Healthy cooking 101

Healthy cooking 101

Are you new to cooking? Or do you just need some healthy eating inspiration? HFG dietitian Melissa Meier goes back to basics

Start with the basics

The first step to any healthy meal is getting the balance right. Every meal needs lean protein, quality carbohydrates and a variety of colourful vegetables, and in the right proportions. Visualise your plate in quarters, with one-quarter for protein, another quarter for carbohydrates and the remaining half for a vibrant mix of vegetables. Even when all quadrants get mixed together, such as in a stir-fry, these proportions apply.

Protein power

A protein-rich diet has been shown to help us maintain a healthy weight.

Protein doesn’t just come from meats such as beef, lamb or chicken; we can also get it from fish, eggs, dairy, legumes, nuts and tofu.

Think of a serving size of beef as, roughly, the size and thickness of your palm – up to your knuckles for chicken and your whole hand (or a small can of salmon or tuna) for fish. For meat-free protein, use two eggs, a piece of tofu the size of a deck of cards or 1 cup of legumes, such as beans, chickpeas or lentils, as a serving.

Smart carbs

Carbohydrates are the fuel to feed our brain and muscles, but not all carbs are equal.

Choose carbs that are high in fibre with a low glycaemic index (GI), such as wholegrain breads and cereals, brown rice, quinoa, oats, lentils and beans. In general, a small potato or small cob of corn is an ideal carbohydrate portion, as is ½ to 1 cup of cooked rice, grains or pasta.

There’s no need to eliminate carbs to be healthy, but if you’re not very active throughout the day, it’s wise to reduce your carbohydrate portion slightly.

Veg out on 5

Eating at least five daily serves of veges is one of the best things we can do for our health, so load up your plate.

Variety is key to maximising our intake of vitamins, minerals, fibre and antioxidants, so eat with the seasons and aim for at least three different-coloured veges at each meal.

If you’re a salad person, reach for veges such as baby spinach, lettuce, tomato and cucumber. Carrots, capsicum and radishes are also winners. If cooked vegetables take your fancy, fill your plate with broccoli, carrot, cauliflower and courgette. Eggplant, Asian greens and mushrooms are fabulous, too. And remember to leave the skin on, where possible, to maximise fibre and antioxidants.

Healthy flavour

Once you’ve got the basics, it’s time to build flavour. Before you reach for the salt shaker, here’s how to add more flavour to your meals healthily.


Fresh herbs are a favourite at HFG because they pack a flavour punch without added salt, sugar or fat. Using herbs in place of salt helps reduce our sodium intake and also provides important disease-fighting antioxidants. For a more economical or convenient option, use dried herbs instead of fresh.


Keep chilli, garlic, ginger, onion and citrus in your healthy flavour toolbox. Cooking with garlic and fresh chilli can really bring some dishes to life, and a squeeze of lemon or lime over a finished meal adds the perfect zing to tie it all together. If you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and can’t tolerate large amounts of garlic and onion, try infused olive oil instead.


Spices add exotic, intense flavour that can transform a dish from bland to glam. Emerging research also shows spices are antioxidant powerhouses. From a gentle dusting of cinnamon on your porridge or roasted veges, to a pinch of chilli in your stir-fry or cloves in stews, it’s so easy to add big, bold flavour without salt. Freshly cracked black pepper is great on nearly everything, too.
Build up an inexpensive selection for your kitchen spice rack and use them as liberally as you like.

Extra virgin olive oil

Olive oil is rich in cancer-fighting polyphenols and heart-healthy monounsaturated fat. A drizzle of olive oil over veges and salads enhances the flavour of these health heroes and even helps our body better absorb their nutrients. Ideally, choose fresh extra virgin olive oil in a dark container and remember to store it away from heat and light.

HFG’s favourite spices

  • cumin
  • chilli flakes
  • curry powder
  • cinnamon
  • paprika

Try one of these winning flavour combos in your next dish.

Choose the best method

You don’t have to splurge on expensive foods or cookware for healthy cooking. These five basic cooking methods help you prepare healthy ingredients in ways that preserve the food s nutritional value, without adding excess fat and salt.


One of the quickest and easiest ways to cook food in a healthy way is to stir-fry. The high heat cooks food in a few minutes, retaining nutrients, texture and colour – plus you only need a small amount of oil. Remember to cut the ingredients into uniform pieces so they cook at the same rate.


The less water you use, the more nutrients remain in the food, which makes steaming much better than boiling. You can even steam food in the microwave. Steamed veges are an easy side dish, but be careful not to overcook them because they’re best when they keep their flavour and crunch.


If you’re all about minimal fuss, roasting is an excellent method. Roasting is as effective for veges as meat. Simply place the meat or veges on a baking tray or roasting rack, spray with olive oil, sprinkle with herbs and spices, crank up the oven and let it do the hard work.


Poaching food in water doesn’t add kilojoules or fat. If planning to use the poaching liquid as a sauce or broth, be sure to use reduced-salt or reduced-sugar liquids, or dilute them with water to keep the sodium intake low.

Slow cooking

If you buy one appliance next winter, make it a slow cooker. Cooking low and slow is the perfect way to create hearty stews, soups and curries that are loaded with flavour. The gentle heat and long cooking time result in melt-in-your-mouth meat – plus you save on washing up.

Must have pantry staples

Keep these 10 healthy ingredients on hand:

  • extra virgin olive oil (spray and bottled)
  • balsamic vinegar
  • no-added-salt canned tomatoes
  • wholegrain mustard
  • dried herbs
  • spices
  • no-added-salt canned legumes
  • canned tuna in spring water
  • rolled oats
  • brown rice

Swap this for that!

Here’s how to make healthy ingredient swaps in the kitchen:

First published: Feb 2019


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