People ask me for healthy recipes all the time.

(Actually they just ask me about my brownies, but let’s pretend they care about other stuff too…)

They also ask me how I come up with my ideas for healthy recipes.

I’m going to share my secret with you. You will be able to cook delicious, healthy food too.

But first, let’s ask a simple question.

What is healthy food?

I don’t know.

Nobody else knows either.

Healthy food is impossible to define. We have a few clues from looking at the diets of the people who live the longest. It turns out that living a long, happy life is more to do with social support, stress relief, moderation, and very little to do with specific food choices.

That’s not what you want to hear, is it?

You want an exhaustive list of good foods that will make you healthy, just by virtue of eating them regularly. And you want an exhaustive list of bad foods that you must avoid at all costs.

In fact, it would be even better if you knew that everything that isn’t on the good food list was evil, health destroying poison. That way you only have to remember one list.

That makes life simple, doesn’t it?

But there’s a problem with that:

“The root of the problem is in the science of health itself, which has been too reductionist in its approach, attempting to break down the ideal diet into discrete, measurable units. Healthy eating becomes not about food, but about calories, vitamins, minerals, good and bad fats. Similarly, a healthy body is defined by a series of measures: weight, blood pressure, blood cholesterol levels. These numbers are not entirely meaningless: they all correspond to things that matter. The problem is that, in isolation, they tell us very little about what we ought to do as individuals.”

Julian Baggini – New Statesman

How to think about healthy food

I want to give you some basic heuristics that you can take away and apply now.

Actually, I’ve already given you one heuristic: avoid reductionism. Don’t zoom-in on small details taken in isolation. Don’t focus on individual nutrients.

Example. “Wine is healthy because it contains resveratrol…”

The reality? Maybe having a nice glass of wine helps you cope better with stress.

Look at the big picture.

I want you to forget about food completely now, because there is more to health than just nutrition. Let’s zoom back out even more.

Incorporate physical activity into your daily life, build a social support network, manage stress, and create an environment that supports your health. All of these things are at least as important as what you eat.

Exploit asymmetry. This heuristic is very simple: look for small investments with a big payoff and avoid big investments with a small payoff. Be conservative with many things and take risks with only a few things.

The more you restrict your food choices, the greater the risk of disaster due to an error in your dietary model. By investing equally across a variety of foods and consuming them in moderation, there is no single food that can cause significant harm.

You will lose out if you follow a restrictive fad diet and it turns out your list of magic foods is wrong. The likelihood is that you’re missing out on healthy foods rather than avoiding all of the toxic, hormone clogging junk by default.

(Instead of eliminating foods, try to eliminate things from your environment that influence you to make bad food choices.)

Use the 80/20 rule. This states that when looking at an event, 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

Don’t take the 80/20 rule literally, but understand that there you may have a concentration like this, with most of your progress supported by a few important habits and daily actions.

You may, for example, find that 80% of your daily food intake comes from 20% of your available food choices. Identifying those key food choices allows you to focus your efforts and make improvements to the way you eat.

How to eat delicious, healthy food

Now that I’ve told you that we can’t define healthy food, this just becomes how to eat delicious food.

And that’s easy.

Stop blending everything

You’re not a baby. You can and should be eating solid food, unless you can’t for legitimate medical reasons.

Actually, I’ll allow you to use your blender if you promise not to make any more raw vegetable smoothies. Make a soup instead.

If you can’t make a soup…

Learn how to cook

If you don’t know how to cook any food, how are you supposed to cook healthy food?

You need to learn basic skills. Stop trying to make protein muffins if you can’t cook a steak properly!

Back to the point about blending vegetables, there’s a quick and easy way to cook your vegetables properly. You should be eating plenty of them, make sure they taste good!

You also need equipment:

  1. a good set of pans;
  2. quality kitchen knives;
  3. a solid cutting board (place a damp paper towel underneath to stop it slipping);

And if you’re not sure if your meat is cooked properly, invest in a temperature probe. In general, once your meat reaches 64-66C in the centre, it’s cooked.

Keep your kitchen clean, safe, and logical.

Clean: surface cleanser, cloths, paper towel, and clean hands.

Safe: sharp knives, cutting board, safe technique, a probe to check are cooked, and avoid cross contamination.

Logical: know where things are, know your recipe, and work within your limits.

Add flavour incrementally, it’s much easier to add things in than take them out!

Learn a few basic recipes and master them.

Experiment

Once you’re comfortable with the basics, you can start to tinker. Take the same staple foods that you cook every week, like chicken breast, and find a new and creative way of cooking them. Instead of grilling your chicken plain and trying to rescue it with a sauce, try marinading it first, or even poach it. Or if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, find alternatives to chicken.

Adjust recipes if you don’t like (or can’t eat) a particular ingredient.

A pasta dish calls for mushrooms and you don’t like them?

Leave them out.

A recipe calls for alcohol and your religion doesn’t allow for that?

Use an alternative or just leave it out entirely.

Improving your knowledge of ingredients and nutrition will allow you to make better and more creative choices too.

Example. Replace sweet potatoes with roast butternut squash. They’re slightly lower in carbohydrates and they have a sweet, creamy taste.

If you have specific macronutrient targets to hit, you can adjust recipes to be more accommodating.

Example. A recipe for tagliatelle requires mascarpone cheese for the sauce.  But you can easily replace the mascarpone with Quark cheese to boost the protein and reduce the fat.

 

Take home points:

  1. Don’t obsess about healthy food
  2. Learn the fundamentals of how to cook
  3. Experiment