Kitchen Focus

Doctors and the medical community are encouraging people everywhere to eat a healthy diet, which -- for most of us -- means reducing our fat intake and watching where we get it. But it's one thing to hear your doctor tell you to reduce your fat consumption and quite another to implement that plan. I mean, fat means flavor ... right?

Well, yes and no. Fat does add flavor to the foods we eat. However, it's far from the only -- or even the best -- source of flavor available to us in the kitchen. Everything from the seasonings we use to the cooking methods we employ can add or detract from the flavor of the foods we eat, so chooing wisely can make a lower fat diet a choice that's both healthy and tasty.

To give you more than the general advice that's often offered, here's a list of some things you can do to lower the fat in your diet without limiting yourself to meals of bread and water:

  • Once, when I was browning some ground beef for a casserole, I noticed how much fat tended to pool up on the bottom of the pan. I almost always drain off as much as I can before continuing with the cooking process. However, once I actually lined my salad spinner with paper towels, poured the cooked beef into the spinner and cranked it up to full speed. Then I poured the beef back into my pan and looked at what remained. I was amazed at how much fat had been removed from the meat! I highly recommend this as a way to quickly and very effectively drain cooked ground beef, pork, chicken or turkey.
  • Believe it or not, many recipes call for the addition of fat when little or none of it is needed. Few pieces of meat or vegetables need more than a quick spurt of cooking spray to keep them from sticking to the pan. If you choose to use nonstick cookware, you can often skip this step entirely. And, almost all oils and butter that are added to sauces are for flavor exclusively, so you can freely reduce the amounts. It's also wise to choose very flavorful fats in these cases as a little goes a long way. Better yet, experiment with other flavorful ingredients like vinegars, herbs, fruit juices, etc. to find substitutions that suit your tastes.
  • Try to use highly flavorful ingredients so that you can reduce the amount required. A small amount of parmesan cheese, extra virgin olive oil or crumbled bacon can add a lot of flavor to a dish without adding much fat. Sometimes a little of the real thing goes a lot farther than a lot of reduced fat ingredients.
  • Pureed fruit is an excellent substitute for part or all of the fat called for in baking recipes. I usually substitute about half of the fat called for in such recipes with unsweetend applesauce. Most people don't notice the difference and the tart apples I use in my applesauce often lends a nice touch to everything from cakes to bars.
  • In general, Americans rely too much on meat as the primary focus of their meals. Incorporating more fruits, vegetables and whole grains into them adds variety and a huge health benefit. Of course, meat has a role to play as well. However, instead of serving a baked potato and salad as accompaniments to a big steak, try adding a smaller amount of meat to a stir-fry or tucked into a tortilla wrap. If you do opt for that steak, try to limit its impact by filling 3/4 of your dinner plate with other choices.
  • Everyone needs fats in their diets. However, some fats are better for you than others. The fats in foods like olive oil and salmon are actually good for you and are a necessary part of any diet. Just remember that there can be too much of a good thing! For more about these healthy fats, read the August 2002 Health & Fitness column.
  • Not all meats are created equal. Some have higher fat concentrations than others and some have healthier fats than others. Whenever possible, choose lean cuts of meat that have little or no visible fat on them. If you aren't sure which cuts are lean (and even if you do), get to know your butcher and ask him/her what's what.
  • In addition to the types of meat you choose, some cooking techniques are healthier than others. For example, grilling or broiling meat allows excess fats to drip away from the meat during the cooking process. Also, using nonstick pans and electic skillets allow you use smaller amounts of oil or even eliminate them altogether.
  • Using a thermometer to check the internal temperature of the food that you are cooking allows you to keep your meals safe while still allowing cuts of meat to retain a lot of moisture. As meat is overcooked, moisture is lost. Using an instant-read thermometer or a probe thermometer can help you bring it to a safe cooking temperature without sacrificing all that juicy flavor you want. Having that kind of control over leaner cuts of meat is especially important since they tend to dry out more quickly than highly-marbled meats.
  • Speaking of keeping meat moist, one of the best defenses we have against dry, tasteless food is the use of marinades. Whether they are allowed to rest in the refrigerator for hours or the marinade is injected into the thickest parts, a marinade adds flavor and helps keep your food moist. Choose marinades that have little or no fat added to them. Some of the finest marinades take full advantage of fruit juices, a wide variety of spices and vinegars.
  • Prior to cooking or at the table, any visible fat or skin should be removed. Poultry like chicken and turkey are very healthy choices when the skin is removed. While some recipes need the skin to remain intact for the cooking process, many don't and even if it remains during the cooking process it can easily be removed when it reaches your plate.
  • If you are a fan of creamy sauces and soups, you might want to get to know evaporated skim milk. It offers a fat free alternative to heavy cream and adds a similar -- but not identical -- texture and flavor. It can be used as a substition in almost all baked items like muffins or cakes.
  • Egg whites can also offer a fat free option in baking. For every one whole egg called for in a recipe, you can often use two egg whites. Of course, recipes that require the fat that's present in egg yolks, like custards, should not be lightened using such a technique. Such treats should be left unchanged and enjoyed in moderation. However, sweets like cakes, bars and cookies are often great candidates for an egg white substitution.

Well, there you have it. With tips like these and the healthy advice you've already gotten from doctors, nutritionists, and other health professionals, you're well on your way to a healtier lifestyle and a longer, more satisfying life.