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3 Steps to Heart-Healthy Cooking

3 Steps to Heart-Healthy Cooking

Preparing healthful meals at home is a key ingredient to promoting good heart health. The extra time it takes likely will be good for your health.

Nutrition & Movement

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In today's fast-paced world, more families are deciding to eat out or grab meals on the go. The problem? Full-service restaurant and fast-food meals tend to be higher in fat, cholesterol, sodium and calories than home-cooked meals, and the food portions are typically much larger than what your body needs. This fast-food trend has contributed to the growing obesity epidemic and helps reinforce unhealthy eating patterns. Preparing healthful meals at home is a key ingredient to promoting good heart health. The extra time it takes likely will be good for your health.

Finding the Time to Make Small Changes

Between work, carpools and errands, you may feel as though there's never any time to cook. But preparing simple meals at home doesn't need to be labor intensive. Cooking at home allows you to encourage healthy eating habits early on and to teach your children about foods and good nutrition, setting a foundation for healthy eating.

Remember, it's not just the foods you choose to have in your kitchen but the way you choose to prepare your meals that will help keep you and your family heart healthy. By making small changes in the way you and your family eat, you can reduce your risks for heart-related health problems.

A basic rule of thumb: Look for ways to cut down on saturated and total fat, cholesterol and calories.

Three Steps to Healthier Cooking

Step 1: Cut Out the Trans Fat and Saturated Fat

Here are some simple ways to reduce saturated and trans fats when you are cooking:

  • Choose lean meats like pork tenderloin or lean or extra lean ground beef and remove skin from chicken and turkey.
  • Drain the fat from cooked meats or after browning ground beef for stews, tacos and other family favorites.
  • Baste chicken and turkey with wine, low-sodium chicken stock, vegetable stock or fruit juice instead of using (fat) drippings.
  • Eat fish at least two times per week; this can include canned tuna.*
  • Use small amounts of vegetable oils for cooking instead of solid fats (butter and margarine).

*Children and pregnant women are advised by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to avoid eating fish with the highest potential of mercury contamination, including shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish. Children and pregnant women can eat up to 12 ounces (two average servings) per week of fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury, including canned light tuna, salmon, pollock and catfish.

Cooking with Good vs. Bad Fats
Good FatsBad Fats
Unsaturated fat Saturated fat (Typically found in foods from animals, such as meat, milk, cheese and butter)
Vegetable oils, such as corn, olive, canola, safflower, sesame, soybean, sunflower or peanut Lard, butter, palm and coconut oils

Step 2: Watch the Way You Cook

Use cooking methods that require little or no fat—boil, broil, bake, roast or poach foods rather than pan-frying them. You should also consider other ways to prepare food:

  • Stew
  • Grill
  • Stir-fry
  • Steam

Step 3: Moderate Portions

To plan healthful portion sizes (per person), picture the following objects:

  • 3 to 4 ounces of meat or poultry: the size of a deck of cards
  • 1 ounce of low-fat or fat-free cheese: the size of 4 dice
  • 1/2 cup of cooked rice or pasta: 1/2 of a baseball
  • 1 baked potato: a fist
  • 2 tablespoons of peanut butter: a ping-pong ball

Cultural Influences on Cooking

Food plays a central role in most cultures, and cooking traditions are often passed down from one generation to the next. Some of these dishes are prepared with lots of animal fat. For example, many traditional Southern foods are fried or barbecued and served with gravy and sauces. Asian cuisine is one of the healthiest, but it can be high in sodium (soy and teriyaki sauces) and cooking oils. The good news is there are healthier versions of your favorite ethnic foods.

Heart-Healthy Recipes

Mustard, Horseradish and Lemon Salmon

Jicama and Strawberry Salad

Turkey Chili

Print these recipes

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute has created a series of recipe resources. There is a listing of heart-healthy recipes, including appetizers, soups, entrees, side dishes and desserts, called Stay Young at Heart: Cooking the Heart-Healthy Way

Recipe guides specific to African American and Latino families include:

Make sure to speak with your primary care provider, a registered dietitian or a nutritionist about ways to prepare good-tasting, heart-healthy meals for you and your family.

Some Dos and Don'ts for Healthful Food Preparation


  • Flavor foods with herbs, spices, wine, lemon or vinegar instead of salt.
  • Use reduced-sodium soy and teriyaki sauces.
  • Use egg whites or egg substitutes, which have lower cholesterol.
  • Use reduced-fat or fat-free cream cheese or mayonnaise on bagels and sandwiches.
  • Try applesauce, prune whip or fat-free yogurt to replace some or all of the oil in some baked goods.
  • Incorporate lots of fresh vegetables into recipes, especially those that are high in fiber, such as chick peas and kidney beans.
  • Aim to eat at least five or more servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Need help determining what counts as one serving? Here are some examples:
    —1 cup chopped raw vegetables or fruit: baseball size
    —1/4 cup dried fruit (raisins, apricots): a small handful
    —1 cup of lettuce: four leaves
    —5 to 6 baby carrots


  • Overcook vegetables; instead, steam or bake them to keep their nutrients.
  • Load the butter on for flavor; substitute extra-virgin olive oil for butter, stick margarine and other trans-fatty oils.
  • Overindulge; be aware of portion sizes and how many calories are in the portions you eat and serve your family.

Questions to Ask

  • Do I need to restrict my or my child's intake of calories, fat or sodium?
  • What is a healthy weight for me or my child? Am I or my child overweight?
  • What are the recommended portion sizes for adults and children?
  • Do I or my kids need to see a nutritionist or dietitian? If so, can you recommend one?
  • How do I read food labels?
  • Should we keep a food diary?
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