You know an apple is a healthier snack than a candy bar, but how do you make the big changes and eat real food all the time? Start here with these ten easy and delicious rules.
By Lindsay Funston and Emma Haak
1. Rule #1: Eat Two Pounds Of Vegetables
Every single day. "Loading your diet with vegetables will naturally crowd out things you shouldn't be eating," says Joel Fuhrman, MD, author of Eat to Live Cookbook, who recommends this amount after analyzing studies connecting vegetable consumption with overall health. Aim for one pound raw and one pound cooked: Certain cancer-fighting compounds in some vegetables, like broccoli, cabbage, and kale, are better absorbed raw, while cooking others (carrots, sweet corn) can boost their levels of antioxidants. Though two pounds might sound like a lot, a single sweet potato can get you a quarter of the way there. "You don't necessarily need to measure your food; just use this figure as a reminder to eat a hefty amount of veggies every day," Fuhrman says. "Work in cooked greens and interesting stir-fries, and you're set."
Rule #2: Put An Egg On It
So long as you have eggs in the refrigerator, you can throw together a healthy dinner in the same amount of time you'd need to order takeout. You can top a pita with a baked (or fried) egg and some cheese (see recipe below) or add an egg to a bowl of rice, dressed salad greens, or cooked vegetables.
Get the recipe: Egg-Topped Pita Pizza
Rule #3: Sub In Seeds
These oft-forgotten all-stars come packed with key nutrients we all need: protein, healthy fats, and essential fatty acids. Toss a handful of hempseeds into the blender when making a smoothie, sprinkle chia seeds or flaxseeds on top of oatmeal, or swap sunflower or pumpkin seeds wherever you usually use nuts, like in this winter pesto, which tastes delicious spread on a sandwich or drizzled over roasted squash.
Get the recipe: Spinach-Pepita Pesto
Rule #4: Make Your Own Junk Food
Sure, there are moments when no one can come between you and your potato chips. Which is why banning them isn't the goal -- it's making them at home. "Junk food is wonderful," says Michael Pollan, author of Cooked. "But it's become so cheap that we eat it too often. When we used to have to make it ourselves -- and a long time ago we did! -- there was a built-in check on overconsumption." Take French fries: You peel the potatoes, cut them into matchsticks, fry them in oil, and make a mess in your kitchen while you're at it. If you decide to go the DIY route, says Pollan, "you will not do that more than once a month -- I promise you."
Processed Food 101
Eating more real food doesn't mean avoiding all packaged goods. While anything that comes in a sealed bag or a box is "processed" to some degree (the term simply refers to food that's been changed from its original state), not all packaging automatically indicates a dietary no-no. Here's what to look for.
Washed greens, sliced vegetables, and roasted nuts: They're minimally processed, simply prepped for convenience. Packaged at their peak (to lock in flavor and nutrition), canned beans and tomatoes and frozen produce are also fine choices. But you don't have to limit yourself to these. The real trick is reading labels: "If you recognize most ingredients as food," says Darya Pino Rose, PhD, author of Foodist, "or what comes from the ground or an animal, you're in good shape."
Packaged foods with unpronounceable ingredients and processed with added sweeteners, oils, and preservatives to boost flavor and texture or extend shelf life. A few major culprits: chips, crackers, and microwavable meals you find in the freezer aisle. Says Rose: "If it's frozen with a lot of ingredients, you're shopping in the wrong section."
Rule #5: Prep Breakfast
"If you feel overwhelmed by the transition to eating more real food, just start with breakfast," says Lisa Leake, blogger at 100DaysofRealFood.com, who challenged herself and her family to avoid highly processed food and has never looked back. "Most of us eat the same thing in the morning, so changing this one meal can have a big impact." Follow Leake's lead and carve out time on Sundays to make a week's worth of breakfasts, like these parfaits. Assemble the yogurt and fruit and store the parfaits in individual jars, one for each day of the week, in the refrigerator. Top with granola when you're ready to eat.
Get the recipe: Maple Granola and Yogurt Parfaits
Rule #6: Build Your Bases
Make your life easier by preparing batches of foods you can combine into multiple meals. Start with a pot of grains or beans -- or both -- every week. "A pound of dried beans costs about $1. Once they're cooked, it's a snap to add them to any soup or salad," says Mark Bittman, New York Times food columnist and author of VB6 and the forthcoming VB6 Cookbook. Apply this strategy to roasted vegetables (broccoli, butternut squash) and dressed hardier greens (kale, Swiss chard). "Don't roast just two sweet potatoes; roast six," he says. "The more you cook and have stuff around, the less you'll depend on junk." Start with these fridge-friendly staples.
In a large bowl, combine 2 stemmed, chopped bunches of Tuscan or lacinato kale (2 pounds), 1 Tbsp. olive oil, and the zest and juice of 1 lemon. Season with pepper and massage until softened, 5 minutes. When ready to eat, salt to taste. Makes about 10 cups.
Preheat oven to 400°. Prick 6 medium sweet potatoes with a fork. Transfer to a baking sheet and roast until tender, 45 to 60 minutes.
In a food processor fitted with a metal blade, add ½ cup roughly chopped flat-leaf parsley, ½ cup tahini, 6 roughly chopped scallions, 2 cloves garlic, the zest and juice of 2 lemons, 2 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar, ½ tsp. salt, and ½ tsp. pepper and pulse to combine. With the motor running, add 1/3 cup olive oil in a thin stream until combined. Makes 1 cup.
In a medium pot, combine 3 cups water, 1 cup rinsed farro, and ¼ tsp. salt. Cover and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer until tender, 35 to 40 minutes. Drain excess water. Makes 3 cups.
Store each base in an airtight container in the refrigerator up to a week and reheat as needed.
Mix and Match Your Make-Aheads
Tacos: Whole wheat tortilla + Sweet potato mashed with spoonful of plain yogurt + Dressed kale + Sliced avocado
Kale Salad: Dressed kale + Herb-tahini dressing + Cooked farro + Kalamata olives + Thinly sliced cucumber
Winter Farro: Cooked farro + Dressed kale + Shaved Parmesan + Toasted walnuts + Golden raisins
Topped Sweet Potato: Split-open baked sweet potato + Cooked faro + Shredded rotisserie chicken + Herb-tahini dressing
Rule #7: Eat a Vegan Lunch
Each year, the average American consumes 175 pounds of meat and poultry, almost double the global average. Eating less red meat may do you a favor: It can lower your risk of cancer and heart disease. "Learn to love big heaps of vegetables," Bittman says, "and pile them on until you're more than satisfied." To achieve that feeling, try meatless proteins, such as lentils, edamame (see the Soba Noodle Bowl, below), and tofu ("so underappreciated; it's a blank slate you can do a lot with," he says). "Head to a place with options, like a salad bar, and experiment."
Get the recipe: Soba Noodle Bowl
Rule #8: Ditch the Whites
The milling process strips the grains of most of their nutrition. The result: "White flour digests in your body rapidly, which makes blood sugar spike," says Foodist author Rose. (Cue the almost inevitable crash.) "It should be a supplement to your diet, not the main event." Try more-nutritious flours, like almond, coconut, and chickpea. One easy way to start: Substitute white whole wheat flour for 1/3 cup (or more) of the white flour in recipes.
Research suggests that sugar can be addictive. And it's a sneaky ingredient added to processed foods that don't even taste sweet, like bread and pasta sauce. Reach for organic honey or maple syrup instead; they're less refined and offer small amounts of antioxidants. (Still, aim for no more than 24 grams of added sugar per day.) Steer clear of foods with sugar listed among the first three ingredients -- and that includes agave nectar, evaporated cane juice, malt syrup, and anything ending in "-ose." ("There are 1,001 code names!" warns Rose.)
Rule #9: Go with the Grains
"Ancient varieties are super-nutrient-rich and offer long-lasting energy," says Mollie Katzen, author of the cookbook The Heart of the Plate. And it doesn't take much for quinoa, amaranth, and spelt to go beyond ho-hum: "Once you add sautéed garlic or scallions, they come to life." These staples also add texture and heft when stirred into soups and stews and sprinkled on salad greens. Here are five ways to cook supergrains in less than 30 minutes.
Rule #10: Don't Ban Dessert
"You can totally build dessert into healthy eating," says Ellie Krieger, host of the Food Network show Healthy Appetite. "If you say, 'I'm never having it,' you give all things sweet an enticing, forbidden-fruit aura. When you inevitably give in, it becomes a mindless munchfest." Reach for better-for-you desserts like this clever chocolate pudding, made creamy by its secret ingredient: avocado.
Get the recipe: Chocolate Avocado Pudding