When I search for healthy recipes, there are three main characteristics I look for:
- The inclusion of healthy ingredients
- The exclusion of unhealthy ingredients
- The cooking method
Start with healthy ingredients like fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, healthy oils, nuts, legumes and soy. Bread and baked good recipes should call for 100-percent whole grains. Meats and poultry recipes should call for lean cuts whenever possible, as well as low-fat dairy products.
I prefer recipes that include several healthy ingredients, rather than just one or two good ingredients mixed with lots of sugar, salt, or saturated fats. For example, this wild rice with cranberries and apples recipe has a great balance of whole grains, nuts, and fruit. I'd serve this as a side dish with a lean chicken breast. Pork with cabbage and apples is another good example.
Leave out stuff that's bad for you. Things like sugar, processed foods, saturated and trans-fat, white refined flour, and products made with refined white flour. For example, a recipe that calls for processed foods like luncheon meats, processed cheese-products or large amounts of high-fat products like mayonnaise isn't healthy and should not become a recipe you use very often.
Sometimes evaluating a recipe is more difficult. Spaghetti and meatballs seems like a healthy meal, but a large portion of the meal is pasta made from refined white flour and the meatballs may have a lot of saturated fat in them. On the flip side, the spaghetti sauce itself is very healthy with lots of tomatoes that give you vitamins and lycopene. Garlic, peppers, herbs seasonings and mushrooms are also ingredients you might find in a spaghetti recipe.
Check out the cooking methods. Deep-frying is probably the wrost of the cooking methods, especially if the oil is used more than once. Pan frying might be a little better, but still not so good if you use a heavy batter or coating that soaks up the oil.
Boiling doesn't extra calories, but you will loose some of the valuable nutrients when you drain off the cooking water. Microwaving is a great way to cook vegetables because it's quick -- not many nutrients are lost.
An example of "good verses bad" cooking methods: baking a chicken breast in the oven with some salsa or chicken broth is a healthy way to prepare the chicken. If you take that same chicken breast, coat it with a batter and deep fry it, that piece of chicken has more calories and fat.
Choose recipes that let you bake, roast, microwave or sauté your foods. Alter recipes that need a little help. Substitute healthy ingredients whenever possible. Make your meatballs from lean ground turkey meat and use a whole grain pasta, or decrease the serving size and add a big salad on the side.