Healthy Cooking Tips To Kick Off 2015

Simple, not-lame tips for cleaning up your act this year

You woke up on January 1, 2015, vowing not to feel this way a year from then. No more late drinking nights, fast food at your desk, sidling over to the vending machine or ordering delivery every night.

Yeah! This is the year you kick all your bad eating habits. You've vowed to cook a fresh meal every night (more power to you if that includes going vegan and ditching alcohol for the whole month of January). To fuel up with all the steamed kale, quinoa, flax and Greek yogurt on the planet and even bring the leftovers to work the next day. Not only will you be saving the earth, but some serious cash and your health as well.

Right after you finish this bagel that your co-worker brought in. Well, now that the morning's plans have been derailed, the day is a wash, right? That whole-grain salad you brought in just looks so blah compared to everyone else's takeout. Might as well just reach for a slice and call off the whole healthy eating thing, right?

Nope. Not on our watch.

Cleaning up your act, in cooking, eating and ordering, is a marathon, not a sprint, and a stumble or two doesn't mean it's over. The key to sticking with it is adding little upgrades along the way, and outfitting yourself with a few small tricks to keep you on track, one bite at a time.

1. Upgrade your oatmeal.

Yup, hot cereal—but do you really think we're going to suggest you go all bland and boring? Forget that buttery, sugary mush and level up to the savory stuff. Start with steel-cut oats. (No time in the morning? Make a big batch in a slow cooker or rice cooker and portion it to eat throughout the week.) Then dress it up with the same herbs, spices and seasonings you'd use for rice or polenta. Warm Mediterranean and Middle Eastern flavors (try oregano, preserved lemon and za'atar), a hint of curry or a swirl of sambal kick the day off right, and even bring this hearty breakfast staple into lunch territory. Add crunch and a healthy-fat factor with toasted seeds (poppy, pepita and sesame) and nuts (pistachios, almonds, pine nuts), or even get wacky with kimchi, pickled vegetables and leftover protein from last night's dinner. Hey, the world is your oatmeal.

2. Mix our secret spice.

Roasted root vegetables, sauteed greens and steamed fish again? Sigh. Anyone's head would be dancing with dreams of cheeseburgers—unless they're armed with this secret weapon: a custom, salt-free spice blend.

Part one: Make the blend. Food editor Andy Baraghani offers the following formula, based on his mother's recipe. Just combine all the ingredients, then cover and store for a month:

1 tablespoon dried rose petals, finely ground (optional)

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon ground coriander

¼ teaspoon turmeric

¼ teaspoon sumac

¼ teaspoon ground cardamom

¼ teaspoon freshly ground black peppercorn

⅛ teaspoon ground clove

⅛ teaspoon ground nutmeg

Andy notes that toasting whole spices before grinding them makes the blend more fragrant—and once you've mastered it, you can add your own twists, such as kicking up the heat, smoke and texture with the addition of chiles, higher-voltage peppercorns and paprika, or just fussing around until you've found the formula that works.

Part two: Set yourself up for success. Keep a stash in your desk drawer or in your back pocket, so if the urge to order takeout strikes, you can go for plain grains, protein or vegetables and amp it up once your food arrives.

3. Keep things sweet.

Consider the carrot. It's crunchy and vitamin packed, sure, but it's also a powerhouse outside of its solid state. Instead of spooning out the sugar, honey or agave to sweeten sauces, soups, dressings, baked goods and condiments, Andy suggests adding in a little carrot juice. It brings fresh sweetness, vibrancy and body, while still packing in all its health benefits. You can even add a splash to that water you're chugging down as part of your new health regimen.

4. Embrace acid.

Fat? Salt? Oil? Who needs 'em when you've got citrus juice and a whole host of vinegars on your side. Sometimes all a dish needs is a bright note to complement the flavors of raw vegetables, roasted vegetables, simply steamed fish or whole grains. Lemons and limes are a great place to start, but citrus is in peak season, so consider cara cara or blood oranges, kumquats, tangerines, grapefruit or even yuzu if you can get your hands on some. And while apple cider, sherry and white vinegar (which you probably already have in your pantry) are great flavor building blocks, black vinegar (available at many Asian groceries), malt vinegar, date vinegar (try a Middle Eastern store) and balsamic vinegars that cost just a little bit extra are an instant upgrade to just about any meal.

5. Cooking vegetables? Crank the oven up to broil.

You're roasting most of your vegetables, right? It's a surefire way to deepen the flavor without relying on lots of fat but can result in a mushy texture if you're not flipping them over from time to time. Lock in serious crispness with a short blast from the broiler at the end. You'll have to keep a close eye on it to assure it doesn't scorch, but this ensures crunchy vegetables and an extra layer of complexity to pans of whole grains.