As a health columnist, I spend a lot of time writing about the benefits of healthy eating. But many evenings I end up asking myself the same question: What can I make for dinner tonight that’s quick, nutritious and that the whole family will enjoy?
But a few months ago, I bought an air fryer.
These devices are essentially countertop convection ovens that can give your food the crunchiness and tenderness that you get from roasting or deep-frying, but in a fraction of the time and without all the oil.
My expectations were low. But to my surprise, I found that this amazing little device opened the door to making an endless variety of fun, delicious and nutritious meals. And I can make dinner in 20 minutes or less, without expensive ingredients or extra cleanup.
Using my air fryer, I’ve made roasted Brussels sprouts, potatoes, broccoli, carrots, and sweet potato fries that have the perfect texture and are ready in 10 minutes. I’ve made chicken nuggets at home that my 3-year-old son devoured, and organic teriyaki-flavored tofu cubes that make a great topping for a quick vegetable stir fry or vegetable curry.
One of our favorite recipes is salmon with broccoli, soba noodles and sesame ginger sauce. We start by steaming broccoli and boiling soba noodles. Then we combine soy sauce, sesame oil, ginger and fresh lime juice to make the sauce.
I pop a pound of fresh salmon into our air fryer and let it cook for 12 minutes. When the salmon is done, we combine it with the broccoli and noodles, and drizzle on the sauce. This meal requires very little time and effort, and it tastes delicious. Even my 1-year-old daughter scarfs it down.
Why air fryers are different
I’m by no means the first person to discover the joys of air-fryer cooking. The modern air fryer was introduced to the public in 2010 by Philips, the consumer electronics maker. It was developed by a Dutch inventor, Fred van der Weij, who was looking for a way to make perfectly crispy french fries without much oil or hassle. Sales surged during the pandemic as people were stuck at home with more time on their hands to cook. According to the NPD Group, more than 25 million air fryers were sold between January 2020 and December 2021, a 76 percent increase over the previous two-year period.
I purchased my air fryer, made by Chefman, for about $70, which takes up about as much counter space as a large coffee maker. It contains a basket with a perforated tray where the food is placed. A powerful fan above the food circulates hot air throughout the chamber.
Preheating only takes a few minutes. While it’s not necessary to use oil in an air fryer, using a spray bottle to spritz a little olive or avocado oil on foods such as fresh vegetables, sweet potato fries, chicken tenders and salmon helps to keep them moist while also giving them a golden-brown color.
“The perforated tray promotes air circulation around the food and that’s what causes the crispiness and crunchiness on the outside and the juiciness on the inside,” said Mona Dolgov, a nutritionist and cookbook author. “Your food cooks for less time than it would in an oven, and you get great results.”
Videos of mouthwatering foods cooked in air fryers have gone viral on social media. But Dolgov noticed that many of the popular items made in air fryers, such as grilled cheese, French toast and pasta chips, aren’t appealing to people with health-conscious meals in mind. So she wrote “SatisFry: The Air Fryer Cookbook,” which shows people how to use air fryers to make easy and nutritious meals and snacks.
It includes meals such as a spinach, avocado and mushroom frittata that takes about 15 minutes, and a hummus-crusted chicken that’s made with artichoke hearts, olive oil and lemon sauce.
Air-fried vegetables can win over picky eaters
Air fryers can turn sticks of carrots, parsnips and other root vegetables into better-for-you french fries (you just need a bit of olive oil and cornstarch). You can toss Brussels sprouts with a little olive oil, garlic powder and parmesan cheese to make crispy air fryer Brussels sprouts.
There are recipes for avocado fries, buffalo cauliflower bites, and zucchini chips with lemon and herb dip. “My husband never used to eat a lot of vegetables. and now he eats them all the time because I put them in the air fryer and they come out great,” Dolgov said.
Air fryers can be a “huge game changer and a super useful tool for anyone looking to start a healthier routine,” said Jaclyn London, a registered dietitian and the author of “Dressing on the Side (and Other Diet Myths Debunked).”
Many of her clients for example love eating deli meats such as slicked turkey and chicken but are often shocked when they find out how much sodium these foods contain. “About 80 percent of the sodium we consume in our everyday lives is from meals we’re not making at home,” she said.
When shopping for an air fryer, you might want to look for one with a rotisserie function. London pointed out that a rotisserie chicken can feed a large family and provide leftovers you can use in other meals.
“Having the ability to make something at home on a rotisserie is amazing because you get the flavors that you’re looking for but without all the salt,” she added.
There is now a burgeoning world of cookbooks dedicated to the art of using air fryers. Katie Hale, a food blogger and cookbook author who grew up in Arkansas, said that buying an air fryer was life-changing for her and her family.
“I grew up in the South where deep-fried food was everything,” she said. “Right away I loved that I could have the crispy things I wanted from the deep fryer without all the oil.”
Hale, who has two teenage children, has written two air fryer cookbooks, including “Mediterranean Air Fryer” and “Clean Eating Air Fryer Cookbook.”
“We live a fast-paced lifestyle where more and more people are working two jobs or both parents are working outside the home,” she said. “Anything that makes it easier for you to feed your family healthier meals and save time is at the top of my list.”
Do you have a question about healthy eating? Email EatingLab@washpost.com and we may answer your question in a future column.
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