Channeling a Healthy Diet

The plethora of cooking shows gives new meaning to the term “TV dinner”
—but they won’t all boost your well-being. Here are expert picks for
some of the healthiest chef-hosted shows.

June 2011

By Linda Melone, CSCS

Cooking shows have come a long way since Julia Childs whipped up Beef Bourguignon on her French Chef cooking series back in 1962. Today you’d be hard-pressed to find a channel without a cooking show. And two channels, The Food Network and the Cooking Channel, are totally devoted to the genre. A 2010 Harris poll showed that more than half the country watches these programs, making cooking a serious spectator sport. The shows have made stars of the likes of Gordon Ramsay, Rachael Ray and Bobby Flay. But not all shows set a healthy example of nutritious cooking and eating.

“Just because someone works out and is fit or says something is healthy doesn’t mean they really know about nutrition if they are not a qualified expert,” says Marlisa Brown, MS, RD, certified diabetes educator-chef and past president of the New York State Dietetic Association. “Some shows go completely the other way, trying to find the most unhealthful choices available, creating four-pound hamburgers covered with a pound of cheese and a pound of bacon.”

What Is Healthy Cooking?

Good cooking is healthy cooking, says Carolyn O’Neil, MS, RD, co-author of The Dish on Eating Healthy and Being Fabulous! (Atria). “When Chef Jacques Pepin prepares a dish—from omelets to pizzas to salads—he conveys the best information on fresh ingredients and how to create flavorful foods. He adds what’s necessary for the recipe and lets the fresh, natural and healthy flavors of the food shine.”

O’Neil frowns on using chocolate and other high-fat ingredients for dramatic effect, which drive up the calories and fat content.

Sometimes hosts comment on health and food based on misinformation, says Brown. “A host may use olive oil because it is a healthy oil when used in moderation, but then they pour a bottle of it on the food, which is not healthy.”

On the plus side, cooking shows “help people think outside the box,” says Brown, by providing tips on techniques, new foods and shopping. You can learn how to bone a chicken, poach a fish or make a new sauce because it’s been put into practice for you.

Healthy cooking shows educate their audiences in five important ways, says Brenda Thompson, RD, LD, chef and owner of Brenda’s Simply Made Foods ( The first is the need to consume appropriate portion sizes. “It’s the number one healthy thing we can do when eating,” says Thompson. Cooking shows also demonstrate that all wholesome foods can fit into your daily diet (such as the whole egg, not just egg whites). They also show that many healthy meals can be cooked in 30 minutes or less. They can convey the lesson that sitting down for a homemade meal with your family and friends is essential to healthy eating. Finally, cooking shows promote an understanding of the makeup of foods and how they function, helping people appreciate and respect food more.

In a Nutshell

But viewers should watch with a discerning eye. Many cooking shows are more about entertainment than teaching, says chef-turned-doctor Timothy S. Harlan, MD, internist and medical director of The Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans. “Very few are scripted to be healthy or emphasize health,” says Harlan.

Harlan recommends Asian cooking shows as a good healthy bet as well as Indian food. “Stick with the vegetarian meals and watch the salt,” says Harlan, who recommends low-sodium soy sauce and other sauces.

Cooking show hosts have a tremendous influence, says Erin MacDonald, RD, a nutrition and wellness coach based in Southern California. “We’re drawn to the host and his or her message if they are popular, outgoing, fun and charismatic.” The appearance of the food, especially if it looks good and evokes comfort-food feelings, makes it more tempting to try, adds MacDonald.

Nutritionists and other health advocates say several cooking shows stand out for their healthy content. “Many of Jamie Oliver’s recipes are reasonably healthy,” says Harlan. Oliver, who appears on various networks, has most recently been seen trying to bring healthy cooking habits to school districts. The Los Angeles system was initially unreceptive to Oliver’s overtures, adding a level of drama not seen on many cooking shows.

In addition, Harlan favors Jose Andreas and his Spanish recipes (PBS), Martin Yan (PBS) and Luke’s Vietnam (Cooking Channel). “Yan is amazingly entertaining and some of his meals are healthier, although watch for the deep-fried meals as well as those with high-salt sauces and sugars. Likewise, Indian Food made easy with Anjum Anand is a great show (Cooking Channel).”

Healthy Appetite with Ellie Krieger (The Food Network) took top kudos from the dieticians interviewed for this article. A registered dietician, Krieger features simple meals presented with an explanation on both how and why they work, says Brian Zehetner MS, RD, CSSD, CSCS, health director of Anytime Fitness in Hastings, Minnesota.

Hungry Girl (Cooking Channel) with Lisa Lillien came in second in our informal survey, although the experts we interviewed sometimes criticized her use of packaged foods. “The reason the show works is because she doesn’t shy away from seemingly unhealthy items—she just finds a way to make them better,” notes Zehetner.

Many others came in tied for third, including Devin Alexander, the host of Healthy Decadence, airing on FitTV, Rachael Ray (30 Minute Meals with Rachael Ray ranked most popular overall, according to the Harris Poll) and Cook Yourself Thin (Lifetime). Cook Yourself Thin helps real people cook their favorite foods in a healthier way; the hosts follow up with them at home six weeks later to see how they’re doing. Says Zehetner, “The guests are given everything they need to succeed at home, which makes this a key differentiator from some of the other cooking shows.”

The Healthiest Chefs

As a dietician with a friendly how-to approach to tasty food, Ellie Krieger has won raves as the host of the Food Network’s Healthy Appetite. Krieger says she takes pride in helping people find a “happy balance where healthy and delicious meet.” Too often, people “feel we have to choose between the two,” says Krieger, author of books including So Easy: Luscious Healthy Recipes for Every Meal of the Week (Wiley). “Most people love to eat and feel satisfied by good food, but they somehow feel it’s something they’re not allowed to do if they’re trying to be healthy,” she says.

Krieger divides foods into categories she calls “usually,” “sometimes” and “rarely.” It helps people avoid blacklisting certain foods they feel they can’t have, says Krieger. “When I apply this [principle] to my recipes the nutrition analysis always works out well—and you get this balance of healthy and delicious.”

Foods in the “usual” category include those that should form the backbone of your meals: vegetables and fruits (preferably local and seasonal), nuts, seeds, beans, healthy oils, lean protein such as fish, lean meats such as chicken and low-fat dairy. “If you start with that, it’s fine to sprinkle in ‘sometimes’ foods such as sweeteners like maple syrup or higher-fat meat such as a turkey thigh, for example,” notes Krieger, “which you want to use more sparingly.”

Bacon and butter, foods often considered off-limits, fall into the “rarely” category. “You can incorporate a little bit of bacon or butter but strategically,” says Krieger. “Use these ingredients in small amounts for maximum impact. It’s amazing that you don’t have to sacrifice what you’re craving.”

A common mistake people make, says Krieger, is cutting out all fat. “You end up with a lame facsimile of what you want.” Krieger will split the difference by including a small amount of mayonnaise, preferably one based on canola oil, with Greek yogurt in her lobster roll recipe, for example.

“My approach is not so much health focused as it is about guilt-free eating,” says Hungry Girl’s Lisa Lillien, who states upfront that she is not a nutritionist or medical practitioner. Lillien, author of many cookbooks including her latest, Hungry Girl 300 Under 300: 300 Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner Dishes Under 300 Calories (St. Martin’s Press), admits to being obsessed with food.

“I’m always hungry and always watching calories,” says Lillien, who says she’s struggled with her weight. “I wanted to take clinical information and take an everyday, every woman approach to making better choices.” She features low-fat, low-calorie recipes but admits not all are completely natural. “It’s about convenience and reality,” says Lillien. “People are not just shopping the perimeter of the store, but they can make better choices within the aisles. We focus on educating people.”

There is no shortage of cooking shows. Just as you would carefully choose ingredients for a healthy dish, however, watching for entertainment and wellness requires paring the fat.

Lord of the Onion Rings

Hungry Girl Lisa Lillien’s most popular recipes include foods that appear fried
but aren’t. These “faux fried” onion rings, “breaded” in high-fiber cereal and baked,
rank near the top of her viewers’ faves.

1 large onion
1/2 cup Fiber One
Original bran cereal
1/4 tsp garlic powder, or to taste
1/8 tsp onion powder, or to taste
1/8 tsp salt, or to taste
black pepper, to taste
1/2 cup fat-free liquid
egg substitute

1. Preheat oven to 375° degrees.
Slice ends off onion and remove outer layer. Cut into 1/2” slices and
separate into rings. Set aside.

2. Using a blender or food processor, grind cereal to a crumb-like consistency.
Season with spices, transfer to a plate and set aside.

3. Place egg substitute in a small bowl. Spray a baking sheet (or two) with nonstick
spray and set aside.

4. Using tongs or a fork, dunk rings one at a time in egg substitute, shake to remove excess,
and coat in crumbs. Place rings evenly on baking sheet(s). Bake until outsides are crispy
and insides are soft, 20-25 minutes, carefully flipping rings halfway through.

Serves 1. Analysis per serving: 155 calories, 9g protein,
1g fat, 16g fiber,
41g carbohydrate, 515 mg sodium

Reprinted with permission from

Three Cheese Spinach Lasagna

If you’re not a huge fan of spinach, but you’re looking for a way to incorporate more into your diet, Devin Alexander, the host of Healthy Decadence, recommends this recipe. The spinach flavor is extremely mild, but you’ll still get all of the nutritional benefits. Just be sure to really squeeze the spinach well to remove all the excess moisture. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a soggy lasagna.

1 tsp extra-virgin olive oil
14 whole wheat lasagna noodles
1 package (12 oz) frozen chopped spinach, thawed
3 cups all-natural fat-free ricotta cheese, drained of any liquid on top of the container
3 large egg whites
1/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
2 tbsp finely chopped fresh parsley leaves
1 tsp garlic powder
Sea salt, to taste
Ground black pepper, to taste
2 1/2 cups all-natural low-fat, low-salt, no-sugar-added marinara sauce
4 oz finely shredded almond mozzarella cheese

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.

2. Once the water is boiling, add the olive oil to the pot. Add the noodles to the pot and cook, stirring occasionally, for 8-10 minutes, or until al dente. Drain well. Cut or tear two of the noodles in half widthwise.

3. Meanwhile, drain the spinach well by squeezing it in a clean, lint-free dish towel until all of the excess moisture is removed. (Once you think all of the moisture is removed, continue squeezing the spinach even more to ensure it is completely dry.) In a medium bowl, stir together the ricotta, egg whites, 3 tbsp of the parmesan, parsley and garlic powder until well combined. Stir in the drained spinach until well combined. Season with salt and pepper.

4. To assemble the lasagna, spread 1/2 cup of the marinara sauce evenly over the bottom of a 9" x 13" glass or ceramic baking dish. Lay 3 1/2 noodles evenly across the bottom of the dish in a single layer. Dollop one third of the ricotta mixture in big spoonfuls across the noodle layer and, using a rubber spatula, spread it into an even layer. Sprinkle one-quarter of the mozzarella evenly over the ricotta. Top the cheese layer with 1/2 cup of the remaining sauce. Repeat this layering process (noodles, ricotta mixture, mozzarella, sauce) two more times. For the final layer, top the lasagna with the last of the noodles. Spread the remaining sauce evenly over the noodles. Sprinkle with the remaining mozzarella, then the remaining parmesan.

5. Cover the dish with foil and bake for 30 minutes. Uncover and bake for 5 to 10 minutes longer, or until the cheese is melted and the lasagna is hot throughout. Allow to cool for 5 minutes. Cut into 8 squares and serve.

Serves 8. Analysis per serving: 257 calories, 22g protein, 34g carbohydrates, 4g fat (<1 g saturated), 7g fiber, 353 mg sodium

Reprinted with permission from Discovery Health (


Macaroni and Four Cheeses

One of the most requested recipes of Ellie Krieger, host of the Food Network’s Healthy Appetite, is a twist on a comfort food classic, macaroni and cheese—only with the surprising addition of pureed squash as a main ingredient.

1 lb elbow macaroni
2 (10-oz) packages frozen pureed winter squash
2 cups 1% lowfat milk
4 oz extra-sharp cheddar, grated (about 1 1/3 cups)
2 oz monterey jack cheese, grated (about 2/3 cup)
1/2 cup part-skim ricotta cheese
1 tsp salt
1 tsp powdered mustard
1/8 tsp cayenne pepper
2 tbsp grated parmesan
2 tbsp unseasoned bread crumbs
1 teaspoon olive oil

1. Preheat the oven to 375°F. Coat a 9” by 13” baking pan with cooking spray.

2. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the macaroni and cook until tender but firm, about 5-8 minutes. Drain and transfer to a large bowl.

3. Meanwhile, place the frozen squash and milk into a large saucepan and cook over a low heat, stirring occasionally and breaking up the squash with a spoon until defrosted. Turn the heat up to medium and cook until the mixture is almost simmering, stirring occasionally. Remove the pan from heat and stir in the cheddar, jack cheese, ricotta, salt, mustard and cayenne pepper. Pour cheese mixture over the macaroni and stir to combine. Transfer the macaroni and cheese to the baking dish.
4. Combine bread crumbs, parmesan and oil in a small bowl. Sprinkle over the top of the macaroni and cheese. Bake for 20 minutes. Then broil for 3 minutes so the top is crisp and nicely browned.

Serves 8. Analysis per serving: 323 calories, 11g fat (6g saturated), 3g fiber, 42g carbohydrate, 509 mg sodium

Reprinted with permission from Healthy Living with Ellie Krieger (


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