Just How Healthy Is That Recipe?

When evaluating whether you want to make a recipe, it’s usually easy to judge whether it’s appetizing—many recipes have pictures to tempt you. But if what you’re looking for is a healthful recipe, how do you judge whether a recipe is really healthy, or just masquerading as healthy? We’ve come up with a few questions you can use as guides as you read through a recipe—they’ll help you identify (and steer clear of) the posers.

The healthiest recipes have at least a 1/2 cup veggies per person.
Vegetables / Martin Cathrae / CC BY 2.0

Read through the ingredient list and ask yourself:

Are most of the ingredients unprocessed?

The idea here is to emphasize whole foods in your diet. Ingredients that you can find in nature, or those that have been minimally processed should form the basis of healthful recipes. Minimal processing includes washing, peeling, slicing, juicing and the like. Some people also count freezing and dehydrating as minimal processing methods.

When you choose a diet containing mostly whole foods, your intake of “good stuff” goes up and your consumption of “bad stuff” goes down. Fiber goes up, hydrogenated fat goes down. Vitamins and minerals go up, salt and sugar go down. Antioxidants go up, additives go down. You get the idea. So scan the ingredient list, and try to limit those recipes where more than a couple prepared or processed ingredients show up.

Does the dish contain a full serving of produce per person?

It should go without saying (but I’ll say it anyway), that a recipe for four people should have enough produce in it that all four people get at least one serving of fruit or veggies. You’d be surprised, however, how often this is not the case. Note the number of portions that a recipe is supposed to make and mentally add up how much fruit or veggies the recipe calls for, then you’ll easily be able to estimate the amount of produce per serving.

Shoot for a 1/2 cup of fruit or veggies for entrees or side dishes–and of course, more is always better. Why? Because not only do fruits and veggies carry a lot of nutrition, they’re also low in calories, so their nutritional density is high. And, if you can bulk up recipes with more produce, it will bump up the nutrients and also make you feel more full.

Will the healthy ingredients end up swimming in fat?

If healthy ingredients end up cooking in a pan of hot oil, they aren’t going to be as virtuous as they started out. It pays to check out the preparation methods and cooking techniques when evaluating a recipe. Steer clear of preps steps that call for deep-frying or pan-frying (especially for foods that are coated in batter).

If a fried food texture is what you’re after, try oven-“frying,” which delivers the crunch of frying for fewer calories. In general, the method involves coating the food in seasoned, crispy crumbs (try whole wheat panko crumbs, or crushed, brown rice-crisp cereal) and then spraying it with a little cooking spray.