Why You Should Cook With Nutrient-Dense Foods
You’ll find it easier to lose weight and feel great if you focus on foods that pack every calorie with nutrients. Learn how to spot them — and get started with 16 easy recipes!
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Super Food Baked Salmon from Cotter Crunch
About 25 years ago, I lost 100 pounds. It wasn’t easy, and even now I struggle not to gain it all back. One secret I’ve found that helps me every time: I try to eat mostly nutrient-dense foods. It’s a somewhat fancy term for a simple idea, that the calorie count of a particular food should be matched with its nutritional content. For instance, a store-bought chocolate muffin will give me a ton of calories but relatively little that’s good for my health. If I make muffins from scratch with whole-wheat flour, avocado, zucchini, cocoa, and dark chocolate chips, on the other hand, I’m giving my body some major health benefits wrapped inside a treat. See what I mean? It’s easy, once you start thinking that way.
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What are nutrient-dense foods?
With nutrient-dense foods, it’s all about the ratio. What’s the overall nutritional value, compared to the calorie count? If you stick to whole foods rather than processed foods, you’re off to a good start — you’ve already eliminated a lot of added sugars and empty calories. Pick these up at the grocery store and you can’t go wrong:
Fruits and vegetables: These are the big kahunas of nutrient density — produce has relatively few calories per serving in general, as well as the macronutrient fiber and assorted micronutrients like vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytonutrients.
Nutritious protein: This includes lean meats, seafood, eggs, nuts, and legumes and beans. Here you’ll get protein, obviously, as well as micronutrients like iron, choline, and B vitamins.
Whole grains: Stock your pantry with healthy carbohydrates like brown rice, barley, farro, and 100% whole wheat bread. They’ll provide fiber, vitamins, and minerals, as well as some plant-based protein.
Low-fat dairy products: Choose low-fat milk, yogurt, and cheese, which can give you the calcium and vitamin D your body needs for strong bones as well as protein, potassium, phosphorus, vitamin A, choline, and selenium.
Why are nutrient-dense foods important?
The simple answer: They’re good for your overall health. Eating a healthy diet full of nutrient-dense foods usually means you eat fewer calories (because healthy foods keep you feeling full longer). That can help you maintain a healthy weight. You might lower your blood pressure and your risk of ailments like heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s — and you could see your mood improve, too.
Try some nutrient-dense recipes
Ready to start focusing on nutrition density in your cooking? Check out the delicious (and easy) recipes below — they’re all ready in under an hour, and each one combines several ingredients that offer substantial health benefits.
Get fishy with salmon, sardines, and tuna
Unless you’re living under a rock, you know how important Omega-3 fatty acids are to your health. (Just in case: It’s been linked to lower risks of heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, macular degeneration, rheumatoid arthritis, and other conditions.) But fishes like salmon, sardines, and tuna offer more than just those healthy fats — you’ll also get plenty of protein, minerals and vitamins like magnesium, potassium, selenium, and B vitamins (including vitamin B6 and vitamin B12), and essential nutrients like choline. Sardines and canned salmon are also loaded with calcium, thanks to their edible bones.
An easy, tasty sheet pan dinner starring multiple nutrient-dense foods? Yes, please. This one’s got salmon, Brussels sprouts, and blueberries. I’m a sucker for meals that combine savory and sweet, and roasting salmon with a blueberry-basil-balsamic sauce is just genius.
My husband isn’t big on salmon’s fishiness, but if I marinate it, like in this recipe, he’s just fine. Here, the fish soaks up a citrus-soy-ginger mixture before it hits a skillet for a few minutes, and then tops a salad made with nutrient-dense ingredients like kale, cabbage, and almonds.
Pairing tuna with avocado is one of my favorite ways to achieve the creaminess of classic tuna salad without using mayo. Here, English cucumber adds crunch, red onion adds zing, and cilantro adds flavor. (I’m one of those people who can’t tolerate cilantro, so I sub parsley.) Avocados are considered a nutrient-dense food in their own right, too, with healthy fat, fiber, vitamins, antioxidants, and phytosterols.
Canned sardines couldn’t be more convenient, and this recipe uses them in such a clever way. Not straight from the can, though — they get mixed with a flavorful, nutrient-packed sauté of kale, mushrooms, olives, onion, garlic, and herbs, to be used as a topping for baked sweet potatoes. Those spuds are pretty darn nutrient-dense themselves, by the way. I like to bake or roast a big batch to keep on hand!
Go green with kale, spinach, and chard
There’s a reason you see so many articles singing the praises of leafy greens — they’re nutritional powerhouses with very few calories per serving. For those few calories, you’ll get fiber, an alphabet soup of vitamins and minerals including vitamin A (in kale), vitamin D (in spinach), and folate, plus powerful antioxidants. Kale, spinach, and chard are among the easiest to find. In my kitchen, frozen kale and frozen spinach are pantry staples.
Guacamole is one of my husband’s go-to snacks, along with whole grain tortilla chips. Now, avocados are definitely nutritious, but if you’re going to eat a lot of guac, those calories add up. Swapping in a few cups of nutrient-dense kale leaves lets my husband eat the whole bowl without thinking twice. And before you ask, it really does taste like “regular” guacamole.
Q: How can I make a burger that offers complete and total satisfaction, without going overboard on fat and calories? A: With this clever patty, which combines lean ground turkey, chopped spinach, garlic, fresh herbs, and just a little bit of feta. I’m not saying it’s a flavor match for a juicy beef burger, but I’ll enjoy Greek flavors on a whole-grain bun any day.
A hearty bowl of veggie-packed soup is one of my favorite ways to eat a nutrient-dense meal — the broth keeps the calorie count on the lower side, while the vegetables and beans provide flavor and oomph. This one’s ready in just 30 minutes, and it’s a full meal in a bowl: cannellini beans, spinach, and orzo pasta in a lemon-scented broth.
Here’s a really good trick for nutrient-dense cooking: Use lots of spices, which keep things interesting without bumping up the calorie count. Here, onions, garlic, ginger, curry powder, and garam masala create a powerful base for sweet potatoes, yellow lentils, and Swiss chard. Serving it on quinoa gives you a protein boost, too. Oh, and it’s ready in about half an hour.
Embrace brassicas like cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower
One serving of these inexpensive, humble vegetables has less than 50 calories. But you’ll get an abundance of nutrients, including fiber, vitamin K, vitamin C, and vitamin B6, minerals like manganese, potassium, and magnesium, and a host of antioxidants.
Chicken tinga is one of my go-to dishes when we order Mexican food — shredded chicken in a smoky, spicy tomato sauce? Oh, yes. When I have leftover cooked chicken, these tacos are a must. The crunchy cabbage topping is such a good contrast.
One of my general rules of thumb for nutrient-dense cooking is to use a lot of vegetables. This easy stir fry calls for five, including a head of broccoli. Does that seem like too much chopping for a weeknight? Use frozen vegetables instead!
Whoever invented cauliflower rice deserves a medal. Swapping it for white rice instantly ups the nutrient density of any recipe. Here, it’s the key to a one-skillet dinner featuring lean ground turkey, canned tomatoes, black beans, and taco seasoning that’s ready in under half an hour.
Grain salads — made with whole grains, vegetables, and beans — are one of my go-to ways to ensure a meal is nutrient-dense. This one pairs nutty farro with chickpeas, cucumber, carrots, and broccoli, and tosses it all with herbs, a little feta, and a lemon-za’atar dressing that’s just irresistible.
Treat yourself with berries, dark chocolate, and nuts
I wouldn’t want to live without something sweet and yummy, would you? But even when choosing a treat, I aim for maximum nutritional bang for the calories. Berries are absolutely packed with flavonoids, plant compounds that offer a variety of health benefits. Dark chocolate — with a cocoa content of 70% or higher — provides an impressive assortment of antioxidants. And nuts? Yes, they’re relatively high in calories, but they provide key nutrients like protein, fiber, vitamin E, heart-healthy unsaturated fat, and cholesterol-lowering phytosterols.
These bonbons only seem indulgent — they have no added sugar, thanks to naturally sweet (and nutrient-dense) dates, and the filling gets its creaminess from two kinds of nuts. At the center of each: a perfect, ripe raspberry. That 70% dark chocolate coating keeps this in the nutrient-dense family.
Overnight oats are generally considered a breakfast thing, but I’d happily dig into one of these for a nutrient-dense dessert. It’s like a blackberry pie made with whole-grain oats and creamy almond butter. I mean, of course that’s dessert.
Chocolate hummus is a trend that had me scratching my head, to be perfectly honest. But given how naturally nutty chickpeas and tahini both taste, I get it now. Adding cocoa powder, a little maple syrup, and a splash of vanilla extract makes this one nutrient-dense treat. Dip some berries into it!
When you need a hit of something sweet right now but you don’t want to reach for something processed, I challenge you to find a better option than this. To make it, you only need to scoop some avocado into the blender and whir it up with cocoa powder, maple syrup, and vanilla extract. It turns into a downright nutritious treat.
More tips for eating healthy
Check out more ways to introduce healthier habits into your diet.