Everybody loves a good hack. If there’s a way to make our job, our pastime, or a chore easier, faster, simpler, or more effective, we’re all ears. Now that we’re all trying to eat healthier, cleaner, and more plant-based, there’s no shortage of home-grown hacks for squeezing the most nutrition out of every morsel.
Here are some of our favorite ways to make every meal healthier. Read on, and for more, don’t miss Want a Lean Body for Good? Adopt These 8 Eating Habits.
Frozen family-sized meals have a bad reputation for being high in sodium. But you can boost their nutritional value to make them much healthier. “My favorite way to add more nutrients to meals while also considering the convenience factor is to use frozen family-size meals that include a protein source, vegetable, and sauce and add an additional bag of vegetables only to the mix when preparing them,” says registered dietitian nutritionist Kiran Campbell, RDN. “This helps dilute the amount of sodium and fat compared to if you would’ve left out the extra veggies. It adds valuable nutrients and most likely an additional serving of vegetables into your day.”
Make a frozen family-sized meal healthier.
Iron is under-consumed by adolescent girls and women through middle age. “If you don’t want to eat meat, which is an excellent source of iron, there are plant-based sources, including fortified breakfast cereals, enriched bread, leafy greens, tofu, beans, and lentils,” says Jill Weisenberger, MS, RDN, CDCES, creator of The Prediabetes Meal Planning Crash Course. “But plant-based iron is poorly absorbed without vitamin C, so combine fortified cereal with berries, chickpea salad with tomatoes and bell peppers, and leafy greens with lemon juice.”
Make a green garden salad even more nutritious by adding cold pasta or potatoes. When cooked pasta and potatoes are allowed to cool, they turn into resistant starch. This kind of starch acts like soluble fiber; it resists digestion. In turn, it can reduce appetite and lower blood sugar levels, improving insulin sensitivity. Because it is fermented in the colon, resistant starch is a pre-biotic, feeding the good bacteria in the gut and potentially improving immune system health. Read more about resistant starch by checking out The Secret Breakfast Trick for a Flat Belly.
Next time you build a garden salad full of raw carrots, orange bell peppers, and tomatoes, slice up a hard-boiled egg to toss on top. Adding cooked eggs to salads helps your body absorb carotenoids like carotene and lycopene found in raw vegetables that have red, orange, and yellow pigments, according to a small study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The phytonutrients in those colorful vegetables are powerful anti-inflammatories. To get the most benefit be sure to include the egg yolks, which contain the fats that help your gut absorb those carotenoids.
Pair plant-based iron sources with vitamin C.
Garlic has been studied for its role in preventing colon and stomach cancers. Breaking the garlic apart activates its natural disease-fighting phytonutrients. Unfortunately, heat instantly deactivates those phytonutrients. To preserve garlic’s powerful health boosters, do this, says Weisenberger: “Chop it, then let it rest for about 10 minutes before heating. Allowing the chopped or crushed garlic to sit for as little as 10 minutes at room temperature gives an important enzyme time to act and preserve its phytonutrients.”
Pumpkin puree can be used in a wide variety of baked goods in place of cooking oil, and you’ll gain the benefit of pumpkin’s nutrients, such as vitamins A, B1, B6, and C, folate, fiber, plus blood pressure-lowering potassium and magnesium. Replace ¼ cup oil with ¼ cup pumpkin in recipes—since pumpkin has a high water content it contributes a lot of moisture to baked goods, so you’ll still get a super moist texture with less oil,” says registered dietitian nutritionist Maggie Michalczyk, RDN, owner of Once Upon A Pumpkin.
Add leftover cold pasta and potatoes to a green salad.
Put almond slivers or slices in a sealable container on your kitchen table for easy access. Spoon some over hot or cold cereal, yogurt cottage cheese, garden salads, or into smoothies. An ounce of almonds contains 6 grams of protein, plus some heart-healthy monounsaturated fats and fiber.
Adding blueberries to your meals is one of the tastiest ways to increase the nutrients you’re getting and their benefits in every bite. “Research shows that blueberries can potentially increase serotonin levels, the so-called ‘happiness hormone’ in the brain and can reduce inflammation caused by free radicals,” says Uma Nadu, MD, director of Nutritional and Lifestyle Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital and author of This is Your Brain on Food. Nadu’s go-to breakfast is a creamy chia pudding, which she makes with almond milk the night before to make her morning routine easier. “In the morning, I top it with plain coconut yogurt, crushed hazelnuts, and a handful of blueberries.”
Instead of cooking more vegetables, add them to the foods you’re already eating, suggests Weisenberger: “Stuff a sandwich like it’s a salad between two pieces of bread. Pour jarred salsa over your eggs. Bulk up spaghetti sauce with mushrooms, onions, and carrots. Fill out potato salad with broccoli florets, cherry tomatoes, and red onions. Wilt fresh baby spinach in soups just before serving.”
“One of my favorite ways to make baked goods more nutritious with an incredible texture is by using almond flour,” says Michalczyk. “Almond flour is naturally gluten-free and contains a unique combination of plant-based protein, fiber, and fats.” Almonds also provide about 50% of the daily recommended value of vitamin E, an antioxidant that helps keep skin healthy-looking, Michalczyk says.
You can adultify a classic grilled cheese sandwich by putting some healthier additions between the cheese and bread before grilling. Add apple slices, broccoli florets, tomato slices, or spinach leaves for more fiber and vitamins A and C. For healthy fats, add slices of avocado.
When you cut fruits and vegetables, you expose more surface area to the air, which reduces the nutrient content by the minute due to oxidation, says Campbell. It’s better to wait until the last second to cut your fruits and vegetables to prevent the loss of vitamins (especially vitamin C) and minerals. “To avoid loss of nutrients in vegetables when cooking use quick cook methods such as stir-frying or even microwave steaming,” Campbell says. “I often cook my broccoli in the microwave with a little water to help preserve the most nutrients in them.”