Five Healthiest Cooking Tools: Upgrade Your Kitchen for Healthier Meals

A healthier body starts in your kitchen. Stocking your refrigerator and pantry with fresh fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy, whole grains, and lean meats will keep cravings for greasy grub at bay while providing essential nutrients that lower your risk for heart disease, cancer, and more. But here’s the catch: unless those good-for-you foods are just as easy to scarf as a bag of cheese puffs when you’re exhausted and hungry, they’re going to do squat for your health. Here healthy-cooking chefs reveal the kitchen tools they couldn’t cook without. Not only do the gadgets cut down on the amount of time it takes to make healthy dishes, but they also boost the nutritional value of weekday-meal staples. Here’s the lowdown on the tools that will make everything that comes out of your kitchen better for you─all for less than 100 bucks.

Microplane grater/zester, $11.95

Health benefit: Adds flavor without adding fat.

This isn’t your mother’s box grater (read: no bloody knuckles here). The microplane is about a foot long and several inches wide, with a sturdy rubber handle. You rub the metal surface back and forth (like a nail file) against citrus fruit, chocolate, cheese, beets, or anything else gratable, and its tiny, sharp slots create a fine dusting of the food. Zest lemons, limes, oranges, or grapefruit into virtually any dish─from fish and chicken to asparagus and string beans to homemade salad dressings and marinades─for a dash of vitamin C and fiber, says Sarah Krieger, R.D., a personal chef in St. Petersburg, Fla. Adding zest also provides a kick of flavor, which means you’ll lay off the salt and butter (your arteries will thank you).

Immersion (or stick) blender, $99.99

Health benefit: Stealthily adds vegetables to family meals.

The immersion blender is a handheld appliance with blades at the end, so you can puree foods directly in the pan while they cook. The payoff? First, it prevents dirty dishes from stacking up (which is a relief if you’ve ever had the pleasure of scrubbing a blender). And second, “it makes meals more nutrient-dense, especially if you have kids or family members who don’t like vegetables,” says Katie Cavuto Boyle, R.D., a Philadelphia-based chef and finalist on this summer’s The Next Food Network Star. For instance, while heating a jar of store-bought tomato sauce on the stove, add spinach, carrots, peppers, mushrooms, or any other vegetable into the same pot. Once the veggies are soft, put the immersion blender directly into the pot and puree until they’re no longer detectable. Add the sauce on top of whole-wheat spaghetti with shrimp, and dinner is served.

Steamer basket (check the Web site of a manufacturer of cookware you own to find a steamer insert, or try a microwavable steamer for $9.99) 

Health benefit: Maintains health benefits of vegetables.

Steamers come in many varieties, and just about any will do. Some fit directly into your cookware, like a double boiler with holes; others are made for the microwave. “Steaming vegetables prevents vitamins and phytochemicals from leaching into the water, which is what happens when you boil them,” says Kyle Shadix, R.D., a chef in New York City. Studies have shown that boiling brassica vegetables (brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage) slashes levels of certain heart-disease- and cancer-preventing compounds by as much as 77 percent. “Unless you drink the green water after boiling broccoli, you miss out on vital compounds, including vitamin C,” Shadix adds.

Mortar and pestle, $32.95

Health benefit: Dried herbs and spices such as oregano, sage, thyme, clove, allspice, and cinnamon contain as many (and in some cases more) disease-fighting antioxidants as foods known to be brimming with the stuff, such as fruits, berries, cereals, and vegetables, report scientists in Norway.

A bowl (mortar) and a small, heavy stick (pestle) can be used to reduce herbs and spices into a powder for cooking. Technically, you can also grind spices in a coffee grinder, but do so only if you have a separate one for java. “Buying whole spices and grinding them provides a much richer flavor than preground spices that have been sitting in your cabinet for years,” says Krieger. The result? When you add freshly ground spices to marinades, or sprinkle them directly on meat, fish, or poultry before cooking, you won’t need to enhance the taste with salt, sugar, oil, or butter. You'll also be reaping spices' disease-fighting benefits.

Grill pan, $44.95

Health benefit: Reduces carcinogens caused by charring meat; offers a healthier cooking option even when the weather turns cold.

This is a pan with ridges at the bottom that collect fat while meats are cooking and create barbecue-like sear marks. One recent study by University of Minnesota researchers found that people who regularly consume well-done red meat have a 60 percent higher risk of developing pancreatic cancer, possibly due to carcinogens called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) that form when meat is charred on a grill. The grill pan (which goes over a burner on your stove like a regular one) creates a barrier between the flames and the food so meat doesn’t burn as easily. “Using a grill pan is also a quick and easy way to prepare lean protein like chicken and fish year round,” Krieger says.