Cooking for Health

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Mary-Risley Image courtesy of Mary Risley

Now is the time for Americans to STOP denying themselves certain foods and instead concentrate on adding a variety of real foods to our everyday diet. Here are the facts: America is one of the richest countries in the world; most of us are making choices every day about what to eat. The bulk of us do not have to worry that we won't have enough to eat––we are very, very fortunate. And yet, we obsess about what we should and shouldn’t be eating, all supposedly in the name of health.

The truth is that it is a human characteristic to eat a lot when there is plenty. For instance, it has been proven that we are tempted to eat more at a buffet than when a meal is served at the table. This is probably because primitive men (and women) ate as much as they could, when they could, because they didn’t know when they would eat again.

Or maybe our obsession about denying ourselves the pleasures of the table stems from our Puritan background. Throughout America’s history, we have tried to deny ourselves various foods—it is our heritage. I remember the time when people would eat the bread and leave the cheese. Now, people eat the cheese and leave the bread. We have been through the omelet-made-with-only-egg-whites phase. We have been through the scared-of-too-much-salt era. Now, we read that it is the combination of sugar, salt, and fat that is making us obese. And, where do we get the highest combination of these—in prepared and processed foods, of course.

There Are No Bad Foods

Fruit and vegetablesSo, what can we do to help a society that is obsessed with what foods are bad for you? We can help people understand that no foods are bad for you! Our bodies need a wide variety of foods to provide us with balanced nutrition. We need a certain amount of fat, we need salt, and we need calories. Did you know that in medieval times butter and cream were the only source of vitamin A in northern European climates during the winter? Did you know that egg yolks are a good source of essential fatty acids? Did you know that a percentage of our bodies is salt?

If you start with a solid base of nutritious foods, there is room in most people’s diets for splurges like crusty baguettes and 3-egg omelets cooked in butter. Of course, I am not talking about people with serious conditions like gluten-intolerance or diabetes; but the rest of us should learn to relax a bit about our food choices.

To start with, food writer Michael Pollan is absolutely correct when he tells us to shop around the perimeter of the supermarket—that is spending most of our food budget on fresh vegetables and fruits and good dairy and protein sources. Even better––shop at the local farmers market.

Most importantly, learn how to cook these fresh local ingredients at home. This is the most important part. As a nation we need to stop relying on others to do the cooking for us. We need to stop buying already-prepared foods, fast food, and even restaurant food all the time. It is a fallacy that we are too busy to cook. How much time does it take to get in the car to go buy take-out food? Surely, it doesn’t take less time than boiling pasta, making a salad, and serving a fresh fruit dessert. As I have said so many times before, it is pretty easy to cook if you buy a selection of ingredients at the beginning of the week; cook a healthful delicious meal one day, and turn the leftovers into something completely different another day.

More Greens & Grains

Creamy mushroom soupWhat foods should we be adding to our cooking? To start with most of us could benefit from more vegetables, grains, and beans. Here are some ways to integrate these into your diet.

  • My Creamy Mushroom Soup with Beans adds protein and fiber to a classic dish.

  • For vegetable pastas or side dishes, think sweet potato or butternut squash and spinach or kale—there are masses of goodness in yellow and dark green vegetables.

  • When making a soup or risotto-type dish, consider barley, oats, spelt, farro, or wheat berries. These alternative grain dishes can all be made ahead of time whereas risotto has to be made at the last minute.

  • A little cheese helps bring out the nutritional value of dried peas and beans.

  • When planning a dish or a meal, think about adding buttermilk, ricotta, tofu, or nuts for protein—there’s no need to eat meat, chicken, or fish at every meal.

  • Plenty of delicious desserts can be made with seasonal fruits. (A fresh-cooked fruit crisp will keep for a week in the fridge.)

If we cook with good healthful ingredients and add more vegetables, grains, beans, and fruit to our meals, we’ll naturally consume fewer processed foods. Along with keeping active, cooking with whole foods can help keep us healthy. All foods are good for us, especially when they are prepared at home.

And, remember cooking––especially with others—is fun!

Reprinted with permission from Tante Marie’s Cooking School. Mary Risley is the founder of San Francisco’s Tante Marie’s Cooking School and Food Runners, a non-profit that brings food to the needy. Follow her onTwitter @Tantemariesf.


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