I have a master's degree in social work with a specialization in mental health. I enjoy writing on a wide variety of topics.
Live and Learn
Oh boy, now we have to worry about Teflon dangers? It’s amazing to think about how much we’ve learned about leading a healthy lifestyle in the past few decades. For the majority of my childhood, my sister and I rolled freely around the back of our ever-so-stylish Cadillac Seville, seatbelt-less, half of our bodies sticking out the windows trying to avoid the second-hand smoke emanating from my dad’s cigarettes.
We’d go to the grocery store to stock up on our trans fat, saturated fat-laden foods, which would be further drenched in butter or heavy cream-based sauces. We sat out in the backyard during peak sun hours sans sunscreen while my dad grilled burgers with a stogie hanging out of his mouth. The truth is, back then we really didn’t know any better. In many ways, our knowledge of nutrition is still in its infancy and it seems we’re still learning a thing or two every day.
When it comes to cooking, I refuse to substitute good flavor for healthy eating. The good news is the two can still go hand-in-hand. You only need to discover some little tricks of the trade to provide optimally healthy meals that your whole family will still enjoy. As a mother of three picky palates, trust me, I know how to slide in healthy food under the radar.
Healthy eating is not solely about the ingredients, either. How you cook your food can make it or break it in the nutrient department. You may have spent hours scouring cookbooks and researching healthy foods only to squelch your efforts with the methods of cooking you choose.
Some methods zap the vitamins and minerals right out of your well-planned creation, while other methods are cooking up their own little clandestine toxic concoction under your very nose ... I’m not advocating paranoia here, just offering you some prudent tips.
You don’t need to go out and buy ludicrous amounts of cookware and tools to make healthy meals. In fact, I made due very nicely even as a college and graduate student living on the most frugal of budgets. I had maybe three pots and pans, a food processor, and a run-of-the-mill grater. After I had my kids, however, I did invest in some very inexpensive tools to get the most bang for my buck. The following won’t break the bank account but are basic gadgets in order to assist you in preparing any healthy fare.
Healthy Methods of Cooking
- A Stainless Steel Vegetable Steamer
- A Very Efficient Grater/Zester
- A Handheld Immersion Blender
- A Grinder
- A High-Quality Stainless Steel Pan
1. A Stainless Steel Vegetable Steamer
Steaming is bar none the best way to cook vegetables as it doesn’t deplete this wonder food of all of its vitamins and phytochemicals. It also doesn’t affect the integrity of their volatile texture and color. These steamers are easy to find, many grocery stores even carry them for just a few dollars.
The expandable type is the least expensive and does the job beautifully. This is all I’ve ever had and haven’t felt the need to upgrade to a more expensive kind. Just be careful of steam burns when you remove it from the pot.
2. A Very Efficient Grater/Zester
Microplane makes an awesome grater. This gadget is over eight inches long, so minimal effort is necessary to grate cheese, citrus fruits, vegetables, you name it. Trust me, this small investment is worth it not only for the sake of your knuckles but also for sprinkling in nutrient-dense foods. You want a grater that’s capable of very fine grating since you’ll be using freshly grated ingredients instead of butter, salt, heavy creams, and oils.
You’ll be amazed how great some orange zest tastes on chicken, in a salad dressing, or on your favorite veggies. Grating will also help you cut down on certain foods you’re trying to keep at a minimum, like cheese. A fine dusting of parmesan cheese goes a long way. You’ll find if you can grate it very finely, you’ll end up using less. Most pre-grated parmesan cheese isn’t very fine, so it’s easy to dump copious amounts into your food.
3. A Handheld Immersion Blender
This is perhaps my favorite tool for sneaking the almighty vegetable into our family meals. You can blend foods right in your pots, pans, and bowls, or with the provided beaker, which is nice if you hate doing dishes as much as I do. If you’re a frugal gourmet, of course, you can accomplish the same thing with a blender or a food processor. I just enjoy the convenience and ease of the immersion-style blender.
As I mentioned, my kids are vegetable-phobes, so this is bar none the best way to surreptitiously slide in foods they wouldn’t otherwise touch with a 10-foot pole. You can add almost anything to a pasta sauce this way. Just plop in some carrots, multi-colored sweet peppers, zucchini, and fresh basil, wait for the veggies to soften a little, grab your magic wand and puree to your heart’s content.
Your kids will be none the wiser. Let your imagination run wild here. You’d be surprised by what you can sneak into mashed potatoes. I take advantage of nutrient-rich spinach pureed into many of my sauces. My green eggs and ham on Dr. Seuss’s birthday aren’t made with green dye but pureed spinach and eggs. Use your creativity. Vary the speed to get the consistency you want., too. Some things are just better with lumps than others!
4. A Grinder
Get a grinder of some sort, be it electric, manual, or a mortar and pestle, it matters not. But, you need something that efficiently grinds up all those fresh herbs you’re going to be using in your meals. Don’t underestimate the nutritional power punch of these plants. Although they come to us in small doses, many have significant nutritional value.
Although parsley generally resides on our plates as a garnishment, it’s worth a more integral role in our foods. It has more beta carotene than carrots, a significant amount of vitamin A, and even beats oranges in the vitamin C race. Fennel is also a great source of vitamin C as well as valuable amino acids. Marjoram deserves an honorable mention here as well for its vitamins A, C, iron, and calcium.
You’re going to grind up spices and sprinkle them on a wide variety of foods in place of salt, butter, and other fat-laden ingredients you’ve been using to add flavor.
5. A High-Quality Stainless Steel Pan
The jury is still out on the potential danger of cooking with nonstick pans, in particular those with Teflon. The concern is a chemical in Teflon called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) that’s been linked to cancer. Again, solid research has yet to conclude these pans produce enough PFOA to pose a significant health risk, although the EPA calls it a “suggestive human carcinogen”.
So, just to be on the safe side, have a stainless steel pan, too. Avoid cooking with these Teflon pans on extremely high heat for extended periods, too. And if you see your Teflon pan beginning to flake, it’s time to bid it farewell. Teflon dangers are something I can do without.
Summer Barbecues: I’ll Have Some Salmon With a Side of Carcinogens, Please
My husband is a proud graduate of Barbecue University (BBQ U)—the man is obsessed. We used to be grilling fools all summer long, even making homemade pizzas every Friday night on the Weber until I came across some startling news. It turns out that inadvertently turning a steak into a hockey puck (sorry, honey, it’s happened) isn’t the only barbecue hazard. Cooking meats at high temperatures can actually produce cancer-causing chemicals. It’s not just your outdoor grill that’s the problem either; these chemicals are produced anytime “muscle meats” are cooked at extremely high temperatures, like broiling and frying. Amino acids and creatine don’t get along well with each other when it’s hot. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and creatine is a chemical found in muscles. Under intense heat, they react and produce a carcinogenic chemical called heterocyclic amines (HCAs). Research has so far identified 17 of these HCAs that are the by-product of this antagonistic union. The smoke from the grill can introduce even more of these carcinogens into your main course.
If you’re like my husband and summers just aren’t the same without burning (or grilling) your favorite steak, just decrease the frequency of your backyard BBQs. No guidelines have been set forth to assist us here in terms of what’s a safe frequency, unfortunately. According to the National Cancer Institute: “At the moment, no Federal agency monitors the HCA content of cooked meats (how much a person could be eating), there is no good measure of how much HCAs would have to be eaten to increase cancer risk, and there are no guidelines concerning the consumption of foods with HCAs.”
Tips Barbecue University Might Not Have Taught You
We know the temperature, cooking time, type of meat, and cooking method are all players in HCA production. So, slight alterations in any or all of the above can go a long way in protecting you and your family. Here are some tips for grilling meats the healthy way:
- Before you grab your briquettes or fire up the gas grill, take just two minutes to microwave your meat beforehand. Studies show this quick blast in the microwave cuts down on the HCAs by 90%.
- Be a frequent meat flipper, it prevents either side from becoming blistering hot.
- Avoid large cuts of meat, they’ll have to cook longer increasing the HCAs. Cook multiple small pieces if need be, or even skewer little meat niblets.
- Choose the leanest meats you can. Less fat means less dripping and less smoke-producing HCAs. Organ meats like liver have trace amounts of HCAs. According to The Cancer Project, the five worst meats are skinless, boneless, well-done chicken, well-done steak, pork, salmon grilled with the skin on, and well-done hamburger.
- Avoid well-done or medium-well meats. The goal here is to reduce grilling time, so try to shoot for rare to medium rare.
- Replace some of your BBQs with oven roasting, baking, or slow cooking your meat since these are done at lower temperatures.
- Is There an Extra Ingredient in Nonstick Pans? - New York Times
The question of whether Teflon cookware is safe has moved from Web site chatter to the courtroom.
- Chemicals in Meat Cooked at High Temperatures and Cancer Risk - National Cancer Institute
A fact sheet that explains how heterocyclic amines (HCA) are created in meat that is well-done, fried, or barbecued, and how consuming these chemicals is associated with certain types of cancer. National Cancer Institute Fact Sheet 3.25