(WellnessNova.com) - Chicken is a favorite comfort food because it tastes great, costs less than other meats, and has endless versatility. Chicken is also good for you. It’s a high-quality protein that contains the eight essential amino acids the body needs. Plus it’s low in fat—mostly unsaturated fat, which helps protect against heart disease.
So what could be better than a home-cooked chicken dinner? How about a home-cooked chicken dinner that’s supercharged with nutrition? While chicken already has plenty to cluck about, not all chicken dinners are the same. In fact, how you buy chicken and the way you prepare and serve it can turn ordinary chicken dinner into a true nutritional winner.
1. Buy Quality Chicken
While some may argue the value of buying expensive organic chickens, one thing’s for certain: you’ll get a nutritious bird. Organic chickens are raised on organic feed with no additives, preservatives, pesticides, or antibiotics.
But that doesn’t mean other chickens are unhealthy to eat. Chickens labeled “natural,” for example, contain no artificial ingredients or preservatives. You can also purchase a non-organic chicken that was raised without the use of antibiotics.
Be wary of labels, though. “Hormone-free” chickens carry little meaning because, legally, hormones aren’t allowed in any poultry. Likewise, nearly all chickens are “farm-raised.” “Free-range” chicken means that the bird has access to the outside but not necessarily a large pasture for roaming.
So what’s the best chicken to buy? One that’s fed a nutritious diet and fits your budget. For superior nutrition, choose organic chickens that are pasture-raised, especially on local farms with small flocks and lush pastures for grazing. You may have to spend a little more, but the cost can be worth it given the exceptional health benefits and flavor.
2. Handle With Care
How you handle chicken when cleaning and preparing it is a serious matter. That’s because mishandling raw chicken can lead to harmful infections, like salmonella and campylobacter, two bacteria that cause cramping, diarrhea, and other gastrointestinal problems.
You can avoid food-borne illnesses from chicken by remembering to do three things, says Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesperson Toby Smithson. First, before and after handling any raw chicken meat, wash your hands well. Lather up and scrub, both the front and back of the hands, between the fingers, and even under the nails.
You should also use separate utensils and cutting boards for raw versus ready-to-eat chicken. And always clean knives and surfaces thoroughly when handling raw chicken. Finally, cook chicken to an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees—the USDA’s minimum standard for safety. You’ll stave off pathogens that way and reap the full nutrient intake.
3. Go Dark
If you think dark meat is bad for you, think again. White meat may have less fat than dark meat—3 grams in a 3-ounce skinless breast versus 9 in a 3-ounce thigh—but dark meat has just 3 grams of saturated fat. The extra fat adds flavor and moisture that make the tradeoff worthwhile, especially when you consider the nutrient boost in dark meat.
While both white meat and dark meat contain nutrients galore, dark meat rules the roost as the richer source. The reason is dark meat’s myoglobin, an oxygen-carrying protein that gives dark meat its deep color—and extra nutrients. Not only does dark meat boast more vitamin K, A, and B complex, it’s a superior source of blood-producing iron as well as zinc, necessary for growth, reproduction, and immunity.
Dark meat also contains taurine, a compound known to lower the risk of heart disease. According to a study by New York University’s School of Medicine, women who had high cholesterol and high taurine levels reduced their risk of heart disease by 60 percent. Dark meat, in moderate quantities, can be a nutritional powerhouse that’s doesn’t skimp on taste.
4. Forget Frying (But Not Stir-frying)
Everyone knows that frying foods doesn’t match up to other cooking methods for healthy preparation. But don’t rule out fried chicken for dinner just yet. It’s a classic meal that’s big on flavor and popularity. The trick to making fried chicken nutritious is to prepare it without actually frying it.
How? By lightly dipping it in gut-friendly buttermilk, rolling it in fresh herbs, and baking the chicken in a hot oven for crispness.
Baking, grilling, braising, and even stir-frying chicken won’t alter its nutritional value; it’s what you use to cook chicken with that will. Unhealthy oils and heavy coatings add calories, fat, and few nutrients, unlike heart-healthy olive and sesame oils and spices rich in antioxidants, like ginger, oregano, and turmeric.
For even more savory chicken flavor, keep the skin on—especially if you cook with an organic chicken. There’s no reason not to, and you’ll get a moister, tastier chicken that’s more filling and satisfying. Marinating chickens adds flavor and moisture, too, and when done using healthy ingredients—like olive oil, fresh herbs, and vinegar—further boosts the nutritional value.
5. Switch to Healthy Sides
What you pair chicken with can define the meal’s place in the nutritional pecking order. A good way to supercharge chicken dinner is to make your plate as colorful as possible by choosing healthy, antioxidant-rich sides. Instead of serving chicken with heavy pasta or white rice, go for steamed veggies, skin-on potatoes, or nutty grains.
A good rule of thumb? Fill one fourth of your plate with chicken, another fourth with healthy grains, and the rest with nutrient-dense produce. The USDA’s MyPlate guidelines advise choosing whole fruits and veggies with color and variety.
Some of the most nutrient-dense accompaniments for chicken include grilled asparagus, dark leafy greens, roasted purple or red potatoes, quinoa salad, tomato salsa, and hand-harvested wild rice. Season sides with flavorful herbs and spices for a health and taste bonus.
Winner, winner, chicken dinner takes on a whole new meaning when you boost the nutritional value of this favorite comfort meal. Not only can you turn chicken into a supreme health food, you can make it even more delicious and appealing to every diet. With so much chicken goodness, no one’s going to fly the coop at dinnertime!