18 Ways You’re Sabotaging Your Healthy Meals

If you grew up eating the typical American diet, figuring out how to eat healthy gets complicated. Added sugar and salt abound in just about anything you can buy at the grocery store. Just buying fresh fruits and veggies doesn’t guarantee you the best nutrition. Plus, if you aren’t careful, you might accidentally choose the wrong way to cook ingredients in otherwise healthy meals.

Want to eat healthy, feel better, and maybe even lose some weight? Read on to check out some of the ways your cooking or grocery shopping might be sabotaging what you thought were healthy meals.

1. Boiling your vegetables

Broccoli boiling in a pot
Steaming veggies is better than boiling. | iStock.com

If you want to maximize the nutritional value of your fresh vegetables, put the stockpot away, and refrain from boiling them. Steaming your veggies leaves more of their essential nutrients intact, while boiling them strips away many of the beneficial vitamins and compounds that make them so healthy to eat in the first place. Plus, boiling your vegetables is more likely to leave you with limp broccoli and soggy carrots than steaming is.

2. Grilling everything

cooking a bunch of food on a charcoal grill
Cooking food on a grill isn’t the healthiest method. | iStock.com

Heading to the backyard to grill some chicken every once in a while won’t hurt you. Just don’t do it every night — even if the weather is beautiful. The smoke from your grill contains carcinogenic compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. And other cancer-causing compounds called heterocyclic amines end up in whatever food you’re grilling. Plus, the simple process of cooking meat at high temperatures produces other chemicals, called advanced glycation end products, that increase inflammation and up your risk of some chronic diseases.

3. Sautéing in oil instead of broth

Sautéing mushrooms and onions
Broth helps cut calories in a dish. | iStock.com

If you’ve realized you shouldn’t fry your food, sautéing sounds like a good option. When you sauté meat or vegetables, it’s tempting to reach for the oil. (That’s especially true if you’re using a relatively healthy oil, such as olive oil.) But you can avoid adding unnecessary calories to your meal by sautéing in chicken or vegetable broth instead. Plus, the broth will add more flavor to your food than oil would. 

4. Frying your tofu

Frying tofu
Frying doesn’t do you any health favors. | iStock.com

Planning to make a light meal with tofu? Great. Just don’t bread and fry it. Frying your food — tofu or otherwise — adds tons of extra calories. And it destroys many of the nutrients in your food. Don’t think you get a free pass for choosing a healthy oil, such as olive oil or even coconut oil. Those oils are good for you but only in moderation — a term pretty much never associated with frying.

5. Using too much oil for your stir-fry

Chicken stir-fry
Too much oil ruins stir-fry. | iStock.com

Stir-frying can offer an extremely healthy and flavorful way to prepare your meal. (Not to mention it’s fast, so it can help you get dinner on the table in record time.) But make sure when you stir-fry your veggies, shrimp, chicken, or tofu, you aren’t going overboard with the oil. You need only a little bit of oil to achieve a delicious stir-fry. If you drown your food in oil, you’re adding unnecessary calories — and defeating the purpose of stir-frying.

6. Picking white rice instead of brown rice — and cooking it in butter

fancy white bowl filled with rice, green peas, and rice
Brown rice is a whole grain, while white rice is not. | iStock.com

Even the healthiest assortment of veggies and lean protein makes a less healthy meal than you think if you serve it with white rice instead of brown rice. Brown rice is a whole grain. That means it includes all parts of the grain: the bran, germ, and endosperm. White rice, on the other hand, contains only the endosperm and not the bran and germ (which are the most nutritious parts of the grain). So brown rice offers a lot more in the way of fiber, vitamins, and nutrients than white rice. And the cooking method matters, too. Always cook your rice without adding butter.

7. Reaching for canned fruit instead of fresh

customer taking canned food from the shelf in the store
Canned fruits lose some nutritional value. | iStock.com/DragonImages

Fruit makes a delicious and healthy dessert. But don’t sabotage the nutritional value by reaching for canned fruit instead of opting for something fresh. Fresh (or even flash-frozen) fruit doesn’t have all the preservatives you find in canned fruit. And it certainly doesn’t come in sugary syrup either. Plus, fresh fruit provides you with many important nutrients, including phytochemicals that researchers have linked to reduced risk of many diseases.

8. Going for couscous instead of quinoa

Couscous salad with mint
Couscous offers less protein and fiber than quinoa. | iStock.com

Couscous and quinoa look sort of similar. And they have a pretty similar texture, too. But you should always pick quinoa, which is a protein-packed whole grain, instead of couscous, which is made of wheat flour. As you probably already know, whole grains offer numerous health benefits. They have lots of fiber (which in itself can help control your blood sugar and cholesterol). They can also help your digestion, lower your blood pressure, and reduce inflammation.

9. Picking flour tortillas instead of corn

Burrito in a flour tortilla | iStock.com

When you make tacos or burritos, you might feel tempted to reach for the flour tortillas, especially if you’re stuffing those tortillas with veggies, grilled chicken, brown rice, and other healthy toppings. But stop. Corn tortillas have less than half the calories you’d find in their flour counterparts. And corn tortillas also have about half the fat and carbs of flour tortillas. The obvious choice? Put down the flour tortillas, and try corn tortillas instead. 

10. Choosing Alfredo sauce instead of tomato sauce

Pasta with chicken
Alfredo sauce is full of butter and cream. | iStock.com/ morgan23

A pasta dish, especially one with whole wheat noodles and a healthy serving of veggies, can make a filling but healthy dinner. Don’t sabotage it by going for an Alfredo sauce instead of a tomato-based sauce. Many Alfredo sauces, especially those that come in a jar, are highly caloric. And even if you make it at home, you’ll notice the two main ingredients are butter and cream — not exactly the recipe for a health food. Instead of Alfredo sauce, go for a tomato-based sauce, preferably one that uses olive oil instead of vegetable oil.

11. Buying traditional peanut butter

Tasty peanut butter in a bowl
Even reduced-fat peanut butter just compensates with a lot of sugar. | iStock.com/ALLEKO

Peanut butter seems like a healthy spread to put on your toast or apples. But if you’re buying traditional peanut butter, you’re consuming a lot of fat. So what about the reduced-fat version from your favorite brand? If you opt for that jar, you’re probably making up for the fat by getting a whole lot more sugar, which manufacturers add to adjust the flavor. The solution? Go with natural peanut butter to skip all the additives and extra sugar.

12. Preparing veggie burgers from the freezer, not from fresh ingredients

veggie burger
Frozen patties have lots of sodium. | iStock.com

Veggie burgers often pack a lot fewer calories than the typical beef or turkey burger. So they sound like a healthy alternative to a regular burger. But if you’re just buying frozen veggie burger patties, you should think again. Many pre-made veggie burger patties are incredibly high in sodium. And many lack flavor to the extent that you’ll be tempted to drown them in caloric or sugary sauces. Do yourself a favor, and learn to make veggie burgers at home. They’ll taste better — and they’ll be a lot better for you, as well. 

13. Drowning your salad in dressing

Salad in a Bowl
The wrong dressing will kill a salad’s healthy potential. | iStock.com

If you’re taking the time to prepare a salad, preferably with nutritious veggies and a lean source of protein, your meal is off to a healthy start. So don’t sabotage all that hard work by drowning your salad in a caloric dressing. Ranch, Caesar, and bleu cheese are a few examples of dressings that will add far too much fat, sugar, and salt to your salad. Make sure you read labels or make your own salad dressing at home if you need something to spice up your salad. 

14. Choosing iceberg lettuce

Iceberg lettuce
Iceberg lettuce doesn’t really offer much nutritional value. | iStock.com

Whether you’re making a salad or sandwich, you can choose a much more nutritious kind of lettuce than iceberg. You can try kale or spinach. Go for arugula, Swiss chard, or butter lettuce. Or even reach for Romaine lettuce. Iceberg lettuce won’t hurt you. But it’s not nearly as nutrient-rich as the other low-calorie greens that you can pick up in the produce section. 

15. Going for white bread

White bread is pretty much filled with empty calories. | iStock.com

When you make a sandwich or choose bread to serve with another dish, you should always go for whole grain bread instead of white bread. The calories you get from white bread are pretty empty, meaning they have little nutritional value and even fewer health benefits. Just as when you choose white rice over brown rice, you miss out on the bran and germ when you go for white bread. If you really want to make a healthy sandwich, you owe it to yourself to find a whole wheat bread you love. 

16. Drinking a soda

Glass of cola drink with ice, shot close up with selective focus.
There are so many unhealthy things about soda. | iStock.com/rez-art

So you’re preparing a healthy meal. That means you can accompany it with a soda, particularly a fancy artisan soda, right? Wrong. If you really want your meal to stay healthy, you can’t wash it down with all that sugar. (And please don’t reach for a diet soda.) If you really want something fizzy, go with sparkling water or seltzer water instead. You can even add some fruit to it to amp up the flavor. Or try unsweetened ice tea.

17. Reaching for a light beer

Beer into glass on wooden surface
Light beer still has a lot of empty calories. | iStock.com/grafvision

When you spend the time to make a healthy dinner, it seems pretty harmless to drink a light beer with your meal. But think again before you open the fridge. Light beer often doesn’t really have fewer calories than a regular beer. Some just have lower amounts of alcohol — which means you might end up drinking more than one. You can stick with your favorite beer. Just check the calories, and stick to a single drink. And if you’re partial to wine instead of beer, go for red instead of white.

18. Skipping dessert

organic fresh parfait dessert with raspberries and granola
Indulging in cravings — in moderation — is a healthy choice. | iStock.com/Mizina

This one sounds counterintuitive, but hear us out. If you find yourself really craving dessert, don’t skip it. You might just make up for it by eating more at dinner or snacking on something unhealthy later in the evening. We aren’t advising you eat a whole pint of ice cream or have a ton of cookies. But if you want something sweet, you’ll be more satisfied — and less likely to make unhealthy choices later — if you take a few bites of dessert, rather than ignoring the craving altogether.