Best Cookware and Oils for Healthy Meal Prep
You take a lot of care with the foods you put into your body. But are you paying attention to the fats those foods are cooked in—and to the cooking implements you’re using?
Toxins are everywhere, and they’re lurking in the oils and pans the average American consumer uses every day. The highly refined vegetable oils that saturate your fries and come standard in your to-go salad dressing are packed with harmful Omega-6 fats, chemicals, and trans fats. And the non-stick cookware you use every day probably contains aluminum, teflon, and other metals and chemicals—even lead!—that are harmful for kids and adults alike.
The healthiest oils and best cookware for healthy meal prep.
With a little care and selectivity, however, it’s easy to make smart choices about pans and cooking fats. In this guide, we’ll cover:
- What you should look for in a cooking fat
- Healthy fats and oils vs. harmful ones
- Our top three choices for toxin-free cookware
Let’s get started.
The healthiest cooking oils.
The dangers of dietary fat have been thoroughly debunked. But that doesn’t mean every fat or oil has the all-clear. We often differentiate by calling some fats “good” or “healthy” and others “bad.” Here’s what you need to know to choose the best cooking fat for optimal health:
Maximize omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are components of fat that are both essential for human health. But it is possible to ingest too much of a good thing. Elevated consumption of omega-6 fatty acids is linked to inflammation. The Standard American Diet (SAD) is a major culprit here: The typical American adult ingests 14 to 25 times more omega-6 fatty acids than they do omega-3s. But experts suggest an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of 4:1 or lower is ideal. You can do this by maximizing omega-3 intake and steering away from fats with high levels of omega-6 fatty acids.
Prioritize monounsaturated and saturated fats. For many years, health experts have advised us to steer clear of saturated fats, which are found in coconut oil, dairy, and animal products such as eggs and meat. (A hint for telling these types apart: Foods that are primarily saturated, like butter, tend to be solid at room temp, while foods that are primarily unsaturated, like olive oil, tend to be liquid at room temperature.) That advice was based on this premise: Saturated fats raise cholesterol, and high cholesterol is linked to heart disease.
But new research shows that saturated fats raise both “good” and “bad” cholesterol and also convert “bad” cholesterol to a less harmful form. Saturated fat is also better for cooking because it’s more stable and can withstand higher heat than other fats! Research has also shown little downside to monounsaturated fats, which are found in most oils, and have low oxidation potential, with room for only one free radical to enter.
Choose minimally processed options. Polyunsaturated fat is the third kind of fat. While experts have long touted polyunsaturated fats as the healthiest option, these fats are more likely to oxidize, or break down in ways that can cause inflammation, especially when highly refined or exposed to high heat. They also tend to contain higher levels of omega-6s. You don’t need to totally avoid polyunsaturated fats—just cut back on highly processed seed and vegetable oils, such as corn and soybean oil.
Steer clear of trans fats. To make cheaply produced polyunsaturated fats shelf stable, producers use a chemical process called hydrogenation, which involves hydrogen gas, high heat, and a metal catalyst. One result of hydrogenation is synthetic trans fats, highly harmful fats that can result in inflammation, insulin resistance (which can lead to Type 2 Diabetes), and a much higher risk for heart disease.
Best cooking fats to use, and how to use them.
So, what specific fats and oils are best for cooking? We’ve compiled a shortlist to help you choose:
Free & Clear: Use these fats any time.
- Butter & ghee. You better believe it. As long as you’re not chomping down on entire sticks of butter, this dairy product is okay for daily use. Its derivative, ghee, which is butter fat with all dairy solids removed, is especially great for high-heat cooking, with a smoke point just below 500 degrees. Butter is packed with nutrients and healthful conjugated linoleic acid, but should be enjoyed in moderation alongside a variety of other fats. Stick to 1 to 2 tablespoons per day.
- Coconut oil. This highly saturated fat has a high smoke point, making it great for high-heat cooking and frying. It’s also an excellent vegan butter substitute! And the medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) in coconut oil are more easily burned off than other fats. But as with butter, consume in moderation, along with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated options. For the most goodness, choose unrefined, cold-pressed options.
- Olive oil. Oh yes—our Mediterranean favorite. Olive oil is primarily monounsaturated fat. It’s heart-healthy and packed with antioxidants, but it has a lower smoke point than saturated fats, meaning it’s ideal for sauteing and use on already-cooked foods but prone to oxidation when used for high-heat frying.
- Avocado oil. The new kid on the block, avocado oil is made from pressed avocados. It’s high in monounsaturated fats, great for high-heat cooking, and has a mild taste that makes it suitable for almost any cooking project, savory or sweet. It’s also really great at increasing bioavailability. But it does tend to be a bit pricier than olive and coconut oil.
Use Sparingly: No need to eliminate these oils completely—just don’t make them a daily feature of your diet.
- Palm oil. Huh? While palm oil isn’t widely used in the U.S., it's one of the most popular cooking oils worldwide. It’s also a great blend of monounsaturated and saturated fats, and it’s full of nutrients, especially the unrefined red palm oil version. But palm oil production has been linked to environmental destruction, so look for products certified as sustainable.
- Sunflower & safflower oils. Linoleic versions of these oils have higher levels of polyunsaturated fats and omega-6s, while high-oleic versions boast a greater proportion of monounsaturated fats. Look for expeller-pressed—meaning the oil is processed with pressure, instead of chemicals—high-oleic sunflower and safflower oils. Both have a high smoke point and are great for cooking.
- Peanut oil. This oil has both benefits and drawbacks. It’s full of vitamin E and has a high smoke point—but it’s also higher in omega-6s than other oils and can be prone to oxidation.
Steer Clear: Avoid if at all possible.
Margarine and vegetable shortening. Both options are made by fully or partially hydrogenating polyunsaturated oils, resulting in harmful trans fats.
- Corn, soybean, and canola oils. Not only are these vegetable oils highly processed, but they also degrade easily, greatly increasing your risk of inflammation, and have a high omega-6 to omega-3 ratio. Soybean oil is so widely used in packaged foods that a recent study estimated that 7% of the average American’s daily calories come from soybean oil alone. That’s not great.
Safest cookware to prepare a healthy meal in.
You’ve stocked your kitchen with healthful fats, and now you want to get cooking. But what to cook dinner in?
Aluminum is cheap, but it’s a highly reactive neurotoxin. Teflon makes for a great non-stick surface, but is also a toxic chemical that releases a carcinogenic gas when heated. Cookware made with copper, cadmium, nickel, and even lead increases your risk of ingesting heavy metals. And other harmful chemicals and metals lurk everywhere you look. Is anything safe?
Luckily, there are a few great options for non-toxic cookware:
- Most ceramic pans not only heat and cook evenly, but are also made without toxic chemical coatings.
- Long-lasting, durable cast iron is guaranteed to be toxin free, and—bonus!—produces crispier food with less cleaning required.
- And, if you just can’t let go of those convenient non-stick pans, opt for a pan that’s certified as free of toxins, such as the popular T-fal brand.
Cooking at home should increase your health, not detract from it. By being mindful about healthful fats and oils and non-toxic cookware, you can curate a healthful lifestyle for yourself and your loved ones.