Something I hear all the time from my clients and in everyday conversations with friends and family members is that healthy food just doesn’t taste good. I’m sorry, but I don’t agree. There’s no reason the nutritious stuff has to be bland and boring!
I think a major reason this misconception even exists is because people grow accustomed to eating a certain way over time. For example, if someone grows up in a household that only serves steamed vegetables without any seasoning whatsoever, it’s not really that surprising when vegetables seem disgusting to this person as an adult. It’s all they know, and they’re kind of right. Take my mom, for instance. She says she hates Brussels sprouts, and it’s because she was forced to eat plain boiled ones as a child. My mom actually used to wait until my grandmother would turn her back (poor Yiayia), and then she’d throw the Brussels sprouts behind the fridge! I know little ones can get picky with their veggies, but I’m willing to bet that if those Brussels sprouts were spruced up a little, they wouldn’t have seemed so nasty, at least as my mom and her siblings grew up a little. For the record, after all these years, I think this recipe is helping my mom overcome her Brussels sprouts aversion!
On the flip side, when people grow up eating a lot of processed food, all of the hidden additives and added sugars have probably messed with their palate over the years. I know during times in my life when I’m not prioritizing protein and veggies as much as I normally do, I end up craving more sugar overall. Choosing the clean stuff then becomes increasingly difficult! For example, I recently had a weekend full of Cinco de Mayo celebrations that included a lot of margaritas and tacos, followed by my childhood best friend’s wedding with lots of passed apps, drinks, and late night snacks. No biggie, but come Sunday night, greens were the last thing I felt like eating. All I wanted was a giant pizza! With this in mind, think about how someone’s taste buds and cravings are when growing up in a household of only pastas, potatoes, breads, and sweets. Of course the fresh stuff tastes dull in comparison!
There are definitely ways to retrain our taste buds by cutting back on the packaged and processed stuff, but this sometimes then leads to yet another big reason for why I believe the nutritious food tastes terrible myth is out there. In general, many people view health as being very black and white. We’re either on the wagon or we’re off the wagon, right? We’re either doing sooooo good and not letting ourselves “cheat” even a single bit or we cave into some ice cream and automatically become failures. When people have the mentality that a grey middle area doesn’t exist, and they decide they want to make a change to eat healthier, what happens? Everyone turns to boring old lettuce salads for lunch and a plain grilled chicken breast with steamed veggies for dinner. And now we are back to the steamed Brussels sprouts. It’s no wonder so many people think that healthy food tastes like cardboard!
Today I want to drive home that in order to maintain a healthy way of eating for the long haul, you HAVE to make or eat food that excites you. And yes, of course we get excited for cookies and chips and salsa and all the fun stuff in moderation, but we need to make sure we’re excited for the nutritious stuff too.
Since I love food so much and am so passionate about dispelling the myth that all healthy stuff has to taste like crap, I want to provide you some of my best strategies for making healthy food taste better. I recently developed a model called The Spruce Method, and I want you guys to really get to know this one and remember it! The acronym SPRUCE stands for six things I think are so important when it comes to enhancing, or sprucing up (get it?!), the satisfaction factor in your food choices to ensure your dietary choices are sustainable for the long haul.
The Spruce Method: Six Ways to Make Healthy Food Taste Better
S – Season often
This one is SO important you guys. Season, season, season! Tim has The Food Network on 24-7 in our house, and something that I always hear the chefs say is to season at every step. Adding salt to your food is one of the most basic seasoning techniques. It brings out the flavor of whatever you are eating, and without it, I have one word for you: bland. For the sodium conscious, I’m not saying to go crazy with the salt, but when you focus on making and eating real and whole foods instead of buying the packaged stuff (even the stuff that says low-sodium on it), your sodium intake will actually drop pretty drastically. Besides salt, I also recommend using fresh, ground black pepper to simply add more to the dish and perk your taste buds right up.
Take the simple example of a tomato, for instance. Adding salt to a tomato takes two seconds, but it can be a huge game changer for how tomatoes taste in a salad or in a morning egg bake. Another example for when you should season often is in stir fries: not only should you season chicken, fish, or steak before they go in the pan, but you should season your veggies as they are sautéing as well. Taste as you go is a great rule of thumb!
P – Play up fresh herbs
This one is along the same lines as seasoning often, but using fresh herbs in our home cooking has been life changing. I’d say that Tim and I didn’t really embrace fresh herbs until we participated in a CSA for the past few years and learned how to use them properly. Dried herbs definitely have their time and place, and a good rule of thumb is to remember that dried herbs are better used at the beginning of the cooking process. For example, use dried herbs to season a piece of meat or veggies or to flavor something that is meant to cook for a long time, such as tomato sauce or something in the crock pot. Fresh herbs, on the other hand, are best utilized at the end of the cooking process because that’s where they will add a lot of that extra flavor. For example, maybe you top butternut squash soup with fresh sage, a piece of fish with fresh parsley, or mix in fresh mint during the final steps of putting together a summer salad.
I’m the first to admit that fresh herbs can be more expensive and less convenient than using dried herbs because they take time to chop up, but this is one of those situations where you just have to ask yourself what your priority is. If it’s to save time and money, maybe fresh herbs aren’t for you. However, if enhancing the flavor of your food is important to you, spending a few extra bucks and minutes on the fresh stuff can go a long way. Try hitting up some local farmer’s markets this summer where you can often get the good stuff for much cheaper than in the grocery store. I also recently learned that there are frozen herbs that act like fresh herbs which might help make the process easier for some of you!
R – Realize fat won’t make you fat
I love this one because fat gets such a bad rap, but it’s important to realize that eating fat will not make you fat. In fact, incorporating healthy and yummy fats such as yogurt, cottage cheese, avocado, and nuts into your diet not only brings about a bunch of health benefits, but it can help you stay satisfied for longer periods of time. Fat also tastes really good, doesn’t it? Often times people opt for the fat-free, light, or low-fat versions of things, but sometimes this can end up in 1) something that tastes really bland because it’s nowhere near the real thing (have you ever tasted a fat-free cheese stick?! BLEH!), or 2) something with a lot of added sugar or chemicals to make up for the taste difference. The same reasoning can be applied to something that’s low-calorie instead of just reaching for the higher calorie option. Of course you don’t want to go crazy with this and gorge on peanut butter, but just keep in mind you’ll be more successful with nutrition long-term when your choices truly satisfy you and subsequently keep your cravings at bay.
Along the same lines, don’t be afraid to cook something fatty! For example, I don’t love chicken breast that much unless it’s shredded up or diced in really small pieces, so I will often opt for chicken thighs instead of chicken breast despite the higher fat content. I’m simply more likely to eat a full serving of chicken thighs for dinner as opposed to trying to force the chicken breast, which results in me just pushing the pieces around on my plate. I’m still getting the protein, I look forward to eating it, I finish my meal, and I’m not hungry later. Satisfaction factor on point.
U – Up the acid
Lemons and limes are two items that often make an appearance on our grocery list because adding acidic elements to your cooking can really help brighten the flavors of a meal or assist with cutting through dishes that do have more fat in them. If something already has enough salt, but still falls a little flat with taste, it likely needs a more acidic component. There are two main ways to add acidity to a dish: either with a squeeze of citrus or with a vinegar. One of my favorite ways to add an acidic related satisfaction factor to my meals is to have pickled red onions on hand. They add so much flavor, make my meals so much more enjoyable, and are seriously so easy to make. Just slice up a red onion, put the onion slices in a pot, and add 1/4 cup red wine vinegar, 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar, a heavy pinch of salt, and 1 tbsp of honey. Cover, bring to a boil, and then remove from heat and leave covered for ten minutes.
C – Cut the perfectionism
Instead of focusing on perfectionism, just focus on doing your best. Remind yourself that one less than perfect meal is not going to make or break your physique, and eating “perfectly” at every meal is impossible to do forever. Instead of focusing on perfectionism, which tends to undermine the things we’ve actually done well, just focus on doing your best. For example, if you prefer to put a little butter on your vegetables because it’s what helps you eat your veggies, do it. If adding a sprinkle of cheese or incorporating something with crunch to your salads helps you choose a salad over something more processed for lunch, do it. If having a piece of multigrain toast in the morning helps you not eat an entire box of crackers at night, do it. In the grand scheme of things, some crumbled feta or a moderate amount of butter are just small pebbles in comparison to some of the bigger rocks to navigate when it comes to nutrition. And trust me, if you deprive yourself from the pebbles that make the healthy stuff taste better to you, you will be more likely to overeat later because you will feel deprived. If you find yourself stressing about these things, think back to this part of the SPRUCE model and remember that you should always try to navigate food in a way that is not only healthy, but sustainable for YOU.
Loaded chicken, black bean, and veggie casserole (topped with cheese!)
E – Educate and enjoy
Two E’s for this one! First up is educate. I used to know someone who had a go to response of “Oh no, I could NEVER eat that” whenever I made a nutrition related suggestion to her. Well, my response to this auto-pilot response is, why not? Be open-minded to educating yourself about new ways of doing things. For example, if you grew up hating Brussels sprouts like my mom, be open to new ways of trying them such as roasting them in the oven after seasoning with salt and pepper and drizzling with olive oil. If someone mentions a leafy green, don’t just say “I don’t like greens” because there’s likely a way that you can make them more enjoyable for yourself. Educate yourself on how to cook the bitterness out of collard greens (pair with something on the fattier side like ground beef or chicken thighs) or prepare kale so it doesn’t suck (massage with a little olive oil or lemon juice). Don’t be afraid to ask questions at the grocery store or to your waiter when out to dinner. Tim and I ask questions when we are out to eat all the time so then we can try to incorporate different cooking techniques at home. If you still don’t like something after trying to work with it, so be it, but at least you gave it a shot.
Don’t worry so much about making mistakes in the kitchen as you trial and error things (some of the most famous foods out there were discovered by mistake!). The point is to find what works for you so you can figure out how to ultimately enhance the flavor of what you eat, and there’s really no right or wrong. For example, I have a friend who doesn’t love greens but does enjoy salad when it’s topped with tomato sauce. That works for her, so why the hell not? The second E here is enjoy, and this is what it comes down to at the end of the day. Enjoyment. Of course you have to keep yourself in check and can’t just say that you enjoy eating French fries as justification to eat them every single day, but you know what I mean. If you hate eating carrots, don’t just buy carrots because “they” say the best healthy snack out there is carrots and hummus. Don’t be close minded, but don’t force it either.
I hope that The Spruce Method helps you pinpoint a few new ways to make healthy eating more enjoyable and sustainable for you! Remember that if you dread your food, you’ll never find a way of eating it forever.