Fresh and healthy meals
July 24, 2020 6:23 AM   Subscribe

What are your ideas for meals that both Feel fresh and healthy to make and eat, and are also calorically efficient (Makes us full, gives us energy)

What healthy means to us

When I think being "healthy", it's usually in terms of losing weight. Eat fewer calories, it doesn't matter a ton what that is. Lately, that's meant recommending less dessert (ONE PIECE of cake w/ icing is 450 calories!!?) and Pizza (ONE PIECE of pizza is 350 calories!???), and cutting out routinely drinking alcohol.

My wife has always taken a bit more of a holistic approach to "healthy". She says that exercising is just as important as eating, and that cooking with fresh, healthy ingredients is what is best for leading a healthy lifestyle.

Current Status

Well, as we've aged from 20-27 together, we've put on some weight, and our fitness has gone down the dumpster. So, about a month ago, we started eating a bit healthier and exercising more. We aren't obese, just right on the edge of overweight, but why be 200 lbs when you can be 180 lbs?

We've been on the "bbqturtle" version of healthy diet - where we are aware of the calories inside our food, try to eat less seconds, and most importantly, cut out most of the pizza, junk food, and alcohol from out diet. We've also been experimenting with cauliflower rice, veggie burgers, and (yuck) salads! My guess is that our average day before was 2500 calories+, and now it was down to 1800 calories or so.

Over glasses of flavored water, I asked my wife:

"Well, does it feel like we are being healthier?"

"No, we are eating a lot of processed foods. Most of what we eat comes from the freezer. I would think the next step for us is to think about what we can do that uses fresher ingredients."

I love this idea. She's absolutely right - I mean, veggie burgers, while good and low calorie and easy, are about the most processed thing around. We are basically eating everything from the freezer when we cook together, and it's not the green smoothie, fresh hummus, organic version of healthiness that is often shown to us. We know that frozen veggies are higher in nutrients than fresh, but it really doesn't "Feel" fresh. Since she mentioned this, we've been eating a bit more salad and avocado toast. But I'd really like to take it to the next level.

So, I don't see any reason why we can't have it both ways - calorie efficient food, but that has fresh ingredients. However, searching for this requirement usually fails what we need in a few ways.

What are your ideas for meals that:

1. "feel" fresh and healthy to make and eat
2. Calorically efficient (Makes us full, gives us energy)

Our only dietary restrictions is that Mrs BBQ doesn't like seafood or raw onions. I'm trying to eat less meat but only when it's convenient. Absolutely any thoughts or foods are welcome as recommendations!
posted by bbqturtle to Food & Drink (34 answers total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
Right now is the perfect time to be making succotash. Corn and beans are both in season and nutritiously complementary. This can be as simple as throwing the two in a pan with some butter or oil and cooking until tender, or you can go nuts with it. I made some last night with a mix of sweet corn, green beans, and snow peas, along with a small amount of chopped bacon (render it in the pan first to get your cooking fat), sauteed chopped shallot, vermouth to deglaze the pan, and then finished it with some heavy cream to bring it all together.
posted by backseatpilot at 6:33 AM on July 24, 2020 [4 favorites]

My main way of doing this is to ramp waaay up the quantities of vegetables in the dishes I eat. Veg is high in fibre, which fills you up while being low-calorie, and also contains lots of other nutrients that can help you feel generally better and healthier and more energetic. So focus primarily on a plate containing a variety of veg, and then add in some protein to make it more exciting and palatable and keep you fuller longer. Whether or not you also need a moderate portion of carbs added in to feel full, seems to vary from person to person, tbh.

So a stir fry with meat or fish added in, or Escalivada with salmon steaks put on top 20 minutes before the end of cooking, or Spring Piggy (scroll down on that page), are all among my favourites.
posted by penguin pie at 6:37 AM on July 24, 2020 [5 favorites]

I really like hearty, interesting grain salads (they're salads in name only) for this, as long as they have a lot of interesting things going on and have a decent hit of fat and protein. Bonus - they keep really well, so you can make a batch and have it for lunch all week, if you're a person who doesn't mind repeating meals. Here are a few of my go-tos.

Smitten Kitchen's Mediterranean eggplant and barley salad - I cut the oil in this by about half, with 2 tablespoons for the eggplant and zukes, 2 tablespoons for the barley, and 1 tablespoon for the dressing. I've added shredded chicken to this when I need a little more substance, and frequently toss in a little extra greens through the week to keep it fresh. Also, I forgot the red onions in this last time I made it and completely don't miss them.

Bon Appetit's Broccoli and Quinoa Salad I'll use whatever grain I have on hand for this; wheat berries are especially good.

You can think of both of these as templates or formulas, and riff on them a bunch. It's some roasted vegetables, some fresh vegetables, a whole grain, something salty, something fatty, something crunchy, something zingy, and then a bit of lemon juice or dressing to tie it all together. Just don't make the mistake of being too virtuous - grains and vegetables alone won't keep you as full as they would with some nuts, cheese, meat, egg, tofu, and/or dressing alongside.
posted by punchtothehead at 6:38 AM on July 24, 2020 [5 favorites]

My favorite smoothie feels very fresh:

A handful of baby spinach or baby kale
A handful of frozen mango
A handful of frozen pineapple
A big chunk of ginger - an inch or more
posted by jander03 at 6:47 AM on July 24, 2020 [2 favorites]

Congratulations! You are today's lucky winner of the "Person I Recommend The Moosewood Daily Special To" award!

For serious, I have recommended this a kghfivillion times in AskMes about eating more vegetables, eating healthier, eating more simply, looking for creative side dishes, and the like. And it fits all of them.

What it is, is - it's nothing but soups and salads, using fresh ingredients. It's called the "Daily Special" because the Moosewood Restaurant has a couple soups-of-the-day and a couple salads-of-the-day, and their daily lunch special lets guests pick one of the soups and one of the salads as a combo plate. And they also have a ton of other side salads and simple soups. Throughout the book, each recipe has suggestions for other recipes in the book you can pair things with for a complete meal of your own.

So you'll have hearty soups that are perfect for a full meal with just a side green salad, nourishing main-dish salads that you can eat with another simple vegetable, simple salads or soups that can pair nicely with a simple meat dish, etc. Several of the recipes keep well in the fridge, so they're also good for batch cooking on the weekend - make a couple of salads and a couple of soups, leave them in the fridge, and then making dinner each night is as easy as just opening the fridge and grabbing a serving of something. Some of the recipes are a little fiddly (there's a recipe for homemade wonton soup which requires actually making the wontons yourself), but most are pretty easy - like, "chop all vegetables, dump into bowl, chill and serve" easy.

Caveat that they do include seafood salads and soups, but these are each in their own "chapters" and those chapters are pretty small. I've owned that cookbook for years and I don't think I've ever even looked at that section - but the "main dish salads" and "main dish soups" are my workhorses, and two Tupperware containers are in my fridge right now with things I made from this cookbook. They even have a separate section for things like salad dressings, breads and rolls, DIY croutons, and the like. (Their biscuit recipe is my go-to, in fact.)

I can even add personal recommendations for their Tuscan Bean Soup, their French barley salad, their French pasta salad, their Indian tomato and rice soup, and this other salad that I'm forgetting the name of but it has grapes in it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:55 AM on July 24, 2020 [7 favorites]

Oh and the Cold Sichuan noodles! (I knew I was forgetting one!)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:56 AM on July 24, 2020

A big part of this is knowing what's in season. You might actually be the ideal candidates for a CSA/farm share.

For specific recipes, Smitten Kitchen's zucchini "carpaccio" salad is so delicious and filling and uses all raw ingredients. Summer squash is in season now in most of the US.
posted by capricorn at 6:58 AM on July 24, 2020 [3 favorites]

Summer is for bean salad, which is so easy. 3 cans of different beans: chickpeas, white beans, and kidneys are my favorite. Chop carrots and celery finely, slice cherry tomatoes in half, add fresh chopped green beans, maybe a little bit of green onion if your wife doesn't mind, some pitted kalamata olives. Douse in a homemade vinaigrette and let sit in the fridge for a couple of hours.

It's good as a side, or as another salad in a meal with a green salad, or you can add pasta or potatoes or cooked farro to beef it up as a complete meal.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 6:58 AM on July 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Do canned beans feel fresh to cook and eat? Are they calorically efficient? (Honestly asking)
posted by bbqturtle at 7:01 AM on July 24, 2020

Canned beans are an excellent idea. A number of the MDS recipes use them. Spring for the foofy organic brands if you're especially concerned about "extra ingredients" from the processor.

Or, you can DIY your own "canned" beans! I've totally done this - they're "frozen" rather than canned, but it still works. Just buy a couple of different types of dried beans, and cook each package up all at once - just the beans and water and a little salt, though, not a ton of other ingredients in there. Then, when the beans are cooked, dole them out among smaller freezer-safe containers and freeze. I use those Ziploc containers with the screw tops for this. Then it's just a matter of pulling a container out of the freezer and letting it thaw a while first before using. They may be a little softer than a store-bought can of beans, fair warning, but

Cooking dried beans is easy too - you just need to soak them first (trust me, you want to soak them a while), then simmer on low heat a couple hours until they're done. If you have an Instant Pot, it's even faster; most beans pressure cook for only ten minutes.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:14 AM on July 24, 2020

I’ve been pursuing a great homemade veggie burger this spring/summer. After many different recipes, this one is my new go-to:

If you use a burger press, they really are grillable. I usually make a double batch for weekday dinners.
posted by chuke at 7:15 AM on July 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

Canned beans are very calorically efficient, and although their texture is just slightly different than dried beans cooked up, a lot of beans are not eaten 'raw' so they are as fresh as they get. The reason people are suggesting beans is that overall they are a great mix of vegetable protein and carbs, varied slightly by type of beans. They are the basis of the human diet in many areas of the world alongside grains.

I have some suggestions for you too, some with beans and some without.

Hummus bowls are pretty amazing. (That's one of my favs right now as summer squash is in season but you can search for many many ideas online.) You can make edamame hummus for a lower-carb version or regular, make your own or buy the processed-at-the-store kind.

Chop a variety of veggies and/or cook up meat (or use leftover meat), add pickles, etc. Rice bowls are the same, just with rice at the bottom. The nice thing about bowls is you can gradually transition from more meat to less meat as you find combinations you like.

Pro tip: Once you've found a combination of flavours in a bowl that you like, take out the hummus or rice and put in lettuce and you have A SALAD OH NO. :)

Another "killer app" is a spiralizer and using zucchini or butternut squash as your "pasta" with your favourite sauce. The veggie 'noodles' also make nice textures in salads. You can use a peeler for a broader noodle to try it out before investing in a spiralizer, it just takes some time.

One way we transitioned our diet slowly off junk foods (mosty) years ago was to go step by step, we went went from "stopping at the fry place" to "frozen french fries with gravy" to "frozen fries with vegetarian chili" to "baked potato with veggie chili." In other words, look for quick wins. Your veggie burgers are a good example; you could move to a dish like this next. (Ignore that it's called a falafel; we shape them for regular buns.)
posted by warriorqueen at 7:17 AM on July 24, 2020 [5 favorites]

You might find some inspiration in "paleo" websites or books, especially considering that you (or your wife!) are trying to get away from "processed." Some recipes may be higher calorie than you are looking for, but they are probably also more satiating.
posted by callmejay at 7:32 AM on July 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

I think if you search for recipes for "Buddha bowls" you might find something that ticks all your boxes. It's a bit like a salad without the components that non-salad people typically turn their noses up at, and it's easy to build with fresh produce.
posted by crunchy potato at 7:38 AM on July 24, 2020 [2 favorites]

For cooking dried beans, the Instant Pot was life changing for me. I know that people have been cooking beans on stoves and over fires for thousands of years, but I could never get beans as soft as I wanted them to be. I cook a big pot of chickpeas and keep them in canning jars in the freezer. They taste way better than canned beans.

Lentils cook much faster and are much easier to cook on the stove.

I've also done a slow change in my diet over the years. I started with breakfast - I used to eat bacon sandwiches. Then I switched to sardines on toast, then steal-cut oatmeal with blueberries, and now kale smoothies. I've been vegan for three years and am now switching over to Dr. Fuhrman's nutritarian diet. It is very challenging, not for the faint of heart, but I have cancer so I'm very motivated. I would suggest searching "nutritarian" for recipes. Also, I find watching Dr. Fuhrman videos on youtube very inspirational. He is very extreme though.

My main point is that it's very possible to make changes over a period of years and maintain them. Some people go all in on major diet changes right away - I wish I were one of those people, but slow, gradual changes worked for me. By doing it this way, I've lost 65 pounds and have no trouble keeping the weight off.
posted by FencingGal at 7:43 AM on July 24, 2020 [3 favorites]

Yes, to canned beans and using them can make things go much faster.

In fact I made one of my favorite plant based meals last night with them. Black bean and sweet potato tacos.

1 can black beans
1/2 can crushed tomatoes
1/2 tsp salt
1 bay leaf
chili powder to taste
I add 1 or two chipotle chilies from the can as well - they are spicy so add to taste
simmer for 15 minutes
While that's happening, peel 1 sweet potato, cut it into very small 1/4 cubes (but you don't have to be that precise about it). Roast them for about 20 minutes until soft. Mix with the beans, then roll into tortillas. Yum.

I serve them with avocado and sprinkling of queso fresco. I also usually make a side of rice and sometimes throw some frozen peas and/or a few cooked carrots in there two.

I would treat yourself to a few nice cookbooks to get inspiration and find things you like. I think How to Cook Everything - The Basics is a good starter book with lots of kitchen tips and tricks
posted by brookeb at 8:01 AM on July 24, 2020

Next level: If you have the resources, consider growing your own salad greens. They will taste so much better than even the good stuff from the grocery store.

One caution, since you are focusing on calories: When you can, avoid swapping meat and other "satiating" food with bread, pasta, and other high-carbohydrate items. Depending on your metabolism, that can set up a loop of craving you might not want to fall into.
posted by gnomeloaf at 8:20 AM on July 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

Besides just including a lot of veggies/fruit in your diet, increasing their crunch (by choosing different ones, cooking from fresh instead of frozen, or just cooking less or not at all) will make them seem more fresh. Citrus flavours, especially lime, can also add a more fresh feeling.

It's not clear from your conversation why you're trying to increase the calories, but you can do that by adding more healthy fats like avocado, salmon, nuts, and olive oil. Salad dressings are an easy way to add calories to salad. Protein-dense foods like beans/lentils/hummus and fish/meat/eggs can also provide a lot of calories while being healthy and filling. Grass-fed meat (or hunted meat) tends to be more lean and is often produced more ethically, if that's a concern for you.
posted by randomnity at 8:27 AM on July 24, 2020

For us, the trick to eating more "fresh, healthy" food has been to actually have the ingredients for it in the house already. So we made a list of meals we like eating, picked a schedule that fills a month with them, and we set up recurring grocery deliveries for the ingredients we need to have to make them. It took a lot of work for like a week, but now we actually cook because you don't have to be like "what do you want to eat for dinner?" all the time, the answer is just "mango-habenero chicken with roasted broccoli as the side and rice" so then we just cook that!

We try to eat more locally, so we have a deep freeze and we buy a quarter of a cow and large boxes of chicken breasts and thighs from local producers. So then it's just a matter of remembering to thaw the meat. Steaks thaw quite quick on a cookie sheet in the sink with a tiny bit of water around it, and chicken thaws quickly in a plastic bag in a sink of warmish water, if we forget. We eat chicken breasts rolled around with a seasoning on it (either a tandoori mix which I just buy, or this mango habanero dry salt stuff) and baked in the oven, or pan-fry thighs and usually make a quick sauce in the pan for them, using a little milk or cream or broth or wine (essentially whatever liquid I have around) to deglaze the plan and then throwing in whatever flavours sound good to me - a bit of garlic and dijon mustard is good with cream for instance!

We eat about three "greek salads" a week - which for us is a couple of chopped up roma tomatoes, a chopped cucumber (skin on) and a chopped up green pepper if we have it, feta cheese and kalamata olives (buy your feta and olives from costco for best price if you plan to eat this a lot.) The dressing is salt, a generous sprinkling of dried oregano, and about 2 parts olive oil and 1 part white vinegar or lemon juice, whatever I have around. When you mix this all up, if it isn't massively delicious, you have undersalted ;)

If you really don't like salads (even when they have no lettuce, which is way better) then just make a generous portion of whatever veggies you do like! I like broccoli and brussel sprouts, roasted in the oven after being tossed with olive oil and s&p, or green beans, blanched in a pan with butter and toasted almonds. Green beans and corn and green peas are the best frozen veggies in my opinion, but not mixed together.

If you want to add calories and the traditional feeling of fullness that comes with eating carbs, to these meals, you can also include some carbs - pita bread warmed up in an oiled pan with oregano, salt and parmesan is delicious, rice is a good side, potatoes are the most delicious food in the universe, you can throw some cooled al dente pasta (like rotini) right into the greek salad if you like!
posted by euphoria066 at 8:27 AM on July 24, 2020 [2 favorites]

You might find it fresher feeling than canned beans if you got frozen lima beans or black eyed peas or something like that from your grocer's freezer. You boil them in water and it takes like 15 minutes or so--no soaking.

Agree that a CSA is great for this. You make a rule that you have to eat whatever it is, which means you have to learn to cook whatever it is.

I dislike a schlep, so I like to make a ton of some veggie-rich flavorful sauce--spaghetti sauce or pesto--and fridge some and freeze some. Then when zucchini season descends, I eat nothing but spiralized zucchini (put olive oil in hot pan, spiralize zucchini directly into pan, salt lightly, stir about three times, remove to bowl) with pesto or tomato sauce on it.

There's also Creamy Curried Coconut [vegetable starting with c] Surprise, which I used to make all the time. You throw some coconut oil in a pan, cook onions and your vegetable, normally carrots or cauliflower, but it doesn't actually have to start with a c; you can make it with anything, and cook 'til edible. When the vegetables are done, toss in curry powder and something creamy. Actual cream, yogurt, coconut milk, whatever. Sometimes I add orange juice if it's a sweet vegetable like carrot. Sometimes garlic. You might throw on some frozen green peas if it seems like they'd add. Wilt fresh spinach or chard on top if you have it. Whatever. Salt and pepper. Eat. People always ask me what's the surprise. The surprise is that I made food for you to eat. Surprise.
posted by Don Pepino at 8:29 AM on July 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

High temperature roasted vegetables...Carrots and Broccoli are favorites but it works for any hardy vegetable...get what you like that is in season. As the oven heats up as high it will go...cut up the veg and toss with a little oil, salt and pepper. Cook for 10-15 minutes. The time will depend on the type of vegetables, the size of the pieces and how much you like or dislike the char on the vegetables.

These guys are amenable to almost any kind of sauce, herbs, grated Parmsean or just plain. They work as a side dish or great mixed with noodles/rice/quinoa/etc. for a main dish.
posted by mmascolino at 8:41 AM on July 24, 2020 [4 favorites]

I thought I didn't like salads much until I tried the fancy salads from Sweetgreen (yep, judge all you want). I hadn't realized just how tasty and satiating a well-balanced salad can be - it's SO much better than a basic green side salad like I'd tried in the past.

You don't have to actually buy salads from them, of course, but look at their menu for inspiration on what a fresh, healthy, satisfying, and delicious salad or grain bowl can look like.

A good "recipe" for a salad is greens + grains (quinoa, etc) and/or beans + roasted veggies + protein (a good amount of it!) + crunch (nuts, chips, idk), plus whatever else is needed to get a good balance of salty/fatty/acidic/sweet. I aim for the greens to make up about 50% of the salad (by volume) - not more than that, or it just gets boring.
posted by mosst at 9:30 AM on July 24, 2020 [2 favorites]

Homemade sushi. Put what you want in it (great way to disguise salad), fun to make, tasty and filling.
posted by freethefeet at 9:53 AM on July 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

Grilling, in general. Because (some of) the fat drips off as you cook, it's leaner than most other cooking methods. And personally, fat is often what causes a meal to feel "heavy" to me. Taking some already-lean meat (chicken breast, most notably) and grilling it feels pretty clean and tastes delicious.

While you're grilling, grill vegetables. It's been kind of life-changing for me. Just apply a little bit of fat for flavor (butter - or ghee, which is my other recent mind-blowing discovery - tastes better, but olive oil tastes lighter) and some seasoning. You may have to microwave some of the tougher ones, like root vegetables, to soften them up before they go on the grill. Also super convenient to grill your side dishes along with your meat.

The other thing that's helpful for me is sauces and condiments that are pretty low in calories and/or light. Most mustards are quite low in calories, as long as you don't add sugar. And sauces like chimichurri (lots of olive oil) and pesto (oil, nuts, and cheese) are higher in calories, but still feel light and fresh. Very easy to make your own in a blender, too, rather than relying on store-bought. Most hot sauces are low- or even zero-calorie, since they're really just peppers and vinegar.

You can make some nice meals out of those simple things. Steak with homemade chimichurri and grilled cherry tomatoes? That's a seriously good meal, even if you're not trying to eat light or healthy.
posted by kevinbelt at 9:57 AM on July 24, 2020 [2 favorites]

I just want to clarify whether you mean that you're trying to make "calorically efficient" or "calorically inefficient" meals, as my recommendations would be different for each. The way I've heard it previously, "calorically efficient" means basically foods that have a high number of calories per gram (this includes processed foods like pizza and cake). People who benefit this type of eating are athletes or people who are malnourished, but it can make the rest of us pack on weight.

From my reading of your post, "calorically inefficient" meals are what you seem to want to aim for - less calorically dense foods with fewer calories per gram. This means you can eat a greater volume of food and take in lower calories from it. This would also seem to coincide with your aims of eating more "fresh" food, since vegetables are the quintessential "calorically inefficient" food: you can eat lots and lots of lettuce, broccoli, bell pepper, etc., and still not take in many calories. It seems to me that you might want to aim at calorically-inefficient but nutrient-dense foods. As someone above said, you might want to look into ingredients and recipes from the paleo diet, which stresses unprocessed foods and tends to increase vegetable consumption.
posted by ClaireBear at 10:08 AM on July 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Yeah, definitely "Calorically inefficient" by gram. I didn't know it was a real phrase, I just meant, filling and high in satiation and positive traits, while being low calorie. Like we want more spinach and less butter.
posted by bbqturtle at 10:16 AM on July 24, 2020

Over the past year, we've had to make some changes due to some sugar issues with hubby and I. We had been trying to work on it for years, but the numbers made it more urgent.

We are doing low carb but not extreme keto or anything like that. The key is keeping it simple and learning more about spices and seasoning. We try to stick to meals of meat and veggies or meat/veggies/grains. For meat, we keep frozen chicken breasts, chicken thighs, salmon (individual pieces frozen), sliced beef from the asian market, steaks, and hamburger. The veggies are whatever is in season as well as frozen green beans, broccoli, artichoke hearts, and squash/zucchini mix. Grains for us are quinoa, brown rice, and cauliflower rice (not really grain).

The key part of this plan are the spices. We have expanded our use of spice and sauces and that makes all the difference in feeling satisfied by the meal. We now use stuff like gochujang (korean pepper paste), harissa (tunisian pepper paste), sesame oil, miso paste, doenjang (korean miso paste), sriracha, sambal, bulgogi marinade, monterey steak seasoning, zatar seasoning, and a wide range of vinegars and pickled items.

Now we just mix and match what we like in mixed bowls or salads. Sometimes, we use the same items and make tacos with low carb tortillas. We also use an air fryer which makes it so easy to cook meat or roast veggies. This summer, I'm trying to keep an herb garden to add to our ingredients. We are still experimenting with different flavor profiles and it's been a lot of fun and yummy!
posted by jraz at 10:21 AM on July 24, 2020

I also just wanted to encourage you to think a little bit more about your premises and goals. If your most important goal is that the food you eat "feels fresh", that is totally fine. Just be aware that it may or may not make you lose weight, or be healthier.

For instance, I used to eat a low-fat "healthy" diet almost devoid of meat and high in carbs (complex carbs like lentils, beans, etc., as well as simpler carbs like bread). I felt hungry and cold all the time, and struggled with not gaining weight despite not eating all that much. I switched to a higher-fat diet (added in "healthy" fats like olive oil, cut out some simple carbs), and felt less hungry and was able to maintain my weight but not lose weight. Three years ago, I finally switched to a very low carb and high fat diet. On this diet, I find it much much easier to stay near my goal weight, and I am not at all hungry. I add butter or heavy cream to almost everything. I am *definitely* eating more calories than I used to eat (at least 25% more). With keto, I don't feel hungry until after noon, so I usually do intermittent fasting too (I don't eat anything except coffee with heavy cream until noon, and then pack my eating into an eight-hour window from noon until 8pm). When I'm cooking for myself, I tend to eat a lot of low-carb vegetables (with lots of butter, cheese, and protein), but my husband and I have had to eat out reasonably frequently this year (for reasons not relevant to this post), often at McDonalds or similar quality places, and I usually get several bunless burgers with cheese and bacon ("dirty keto"). It doesn't "feel" healthy, but it also doesn't negatively affect my weight. My bloodwork is fantastic. It's pretty clear to me that I do significantly better on a lower-carb high-fat diet, that carbs lead to weight gain for me, and that how "healthy" or organic or whatever the components are is significantly less important than the macros that they comprise.

What I'm trying to say is that weight is pretty complex, and nutritional thinking in many circles seems to be moving away from the CICO ("calories in, calories out") school of thought. A calorie isn't a calorie isn't a calorie. One's weight is a result of complex hormonal processes, and has as much to do with when you eat, how quickly it's digested, how much fat it's buffered with, how much insulin it releases, etc., as the number of calories it has. (Professor Ben Bikman's work is a great resource for this - I think this might be his talk where he looks at how ketogenic diets are "calorically inefficient", and thus burn several hundred calories more per day than higher carb diets).

There are a few basic tenets that most diets seem to hold (lower your sugar intake, up your green vegetable intake); however beyond that, nutritional research seems to disagree. I think there's something to the idea that, perhaps for evolutionary reasons, different people do better on different diets. I think many people would do better on diets that lowered their consumption of carbohydrates, but not all. If your goals are weight loss and overall health, it might be an idea to investigate whether there's a way of eating that your body seems to prefer. You could spend a year giving various different ways of eating each a try for a couple of months (maybe: vegan, vegetarian, low-fat, lower-carb/Paleo, keto, and maybe something about timing of eating, so intermittent fasting [eat from noon to 8pm or something]). You can emphasize fresh vegetables and deemphasize meat on all of these diets if you like. Keep a daily log of your weight over each two month trial (paying attention to the big picture trends and not the daily fluctuations), as well as how you feel (energy, alertness, hunger, etc.). If possible, get bloodwork done after each one. Then you'd be in a really good position to determine what works best for you.
posted by ClaireBear at 11:24 AM on July 24, 2020 [5 favorites]

I think you'll get the most bang for your buck by cutting out simple carbs and generally reducing your intake of carbohydrates, and getting more of your caloric intake from vegetables that grow above the ground, meat or meat substitutes, eggs, dairy, and healthy fats like avocado and olive oil. (Fats help keep you full. Don't be afraid of them.)

My husband and I have done Whole30 a couple of times and found that there are a lot of high-calorie, high-carb starchy foods that we eat sort of by default because they're there, like serving a main dish on a bed of mashed potatoes or noodles or having toast on the side with your breakfast, but you don't necessarily need them there.

I'll eat pasta sauce with ground turkey in it over some spiralized zucchini noodles, for instance, which is almost as satisfying to me as eating it on pasta but saves a couple of hundred calories and tons of grams of carbohydrates.

(I think Whole30 is full of BS in a lot of ways, but you might enjoy trying it if you're trying to reset your eating habits and style. It's kind of super-Paleo, no grains/sugar/alcohol/dairy/various other things for 30 days straight, with gradual reintroduction of each at the end of the month.)

I also recommend food logging using an app like Lose It! or MyFitnessPal. You don't even necessarily need to set a weight loss goal, but entering foods and keeping an eye on the stats will really give you perspective on how many empty calories some foods have.

Specific ideas for fresh/light meals:

Roasted veggies, particularly broccoli/cauliflower/Brussels sprouts. mmascolino has good instructions. I usually roast mine at 450 for 20 mins, and my secrets to making them extra-crispy and delicious are to cut them in smaller pieces than you think you need (the sprouts are great shredded almost like coleslaw), dry them well before tossing with oil, and sprinkle on a tiny bit of sugar before roasting and a squeeze of lemon juice after.

Pan-fried or roasted steak or chicken, just served with salt and pepper and a side salad. Rotisserie chicken is great if you don't feel like roasting one yourself, and you can simmer the carcass with some carrots/celery/onions to make chicken broth, which you can then use to make a nice pureed vegetable soup or chicken noodle soup.

"Salads" with no lettuce can be nice and light and really satisfying. Whole grains, chickpeas, roasted carrot, eggplant, or zucchini cubes, etc. dressed with a fresh lemon juice vinaigrette and plenty of fresh herbs, and mixed with stuff to give it crunch or salt or heft, like raw bell peppers or celery, finely diced red onions, fresh corn cut off the cob, pumpkin seeds, feta cheese, capers, diced hard-boiled egg or bacon bits, and plenty of fresh herbs like cilantro, basil, or flatleaf parsley. Or insalata caprese.

I was on a mason jar salad kick for a while, mainly stopped because I ran out of time and fridge space, but for a while I was making a batch of them on Sunday evening for the work week and then eating one for breakfast every day. I'm not a big fan of sad limp salads made of spring mix drenched in globs of creamy dressing with big hard croutons, but I adore salads where I can put all my favorite toppings in them, and have them immediately ready to eat without tedious assembly at mealtime. You put the dressing in the bottom of the jar (I usually put vinaigrette; my husband has been making buttermilk ranch dressing from scratch that is phenomenal) and put your crunchy, non-wilting ingredients at the bottom as well--bell peppers, nuts and seeds, cucumbers, carrots, edamame, fresh corn, beets, hard fruits (I would put apples in the bottom and if covered in dressing they don't get brown)--then layer on stuff like cheese and avocados and hard-boiled eggs and grilled chicken, and put the lettuce on as the top layer, and store the whole thing upright in your fridge. At mealtime, you shake up the jar and dump it in a bowl, and it comes out fresh and crisp and evenly dressed. Cutting your veggies and lettuce into quite small pieces really helps with mixing the flavors and making the salad enjoyable.

Shakshuka (eggs poached in a spicy tomato sauce) or other tomato + egg dishes like Chinese scrambled eggs with tomato, or uova in purgatorio, even egg curry.

On hot summer nights, sometimes we've enjoyed just making dinner out of a snack tray/charcuterie board with high-quality sliced cheeses and cured meats, plus maybe some slices of fruit like cantaloupe or pears or apples to go with them, and carrot and celery sticks and raw broccoli or cauliflower or cucumber, plus hummus for dipping. Bread or crackers if you must, but they add a lot of empty calories and are kind of a topping conveyance vehicle, so why not swap them out?

Ottolenghi's turkey burger recipe is so dang good. Don't skip the lemony yogurt sauce. I make these meatball-sized.
posted by music for skeletons at 11:39 AM on July 24, 2020 [2 favorites]

Eat fresh meat and poultry and cook sides that come from the ground -- potatoes, beans rice, fresh veg. Three healthy meals a day with no snacks or alcohol and you're probably going to lose weight.

Think about cooking from scratch and keep it simple.

Research the traditional French diet and follow something similar -- fresh food with two or three meals per day, no snacks, and no seconds. The Mediterranean diet is also a good model.
posted by loveandhappiness at 3:23 PM on July 24, 2020

- Yogurt with nuts, seeds, fruits, jellies, honey, maple syrup, granola in just about any combination is delicious. You can find your own high-protein/ low-sugar sweet spot.

- Having a rice cooker makes it super easy to make one of the most satisfying clean breakfasts I know: Rice with over-easy eggs on it. Tamari and Sri Racha to taste.

- Rice, yogurt, soft-boiled egg, pickled beet, and salt is one of my favorite meals.

Everything else I love is basically butter with a side of carbs.
posted by droomoord at 3:41 PM on July 24, 2020

Citrus marinades for pork or chicken are delicious - Orange, lemon, or lime juice with oil, salt, pepper. If you marinate it for at least 6 hours the cooked meat really tastes of citrus and more "fresh".

Fresh salads or sides often have cucumber, tomato, or other "juicy" veggies and fruit. Adding a little salt to these veggies makes the taste amazing. Maybe caprese salad with fresh mozzarella?

All veggies are better fresher. Do you have access to a farmers market, farm share, produce box service, community garden, or neighbor with a garden? A produce delivery (with quality level that is miles better than the grocery store) really increased the amount and variety of the veggies I eat.

Hummus and pesto are so easy to make at home and taste much better than store bought. You can control the amount of oil and spices, so it's very customizable.
posted by Red Desk at 12:56 AM on July 25, 2020

The best way for me to eat healthier is to reduce the foods that are unhealthy - pre-prepared/processed foods use unhealthy oils and a lot of hidden sugar and salt. Bacon and cured meats are bad for you. It's good to reduce red meat, specifically. Sugar is truly horrible for you. I hate the term plant-based, because a lot of not great food is plant-based, like white flour. Reduce portion sizes of starches, and substitute brown rice, maybe whole wheat pasta, which I like.

I sometimes forget frozen veg., but they are cheaper and so easy, esp. in winter. For roast vegetables, frozen can be great. Use good olive oil. Roast cauliflower with hot sauce (Buffalo cauliflower), roasted Brussels sprouts with pancetta, topped with Balsamic vinegar, roasted butternut squash. When I eat sausage, bacon, pancetta, it's usually in small quantity with a ton of veg, where it gives great flavor.

Mark Bittman is a terrific food writer who has tons of recipes that treat vegetables as the star. Read a bunch of cookbooks that prioritize delicious vegetables. Alice Waters, Moosewood, Vegetarian Epicure for inspiration.

Plan your meals, and plan the veg. 1st, or at least make the veg. central. Grill a small cut of steak and have it over a big Caesar(or other) salad with avocado and croutons. You can make a simple, tasty salad of grated carrots and hummus. Make a bunch of corn on the cob and a couple of flavored plant butters - chili & lime, basil pesto, cilantro. In Greece, Greek salad is not tossed, but beautifully arranged on a plate - tomatoes, cucumbers, onion, Greek olives, with lots of olive oil, maybe a little vinegar and herbs, and some good bread. Stir-fry - saute onions, cabbage and maybe broccoli, and saute some shaved beef, add an Asian sauce, probably serve with some brown rice. There are a lot of prepared sauces for stirfries, but you can also use soy sauce, garlic, ginger, a little bit of brown sugar, and corn starch to make a basic Asian sauce for stir-fry. I love yellow summer squash, and it's great for stirfries usually with chicken.

Eat healthy is a broad goal. To be more specific, try to adopt 1 new vegetable-centric recipe every week, and have a couple meatless meals. As you find the vegetables and recipes you love, it gets easier.
posted by theora55 at 10:00 AM on July 25, 2020 [1 favorite]

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