Heart-Healthy Meal Makeovers


by Mary Dunklin

Making heart-healthy dietary changes is an important part of managing heart disease. But does it mean that you have to give up all those foods you truly love? Not necessarily.

Finding new ways to prepare your favorite recipes is a simple solution to check both boxes of “healthy” and “tasty.” Oftentimes, a few simple changes to recipes can make them suitable for someone following the American Heart Association’s nutritional guidelines. With a few tweaks in the kitchen, recipes can be just as nutritious as they are flavorful and satisfying.

“People don’t need to use the word ‘diet,’ what they should really be thinking is that they’re doing this for the betterment of their life,” says Chen Du, an advanced practice clinical dietitian at Parkland Hospital in Dallas, Texas.

This means instead of grieving all the foods you can’t have, shift your focus.

“There’s a misconception that you have to always give up your favorite foods,” says Du. “What someone should really be thinking is, how much should I be eating and how can I make my food more enjoyable?”

She suggests flavoring foods with a variety of fresh herbs and spices, such as basil, rosemary, thyme and some store bought sodium-free seasoning mixes. She also advises cutting down portion sizes and trying one change at a time. For example, instead of wiping out all the salt or fat from a recipe, cut it down by half and let your taste buds adjust. Or, consider a gradual change from whole milk to 2% — then make the move to skim milk.

Over time, such small dietary modifications add up to big changes, allowing you to still get pleasure from your favorite recipes, just in a healthier way.

Other simple things that even novice cooks can start incorporating when redoing recipes is opting for leaner cuts of meat, using nutrient-dense whole grains and choosing darker fruits and vegetables, which have been shown to improve cardiovascular health.

Find Alternatives

When it comes to healthier eating, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Modifying your favorite recipes to make them healthier is beneficial when you’re committed to following a heart-healthy eating plan. In fact, experts agree the best way to enjoy your favorite foods is to make them yourself.

“Food can be both healthy and tasty. You can still cook what you want to cook, you just need to do some simple alterations,” says Du.

Jo Ann Carson, Ph.D., of the American Heart Association agrees. “Redoing recipes is a great thing because when you’re cooking them yourself you have more control,” says Dr. Carson, who is a past chair of the American Heart Association nutrition committee.

She suggests that if you get stuck in a food rut and your go-to meals are getting boring, look for inspiration to liven up your meals. Search online sites such as Heart.org for nutritious recipes. Or, try a meal-delivery service that lets you prepare new recipes at home.

“A meal kit may mean you’re spending more, but if it helps you see how to make healthy meals, then it’s worth it,” Dr. Carson says.

Another suggestion is to make use of kitchen tools, such as the popular Instant Pot, which cuts down on cooking time, or the classic Crock Pot, which cooks food with minimal work. One of the American Heart Association’s newest cookbooks is Healthy Slow Cooker, which offers convenient ways to prepare favorite foods. The book includes recipes such as Cauliflower-Crust Pizza, Beef Stew with Fresh Mango and Saucy Boneless Chicken “Wings” that uses skinless grilled chicken breast and offers two sauce options so taste buds can be fooled into thinking you’re eating the real thing.

As with all recipes, portion size matters. So, read nutrition labels and be aware of serving sizes. If you’re used to having a big steak, substitute a leaner cut of meat or have a smaller portion. Or, consider similar alternatives and replace your red meat with something else, such as swordfish, which has a similar chewy texture.

You could also, as Dr. Carson advises, “have meat as your condiment.” That means filling up your plate with vegetables and whole grains and letting the meat take more of a supporting role.

Enjoy the Process

Adding more heart-healthy recipes to your diet doesn’t have to be boring, it just takes a little creativity and planning, says chef Maribeth Krukow, who also is a Mended Hearts Assistant Regional Director in the Southwest Region.

Krukow encourages experimenting with recipes, which allows home cooks to add spices and seasonings according to their preferences until they find the right mix that makes food both healthy and flavorful. “Don’t be afraid to try something new,” she says, adding that this trial-and-error approach can pay off by letting cooks get creative in the kitchen. It also means at-home cooks are more likely to use fresh foods instead of boxed or processed options.

Krukow has a passion for healthy foods because she is also a heart patient who now volunteers with Mended Hearts.

“I wanted to let other heart patients know they’re not alone and that there is help out there,” she says. “I had a history of heart-health problems in my family, but I never dreamed I’d be a heart patient.”

But now that she is one, she can empathize with the fears and demands that other heart patients face. She knows that sometimes the real-world stresses of having a job, limited time and other commitments can get in the way of good intentions to eat right. For her, it’s all about finding shortcuts.

“Convenience is another factor in eating healthy,” she says, adding that taking a little time to do the prep work can provide you with better choices when hunger strikes.

She suggests washing, cutting and portioning out fruits and vegetables as soon as you get home from the grocery store. Another tip is to grill multiple pieces of skinless chicken, then cut and store them in bags in the freezer. When it’s mealtime, just pull out a bag and you have the start of an easy meal at home, such as her Heart Healthy Chicken Salad, which uses Greek yogurt instead of higher-fat mayonnaise to make it creamy.

Worth the Effort

If making dietary changes feels overwhelming, don’t be alarmed — that’s perfectly natural. Social factors, marketing, advertising and huge portion sizes are all roadblocks that everyone faces when trying to change their eating habits. What’s important is to recognize the roadblocks and get help when needed.

Dr. Carson suggests meeting with a dietitian who can help prioritize and individualize what you need most to get the biggest bang for your nutrition buck. For some, the priority may be reducing sodium, for others it may be cutting back on sugar or fatty foods. Knowing what your nutritional needs are is essential to knowing how to make over your favorite recipes. The point is that you don’t have to do it alone, she says.

She says when making healthy choices, know that sometimes progress is slow and steady so find ways to stay on track. Perhaps set a new nutritional goal each month; for instance, maybe you can choose to eat more vegetables at lunch or cut back on fatty meat portions for dinner. Whatever you decide, keep a record and track how you did. If one month wasn’t perfect, you can start fresh the next month.

“If you focus on a new goal each month then at the end of the year, you have had a pretty healthy year of eating,” she says.

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