The best hack for a healthy diet

Summary: Eat anything you want, as long as you cook it yourself.

In less than a century, we have gone from fearing impending famines to worrying about controlling a global obesity crisis. Those most affected by this are urban-dwellers. If experts are asked to choose the biggest cause for the obesity epidemic, they blame the growing demand for processed and packaged food.

It is not hard to understand why. The aim of food corporations is to ensure that they sell as much as they can. To do that, through years of research in the “cravability” department, they have figured out the ingredients that make their products tempting to buyers—salt, sugar and fat—all of which they use in unhealthy amounts.

Given the scale of the problem, people have come up with many solutions to dealing with obesity. Most common among them is to diet. I’m not obese but I wanted to understand how difficult it is to go on a diet, so I tried the slow carb diet recommended by writer Tim Ferriss. I managed to lose 3.5kg in four weeks. Some of my friends have tried the 5:2 diet and have made it work too.

While fasting has benefits beyond keeping you healthy, there are easier ways to maintaining a healthy diet. The best hack I know to achieve this is to eat anything you want, as long as you cook it yourself.

The rationale is simple: when you choose to cook yourself, you will avoid making foods like french fries or chocolate brownies on an everyday basis, just because of the amount of effort that goes into making them. You will also use salt, sugar and fat in conservative amounts. The result is you will eat healthier food without having to set up strict rules around what you eat and when.

I used to think that cooking for one person is just an inefficient use of my time. But I’ve changed my mind. The amount of time you cook is actually a very good investment given the health benefits.

Implementation: It is impractical to think you will be able to cook every meal. So there are two tricks that might help you cook as many of your meals as possible. First, when you cook, make enough to last you two or three meals. Eating the same tasty food you cooked three times is not boring. Second, allow cheat days for when you have to or you choose to eat out. Relying on my slow carb algorithm, a rule of one cheat day a week is preferable.

Bonus: In 2010, I wrote a series of posts on tasty quick fix recipes. Their aim was to live up to my mum’s words: “There is always something you can make from whatever you have in the kitchen.” Since then I’ve come up with many more such recipes, and it’s time to revive that series.

This is a post in “the best hack series”, where the aim is to find small ideas that have a big impact in improving everyday life.

Image: chezmichelle, CC-BY-NC

Quick Fix Recipe 3: Onion + Tomato

This is part of a series on recipes that I use to fix myself a quick meal with as little number of ingredients as possible. The recipe below was put together by Deeksha. The speciality of this tomato chutney is that it can go with a lot of things. All kinds of rice, chips or bread.

Ingredients

  • 400g tomatoes
  • 1 large onion
  • Indian Spice Box (chat masala, cumin seeds, mustard seeds, fenugreek leaves)
  • 1 tbsp olive oil

Method

  1. Heat oil in a pan on low flame. To it add some cumin seeds and mustard seeds.
  2. While the cumin seeds get mildly roasted, chop the onion finely. In some time the cumin seeds will give a pleasant odour.
  3. Add finely chopped onions to the pan and let them fry till golden brown (tip: Add salt to the onions as they then get cooked faster).
  4. Add finely chopped tomatoes or an equivalent amount of tomato paste. Let it cook for atleast 15 minutes on a medium flame.
  5. Add 1tbsp chat masala and 1/2 tbsp dried leaves of fenugreek (kasturi methi), if available. Mix well and cook for another few minutes. (Honey may be added to taste)
  6. Once cooked, pour in a bowl and enjoy it with corn chips, pilao rice, khakra, or any kind of bread.

Overall cooking time: 25 minutes

Quick Fix Recipe 2: Potato + Onion + Yogurt

This is part of a series on recipes that I use to fix myself a quick meal with as little number of ingredients as possible.

Ingredients:

  • 2 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1/2 small onion
  • 300 g potatoes
  • 100 g yogurt
  • salt, Indian Spice box (red chilli, turmeric, garam masala, cumin seeds, mustard seeds)

Method:

  1. In a pan, pour 1tbsp olive oil and sauté chopped onions till they are nice and brown.
  2. In the meantime, take the potatoes and put it in a carry bag. Microwave the potatoes for 12 mins at 850W and check if they are cooked. If not, run for a few more minutes. This is probably the fastest way in which I have ever cooked potatoes. Simple, hassle-free and good results. PS: Potatoes put in without carry bag dry up and are not cooked evenly.
  3. Peel and chop the potatoes as you like. Add some salt here and mix the potatoes well.
  4. In the pan, add the salt & spices to taste (chilli first, followed by turmeric, garam masala & cumin seeds). Mix onions evenly and then add yogurt and about 50 mL water. Mix well. Add the potatoes to this mixture and stir again. Leave the preparation on medium flame for 5-10 mins.
  5. Pour in a bowl and enjoy with nan bread or khakra.

Overall cooking time: 35 mins

Hope you enjoy this recipe and if you do then don’t forget to subscribe to this blog by email.

Quick Fix Recipe 1: Mushroom + Egg + Onion

Just like many students, I started cooking in September 2008 when I left India for my studies at Oxford. A few weeks before I left, I tried my hand at cooking simple dishes. It wasn’t that hard. But once you start cooking on your own you may realise that every recipe needs so many things. May be in small amounts but the list of ingredients is so big (especially for Indian food). Although I enjoyed cooking, I hated going to the supermarket in that cold weather just to get garlic paste or lemon juice. I complained about it and in response my mum said, “There is always something you can make from whatever you have in the kitchen.” As a student that statement is quite reassuring. Theoretically speaking, it is possible to make something, but will you that thing taste good enough to eat? Many of us might face this challenge.

In this process of learning how to fix myself a quick meal with as little number of ingredients as possible I have come up with a few recipes that I will share with you. Just to re-iterate, these are the recipes that I found tasted good to me and have been made with whatever I can find in my kitchen. Some of these have been tasted by others and they have seemed to enjoy it too.

Quick Fix Recipe 1: Mushroom + Egg + Onion

Ingredients:

  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1/2 small onion, sliced (rings or half-rings)
  • 200 g mushroom, sliced
  • 3 eggs
  • 40 g butter
  • salt, garlic paste

Method:

  1. In a pan, pour 1tbsp olive oil and sauté the onions till they are nice and brown.
  2. In a separate pan, do the same to the sliced mushroom. Once the mushroom have absorbed the oil, add 20g butter and mix rapidly so that the butter is spread evenly. Add garlic paste and then keep on mixing for 2-3 mins more till the mushrooms lose a little bit of water. You may add salt or pepper to taste at this point. Add these mushrooms to the onion pan and keep the pan warm at the least level of heat (easy on gas stoves than electric ones!)
  3. Break the 3 eggs in a bowl and whisk them together. You may add salt and chili powder to taste at this point. Pour the mix onto the pan which had the mushrooms on it. Mix vigorously and break any lumps formed (a bit like bhurji). When done, add 20g butter and mix for a little more time. Then add the contents of this pan to the pan that has onions and mushrooms.
  4. Mix them well for the last time. Pour them in a bowl and enjoy this with Toast or Garlic bread or Khakra.

Overall Cooking Time: approx. 15 mins (includes time needed for chopping onions &  mushrooms).

Hope you enjoy this recipe and if you do then don’t forget to subscribe to this blog by email.