Since childhood I’ve loved interesting and intense flavors. In 1972, when I was 11, my parents joined an international supper club, where everyone cooked a dish around a certain theme, a luau or a Japanese meal, and contributed it to a potluck dinner. My parents filled the house with tantalizing aromas and then drove away with the food in their Plymouth station wagon! I was left with Salisbury steak TV dinners with my younger brothers. Fortunately for me, my town’s first Mexican restaurant also opened around that time, and soon afterward my aunt Linda, a fellow flavortarian introduced me to Szechuan Chinese food.
Before I changed my way of eating in 2014, my go-to foods included spaghetti with spicy arabbiatta sauce, home-baked garlic bread, tortilla chips and fresh salsa, and hummus with pita bread. It wasn’t exactly Twinkies or Lunchables, but the noodles, bread and chips went down so easily that I regularly consumed just a few hundred calories a day more than I needed, eventually landing me in the obese category.
Food companies add flavor (and shelf life) with cheap, unhealthful ingredients like added sugars and highly processed fats. Thus a potato (bland and quick to sprout or spoil) becomes a bag of kettle cooked sweet chili potato chips. I could eat a whole 7-serving bag of those in the old days, surely in keeping with the company’s plan.
Whole foods = bland foods?
In contrast, in the 1970s, my mom would sometimes eat what she called diet food: boiled chicken breasts, cottage cheese, and canned peaches. I developed a prejudice against healthy foods based on this bland meal. But 40 years later, when I (finally) came around to focusing on what would make foods healthy and palatable for me, I had one of the most joyful and impactful realizations of my life. Adding plenty of flavor to whole, nutrient-dense foods is actually very easy! And herbs and spices not only fit my eating plan, but are actually powerhouses of nutrition.
Herbs made simple (not slimy) …
I’ve dreamed of snipping fresh herbs each day for my meals as in the photo. But what really happens is that the herbs in little pots on my windowsill wither and die, and fresh bunches in my fridge quickly turn half-slimy. Fortunately I can stock up on the types of dried herbs that still have plenty of flavor (like oregano, rosemary and Herbes de Provence), and frozen cubes of cilantro, parsley and basil. And when I do have bunches of fresh herbs, I (usually) catch them before they wilt, and freeze them in ice cube trays to be stored in freezer bags.
Savory spice blends from cuisines around the world
I shop at Penzeys (online or stores) for a huge range of high-quality spices and blends. I buy smaller jars to keep my spices rotating and fresh, as well as larger refill bags of those I use most often (like Szechuan Pepper Salt). The blends (many salt-free) make it super-easy for me to add great flavor to vegetables, soups, stews, stir-fries and even popcorn. Besides the ones shown here, I love Cajun, Bouquet Garni, Tandoori, Jerk, Greek, Tsardust, and so many more. With these blends in my pantry, I have the confidence to plan simple, no-recipe meals and know that they will be delicious!
Sweet spices too
I guess you can tell that I generally lean more toward spicy foods. But what about adding sweet, dessert-like flavors to wholesome “real” foods like fruits, sweet potatoes and pumpkin? These can of course taste great on their own, but it’s also easy and fun to add sweet spices like cinnamon, allspice, ground cloves, pumpkin pie spice, nutmeg, even coriander.
Here’s a tale of two dishes:
#1: Honeycrisp apple dusted with cinnamon, allspice and ground cloves. 95 calories, 4.5 grams of fiber, lots of still-unidentified phytonutrients that help reduce inflammation and even prevent cancer.
#2: One serving of Apple Crumble Pie. 310 calories, 2 grams of fiber, 23 grams of added sugar (46% of the daily recommended total).
I ate both of them (before my January reset), and they were both delicious. The pie does include real apples and oats, and it tasted amazing. But the actual apple fits my eating plan better, and it was just as flavorful, with satisfying crunch and juiciness.
Other flavor-and-nutrition powerhouses
I’m sure you use many more ingredients that boost both flavor and nutrition, like garlic and ginger — I choose the easy method of using little frozen cubes. Onions are bold powerhouses and a recent study even linked onion consumption with a lower risk of depression! Tomato paste, curry pastes, and boxed organic vegetable broths are other easy staples for me. I just have to check labels and avoid sauces stretched out with sugar and vegetable oils. Vinegars and mustard add bursts of flavor without sugar or fat (I like to rub fish with mustard before baking). Of course a flavortarian like me must have hot peppers and pepper sauces. Japanese miso paste (I get the lower-sodium kind, from Asian supermarkets) adds a warm umami flavor with the extra bonus of being a fermented food. And speaking of that, fresh sauerkraut and kimchee are fabulous flavor boosters. Whole-food cacao powder or cacao nibs are great in smoothies. There are so many more. Please share your favorites in the comments!
A few examples of my typical flavor-filled whole foods
Who wants to eat plain nonfat Greek yogurt? Or a plain cucumber? But when I mix them with plenty of sumac, dried thyme, red pepper, crushed garlic, a little salt and a drizzle of olive oil, I have a delicious zaziki, which I eat either directly with a spoon, as a side dish with a meal, or with true wholegrain crackers like Wasa.
Concoction for breakfast, snack or dessert!
Nearly every day I make something I call a concoction: easy to throw together, resembling an acai bowl but less sweet. It contains protein, nuts or seeds, whole grains, fruit, and plenty of flavor thanks to sweet spices. I start with plain nonfat Greek yogurt, lowfat cultured cottage cheese, or a plant-based yogurt (or sometimes I just start with the fruit layer as in the photo). I add berries (often thawed from frozen), a cut-up apple, and sometimes even canned plain pumpkin. A fourth of a cup of raw old-fashioned oats adds chewiness and a whole-grain boost. One ounce of nuts or seeds (usually hemp hearts or pumpkin seeds) or 2 tablespoons of almond butter contribute healthy fats and more protein. Then I go wild with whatever sweet spices I happen to have on hand. So easy and good!
No bland, mushy vegetables here!
My favorite way of cooking vegetables is to cut them up (or even buy precut), toss with a little olive oil (and maybe crushed garlic) in a large bowl, sprinkle with Szechuan Pepper Salt, and roast at 400 degrees on parchment paper for easy cleanup. Even oft-maligned veggies like turnips and rutabagas turn out sweet and tender, not mushy or bland. Try roasting carrots or cauliflower with garam masala, yum!
No need for creamy dressings, cheese or croutons. I also don’t bother to mix up special dressings. I just pile up prewashed greens and whatever raw vegetables I’ve got, and add a squeeze of lemon juice or a splash of apple cider or balsamic vinegar, and a few olives, jalapenos and/or Greek peppers — plus a little of the juice from the jar! Over the top I grind black pepper and add some fresh or dried herbs, and maybe some Greek seasoning. A spoonful of high-quality olive oil isn’t even necessary, but it actually helps us absorb the nutrients from the salad more effectively. Sunflower or pumpkin seeds add crunch, flavor and nutrition. To create a whole meal out of my salad, I can just add garbanzo beans, a whole can of tuna in water, or some leftover cooked tofu, fish or meat. Please share your easy salad ideas below!
No-calorie beverages with flavor
I’m fortunate to enjoy drinking plain water, especially from my distiller. But my second-favorite drink is hops water! It’s definitely not for everyone, but I love the combination of sparkling water and the complex bitter-fruity taste of hops, with no calories, sweetener or alcohol. There are also hop teas for a double flavor boost. It’s a great substitute for the craft beer I wish were healthier for me 🙂
If you’re craving taste in your water, but hops, not so much, there are of course herbal teas, and lemon, lime, cucumber, pineapple, mint, watermelon, or fresh ginger make great infusions in plain, fizzy or hot water.
The health evidence continues to mount in favor of plain black, green and white teas, and even black coffee, as long as we can regulate our caffeine intake and protect our sleep.
Note that if we’re paying attention to our overnight fast (12 hours is a great goal), we can still be fasting and enjoy these no-calorie beverages. So I can enjoy black coffee before breakfast and a hops water or Sleepytime tea in the evening and still keep my fast (typically 7 pm to 8 am).
Just eat the salt ??
This was my favorite trick when I was training myself to stop evening snacking. I’d put out a small plate of Himalayan pink salt or herb-infused salt, along with a glass of sparkling or still water. Then when a wave of snack craving struck, I’d pick up a few salt crystals and let them melt on my tongue. Tasty! And it doesn’t take much. Of course, excess salt can be a concern, but most salt in the standard American diet (yes, “SAD”) comes from highly processed foods, and on my whole-foods eating plan I naturally consume much less salt.
I’m in recovery from obesity. I will always need to pay attention to what I consume, and keep steering myself back to an eating plan of mainly whole, unprocessed foods. But that’s OK. I know how to add plenty of delicious flavor, and that’s what I crave the most.
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