Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Lighten Any Meal: 10 Easy, Inexpensive Steps to Healthier Recipes

When it comes to healthy cooking, one of the greatest skills a body can master is lightening up her favorite recipes. You’re reducing fat and calories, which is good for your waistline, but at the same time, you never feel deprived, because you’re always eating what you like. You don’t need pricey ingredients either, and after awhile, you won’t need to consult any guides. You can lighten any dish straight off the top of your head.

Below then, are ten strategies to get you started. Every single tip comes from personal experience (including, unfortunately, the fat-free cheese warning). Use them alone or in combination with one other for even healthier meals.

One caveat: these suggestions don’t apply to baked goods, since many baking recipes rely on precise ingredient quantities for flavor and structure. I’m not yet comfortable enough with my skillz to mess with them.

1) Cut back on cooking fat.
Whenever I’m trying to lighten an existing recipe, the first thing I look at is the prescribed amount of cooking fat. And almost without fail, most dishes ask for way too much. You don’t need two tablespoons of butter to sauté half an onion, and a teaspoon of olive oil is plenty sufficient for roasting a chopped pepper. Reducing oils by 25%, 50%, or even 75% will healthy up a meal without changing its basic flavor. For extra savings, use a nonstick skillet and/or cooking spray.
See: Roasted Eggplant Spread (vs. the original)

2) Replace every 2 eggs with 3 egg whites.
A large egg contains 8 grams of fat and 74 calories. A large egg white has virtually no fat and just 17 calories. By replacing one with the other, you can eat omelets, frittatas, fried rice, casseroles, and certain baked goods relatively guiltlessly. If you prefer the flavor of yolks, try using one egg in conjunction with several egg whites. You’ll still get the color and taste, but not the crazy caloric impact.
See: Chorizo and Potato Frittata

3) Thicken soups and chilis without dairy products.
Frequently, soup, chili, and stew recipes ask for heavy cream or lots of cheese to create a heartier texture. And almost as frequently, those thickeners are replaceable with one of many lower-fat alternatives. So, experiment: add pumpkin puree to a chili. Mash white beans or a cooked Russet potato and stir them into your soup. Let stew reduce 10, 20, or 30 minutes longer than the recipe calls for. Blend half a minestrone, leaving the other half chunky. Anything goes, and in many cases, the innovation will make a good dish shine even brighter.
See: White Chicken Chili

4) Brown and bake instead of deep-frying.
From falafel to crab cakes, breaded chicken to hush puppies, you can radically chop a meal’s fat by browning it on the stovetop and finishing it in the oven. Simply add a little oil or butter to an oven-safe skillet, cook your food for a few minutes on each side, and then throw it all in the hotbox until fully done. Admittedly, the final result might not duplicate the exact flavor of a deep-fried dish. But on the upside, you won’t have a coronary, either.
See: Falafel with Tahini Sauce

5) Slash high-fat add-ons (cheese, nuts, etc.) by 33%.
You’ll get no argument here: pecans, gorgonzola, and dried cranberries make everything better, up to and including tree bark. That said, the taste and texture (and sheer joy) will remain exactly the same if you hold back a third – or even half - of those delicious additions.
See: Strawberry and Avocado Salad

6) Use reduced-fat (NOT fat-free) dairy products.
Are you in love with lasagna? Would you give anything for a gratin? Do you write mash notes to macaroni and cheese? Try substituting 2% milk or part-skim frommage in for their full-fat counterparts. I do it all the guldern time and have never, ever noticed a significant difference in flavor. Note of caution, however: beware of fat-free cheese and butter alternatives, as they’re pretty terrible for cooking purposes. (Not to mention - baked fat-free cheddar looks and tastes like a basketball.)
See: Bruschetta Chicken Bake

7) Bulk recipes up with vegetables and/or beans.
It’s my favorite weeknight dinner: pasta with sautéed onions, peppers, and mushrooms. The spaghetti makes me feel like I’m indulging, while the veggies pad out the meal and increase the nutritional quotient. That same principle can be applied to burritos, casseroles, noodles, chili, stir frys – any dish in which you can easily improvise with what’s on hand. For deeper flavor, roast the veggies beforehand. You won’t be sorry.
See: Tomatillo Guacamole

8) Make only as much sauce, dressing, or marinade as you absolutely need.
Have you ever ordered a Caesar salad at a restaurant, just to have it arrive drenched in dressing? Yeah, me too. So, when I whip one up at home, I make enough dressing to coat the lettuce leaves without drowning them. The same goes for pasta, grain, and bean salads, as well as nearly any other dish that requires an independent wet component. It saves money, and my food doesn’t have to swim laps around an oil pool. (P.S. “Independent wet component” sounds kinky, no?)
See: Black-Eyed Pea Salad

9) Substitute turkey or chicken products for beef (and in some cases, pork).
This one’s a no brainer, because these days, it’s increasingly difficult to tell turkey products apart from their cattle-based alternatives. The textural differences are nil, and the right seasonings will fool anyone. So, take note: whether you’re making a meatloaf or sausage and peppers, swapping in 93% ground turkey or turkey kielbasa means fewer calories and less fat.
See: Turkey Chili with Beans or Sausage and Pepper Sandwiches

10) Use smaller portions of meat.
Though the average serving of meat should hover around a quarter of a pound, it’s not uncommon for recipes to ask for 8-, 10-, and 12-ounce slabs of beef, chicken, and pork. That’s too much. By cooking with 4-to-6 ounce cuts, the (once more, with feeling:) fat and calories are automatically halved, but you still get to have meat at the center of your dinner. Just remember to reduce the cooking time accordingly, and pile your plate with vegetables and grains to fill it out visually.
See: Pork Chops with Tomatillo and Green Apple Sauce

And that's our ballgame. Readers, what about you? How do you lighten up your recipes? I'd love to hear your ideas.


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chacha1 said...

Great suggestion about pumpkin puree to thicken a stew! I made some slow-cooker carnitas yesterday and the liquid is pretty thin, plus things are a little, ahem, Hot. I'll bet adding pumpkin will be the perfect solution to both issues.

Daniel said...

Exceptional post Kris. I'd add one other tip: When doing basic baking recipes like nutbreads banana breads, etc., you can usually substitute applesauce or yogurt for up to half of the oil or fat used in a recipe.

Understood on your hesitation to recommend fat reduction on baked foods. You definitely do not want to try this with croissants or yeast-based breads where the chemistry has to be perfect. But it works well when you want to healthify a hardy quickbread recipe.

Casual Kitchen

Joy Manning said...

Great tips here!

Here is one more that came to mind:

Quit chicken breast, especially boneless skinless chicken breast. Chicken thighs taste better, and are hard to overcook. Bones add flavor to anything they are cooked with (plus they can be saved for stock, and it's easy to remove the skin yourself.

It's a myth the dark meat has significantly more fat or calories--the difference is negligible. The price difference, however, is HUGE.

LC @ Let Them Eat Lentils said...

I also sometimes cook onions, garlic in vegetable broth instead of oil to lighten it. You can't even tell in the finished product.

Kira said...

Great list - I especially like the one about bulking things up with healthy add-ons like vegetables and beans.
However, I have to disagree with the suggestion to ditch the egg yolks. There is so much nutrition in there! And we need SOME fat in our diets.
Besides, the thought of an omlette, filled with spinach and mushrooms and just a smidge of low-fat cheese makes me happy. Make that an omlette with only egg whites, though, and I sort of want to cry.

Anonymous said...

I try to lighten things up when baking by swapping out half the flour with whole wheat flour, usually using Smart Balance as a substitute for normal butter, egg whites for eggs, etc. I find that I can't taste the difference or see it in the final product and it makes me feel a little less guilty. :)

thelocalcook said...

I agree with Kira. I prefer to use whole eggs, real milk products (preferably homemade from raw milk). If we reduce our portions we can still lose weight without sacrificing the nutrients and good fats of "real" food.

I definitely agree with you though about adding vegetables!!!!

Elizabeth said...

The cooking gods at Cook's Illustrated have determined that you can substitute up to (but no more than) 1/4 of a regular recipe's all-purpose flour with whole wheat flour and still get consistent results. If you want to go higher you should find a recipe specifically designed for wheat flour.

It won't make a huge difference in terms of fiber, but I'd much rather reduce my processed food intake, and it's more filling.

Jessie said...

Expanding on what Daniel said re lightening up baked goods - you can use pretty much any fruit puree that has the consistency of applesauce (adding juice helps to thin) to replace the oil in quickbreads, cake mixes, muffins, brownies, etc. Also, I've had a lot of success with cutting the amount of sugar in cookies by 1/3, and cutting the amount of oil/butter in cookies and muffins by 1/2. The oil is mostly for moisture, to either 1: keep it from falling apart (if the recipe has eggs, then those hold things together instead of oil) or 2: keep it from turning to dust in your mouth. For an unhealthy example, my husband loves chocolate cake mix made with a can of cherry pie filling, nothing else, and baked as normal.

And I'll second the point of - don't mess with yeast recipes. It's not pretty.


I enjoyed reading the tips and the comments from your readers as well.

Not only have I been doing all the things you've mentioned for 40 years (other than using egg whites 'only', when I want the rich taste of the yolk; the nutrition, and at 75 calories it's not going to hurt anyone's diet if you make up one poached egg which is how I prefer to eat my eggs), but years ago I wrote a book about all of these tips through the PTA, and I think we older people who have never had a weight problem; who have had to grow up during the depression or during war-time, have been FORCED to find these answers when times were very difficult.

Sadly, during the recent years of such shows as Food Network; the wide-spread selling of expensive cook books; books on entertaining and all the restaurants that have 'blossomed' with fattening foods, we've failed to remind our grand-children of these things that you've mentioned in your article.

I've also learned that applesauce can often be used in sauces that are asking for sugar; it's less sweet - less fattening, and rarely creates a loss of taste (unless you're a real nut for 'sugar only).

I use chicken broth to make my home-made tomato soup, rather than making it 'cream of tomato' - properly seasoned, it's a wonderful light soup to go with a healthy sandwich.

Also, if you learn to pound out the meat or poultry to a 'thin' little 'steak', you can save money on the cost of the meat or poultry (including pork); you can grill it and use it as a roll up around vegetables and put a baked potato on the side, to cut calories; cut costs, and still keep the tasty flavor of the meat. Since I'm vegetarian, I have to do these things for my husband, who has to have his 'red meat' and pork.

I use a non-stick pan when I know I can cook properly; not use oil, and have found if you put the onion in first (on medium heat), you'll bring out some of the juices which will keep the pan 'moist' without any oil. If you add celery next, you get some more 'moisture' that's released. Then if you're adding additional ingredients, try to add them in order of their moisture content - again, to avoid any kind of burning or needing any oil at all.

Roasting vegetables is my favorite way; it brings out the flavor and you need very little olive oil to get a wonderful result (I prefer olive oil since it's good for the heart, and you only need a small amount).

I also use the trick of thickening with potato; then I blend just part of the contents of the pan; add it back, and sometimes when appropriate, I blend up cottage cheese (yummy), and add to thicken; adds protein and is low in calories.

I think if people would learn to eat 'raw' (as I have), they'd be so much better off; saves money on buying pots and pans to cook in; saves costs on electricity or gas, saves time, is not expensive, and you keep your weight down just as you keep your food bill down.

Since my husband won't eat 'raw' (100%), I've had to utilize all the tips you've mentioned (and my own) to still keep cost controls on the food budget, and keep healthy and inexpensive meals on his plate.

Kris said...

Thanks, everybody! Love reading these.

Dan and Jessie - excellent points with the quickbreads. I've had success with mashed banana in muffins and cookies, as well.

Joy - completely agreed. When I began the whole healthy eating thing, it seemed like breast was the only option, but I've come around to thighs. They just taste better.

Kira and localcook - I prefer whole eggs, too. In places where you won't miss them, though (the frittata, the fried rice, etc.), you can lose them without compromising the dish too much. I found it was helpful when I dropped some weight a few years back, too. But I totes hear you.

Kelsey said...

What a wonderful post full of great info! Really enjoy your blog.

Chandrika Shubham said...

Good tips to be healthier. I liked the idea of baking instead of deep frying.

Best wishes.

wosnes said...

My approach to reducing fat is to use less in a recipe when I can (but use no substitutes), eat higher fat foods less often and eat smaller portions of them.

Since I started doing this, I've found that smaller portions are far more satisfying than larger portions of reduced-fat foods.

I use no reduced-fat products with the exception of milk. That's just a matter of preference and I think full-fat will make an appearance soon. I don't drink milk and use little cheese, etc. Dairy products as we know them are highly processed and reduced fat versions have additives to improve taste and texture/mouth feel.

Over the last 10-15 years I've done a lot of reading about the eating habits of other cultures. It's really interesting to me that most pay no attention to watching fat, eliminating egg yolks and so on, though they do eat less meat and use more vegetables and grains -- including white rice and white flour products.

What they don't eat, however, are overly processed, manufactured foods. I think those are far more problematic than healthy fat.

wosnes said...

I tend to agree with Nigella Lawson -- if the ingredients you use are "real", your food is healthy.

Becky said...

Great tips here! I do make an exception for fat-free dairy though--I've always been a big milk-drinker, and I switched to drinking skim milk as a teen because I didn't want the extra fat, and have stuck with it since. However, in the last year or so I've discovered that organic fat-free milk is about a billion times superior to the regular stuff in terms of taste and creaminess. So I'll gladly use that in place of most other percentages of milk. (Plus then I don't have to buy an extra thing of 2% that I won't end up drinking.)

Noni said...

I have to say I like most of the tips except reducing fat. While I also do not cook with buckets of oil, however, within reasonable limits using decent amounts of fat lead to more flavor. I find reduced fat food to be very severely lacking in flavor and texture, and never feel satisfied after such a meal. My approach would be to eat smaller portions of higher-fat meals, but of course it calls for moderation!