Sam Kass has some pretty serious experience helping people eat healthier: As a White House chef during the Obama administration, Kass was responsible for making sure the First Family ate well. In his other job as senior advisor for nutrition policy, he also helped shape the menu for all Americans. Among other responsibilities, Kass worked closely with Michelle Obama, acting as executive director of her Let's Move initiative and helping to conceive and plant the White House vegetable garden.
Kass also knows a thing or two about the struggle to get a healthy meal on the table when you have a million other things going on. "I can't count the times that I was absorbed in some important meeting and glanced at my watch, only to realize it was almost 6 p.m., and I had just half an hour to get dinner on the table for a family of four, including a man who didn't exactly have time to wait," Kass recalls in his new book, "Eat a Little Better: Great Flavor, Good Health, Better World." (Kass also notes that the Secret Service hates it when people run in the White House, which he frequently did to get to the kitchen in time to make dinner for the president.)
In the book, Kass shares tips and recipes to help people eat better rather than "right." When it comes to eating in a way that's healthier for you, as well as for the planet, Kass believes that making progress is more important than following a rigid set of rules. "We've heard a lot about what's the right way to eat and what's the wrong way to eat," he told Better. "And that's a terrible way to look at it. Nobody eats perfect. That would be boring."
So what is this better way of eating? "Essentially, eat a lot of fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains, and not a lot of meat or processed foods," Kass writes in the book. "Following more or less that same advice will also help our planet."
To get to that better diet, he advises making changes that you can sustain. "Be honest, and say, 'Here's where I am, here's where I want to go, and these are the first three things I am going to do to get there," Kass told NBC News BETTER. "Build on that kind of progress over time." To get you started, here are eight simple things you can do to eat a little better, starting today.
- Get your produce out of the crisper: "One thing that's very simple to remember is that we eat what we see," says Kass." Your home is a place where you want to surround yourself by good options in plain sight." Research, including an experiment at Google, backs up the notion that we tend to eat what's most accessible and visible, for better or worse. Since "the crisper is where good food goes to die," Kass suggests putting perishable fruits and vegetables on a shelf in the fridge where you can see them, and displaying fruit that doesn't need to be refrigerated in a bowl on the counter. The crisper is a great place to keep condiments, he notes.
- Put your treats on the top shelf: Make more room on your counter for healthy snacks like fruit and nuts by moving your "indulgent treats, which are also a great part of life," to the back of the top shelf. If you have to use a step stool to get your chips and cookies, chances are better that you'll only eat them when you really want them.
- Have a grocery shopping battle plan: "Take a few minutes on Sunday to come up with a basic plan for your shopping," suggests Kass. If you have a meal plan in place, you're likely to make better choices than if you're trying to figure out what's for dinner on the way home from work on Tuesday night, he adds. While you're making that plan, be sure to have mostly nutritious foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes on your shopping list so you fight your food battles at the store once a week instead of countless times a day at home. "When it comes to food, your home should be a stress-free place, a sanctuary where you can pretty much eat whatever you want, because you've stocked your cabinet and fridge with good stuff," Kass writes in "Eat a Little Better." "Again, you shouldn't have to rely on willpower and live in a war zone where you wage daily combat against temptation. Don't get me wrong, there is a battle to be fought. But it should go down at the supermarket."
- Buy a second baking sheet: Once you've won the battle at the grocery store and come home with your trunkload of veggies, you want to make sure all that good stuff doesn't spoil. Roasting is one of Kass's favorite ways to cook vegetables, and if you're cranking up the oven for one sheet of vegetables, you might as well make a second batch so you'll have leftovers for future meals. Another roasting tip: "Having plenty of parchment paper on hand helps with the cleanup," says Kass. Simply line your pans with parchment before adding vegetables that have been tossed with oil and salt, then roast at 450℉ to 500℉ until the vegetables are tender and nicely browned. The parchment paper keeps the vegetables from sticking and also prevents your vegetables from getting any off flavors from metal pans. When you're done, the paper can simply be tossed so you barely have to wash your pans. No scrubbing necessary.
- Employ the elements of deliciousness: Kass got his start as a chef cooking in restaurant kitchens, where the focus tends to be on how things taste rather than their nutritiousness, but he also learned techniques that can bump up the pleasures of a plate of vegetables or bowl of beans just as well as they can enhance a big steak. "Sure, cooking in professional kitchens showed me the pleasures of potatoes mixed with their weight in butter, but it had also taught me the other elements of deliciousness — building flavor through basic cooking techniques, varying textures and seasoning with acid and salt," he writes in "Eat a Little Better." Keep those elements in mind when you want to jazz up your meals. You can vary textures by adding something crunchy like nuts or seeds, add brightness with acidic ingredients like lemon juice or vinegar, and add saltiness with olives, anchovies — and regular old salt. If you're worried about your salt consumption, remember that a little goes a long way. You should also know that "about 75 percent of dietary sodium comes from eating packaged and restaurant foods, whereas only a small portion (11 percent) comes from salt added to food when cooking or eating," according to the FDA.
- Swap out your spuds: "I love sweet potatoes," says Kass, who devotes a whole chapter in his book to this "almost-too-good-to-be-true vegetable, which has more fiber and vitamins and, almost magically, fewer calories [than white potatoes] despite all that awesome sweetness." When you're menu planning, think about where you can swap in sweet potatoes for regular potatoes and refined starches. Sweet potatoes are easy to roast, but Kass also notes that they can be sauteed if you're pressed for time.
- Start a steak night: If you're a meat eater, Kass says you don't have to give it up completely. "Eat less meat, not no meat," he says. "I say that as a meat lover." In order to cut down on red meat consumption, President Obama and Kass instituted a Friday night steak night at the White House. Designating a beef night meant for the other days of the week, the president and his family weren't eating red meat. Kass says that for some people that might seem like a big sacrifice, while for others it might not be a big deal. The key is to see what progress looks like for you. And remember, when you do eat meat, you don't need a 20-ounce steak, says Kass — a small portion of a very high quality of meat can be very satisfying.
- Just eat the carrot! While Kass is all for seasonal, local and organic, he worries that when we fetishize these buzzwords sometimes we end up foregoing produce altogether. "Strive for and support local and sustainable agriculture, and organic when you can, but if you are eating a conventional carrot, I'd rather you eat that than no carrots," he says. The same goes for getting preoccupied with certain micronutrients and looking for them in fortified products instead of simply eating more produce. "We get lost in the confusion and complications and the conflicting science of what some random study says is good for you," he says. "We get too obsessed with these individual ingredients and nutrients. If you eat basic, balanced nutritious foods, you'll get what you need. Keep it simple."
Here's one more piece of advice from Kass as you strive to eat better: Don't try to be perfect. Or, as he puts it, "If you eat a Twinkie, it's OK — I still love you."
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