The way to a healthier you goes directly through the kitchen and yes, it does mean more time spent cooking than it takes to defrost a synthetic pizza in the microwave. If you read this article, I assume you have already realised that, and at this stage are busy looking for some healthy recipes to get you going. “Where can I find healthy recipes” is one of the most common questions I hear, so below you will find a suggested list of cookbooks that deliver both palate joy and bodily health.
What’s a healthy cookbook?
Whichever one you go for, keep your eyes open. Some recipes may be healthier than others, and some may be downright bad for you, even in a book that professes to be a health book. For a recipe to qualify as healthy, it should
- use healthy fats and oils
- include very little added salt and sugar
- be based on pure, unadulterated, healthy ingredients – vegetables, whole grains and flours, pulses, fish, pure meat, fruit (the latter ideally not mixed with the former)
- rely on fresh or minimally processed ingredients
- include small amounts of dairy
- use healthy (or healthier) cooking techniques
Naturally, it should be utterly delicious, because food should be a pleasure and a celebration. I for one love my food, so naturally have been drawn to books written by people who love eating and appreciate looks and taste, yet are careful about what they put into their mouth on a daily basis. So 500ml double cream recipes are out, but you’ll be amazed just how many wonderful recipes can be in.
Far too many diet and weight loss books sell under the disguise of health. Be aware that weight loss diets/books usually have only one thing in mind – calorie content. Yet low calorie (and low fat) does not necessarily imply nutritious, and often it’s quite the opposite. If you eat healthily, the likelihood is you’ll lose weight anyway, so ignore books branded under weight loss, and go for the real thing – a holistically healthy eating (and living) lifestyle.
Can I use some of the books I already own?
If you’re reluctant to invest in yet another cookbook, you can try adapting recipes from the less healthy cookbooks that may have been gathering dust on your kitchen shelves:
- look at the starter, soup, salad and vegetable sections; they are likely to yield healthier choices.
- look for vegetarian, low fat, whole grain, minimum dairy recipes
- Mediterranean, oriental (Asian) and vegetarian/vegan cookbooks potentially offer a larger choice of healthy recipes, but this is by no means true across the board, so check recipes according to the above guidelines.
Adapt recipes as best you can:
- reduce the total amount of oil/fat used
- substitute unhealthy fats with healthy ones as far as possible
- replace white flour with wholemeal or non-wheat flour
- cut down on salt and sugar
- substitute vegetables, pulses (beans and lentils) or tofu for chicken or meat, at least in part
- choose an alternative, healthier cooking method like steaming, sautéing or stir-frying instead of deep-frying, frying or cooking at a high temperature for a long time.
Use your books as an inspiration rather than a dictate; play around with the recipes and experiment until you reach satisfying results.
Glossy chef cookbooks
When it comes to cookbooks, I generally steer clear from the chef variety. The two qualities chefs are not trained for are precisely the ones that I look for in a cookbook – health and practicality. Chefs pride themselves on extravagance, creativity and originality; very rarely does health come into the equation. Even the inimitable (and utterly adorable) Jamie Oliver, the leader of the eat-fresh-and-good-for-you pack, uses far too much white flour, pasta, meat and pancetta to my liking. In addition, chefs often make free use of expensive and rare ingredients, enjoy a team of helpers to do all the chopping up for them and never have to do their own washing up! They own famous restaurants, not your average kitchen where you have to produce – quickly! – two to three meals a day seven days a week, often to the sound of squabbling siblings. Chefs’ books may be nice as coffee table exhibits, for inspiration or for the odd special dinner party. Otherwise, I go for simplicity and practicality, which the books below mostly offer.
Down to earth cookbooks
As you might imagine, I have reviewed many would-be health cookbooks over the years. In the beginning I bought them on the basis of cover promises – big mistake. Many were not at all healthy, some included uninspiring adaptations of common recipes, some were bizarre, and quite a few, I’m afraid, were written by health freaks who I suspect simply didn’t care much about the food that went into their mouth, so long as it was healthy (the grated-carrot-and- sprouted-barley-raw-doughnut type of book).
The cookbooks recommended below have been tested by me for many years. I may not have used each and every recipe, but the results of those that were tried were always good, and I have kept coming back for more. These books have also survived the occasional kitchen shelf clear-out – now that’s a sign of a good cookbook! Here are the qualities they share in common, which are also the ones you should look for in any health cookbook you intend to buy. These books
- offer interesting, often original recipes, not regurgitated versions of well-known recipes; the kind that makes you want to get into the kitchen right away and start experimenting
- use a good variety of grains, pulses, vegetables, fruit and non-meat ingredients to help you expand your cooking vocabulary
- use little dairy, meat/fowl and wheat pasta; you know how to cook these, it’s the other stuff you want to know about.
- contain few recipes based on dough/bread – delicious maybe, but less healthy than other choices you may be less familiar with
- offer for the most part quick, non-complicated dishes
- rely on fresh ingredients rather than popped cans and ready-made sauces
- offer plenty of additional nutritional information and advice on healthy cooking methods and ingredients, to facilitate your acquaintance with the health cuisine.
So here they are, some of my cookbook heroes –
Best all round
“The Fit For Life Cookbook” by Marilyn Diamond (ISBN 0553404067). The Fit for Life dietary plan took the world in a storm in the early 1990’s, and with reason. It offered a permanently healthier way of life instead of a temporary diet, and made for a convincing case. No wonder it still sells, nearly 20 years on. If you want to upgrade your eating style to a healthier one, even on a part-time basis, you’ll find all the reasons – plus recipes – here. The book is full of fascinating information about nutrition and is packed with simple, delicious and fairly original recipes drawn from different world cuisines. It’s also good for family dining, with many child-friendly ideas. No fancy photos, just black and white, let’s-get-down-to-business text. Possibly the most useful and down to earth (vegetarian) cookbook around.
Second best all round
“You Are What You Eat Cookbook” (ISBN 0718147979) probably needs no introduction, as Gillian McKeith is just about everywhere you turn in the UK. Her advice is sensible and would greatly benefit anyone who cares to follow it. Similarly, the cookbook is full of useful, practical and sensible advice. The recipes are top heavy with vegetables, whole grains (many different kinds of them), fruit, pulses and soy foods, with plenty of alternative meal and dish ideas. If you’re a novice to healthy cooking, some of the recipes or ingredients may seem a tad too extreme, but you’ll still find plenty of dishes based on more familiar foods. Top marks.
Refined and sophisticated
Jane Sen’s “Healing Foods”, (ISBN 0722533225; out of print but available through www.abebooks.co.uk). Jane Sen worked for many years as the Bristol Cancer Help Centre’s head cook, and her cookbook reflects strong health awareness combined with a serious appreciation of good food and attractive presentation. This book has been one of my favourites for many years, and it is as relevant now as it was 11 years ago, when it was first published. Read the well-written introduction to inform yourself of the principles of a healthy diet (even if you won’t stick to them all religiously). Jane’s follow-up book, “More Healing Foods” (ISBN: 0007118341) is, to my liking, not as good as its earlier sibling. Still, Jane is one classy lady with both feet on the ground.
Emphasis on Mediterranean
“Mediterranean Light” by Martha Rose Shulman (ISBN 0553053523) is a refreshing cookbook that puts an extra nutritious squeeze on the already healthy aspects of the Mediterranean diet. It is not vegetarian, but the meat section is not as out of proportion as it tends to be in other Med books. Conversely, you’ll find elaborate chapters on grains, pulses and vegetables (galore). The recipes tend to be low fat, fairly original, mostly uncomplicated and those I’ve tried, utterly delicious. Brilliant for lovers of this cuisine, which extends way beyond Italy.
The Australian Women’s Weekly cookbook series holds some gems in its folds, alongside its many less-than-healthy publications. I like their “Asian Meals in Minutes” (ISBN 1863962395), “Vegetarian Meals in Minutes” (ISBN 1863962387), “Vegetables” (ISBN 1863960597) and the “Essential Soup Cookbook” (ISBN 1863961925). Not all recipes are necessarily healthy, ‘free from’ or vegetarian. Still, in line with Australian cuisine, many dishes are Asian inspired, which makes for an interesting use of ingredients, and fresh, enticing flavours. The recipes are straightforward, sensible and often unexpectedly innovative and delicious. A light and occasional flick through.
Madhur Jaffrey’s “World Vegetarian” (ISBN 0091863643) is a tour de force of vegetarian recipes from all over the world, including countries that are less known for their cuisine, such as Ethiopia and Trinidad. You could be reading the stories, histories and explanations for months and still not be finished. If you’re a foodie (especially a vegetarian one), this book is a joy, and you’ll discover many novel uses of grains, pulses and vegetables with a strong emphasis on the Indian cuisine, Jaffrey’s own territory. On a day to day basis this book is, however, less practical. Many recipes require (as you might expect) authentic ethnic ingredients that may not be easily available; and the cooking instructions are too long and laborious, often unnecessarily. Still, you’ll learn a huge amount even if you just browse the book occasionally. A great Christmas present to ask for if you’re seriously into food.
Cranky and modern
“The Cranks Bible” (ISBN 1841882046) is a chef cookbook, but Nadine Abensur is no regular chef. Ex food director of the mythological UK veggie restaurant chain ‘Cranks’, Nadine is a vegetarian chef who is totally unapologetic about her adulation of aubergines, almonds and aduki beans. Her recipes are modern, inventive and mostly suitable for those occasions when you have more time on your hands (I did say it was a chef cookbook). The book reads like a novel and is infused with her eccentric personality and total passion for good vegetarian food. She uses a good range of different grains and heaps of vegetables. You’ll learn lots and lots and lots about ingredients, dishes, sauces and techniques. 21st century vegetarian cooking at its best (though, on occasion, not its healthiest).
For the initiated
Barbara Cousins, a natural nutritionist, initially wrote “Cooking Without” (ISBN 0722538979) for her clients, but the book gained popularity by word of mouth and was later published by a leading publishing house. The book contains recipes free from gluten, sugar, dairy, yeast, salt and saturated fat, so is suitable for allergy and chronic illness sufferers. However, you don’t have to be ill to benefit from a book that’s full of ideas on how to cook using different ingredients and methods. And if you’re interested in nutrition, the book has an added bonus in the form of clear and valuable nutritional information and theory. Perhaps not your first healthy cookbook, but a good one for the advanced class.
Mollie Katzen started a trend many years ago with her “Enchanted Broccoli Forest” cookbook, which boldly advocated good vegetarian food in the days that ‘vegetarian’ was still a word-non-grata. Her subsequent Moosewood cookbooks have all been a success, followed by many Moosewood Restaurant books. To me many of these books are a tad too American, with vegetarian takes on the favourites of a cuisine that’s neither sophisticated nor frankly terribly exciting when you’re familiar with the refined flavours of the Italian, French or Asian cuisine. Still, you’d get plenty of health knowledge by reading through these books, and could pick up useful techniques, tips, substitutes and other ideas. Of the lot I’d go for the “Moosewood Restaurant Low Fat Favourites” (ISBN 0517884941), because learning to cook with less and better fats is a challenge for many. I like the philosophy behind the book, the reliance on many ethnic cuisines, the helpful presentation and the obvious fact that the writers, as they openly admit, like to cook and love to eat, yet are health aware. Not a must by any means, but a possibility if you’re looking to expand further.
My very own
“Cooking In Colours” (ISBN 9077455450; only available in the Dutch language) is my own (joint) contribution to the confused, busy mum seeking to cook more healthily for her family, but is not quite sure how to go about it. The book is divided into 8 chapters, each dedicated to one colour and covering all dishes from starters to desserts. The emphasis is on speed, practicality and a great end result, not forgetting health, of course!
The above are but suggestions to help you on the road to healthier eating. I am sure there are many more worthy books and sites out there, and will be grateful if you send me their details. Till then, good luck with your efforts in the kitchen and best of health.