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Some simple steps to help you eat healthier

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New year, new resolutions. How many of you have already decided to eat healthier this year?

Everybody's idea of a "healthy diet" is different. We pretty much all agree that food should be minimally processed, and that your diet should include lots of fiber, adequate protein and reasonably low amounts of sugar.

After that, well, there are a few main branches of what folks consider "healthy."

One might follow guidelines set by the Food and Drug Administration. These suggest consuming the largest part of calories from whole grain foods, fruit and veggies, with reasonable amounts of protein and less fat.

Similar is a Mediterranean-type diet in which grains, lean fish, small amounts of meat, vegetables and olive oil are the staples. In this case, a larger percentage of calories from fat are acceptable, because it is heart-healthy and nutritious olive oil.

Then there is the question of dairy -- dairy products are often demonized, but many people, especially vegetarians, get low-fat protein and calcium through low-fat dairy products such as yogurt and milk.

A smaller number of people are great proponents of full-fat, unpasteurized dairy foods.

Of course, many healthy eaters avoid almost all carbohydrates. There's a joke that while dieters a couple of decades ago ate plates of pasta with tomato sauce because it was filling and low-fat, today, a dieter is more likely to drink a cup of olive oil than eat a noodle. Low-carb means no starchy grains or potatoes, sugary fruit or even starchy veggies such as corn or dried beans. Dairy is limited on low-carb diets because of the lactose, or milk sugar, which adds up to lots of carbs per serving.

For many low-carb dieters, meats, even fatty red meats like bacon, are fine. Bring on the chicken-bacon-ranch lettuce wrap.

A more historic -- evolutionarily speaking -- version of this is the paleo-type diet, meaning a few carbs from select root veggies and not-too-sweet fruit are OK, but absolutely no dairy, grains, dried beans or legumes are eaten. All kinds of fish and meat, even red meat and yes, even lard, are encouraged, as long as the source is wild or grass-fed. Nuts, seeds and olive oil are good. No processed food, including chemically expelled oils or sugar, is eaten. No cured products such as bacon or dried sausages are permitted.

And on and on.

It gets a little mind boggling. Folks passionate about one diet will insist anything else is slowly poisoning you. Look up "how to eat right" on the Internet, and you'll likely come away scared to put anything other than organic, heirloom, local, sun-ripened lettuce in your mouth ever again.

So, in the face of this challenge, we went broad, offering tips to the harried family cook looking for easy and affordable recipes that are quick enough to make during the week.

A few easy tips to get yourself going in the right direction:

-- Unless you're cooking for a large family, get a big toaster oven. They preheat in minutes, bake, broil or roast, are energy efficient, have cute little pans that are fast to wash, and make cooking a fresh meal so much easier and quicker. There is nothing simpler than throwing a pan of veggies into the toaster oven to roast.

-- If you usually buy vegetables frozen or in cans, vow to prepare fresh vegetables as often as possible. It is only slightly more time consuming, but the difference in taste, texture and nutrition is amazing. There are many pre-washed and cut vegetable options in produce sections for cooks too busy to peel and chop. Some are even in bags you can pop right into the microwave to steam.

-- Introduce new vegetables to your family, like kale. It comes pre-washed and cut in a big bag, so all you have to do is throw it in a pan with some garlic and olive oil. Roast baby carrots or cauliflower with olive oil in the toaster oven. Steam broccoli with a splash of water for 10 minutes in a covered bowl in the microwave.

-- As much as possible, forget about using margarine. I know people concerned with fat and cholesterol like the "heart-healthy" butter-like spreads on their toast, but grass-fed butter in moderation and olive or nut oils not only taste better and are not laboratory-made, but are wholesome and actually good for you. Grass-fed meat and butter is high in healthy conjugated linoleic acid, which according to many studies has a beneficial effect on the body's lean-muscle-to-fat ratio.

-- If you eat lots of white bread, white rice and mashed potatoes, branch out a little. Try other whole grains for side dishes. Quinoa, for example, is very trendy, delicious, versatile, cooks exactly like rice and is one of the healthiest substances on the planet. It's high in fiber, low in fat and a complete protein comparable to milk.

-- If you love your potatoes, and who doesn't, choose fingerlings or tiny red potatoes and roast them whole or smash with the skins on. The smaller the potato, the higher the skin-to-starchy-interior ratio and you'll get lots more fiber. Opt for sweet potatoes sometimes too. You can prepare

them any way you do regular potatoes, and they're chock full of vitamins.

-- Love spaghetti? Now and then, substitute spaghetti squash or thin strips of zucchini for the noodles with your favorite sauce. This is a paleo staple, but makes a fabulous side dish for anyone. If you're not doing the paleo thing, feel free to top with plenty of Parmesan cheese.

-- Dried beans of all types are nutritious and inexpensive, and should be enjoyed often. If you don't want to have to remember to soak beans overnight before cooking, try lentils. They have a great peppery flavor and cook in about 30 to 45 minutes straight from the bag, as do split peas. Skinless dried fava beans, called habas in Spanish, also cook in about an hour without soaking. They are toasty and nutty-flavored and absolutely fantastic cooked into a thick bean soup with lots of garlic and olive oil.

-- Cut back on the carbonated beverages and drink water. It'll save you money too.

-- And ending with dessert: sweet baked goods don't have many redeeming qualities other than taste. Try to eat fewer sweet desserts altogether. If a meal isn't complete for you without a sweet finish, go for a fruit salad, baked apples or Greek yogurt with honey a few times a week. Even if these are on the sugary side, they'll offer good nutrition as well.

ZUCCHINI AND LEEK NOODLES

Source: Adapted from Williams Sonoma

Ingredients

2 pounds small zucchini, ends trimmed

1 small carrot, peeled

3 leeks, white and light green parts only, cut into strips

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 teaspoon chili flakes

Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

DIRECTIONS

1. Using a vegetable peeler, cut the zucchini and carrot into long ribbons. If they are too wide, cut in half vertically with a sharp knife.

2. Remove the root end and cut the leeks vertically into long strips. Separate and wash well to remove any grit.

3. In a large skillet with a lid, heat the oil and add the garlic and chili. Sizzle for 30 seconds, then add the leeks. Stir to coat with oil, sprinkle with salt and black pepper to taste, then cover. Cook on low heat, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes or until the leeks are softened.

4. Add the zucchini and carrot strips and toss, re-season if necessary, and cover. Cook over low heat an additional 5-10 minutes or until the leeks are quite soft and the zucchini tender.

5. Serve sprinkled with Parmesan cheese, or add your favorite spaghetti sauce.

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