recipe but that was not good. I'm at a loss as to what else I can eat.

I'm significantly overweight and want to lose weight; I've already lost some water weight. I have lost weight in the past, but then I didn't count sodium that much. Then I did it with a lot of low-calorie frozen meals which are no longer an option.

I don't like many cooked vegetables. I love salad vegetables, including lettuce, carrots, cabbage, fresh spinach, onions, radishes, cucumbers, etc, but only raw. I like a lot of types of cuisine and am pretty open to adapting however I need to, but I do not want to eat steamed vegetables. I do like a lot of fruits and have been eating them for variety.

Breakfast is OK, with shredded wheat and oatmeal. My cholesterol is high and I am trying not to eat many eggs. (The chicken is skinless boneless white meat.)

We eat out at least once a week, and I think mrs graymouser wants to try to do that still. Any ideas about that? I can make a salad at Saladworks that I like but that's about all I've got so far.

I've got pretty good salad dressings and bread and mustard and a number of other things to make low-sodium life easier. Ideally I would like my meals to have enough that I can bring leftovers to work.
posted by graymouser to Food & Drink (22 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
What do you normally like to eat? You can basically make a low-sodium version of anything, just... don't put any salt or salty condiments in it. Season with fresh herbs, pepper, hot pepper, garlic, onion, vinegar, cumin...

What was wrong with the rice and beans? Was it literally just plain rice with plain beans?
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:59 AM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

You're making very big changes all at once. Your taste buds will adapt to less salt over time, which will make it easier. Do you like stir fried or roasted vegetables? Those would expand your options - stir-fried vegetables can go over pasta or rice, with chicken or tofu if you want more protein, and leftovers are easily packed. I usually eat leftover rice and vegetables cold with a little salad dressing.
posted by theora55 at 10:06 AM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you're not very into cooking, so the easiest thing for you to do with zero learning curve is to buy a bunch of small containers of the salt-free seasoning blends at Penzeys, especially the Mural of Flavor, Forward!, and Arizona Dreaming (I haven't tried them all but have gotten free samples of those and they're very good and versatile). You can use those on whatever you're grilling, on whatever vegetables you do like (maybe try roasting vegetables with a seasoning blend?), to season rice, etc. That right there will give you way more variety. They also have salt-free salad dressing blends that sound like they'd be right up your alley.
posted by HotToddy at 10:07 AM on July 18, 2013 [3 favorites]

A couple of thoughts - what about Lite Salt that is partly potassium? Would that be an option for you? We've been experimenting with Pink Salt and I love it, but I'm not sure how much healthier it is.

Also, bread is incredibly high in sodium (packaged, grocery bread), so watch out for that.
posted by getawaysticks at 10:08 AM on July 18, 2013

if you eliminate "convenience" foods and anything processed you almost certainly will have made a tremendous reduction in your sodium intake, and yet still be able to use salt of freshly prepared foods.
posted by JPD at 10:10 AM on July 18, 2013 [3 favorites]

My cholesterol is high and I am trying not to eat many eggs.

Egg whites don't have cholesterol.
posted by Jahaza at 10:11 AM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: What do you normally like to eat?

Our go-to meals for the past few years have been pasta in sauce with meat substitutes on the side, veggie burgers with fries, frozen pizza, dinner salads, tacos, and variations on several Asian cuisines. Eating out I like burgers, burritos, sandwiches, pasta, teriyaki, pho, and pad thai.

What was wrong with the rice and beans?

We did the rice and beans separately and they came out dry with little flavor.

Do you like stir fried or roasted vegetables?

Not particularly.

Also, bread is incredibly high in sodium (packaged, grocery bread), so watch out for that.

I have a loaf of Ezekiel 4:9 Low Sodium bread - I've been checking all that.

if you eliminate "convenience" foods

Mitigating factor: we have a daughter who's almost 1 year old, limiting time for food prep.
posted by graymouser at 10:12 AM on July 18, 2013

People’s tastes really do change in reaction to what they eat. I nearly completely eliminated salt many years ago for a while and got used to it. The best approach is to not worry so much about what you like and don’t like and act as if it’s written in stone, or that it even matters. Eat what works and learn to like it. You like what you like because that’s what you’ve eaten, that’s the way people work.
posted by bongo_x at 10:20 AM on July 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: You said you don't like cooked vegetables, does that exclude beans/legumes? If you're OK with those, you can cook and freeze large batches of dried chickpeas and all sorts of beans in a slow cooker for easy sodium-free protein. Stuff like chana masala is very easy to make in large batches -- there's only 1 tsp of salt in that entire 8-10 serving recipe, and you can leave it out until the end and just salt to taste.

Here are more recipes than you will ever need, and some nice flavor combinations. The Flavor Bible would be a good companion for you, I think, and help prevent getting stuck in cooking ruts.

Note that many 'plain' chicken breasts sold in America, even those with a "100% natural" label, are injected with salt water.

Here's a list of low-sodium homemade spice blends. Strongly-flavored stuff like chili powder, masalas, Cajun/blackened spice, etc. are going to be your friend here. I'd recommend getting a cast iron grill pan if you don't have one already; they are amazing. Lemon juice and fresh cracked pepper makes pretty much everything taste better, ditto fresh garlic and olive oil. A dash of vinegar (white or apple cider) is often really nice for perking up a dish.

In terms of accommodating a 1 veg/1 non-veg household, I had the best luck making something to which meat could be added, but didn't need to be -- you could whip up a Thai green curry with reduced sodium soy sauce [PDF], then fry up and add your respective proteins separately (tofu for her, chicken for you). Alternately, a large batch of vegetarian chili sans salt, with homemade chili powder, TVP for her, and ground beef for you; ditto separate batches of taco filling made with homemade taco seasoning -- lentils or TVP for her, and whatever meat you'd prefer.
This salt-free shawerma seasoning is great on grilled tofu or (so my roommate says) beef/lamb. Toasting the spices brings out a whole new flavor profile.

Finallly, for as much as it gets ragged on, I consider MSG to be absolutely indispensible in the kitchen. It has an undeniable umami je ne sais quoi, only 1/3 as much sodium as table salt, and you use a lot less of it so the sodium level can be reduced even more.
posted by divined by radio at 10:21 AM on July 18, 2013 [4 favorites]

I'm sympathetic, but I have a six month old and there is no convenience food in my house. Other than a few things that can be batched (like tomato sauce) its not really any harder to stick to the outside of the grocery store.
posted by JPD at 10:21 AM on July 18, 2013

Try fish! You can grill it on a cedar plank or in a foil envelope. Salmon or Snapper are nice and firm.

Use lots of fresh herbs, garlic and citrus juices for flavor (lemon/lime)

Make your own veggie burgers from beans, onions and hold them together with egg whites.

Use grassfed ground beef for your pasta, tacos and burgers. Grassfed beef doesn't have as much cholesterol. Or use ground chicken breast if you'd rather.

Substitution is your friend. If you have a handful of things you like, tweak them so that they have lower salt and cholesterol.

You are making a significan change in your lifestyle and it can be overwhelming, especially if, in the past, "you tried nothing and are all out of ideas."

Perhaps a visit to a Dietician would be a good way for you to get food and meal plan ideas. A Registered Dietician is a thing a 'Nutritionist', not so much.

Good Luck!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:24 AM on July 18, 2013

Tuscan "beans in a bottle" (except they are not actually in a bottle):

One cup of white beans (Great Northern or cannellini) - I have no reason to believe that this wouldn't work with other kinds of beans.
Olive oil (1-2 T), chopped garlic, herbs (sage leaves or bay or other seasoning)
A little salt - or at least I'd suggest a little salt; most of the folks I know who are dealing with high blood pressure have a per-day salt recommendation

Soak the beans overnight or during the workday. Preheat the oven to 325. Put the beans in an ovenproof dish, add the minced garlic, olive oil and herbs) and cover with about 2.5 cups of water. Cover dish with foil and poke six holes. Bake for 2.5 hours - check at the 1.5 hour mark just in case you need more liquid.

Beans will be very creamy and partially broken down. Serve with chopped tomatoes; or lemon juice and olive oil; or sauteed vegetables; or a big spoonful of plain greek yogurt. Or stir them together with lemon juice and olive oil and eat with pita bread.


New-old rice cooking method (has the advantage of washing away some of the arsenic found in rice:

Large, heavy pot; rice; water. Fill pot with good amount of water and bring to a boil. Add rice, which should cook "pasta-style" and cook to desired degree of done-ness. Drain. Your rice will not be too dry. Keep an eye on it the first few times so you don't cook it to mush.

Fake vegetable stock with no salt: mix together (in proportions as desired) water, white wine, tomato-paste-from-a-tube (which is very low salt, unlike canned) and olive oil. I often use this to sub for stock/broth. If you want to bring the whole thing to a boil before using it, you can also add herbs.


Vaguely pilaf-paella-risotto: On stove, heat ~6 C broth/stock and keep warm; heat 1 T fat; saute 2 C rice in it until rice is translucent and fragrant. Add 1 C stock and stir until absorbed; continue adding stock until rice is done.

You can vary this by saute-ing onions and garlic before starting with the rice. And you can mix in vegetables toward the end.


Also, carmelized onions are a powerful flavoring agent. Slice/chop your onions very fine and thin and cook them over medium-low heat for a long time until they are starting to turn golden (or even longer, until they are darker gold).


Honestly, some of this sounds like a technique issue - it sounds as though you have a repertoire of cooking methods that you've used with salty foods in the past but that are not particularly suited to less salty foods now - that's why your rice and beans were dry and yuck. (I find beans difficult to cook right, actually. My solution is generally to start them in lots of water and cook the water down. I cook black beans with a little rum, onions, bay and some hot spices.)
posted by Frowner at 10:46 AM on July 18, 2013 [3 favorites]

Get some limes and experiment with squeezing lime juice on your food. It's awesome. Lemon also.

Steamed asparagus with just a little lemon juice (or a vinaigrette) is excellent.

Re: cooking beans - use more water and add some olive oil. Beans are worth getting right. Try a few recipes. Rice also.

You might want to look at mjeddrah recipes - they are rice and beans together. Read different recipes to see which have the most interesting-looking seasoning mix. Reduce the salt content, and use lemon juice to compensate (add the lemon at serving time). A little vinegar can help also.

Explore different types of vinegar: balsamic (rather sweet), apple cider, sherry vinegar, ume plum vinegar, etc.
posted by amtho at 10:46 AM on July 18, 2013

Note that unless you are consuming WAY more cholesterol than the average person, the vast majority of the cholesterol in your blood is produced by your body, not ingested. Some people are just genetically disposed to high cholesterol levels, even if they eat a practically cholesterol-free diet.

Also - you like raw veggies but not cooked. You can learn to like them better by easing yourself in. Try steaming briefly at first - not enough to take away the crunch, but just enough that it's not totally raw. After you get used to that, steam a little longer. Or try tossing veggies in olive oil and herbs and oven-roasting in a baking pan. They will taste nothing like boiled or steamed veggies and will be very savory.

For work lunches, try making a "salad of the week" where you have your salad base of lettuce and veggies, and buy enough special ingredients and a different dressing to last the week. You can account for the sodium content on your own. Prep everything on Sunday and package 5 salads, undressed. You can either bring the bottle of dressing with you on Monday to work or create 5 little dressing cups to bring with you each day.
You could do a Greek salad, Taco salad (ground beef or turkey and salt-free tortilla chips), Italian antipasto, or any other ideas that aren't just plain old boring garden salad.
posted by trivia genius at 10:47 AM on July 18, 2013

When it comes to bread and pizza I'd really recommend getting a breadmaker. I use mine to make my weakly bread and add just a tiny fraction of the salt you get in most shopbought brands. I also make pizza dough from scratch, which again is just adding all the ingredients into it and leaving out the salt. I just use canned tomato for the topping (heated with garlic and onion, no salt) and much less cheese than you'd get in store bought.

They are delicious and everyone raves about them. They still feel like a real treat with a fraction of the fat or salt of a takeaway.
posted by Dorothia at 11:40 AM on July 18, 2013

Kraut is delicious and adds the kind of savory, umami flavor salt enhances. It goes with a surprising number of flavors, is great on top of salad and in sandwiches, and you can make it at home! (About an hour of prep, wait a week for it to ferment, and you'll have enough kraut to last for a month in jars in your fridge! MeMail me if you'd like a recipe.)

Also, if you haven't had good, fresh kraut before (i.e. not kraut on hotdogs, out of a can), try a jar of $8 boutique fancy shit from Whole Foods or somesuch. It's so different, and filled with probiotics, and much more delicious. Kimchi too, also easy to make, though sometimes stronger-flavored for American palates than kraut.
posted by tapir-whorf at 12:02 PM on July 18, 2013

I spent a few years doing all low-salt cooking at home for similar reasons. Of all the low sodium cookbooks I found, The American Heart Association one is my favorite.

There are tips out there for making fake soy sauce with essentially no sodium (it's not soy sauce at all, but it's better than nothing, if you like foods that employ soy sauce). The one I did was rice vinegar, molasses, and garlic powder, but you can play around to see what tastes good to you.

There's a lot of great advice above. I just want to emphasize that while many people will tell you that salt = flavor, just because you are cutting down on salt doesn't mean your food can't have flavor. The flavor has to be provided by other things like herbs and spices.

One last thing: I know you said you don't particularly love roasted vegetables, but please try roasting cauliflower. It is amazing. Roast it uncovered in a baking dish at about 350 or so until it is nicely tanned -- this will take at least an hour. Add olive oil or not before roasting, or even just a little Pam olive oil spray. A nice dip can be made with fat free Greek yogurt and salt-free curry powder. Broccoli is also good using this method, but cauliflower is kind of transcendent.
posted by freezer cake at 12:41 PM on July 18, 2013

Once upon a time, I switched from a diet similar to your old diet, to a no-salt, no-gluten, no-red meat, no-dairy diet for one month. (Following the recipes in this book.)

Here's the good news: The weight absolutely FELL off me. I felt healthier than I had in years. I was able to keep almost all of that weight off (I dropped from a size 12 to a size 6, and these days, around 6 years later, I'm an 8).

Here's a bit more good news (that will lead into the bad news): My palate - and more importantly, the kinds of foods I craved - really, really changed. Before, I'd describe my relationship with cooked vegetables as . . . détente. After, I was wild for almost all of them. Before, I was hooked on Diet Coke, Diet Dr. Pepper, and Sprite. After, I couldn't drink half of a soda, let alone finish one. Before, bring on the Cheetos; after, chips of all kinds literally repulsed me.

Now for the bad news: making that change was really, really hard. My partner at the time did the month with me and I remember him sitting across the table during week one, eating some weird cooked veggie thing with me, and being SAD. Sick kitten sad. Lump of coal in your stocking sad. The dishes seemed endless and the food tasted so bland and awful in the beginning.

But by the end, the food tasted awesome. Vegetables were an endless fount of flavor to which my palate was no longer deadened. I reintroduced dairy, salt, gluten, and red meat into my diet after that month, but I was able to do so in a healthy, controlled fashion, since my body no longer reacted to those things in the way that it used to. I'll never forget the first steak I ate at a restaurant after that month; oh my good god, was it orgasmic. But I didn't want to eat all of it, and I didn't want to eat another one the next day, and the next day, and the next.

I guess that my advice to you is to step outside your food comfort zone. Look at this as a serious challenge, and commit to it. Once you are used to the new foods you are trying, and to the routine of buying and preparing them, you'll settle into a place where you can prepare those foods quickly and efficiently (for example, I used to spend Sunday afternoons preparing all juices, smoothies, raw salad bases, and anything else that lent itself to early prep, for the upcoming week). It will take a lot of work, but your health is worth it.

Bonus: Making the changes you are making will set an excellent example for your sweet young daughter, and get her used to eating healthy food early. It's a win-win for you and for your family.
posted by sevensnowflakes at 5:40 PM on July 18, 2013 [6 favorites]

Oh! And one more thing. You and the mrs. love to dine out, yes? Make DINING OUT your cheating - do it once a week, and eat whatever the hell you want.
posted by sevensnowflakes at 5:43 PM on July 18, 2013

I'm a vegan epidemiologist living with a bunch of children who resent having a dad who will never buy them the Carl's Jr. burgers they crave. So, I've learned some tricks that might give you a boost in the direction you're wanting to go. I also admit to having a salt tooth (not a sweet tooth) and have been taken to task for turning foods into saltlicks over the years. So:

Consider keeping your fridge stocked with a couple salt-free, fat-free sauces that can be used as everything from salad dressings to sauces for bored, plain rice and beans. That salt craving can be tricked a little bit with sour and umami flavors, so here are two go-tos in our fridge:

Green goddess
1/2 cup chives
1/2 cup parsely
2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
2 tablespoons nutritional yeast (you can omit it if you can't find it)
1 tablespoon miso paste
3/4 cup water (maybe more, maybe less, depending on your tastes)
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Dash of salt

1/4 cup almonds
2 tablespoons nutritional yeast
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon dijon mustard
1 clove garlic
1 teaspoon capers
1/4 cup water
dash of salt
black pepper

Pop everything in one of those recipes into a blender and bring it down to as smooth a texture as you like it. There are many different varieties of these salt-light and fat-light sauces out there on the internet, and if you find a couple that really hit your tastebuds just right, well, slap that shit on everything.

It's an old recommendation, but bring some celery into your life. If you're making something for dinner that just doesn't feel salted enough--and it's something that celery goes with (e.g. it's not like honey on toast)--put as many thin slices of celery on it as you can manage. It--like parsley--has a sort of salt satiation effect on a lot of folks' palates.

My epidemiologist side would encourage you to check out a couple of cookbooks that have this sort of plant-based, easy on the salt, heart health and bodyweight conscious slant. 'The Engine 2 Diet' has a stupid name but is otherwise the diet promoted by the cardiology researchers involved with the China Study and the Cleveland Clinic Cardiac Lifestyle Intervention Program. Even if you don't want the clinical science side of things, the book that's put out under that name is about 50% recipes that will give you some excellent starting ground. There's also 'Appetite For Reduction,' which is a bit more of a health-conscious cookbook by the reigning queen of fatty, unhealthy vegan comfort food, Isa Chandra Moskowitz (she's also the source of that green goddess recipe). You can get an idea of the kind of food she specializes in at the Post Punk Kitchen blog, although, beware, you still need to scrutinize the recipes there for salt, fat, and other junky stuff that won't help you lose weight or cut salt, necessarily (which they readily admit).

(If any of this is interesting after you try it, let me know. Happy to provide more suggestions, because I know it's a long slog to changing your tastes to suit your health without some good hints along the way.)
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 7:34 PM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

my dad had to cut way back on sodium and found that lemon juice gives a similar flavoring to many foods that he'd add table salt too.
posted by wildflower at 7:47 PM on July 18, 2013

It has been mentioned a few times already but it needs to be emphasized: FRESH HERBS.
There are a lot of different herbs that will add so much flavor! Dill, sage, rosemary, lemongrass, cilantro, parsley, ginger, mint ....
And garlic.
Also add some arugula to your dishes.
Check out this recipe, it needs no salt.
posted by travelwithcats at 7:01 AM on July 19, 2013

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