I came. I slawed. I concasséd (that’s chef speak for a fancy method of dicing a tomato). And now that I’ve graduated from New York City’s nutrition-driven culinary school, Natural Gourmet Institute, which focuses on food that tastes delicious but also happens to be good for you, I appreciate a healthy cooking trick more than ever. Here are a few of the best ones I picked up during my adventures in dicing and slicing, along with tips from a few of my favorite registered dietitians.
- Put nutritional yeast on everything.
Dare yourself to slip some “nooch” (or hippie Parmesan, as I came to call it) into your meals. This flaky food seasoning has a cheesy taste, so it’s a great way to boost flavor in your dishes, especially if you’re vegan, vegetarian, or trying to cut back on dairy.
It also offers filling protein (3 grams per 20-calorie tablespoon) and a punch of vitamin B12, which is necessary for preventing anemia and maintaining your energy levels by creating red blood cells, and also helps keep your central nervous system healthy.
“Sprinkle nutritional yeast in hummus, grain dishes, soups, and salads for a delicious umami flavor and a hefty dose of bonus nutrition,” Julieanna Hever, M.S., R.D., C.P.T., a plant-based dietitian and author of The Vegiterranean Diet and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Plant-Based Nutrition, tells SELF.
- Marinate your proteins.
Harissa-marinated chicken? Don’t mind if we do. “Marinate your chicken, fish, or meat before grilling it or cooking it at high temperatures,” The Nutrition Twins, Lyssie Lakatos, R.D.N., C.D.N., C.F.T., and Tammy Lakatos Shames, R.D.N., C.D.N., C.F.T., authors of The Nutrition Twins’ Veggie Cure, tell SELF.
It’s a great way to add flavor via a low-calorie cooking method instead of relying on frying or dredging food in some sort of batter. And research suggests using a spice-rich marinade may help reduce heterocyclic amines, carcinogens created when you cook meat at high temperatures, The Nutrition Twins explain.
- Make beans your BFF.
I went to a mainly plant-based culinary school, so it’s no surprise that these fiber and protein powerhouses were a staple in countless curries, soups, veggie burgers, salads, and more. Even if you’re not veg, consider adding more of this great, affordable option to your diet.
Making a creamy broccoli or carrot soup? Swap calorie-spiked cream or dairy for a quarter cup of cooked beans, and puree it in the blender to get that same rich, velvety texture without the excess fat and calories. “You can also try adding pureed beans as an oil substitute to sauces, dressings, and baked goods (like brownies) to increase fiber intake and lower fat content,” Hever says.
- Experiment with herbs.
Before culinary school, my main interaction with herbs was the sadly limp mint plant I stored for about three months too long on my windowsill. Now I slip them into just about everything. “You can add fresh herbs to all types of dishes for a boost of flavor, and you get the benefit of added phytochemicals,” Hever says.
If you have a garden, snip fresh herbs and blend big batches of pesto and sauces to freeze and save. You can also preserve herbs by slipping them into an ice-cube tray filled with butter or olive oil and popping a cube out of the freezer every time you need to enhance a blah soup or stew.
- Sauté smarter.
If I had a dollar for every pan I kinda-almost burned, I’d have enough cash to buy all these incredible kitchen gadgets. Don’t be me.
“[If the pan starts to stick or dry out] when sautéing veggies, rather than adding more oil and extra calories, simply add a splash of water,” The Nutrition Twins say. “It doesn’t add calories but prevents burning and keeps the food moist.” This trick couldn’t be simpler, but I promise it’s game-changing, and it may just save you a pan or two along the way.
- ABS (Always Be Stocking).
This mnemonic came in handy. Basically, use leftovers to make nutrient-dense and tasty stocks that elevate a basic dinner to ready-to-impress status.
“Save your vegetable throwaways, like mushroom and kale stems, carrot tops, and onion scraps to make delicious, basically free vegetable stock,” Hever says. “Once you’ve collected enough, throw them all together in a pot with water and simmer for 45 minutes to an hour.”
It’s beyond easy, and if you want to get really fancy, add some peppercorns, bay leaves, and thyme (or whatever herbs you have on hand) wrapped in a cheesecloth, or tie the herbs with a string like we did in culinary school. In chef’s speak, that last method is called a bouquet garni. You’re going to want to remember to strain the herbs out before you serve (unless you want five points deducted off your midterm, like a certain author of this post…).
- Swap cauliflower for everything.
Well, maybe not chocolate, but this cruciferous veggie makes healthy eating a breeze. “Use cauliflower to lighten up your comfort foods. You can use it for a creamy sauce for mac ‘n’ cheese, in lieu of potatoes in mashed potatoes, and even for pizza crust,” The Nutrition Twins say. “Cauliflower is super low in calories but packed with nutrients. One hundred calories of cauliflower will give you a whopping 12 grams of fiber to beat constipation and bloat.”
- Baking? Add cinnamon.
For our baking exam, we had to make an apple galette, which is a delicious crusty dessert. When you’re up against a crew that’s adorning their pies with dough decals that look like blooming flower petals and birds, it’s easy to feel intimidated. Adding to the challenge: My school banned white sugar.
Thankfully, the fire alarm went off in the middle of our exam and blessed me with an extra week of going home and making, oh, 83 more apple galettes. My secret? Cinnamon. My dessert may not have had any elegant dough ruching, but I’m convinced the addition of this spice is what helped me score a 91 on my baking exam.
Experts agree. “Slash calories when making desserts like pumpkin pie, pecan pie, and apple pie by cutting back on some sugar and adding a little extra cinnamon,” The Nutrition Twins say. “Cinnamon packs a big flavor punch without adding calories, and it also is a powerful anti-inflammatory and rich in antioxidants.” How’s that for the cherry on top?