Nutrition Articles

10 Easy Ways to Lighten Up Any Recipe

Boost Nutrition and Cut Calories in the Kitchen

Choosing healthy foods is an important part of eating right, but cooking them in a healthful way is another huge part. For example, zucchini can take on two completely different forms when it's quickly sautéed in olive oil versus battered and deep fried. What we add to foods makes all the difference when it comes to home cooking.

The first step to healthier cooking is to take recipes as suggestions. Before you start chopping and mixing, scan the recipe to see if there are any unnecessary calories. Look for excess cheese, butter and oils, as well as sugars.

Here are some tasty, healthy ideas to help you become a professional recipe overhauler!
  1. Sauté—the skinny way! A couple of tablespoons of  low-sodium vegetable broth can be used instead of oil or butter in your stir fry or as the basis for a sauce. This method will add a nice flavor to your dish as well as a little moisture—and you'll save calories to use elsewhere. To get a dose of unsaturated fats, serve your broth-sautéed veggies with a side salad, and pour an olive oil-based dressing over the top.
  2. Say no to skin. Three ounces of chicken breast meat with skin has almost 150 calories; three ounces of chicken without the skin has 50 fewer calories. Tasty as it might be, the skin contains mostly heart-unhealthy saturated fat. You can cook with the skin on to retain moisture  (add fresh herbs or citrus zest underneath it to really bake in some flavor), but be sure to remove the skin before you enjoy your meal to save on calories and saturated fat.
  3. Squeeze on the citrus. To add a powerful flavor punch with minimal added calories, use citrus on steamed veggies instead of butter or over a salad instead of a dressing. It’s even great on fruit salad in place of sugar and adds some zip when squeezed onto a pasta salad. Don’t forget to use the flavorful zest of citrus fruits as well! Wash a lemon, orange or lime, then use a zester or grater to add the zest to dishes such as baked seafood.
  4. Be choosy about cheese. When using a mildly flavored cheese, such as Monterey Jack, you need more cheese to taste it. But when you choose a cheese with intense flavor, you can use less and still get the desired effect. Try a reduced-sodium feta, sharp Cheddar or aged Parmesan next time. Light cheese wedges such as The Laughing Cow brand are useful when you're watching fat and calories, too. Try mixing one of these soft cheeses into your scrambled eggs or noodle dishes instead of loading on the shredded mozzarella.
  5. Go Greek. Tangy, fat-free Greek yogurt is a healthful replacement for sour cream. Try this switch in herbed and spiced dips, tacos, nachos, enchiladas, or throw it in a cooked dish as a thickening agent. You’ll save 45 calories for each 2-tablespoon serving.
  6. Puree your produce. Add body to soups and sauces with pureed vegetables instead of heavy cream, evaporated milk, butter or cheese. This move will also add fiber and nutrients to your dish for very few calories. A puree of carrots will add texture to meatless spaghetti sauce, and mixing a blend of beans into a chili or soup will add flavor and thicken it—all with very few added calories. In this recipe, Chef Meg thickens a taco soup with chickpeas!
  7. Get cozy with cottage cheese. When a recipe calls for a significant amount of a crumbled cheese, such as feta or ricotta, substitute half the amount with reduced-fat cottage cheese. This will retain taste, texture, protein, and calcium while ditching some of the fat and calories. This works well for stuffed peppers and most baked pasta dishes.
  8. Pump up the veggies! You can easily reach the recommended five servings of fruits and veggies when you’re cooking at home. Veggies can compliment any dish on your menu, adding nutrient-packed bulk to the meal for few calories. Add chopped asparagus and mushrooms to your next omelet, red peppers (or a frozen stir fry mix) to baked casseroles, or any kind of beans to a pasta salad. Include fresh or frozen spinach in pasta sauces and soups, and broccoli in your casseroles. The opportunities for adding veggies are endless for almost any dish!
  9. Cut the cream. When making cream-based soups, sub fat-free half-and-half for any heavy cream. The switch gives the soups a creamy taste and velvety texture without all the saturated fat of heavy cream. This works great in pasta sauces as well.
  10. Make your own marinade. Marinate lean meats in vinegar and citrus combos (with a bit of oil added) rather than a pre-made oil-based dressing. You can also try a fruit juice or wine. These agents will still tenderize and flavor the meat, and a mix of herbs and spices will bring out the flavor! (You'll also save sodium by not using the store-bought varieties!) Try cutting the meat in strips before dousing it to really let the marinade take effect.
As you can see, there are endless ways you can boost the nutrition and reduce the calories of almost any recipe. Get creative and experiment in the kitchen. You may just find that you like these new ways of cooking just as much—or even better!
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About The Author

Sarah Haan Sarah Haan
Sarah is a registered dietitian with a bachelor's degree in dietetics. She helps individuals adopt healthy lifestyles and manage their weight. An avid exerciser and cook, Sarah likes to run, lift weights and eat good food. See all of Sarah's articles.

Member Comments

  • I'm a little surprised there was no mention of cutting out adding salt in cooking. Leave it out people! You won't miss it and your body will be so grateful. - 2/1/2015 10:08:42 AM
    This article is needs to be updated and is filled with bad health advice. Saturated fats are not heart unhealthy. Fat free is not healthy. - 12/18/2014 5:06:22 AM
  • This article is in SORE need of an update - 12/2/2014 2:33:46 PM
    Lately, the "experts" have found that chicken skin has something good in them, and they are not as bad for you as previously touted about............
    .the the stearic acid in beef that is good for the body, too.............. - 11/2/2014 1:15:55 PM
  • Artificially fat free products are horrible for your health. Please stop recommending these products! Healthy fats are a staple of any healthy diet and essential to satiety and well being! - 10/22/2014 9:20:50 PM
  • I make my own salad dressing by blending cottage cheese until its smooth, then adding some garlic powder and crumbled blue cheese. Once that's blended smooth, I add in more blue cheese crumbles and whisk just long enough to combine them. It's very thick - more like a dip - but it can be thinned with milk.

    The Hubs likes ranch dressing, so I make him a batch using a packet of ranch dressing mix.

    In its thicker form, the dip makes a great spread for wraps, too. - 7/2/2014 12:03:45 PM
  • Reduced fat and fat free products are terrible for you. They replace the fat with sugar and chemicals. - 6/21/2014 8:49:10 AM
  • Stop saying that saturated fat is bad. The tide is turning. What is unhealthy is the fat free half and half that you said to use. YUCK.. Stick with real cream and butter. - 4/9/2014 9:15:29 PM
  • good information - 3/24/2014 5:54:20 AM
    I learned something new today...and that is always a good way to start the day. Thanks! - 3/23/2014 11:49:18 AM
  • Many "low-fat" products have twice the sodium as regular. Better to reduce the amount of the higher calorie ingredient. Those of us with high blood pressure know this. - 1/27/2014 10:25:59 AM
    ALDEBARANIAN: When people talk about using broth to saute, they're referring to something other than poaching. You do this by spraying a pan lightly with Pam or brushing on a minimal amount of oil and then adding the food. When your ingredients are beginning to brown, add a splash of broth, just enough to sizzle and keep the food from burning or sticking but not enough to bring the pan temperature down.

    You have to have the pan fairly hot and you need to watch carefully so that you can continue to add the right amount of broth. It's more work than sauteing with just oil but getting a sauteed dish to come out right requires pretty close attention anyway. - 12/14/2013 7:29:49 AM
  • I use Laughing Cow wedges on stuff all the time! Such a good mayo/cheese alternative and I know exactly how much I'm eating! - 8/10/2013 10:26:51 PM
  • I often saute vegetables in broth. But, sauteeing them in olive oil is not a bad thing either. Some vitamins are fat soluble, so you need some healthy fat in your diet so your body can absorb them.

    Lightening up recipes doesn't just mean cutting calories, fat & sugar. You can lighten up the sodium content of recipes by cutting back on the salt and using more herbs and spices. Look for lower-sodium soups, broth, soy sauce, canned vegetables (or substitute fresh or frozen vegetables for canned).

    Also, remember that cottage cheese is actually high in sodium. Most brands have 400 mg sodium per 1/2 cup serving. Fat-free Greek yogurt is a good substitute in some recipes for cottage cheese. - 8/10/2013 3:15:43 PM
  • Never heard of saute anything with broth. - 7/19/2013 5:31:45 PM

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