When I give food-preparation advice to students and clients looking for simple, healthful meals, I often go into detail about food combinations that increase overall nutrient variety, concentration, digestibility and blood-sugar normalcy, among other factors.
Options are limited only by our creativity. Sandwiches, smoothies, yogurt or coconut-based breakfasts, trail mixes, dressings, stir-frys, soups, breakfast bars, crackers and cereal all come to mind. What these foods have in common is they can all be healthful, but their degree of health potential depends on how their ingredients are cultivated, processed, prepared and combined.
A sandwich, for example, may be a simple slab of bologna on white bread, which in all likelihood will contain a poor fat balance, with a minimal amount of beneficial monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats we can generally use in greater quantities. It also would typically contain fillers, preservatives, meat from antibiotic- and hormone-treated animals, excess sodium and few vitamins and minerals. The bread would contain no fiber because it was removed in the refining process, and a lack of fiber makes us susceptible to diabetes, colon cancer and other maladies.
On the other hand, we can obtain lunchmeat nowadays that's free of hormones and antibiotics, and that comes from pastured and grass-fed animals, which typically contain higher levels of the mono and polyunsaturated fats. We could have a whole-grain, open-faced sandwich, leaving out one slice of caloric "room" to add on various vegetables that would broaden the health benefits. Tomato slices, mixed greens, onions, avocados, marinated artichokes, chopped olives, sautéed or roasted peppers and other simple toppings come to mind.
We can use comparatively low-calorie mustards with whole mustard seeds, and rather than a sea of poor-quality mayonnaise containing transfatty acids, we can use one of the healthful mayo options on the market — or make our own. Either way, moderation is key.
By changing shopping habits and preparation, a sandwich of marginal nutritional quality becomes healthful. For those who don't tolerate certain breads because of grain or gluten allergies, an imaginative, local green salad could suffice paired with fiber-rich beans and grains, such as wild rice, buckwheat and quinoa. A side of canned salmon or sardines would provide additional protein and good fats.
Like mayo, many dressings are a major source of unneeded calories, poor-quality oil, sodium and preservatives. Look into making dressings containing tahini or avocados, both of which can be whipped in a food processor or blender with herbs and spices. Bean dips make good spreads and accompaniments for salads and sandwiches, too.
When making smoothies or choosing yogurt, buy plain and then add fresh or dried fruit to flavor and deliver nutrients and texture — thereby avoiding the added sugar that typically turns yogurt into something more like dessert.
Nuts and seeds broaden the health benefits of a yogurt- or cottage cheese-based breakfast. The same goes for trail mixes. Make your own. Avoid the ones with sugary candies and highly sweetened, dried fruits such as some cranberry products that are shellacked with high-fructose corn syrup and poor-quality oils.
By focusing on variety, we can greatly enhance the nutritional value of the meals we eat. At the same time, we can obtain the flavors we crave and the textures we prefer.
Michael Altman is a nutritionist at Ventana Wellness and teaches at Southern Oregon University. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.