If you could do your weekly supermarket shop blind folded and cook your evening meals in your sleep the chances are you are stuck in a food rut —and you're probably not doing your health much good either.
Studies show that people who eat a wide variety of food are healthier, live longer and have a reduced risk of developing many major lifestyle diseases yet, according to a recent survey, most of us have just four staple dishes in our cooking repertoire —and boy, are we bored!
For example, this week alone, over 17 million of us will eat pasta topped with some sort of sauce for supper (spaghetti bolognaise being the favourite resulting in the average person eating approximately 8,000 spag bols in a lifetime!), 10 million of us will have roast meat and vegetables, 7 million will have stir fry and the rest of us will have either a ready meal of some sort, sausage and mash, shepherds pie or fish and chips.
So what's the problem?
Eating the same foods week in and week out reduces your chances of getting all the nutrients you need for 'optimum health'. This is because no one food or meal contains all the vitamins, minerals, proteins, carbohydrates, phytochemicals and fibre that you need. Only by eating a wide variety of different foods can you maximize your intake of all the health protecting nutrients available.
But it's not just vitamins and minerals we are missing out on, cooking and eating is one of life's great pleasures too so here are five ways to break your usual food habits and treat your taste buds to a whole new world of flavours!
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1. Go colour crazy
We should all be aiming to eat a 'rainbow' of different coloured fruit and vegetables. That's because the substances that give a plant its colour have an extremely powerful protective effective against many major diseases so buy at least one new fruit or vegetable each time you go food shopping.
- Start your day with a pomegranate instead of a grapefruit and get up to 40% of your daily vitamin C requirement in one hit. Simply cut in half and use a spoon to scrape out the seeds.
- Make a fresh fruit salad using dragon fruits, fresh lychees and mango
- Grate a raw beetroot into a pan, add a little butter and tarragon, cover and cook in a low to medium oven for 45 minutes to an hour and eat as a delicious side dish grilled chicken, pork or fish.
- Blend together some passion fruit with fresh, ripe papaya and star fruits to make a delicious nutrient packed smoothie.
- Snack on kumquats, mangosteen or physalis - a shiny orange fruit similar in size, shape and structure to a small cherry tomato and contained in a papery husk that looks a bit like a Chinese lantern (all available at your local supermarket)
- Substitute your usual jacket potato for a sweet potato instead, switch from mashed potato to a celeriac mash instead (delicious with smoked fish or fresh tuna steaks) and snack on chicory leaves dipped in hummus.
2. Re-invent your old favourites
The best way to start expanding one's culinary repertoire is to add new or different ingredients to familiar dishes.
- Top Tips:
- Chop fresh sage leaves into rice dishes
- Add small amount of diced chorizo sausage and fresh basil leaves to tomato based pastas dishes.
- Sprinkle peanuts, almonds or diced apple over your salads.
- Flake some smoked mackerel over your omelette.
- Add cashews or water chestnuts to your stir fries and toasted pine nuts on your macaroni cheese.
- Swap mashed potato on fish or meat pies for soft cooked lentils mixed with a little half fat cheddar cheese.
3. Go gadget go
Another great way to add a little variety to your meals is to experiment with various new cooking equipment and machines.
- Invest in a wok. The beauty of a wok is that it cooks food in minutes helping to retain all those essential vitamins and minerals and saves on the washing up by only using one pan — and they needn't just be used for stir fries either. For a really simple, super healthy and ultra speedy meal simply sear a 4oz sirloin steak on both sides in a very hot wok, add some finely sliced red onion, an inch of fresh ginger (peeled and finely sliced) and one finely chopped, de-seeded chilli. Cook for a couple of minutes then add 200ml of chicken stock and a generous handful of fresh pak choi leaves. Finally add a handful of cooked noodles, cut the beef into thick slices and eat immediately.
- Buy a slow cooker. Armed with one of these you can look forward to returning home each evening to delicious fondues, stews, casseroles, curries, soups and chowders all ready and waiting the minute you step through the door!
- Experiment with other gadgets such as steamers (whether collapsible, top-of-the-pan style or the full three-tier, plug-in versions they cook fish and vegetables in minutes) food processors (fabulous for taking the work out of all that chopping, grating, mixing and blending), hand held blenders (great for soups, smoothies, pates and pestos) and juicers.
4. Dare to be different
Breakfast cereals can be healthy and convenient but if you've been munching on the same old muesli for months, it's time for a change.
- Put half a cup of oats in a bowl along with a cup of skimmed or soya milk. Grate in one whole, cored, apple or pear (skin included) and leave to soak in the fridge overnight The next morning serve with chopped fresh fruit such as oranges, grapes and sliced kiwi fruit and sprinkle with a few finely chopped walnuts. Finish off with a drizzle of runny honey. Alternatively, swap the oats above for ground oatmeal and serve the next morning topped with sliced fresh, ripe strawberries and a drizzle of elderflower cordial.
- For a healthy, hot breakfast treat yourself to a bacon, tomato and basil stack instead of the usual fat and calorie laden cooked breakfast. Simply grill two rashers of extra lean bacon and a fresh tomato cut in half. Serve on a thick slice of lightly toasted stone-ground wholemeal bread and top with ripped basil leaves.
- Oily fish such as kippers, herring or mackerel makes a delicious, omega three packed breakfast two served with some lightly scrambled or poached eggs and a few grilled asparagus spears.
5. Get back in the kitchen
Have you ever noticed how one ready prepared pasta dish tastes very much the same as the next? That's because, in order to keep the costs down manufacturers make the components of these meals in bulk so the tomato sauce in your bolognaise is probably exactly the same as the one on your chicken breast and the one in your lasagna giving everything that same basic taste. It's also true that the same manufacturers often supply a number of different retail outlets so just because it's packaged differently and sold in a different supermarket doesn't mean the basic ingredients will taste any different. So forget the ready meals and make a few more of your meals from scratch. Here are few meal ideas that can be made in minutes….
- Fill a bowl with spinach, rocket and watercress leaves. Top with crispy, grilled pancetta, cherry tomatoes and topped with a freshly poached egg.
- Grill a fresh tuna steak for a couple of minutes on each side and serve on a bed of fresh egg, 3 minute noodles sprinkled with some finely diced fresh chilli and coriander.
- Fill savoury pancakes (made with buckwheat instead of plain flour) or whole meal tortillas with shredded chicken or tinned tuna mixed with a little half fat crème fraiche, fresh coriander and garlic.
- Stir tinned sardines or mackerel into hot spaghetti. Add super sweet, cherry tomato halves and freshly torn basil leaves for a delicious, Mediterranean style supper.