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When it comes to cooking tasty meals, salt, fat and sugar are often the key ingredients. There is no doubt that these ingredients taste good, but they are certainly not beneficial if you are trying to lose weight. Is it realistic, then, to try to create healthy meals that also taste great?

Absolutely, and you don't have to have the culinary skills of a chef. It all comes down to knowing where to cut back without impacting the flavour, using alternative ingredients to add flavour, and being aware of what's in your ingredients. Once you know the simple steps you can take to improve your home-cooked meals, you can have your cake and eat it too!

Meal planning
A good plan starts with an organized one. The focus on a protein (fish, meat or poultry) as the main component of a meal is a thing of the past. When you plan meals, shift your focus to the vegetables. In fact, half your plate should consist of veggies, only one quarter should be grains, and the other quarter, protein.

Plan meals in advance, make a grocery list and stick to it. That way you'll be less likely to wander around the grocery store wondering what to purchase, or to grab unhealthy items at random.

Try to stick to the perimeter of the store; most of the whole foods are found on the outer aisles, as opposed to the centre aisles, which are often filled with highly processed items.
Plan ahead: when you're cooking, double the recipe and freeze your leftovers. They'll make a quick lunch for work or a convenient, healthy supper for those evenings when you don't feel like cooking.  
A little of this, a little of that
A little means a lot when it comes to fat, salt, and sugar. A common misconception is that there's no harm in adding a small amount of oil to the pan, a little butter to your bread, just a dash of salt to your recipe. The reality is, it adds up quickly. A small tablespoon of oil contains 120 calories and 12 grams of fat! Half a teaspoon of salt contains over half your sodium for the day.

Make it healthy, but make it tasty 
Use low-fat cooking methods and avoid overcooking to save on calories and fat, but preserve the flavour and texture. The healthiest approach is to grill, broil, microwave, bake, sauté or stir-fry.

Watch the fat by using an oil spray or non-stick cookware. Measure out the oil you use. You may realize that what you thought was a teaspoon is actually much more.

Up the fibre and whole grains. Fibre will help you feel full longer and keep your bowels regular. Replace up to half of the all-purpose flour in your recipes with whole wheat flour. Also look for recipes with cornmeal, oatmeal and flax.

Meats and poultry can be high in fat, especially saturated fat. Choose lean cuts. Trim away any visible fat and remove the skin prior to cooking.

Cut back on the fat and calories in your loaf and muffin recipes by replacing or substituting the oil, shortening or butter with apple sauce or yogurt. Just substitute cup for cup; you'll still end up with a moist product.

Omit the salt from your cooking and baking. A half-teaspoon or even a pinch of salt may not seem like much, but the average person gets far too much.

Save on calories and fat by choosing low-fat milk products. You can substitute skim and 1% for whole and 2% milk, or use evaporated milk in place of cream.

Experiment with herbs, spices and seasonings. Prepared sauces and condiments may be a quick fix for flavour but are usually high in sodium, fat and calories. Citrus juices, vinegars, no-added-salt seasoning mixes and fresh and dried herbs will add flavour to your food. Try roasting your garlic and vegetables before adding them to recipes.

Savour the flavour!
Often, people don't eat their food, they inhale it. Meals should be enjoyed, so sit back and savour at the dinner table. Pay attention to those fullness cues to avoid overeating. Thinking about a second helping? Not so fast! Allow 20 minutes and then re-evaluate.

(Maureen Tilley is a registered dietitian with Capital Health and the author of Hold the Salt, a cookbook offering quick and easy recipes to help lower blood pressure and promote healthy eating.)

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