Does the idea of eating healthfully make you break into a cold sweat, with visions of trading Mom’s mac and cheese for tempeh surprise? It shouldn’t. The best kind of diet is one you can stick to — and that means finding ways to lighten up and add nutrition to your favorite recipes, not abandoning them. “By just making tiny tweaks to some of your favorite recipes, you’ll be able to eat what you love — and that will keep you eating it for a lifetime,” says Jackie Newgent, RD, culinary nutritionist, instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education and author of Big Green Cookbook. Turning your standard meals into nutritional standouts is simple with a few key rules at your fingertips. Below, seven easy ways to give your meals a health makeover:
1. Veg out. If you adjust every meal so that the produce is front and center, you’ll lighten things up by displacing higher-calorie choices with naturally lower-calorie ingredients. Plus, every additional veggie you include amps up the fiber, vitamins, minerals and flavor of your meal. Love pasta with pesto sauce? Replace half of a cup of pasta with steamed veggies like broccoli and cauliflower and you get a healthier, more filling meal with around 150 fewer calories.
2. Fill up on fluids. Water-rich foods — whole fruit, soup, yogurt and more — make you feel full on fewer calories. The reason is simple: They take up more room in your stomach. Think about grapes and raisins. “Raisins provide a lot of calories in a very small serving,” says Amy Jamieson-Petonic, MEd, a registered dietitian and the director of wellness coaching at the Cleveland Clinic. “For the same amount of calories in a small box of raisins, you could have a whole cup of grapes.”
3. Pare down your protein. The best choices at the butcher counter are 90 percent lean or higher. Don’t feel compelled to buy cuts of meat or poultry that are more than 98 percent lean, though — they tend to be dry and may turn you off to healthy eating altogether, Newgent says. And no matter the fat content, keep servings to around three ounces — approximately the size of your palm.
4. Believe in brown. Swapping out “white” foods — white flour, white rice, regular pasta — for whole-grain alternatives like whole-wheat flour, brown rice and whole-grain pasta won’t help you cut calories. But the fiber in them fills you up faster and sustains you longer, making you less likely to go back for seconds or to be hungry an hour later.
5. Saute smarter. Yes, oils like olive, canola and grapeseed are all heart-healthy choices for cooking. However, they contain around 120 calories per tablespoon and, if you overdo them, can easily add lots of extra calories to your healthy meal. To lighten up a stir-fried or sauteed dish, begin with a nonstick pan, Newgent advises. Spray oil directly onto the food using a mister (available at home stores), and use vegetable broth to add moisture and flavor to your dish.
6. Spice up your life. “Herbs and spices are a wonderfully tasty way to add flavor without calories,” Jamieson-Petonic says. And not only do herbs and spices not have calories, they are also free of fat and sodium — and packed with health benefits. Turmeric, for instance, the yellow spice often used in mustards and Indian food, may help slow the aging process, she says. And oregano, best known for lending its distinctive flavor to pizza, is packed with disease-fighting antioxidants. Other “free” (or almost-so) foods that are bursting with flavor: lemon juice and zest, orange peel, vinegars, hot sauce and salsa.
7. Go low on sweet. Recipes for treats like cookies, muffins and cakes tend to contain more than enough sweetness. “In general, you can cut about a quarter of the sugar from most baked good recipes without affecting the overall results,” Newgent says. As you skimp on sugar, play with calorie-free flavorings like cinnamon, nutmeg and vanilla or almond extract to help dial up the flavor.