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Healthy Cookbooks to Start Your New Year Off Right

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We live in scary times. If you look at the statistics, we are in serious trouble when it comes to our health and the environment. With each new form of processed food that is manufactured and marketed to us (25 percent bigger burgers at Wendy's!) we lose a little more of our collective health. We need a dramatic shift in the way we eat if we are to get out of this life alive, so to speak.

People are paralyzed with confusion. On one hand, we have experts telling us to stop eating so much meat, junk and other processed foods. We are told to eat more veggies and fruit. We have a gorgeous and fit first lady working to help us see our way to healthier eating and people like Sarah Palin (also fit, can't deny that one) telling us that we are entitled to s'mores and all the junk we want and no one should tell us otherwise.

What are we to do? Cook, silly.

At a time when everyone is resolving to make 2011 the year they get healthy, slim, fit, make a lighter footprint on the planet, why not do it deliciously by heading back to the kitchen and cooking from scratch. I am not suggesting you bake your own bread (okay, I am, but I know how busy you are), but I am suggesting you re-prioritize your days and find the time, at least a few nights a week to cook dinner. Your life will change. You will feel better, look better, sleep better and handle stress with more grace, in my view. You will find that the time spent in the kitchen becomes your favorite part of the day.

I know that eating has become complicated in our modern life. But it doesn't have to be. We have become reliant on various experts to advise us on our food choices. There is no shortage of opinions on what Americans should be eating. Our heads have been filled with all manner of biochemistry, facts, figures and statistics. Most of us can quote them as surely as our own names. We have become deeply familiar with words like antioxidants, polyphenols, saturated fats, omega-3 and calories, but in all this science, we lost our way to the food and our inherent wisdom about what eating means.

It's as though we don't even see food as food anymore, just the sum of its nutritional parts. We have lost touch with our intuition and fallen victim to the science of nutrition -- and marketing. As soon as we did that; as soon as we lost touch with our intuition, our gut instinct, we became the perfect victims for the biggest con in human history. Marketers, lobbyists and their well-paid experts pounced on our confusion and through the smoke and mirrors of dazzling packaging, check marks, seals of approval and health claims have slowly and consistently robbed us of our health.

The way we eat influences every single aspect of our day. When we respond to certain stimuli, certain feelings or emotions will manifest in us. Think about how you feel when you eat a meal under stress. Now think about how you feel when you eat a relaxed meal. Obvious, right? Think about when you eat and why. Think about how you feel after eating when you have eaten because you are stressed or sad or depressed. Finally, think about how you feel when you eat under happy circumstances. Being mindful allows you to control how you eat and when you control how you eat, it's easy to control what you eat. Fat, sugar and salt addictions are broken. You are free.

In my house, eating is a ritual that we observe with sanctity akin to a religion. I set the table each night, with linens and real dishes and silverware. Please, please get rid of paper plates and use real dishes. Please! I serve the food in beautiful dishes, having cooked what we will need for this meal with perhaps a little left over to give me a start for my next meal preparation. We sit for each meal. It's a celebration of the blessings we have in life; we reconnect at each meal; we talk about our days; we relax.

Now, before you flip out or post a comment, I live a wild and crazy life filled with travel, work, seminars, teaching, community obligations and family, just like you. I don't have help in the house. I cook, clean and take care of my own. I work full time. But I decided long ago that this is how it would be in our house. It's how I grew up. Mealtime was the time of day when we stepped off the carousel of life and decompressed at the table. I work hard to maintain this time in our modern life of distractions and connectedness, but we are the better for it.

Being mindful takes no more effort than it takes to be unconscious. It's not extra work. Mindful living makes everything a bit more meaningful, like being just a little more awake. When we are mindful we are conscious of every breath and thrilled to be alive. We become truly present within ourselves and as a result, for each other. Wouldn't it be nice to lose that desperate distracted quality that has you always just a wee bit lost: looking for your keys, your wallet, exhausted like hamsters on a wheel? We need to cook.

So here it is: My personal list of the healthiest cookbooks to choose, in no particular order. What makes me an expert? Besides years of experience as a chef in the food business, I have authored seven best selling cookbooks and a hold Masters degree in nutrition, my first book, "Cooking the Whole Foods Way" was named as one of the healthiest cookbooks of the decade by Physicians' Committee for Responsible Medicine.

"The Kind Diet" by Alicia Silverstone is a book that is designed to draw everyone in -- from those of us just wanting to sample plant-based eating to Super Heroes, those ready to dive into a vegan lifestyle with both feet into the deep end.

"The Conscious Cook" by Tal Ronnen. Think plant-based eating is boring? This book will bust that myth right quick. With creative, but easy recipes as the foundation, Tal makes meat-free eating deliciously inviting.

"The Engine 2 Diet" by Rip Esselstyn. Based on the diet Rip used to whip his fellow firefighters into shape when he discovered they suffered from an abundance of high cholesterol, high blood pressure and obesity, the recipes in this book use whole grains, nuts, seeds and plant sources of protein to create nutritious meals. Rip and his colleagues never felt or looked better. Can you say calendar-ready?

"Bryant Terry's Vegan Soul Kitchen" by Bryant Terry. Think vegan cooking is too hipster elitist for you? Check out Bryant's book. Comfort food from the south is his specialty, but none of his recipes are heart attacks on a plate. But they are oh, so yummy and familiar.

"Venturesome Vegetarian Cooking" by Jason Hirsch (and his mom, Michelle). This book breaks out of preconceived notions of vegan cooking. Innovative recipes and bold flavors are set against an international backdrop, from Greece to Japan. Packed with advice on making cooking easier, this is simply a collection of amazing recipes that just happen to be vegetarian.

"Get Healthy, Go Vegan" by Neal Barnard, M.D. This easy, accessible and informative cookbook is filled with yummy recipes with a big bonus -- you have all the wisdom of Dr. Barnard's years of research as to the health benefits of a plant-based diet at your fingertips.

And of course, there's always "Cooking the Whole Foods Way" by me. It's an everyday guide to making the change to healthy eating. Really healthy eating, with tips, techniques and guidelines to making a smooth transition with 500 delicious recipes to sweeten the deal.

Type in "vegetarian cookbook" on amazon.com and you will see 2,548 options from which to choose; "vegan cookbooks" yields 1,385 options. That's one search on one site, so you can imagine the options that exist for us to begin our journey to health. And while you may not want to jump in with both feet and go entirely vegan, there are tons of options for dipping your toes into plant-based eating and adding more deliciously healthy recipes to your repertoire.