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Tuesday, April 1, 2008

A course on cookbooks: How to select one that suits your needs

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You're looking for a cookbook to help you eat well, but the rows of options in the bookstore loom large. Scanning through the titles and book covers, your choices may soon feel overwhelming. Restaurants, societies, food companies and even movie stars now offer their recipe renditions.

So how do you choose? What makes one cookbook a better fit for you than another, and how can you tell which ones really promote healthy living?

If you'd rather not select a cookbook at random or by the pictures and promotional text on the dust jacket, take these steps: determine what type of cookbook you need, review your options and let your preferences lead the way.

1. Determine what type of cookbook you need

Recognizing what your needs are — and what features best meet those needs — is the first step in narrowing your cookbook choices. Do you require modified recipes to manage a medical condition, such as diabetes or heart disease? Are you looking to improve your overall health through better nutrition and meal planning? Or maybe you just want a cookbook that offers simple, healthy recipes that you can make quickly.

Cookbooks are available to address most tastes and cooking needs. For example, you can find cookbooks that focus on:

* Basic, general cooking
* Modified diets or eating plans for medical conditions
* Ethnic fare
* Single items, such as breads or vegetables
* Themes, such as holiday cooking, brunches, entertaining and quick-fix foods

"Many great cookbooks are available to meet most needs," says Jennifer K. Nelson, a registered dietitian and director of clinical dietetics at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. "If you want to improve your health, a good place to start is with your health care providers. Often they review books — including cookbooks — so they can make recommendations. Your local hospital or doctor's office may have a health education library where you can look over cookbooks before buying them."

Once you determine the type of cookbook you need, identify those features that would make the cookbook most useful. For example, if your aim is to find recipes to help you lose weight, look for a cookbook that includes low-fat, low-calorie meal options and one that lists the calorie and fat content of food items. If you want ideas for meals on the go, look for recipes that you can prepare quickly and easily.

2. Review your options critically

Next, turn a critical eye on the health specifics of the cookbook. With so many cookbooks available, you may find it difficult to identify those that are good sources of health information and those that provide quality recipes for eating well. Nelson suggests that you look for these elements:

* Reputable author or organization. Is the cookbook written, co-authored or endorsed by established health care societies, organizations or nutrition professionals?
* General information on nutrition and healthy eating. Does the cookbook devote several pages or a chapter to nutritional goals and principles of healthy eating? Is there information on the importance of diet and health or on diet and a specific medical condition? Is the information well organized and easy to understand?
* Nutritional analysis. Does the cookbook provide nutrient information — such as calories, fat, carbohydrates, protein, sodium and fiber — per serving? Do the recipes closely follow recognized nutritional guidelines?
* Healthy ingredients. Do the recipes emphasize plant foods — grains, vegetables, fruit, legumes — and de-emphasize animal protein? Are a variety of healthy foods used? Are healthy alternatives given for familiar dishes, and do they entice you to try different, healthy fare?
* Practical advice. Does the cookbook provide practical advice and helpful tips on such things as changing your dietary habits, selecting healthy foods, planning menus, shopping and reading food labels?

Other helpful features include:

* Simple, clear instructions
* A glossary and index
* Photographs or pictures of the prepared foods
* Illustrated cooking techniques

3. Let your preferences lead the way

Once you've boiled down your choices to a more manageable number, apply your personal preferences. For example, do you like hardcover, softcover or spiral-bound cookbooks? Are you looking in a certain price range?

To better define your preferences, consider the following:

* Match your ability and goals. For example, if you don't like spending a lot of time cooking, don't select a cookbook with only gourmet recipes. Similarly, if you're unfamiliar with the cooking techniques — and the techniques aren't explained — you may want to select a different cookbook.
* Appeal to your tastes. As you look through the cookbook, make sure the recipes include ingredients you like or are willing to try. If none of the recipes or pictures looks appealing, you may never open the cookbook once you get it home.
* Pick the right style, size and format. Do you want as many recipes as possible packed into one cookbook, or would you prefer a smaller, more focused edition? Do you prefer larger type fonts for better readability? Or, do you want a compact edition that you can use when you're away from home? Style, size and format can affect how often you use the cookbook, so make sure you pick one that's practical and inviting.

One cookbook doesn't fit all. Select a quality cookbook that complements your tastes and reflects your culinary goals and skills. Whether it's your first or 21st cookbook, you can find one that fits your particular needs.

# Recipe makeovers: 5 ways to create healthy recipes
# Ingredient substitutions: Make the switch for healthier recipes
# Adjusting the servings: Considerations for scaling a recipe
# Herbs and spices: A cook's guide to common seasonings
# Grilling tips: Creative and healthy options for the grill
# Healthy meals: Cooking for one or two
# Healthy cooking quiz: How sharp are your skills?
# Healthy cooking techniques
# Microwave cooking: Does it destroy nutrients in vegetables?

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