What Hungry Girl Really Eats, the Scoop on Her Next Book and More!

By , SparkPeople Blogger
Back in 2004, Lisa Lillien was a woman with a dream--she wanted to share her love of better-for-you snack foods with the world. Having lost 30 pounds, she knew how hard it was to navigate the supermarket shelves, searching for treats that would scratch an itch but not blow her calorie budget.

After a frenzied trip to a food lab to test a too-good-to-be-true snack food, Lisa's passion for truth in food labeling and discerning palate merged. Her alter-ego, Hungry Girl, was born, and what started as a small website and e-newsletter sent to fewer than 100 people has become a much larger newsletter with almost 800,000 subscribers, product endorsements and two best-selling cookbooks. Her website is www.hungry-girl.com/.

Lisa, aka Hungry Girl, is honest about what she likes and dislikes, the former list being much longer than the latter: VitaTop muffins, Tofu Shirataki noodles, Fuji apples and broccoli cole slaw are just a few products that pop up repeatedly in her recipes. She's as gaga for popchips as we are, and she will coat just about anything in crushed Fiber One cereal as a way to "faux fry."

Her endorsements are so passionate--and so influential--that her animated likeness now appears on various products, including a new Fiber One 50-calorie yogurt that she raved about during our interview. (Our review will appear soon!) After seeing the commercial featuring Hungry Girl, Lisa said, "I got really excited. I think it's ridiculously cool and I'm thrilled every time I see it."

Before my interview, I asked you what you wanted me to ask Hungry Girl, and you had some great questions! Lisa chatted with me for about 20 minutes last week about topics ranging from her food philosophy and her retro breakfast that morning to how she stays on track while traveling and what she role she thinks her recipes play in a healthy diet.

She was kind, funny and, of course, hungry! (There's really just one food she says she doesn't like on its own: Ironically enough, it's celery--that iconic food that dieters everywhere have munched begrudgingly for decades!)

dailySpark: What did you have for breakfast today?

Hungry Girl: Today I had a breakfast that I never normally eat, and as I was eating, I said, 'Wow! It's like my mom in 1975!" I had half a cantaloupe with fat-free cottage cheese iced coffee. Very 1975, my mom. Normally I have egg whites or egg substitute with low-fat cheese.

dailySpark: How do you stay on track when away from home?

Hungry Girl: Luckily, when I travel, I don't think about food as much as I'm thinking about other things. So five hours go by and I'll grab an apple just to make sure I'm not ravenous the next time I have a meal. I'm not one of those people that tends to go crazy when I eat out. I think I've trained myself to order well off of menus so I don't freak when I show up and there's room service or I'm at a restaurant.… Plus I'm moving around a lot, carrying bags and staying on my feet, so I'm probably burning extra calories, too.

dailySpark: Where do you get inspiration for your recipes?

Hungry Girl: Different things inspire me and the rest of the Hungry Girl staff. I watch a lot of Food Network. I can get five new ideas from one show. I'm inspired when I go out to eat and I look at restaurant menus. I say I can make a guilt-free version of this. TV commercials--when I see the new quesadillas that are at Chili's--I want to make those over. The new wings at Wendy's--I want to make those over. And then we have meetings where we're all brainstorming. At any given time, there are six to 10 of us sitting around just trying to figure out what we need to make next.

dailySpark: So how long does it take for a recipe to get from idea to tested to the email newsletter?

Hungry Girl: In general it's several weeks because we try to stay on top of content and create recipes two to three weeks out. When something is life-changing and amazing, we can operate like a newsroom and get it out in a day or two. The first time I made the Fettuccine Hungry Girlfredo I put it up instantly. I said, "This is life-changing, and we have to get this up and out immediately!" And then if there's a new product find, we try to get it out sooner. That's why we do the news on Mondays. We try to really be timely.

dailySpark: How many products do you taste daily? Is it hard for you to stay on track with all the bites, licks and tastes?

Hungry Girl: You have to exercise a lot, and some weeks are harder than others, but I taste pretty much every single thing that people have sent me, unless they have completely misfired--like when people send big, giant bars of chocolate, I don’t feel the need to open those and eat those. But anything that is guilt-free or pretending to be guilt-free, I try it, but I try not to eat too much of it. If it's anything that's too tempting, I tend to give it away.

dailySpark: When you like something, you're really happy to work with that brand, but you also do negative reviews as well, right?

Hungry Girl: I do, but I feel like we don't just slam products just for the sake of slamming them. A couple of products come to mind as products that I reviewed negatively, and I think they were products that really deserved it either because they were talking about how fantastic the product was and spending a lot of money to advertise it and it's an expensive product and then it was so bad that I then felt the need to tell the world that it's bad and don't waste your money.

But I feel like you have to talk about the stuff that's not so good as well as the good stuff so people A. know that you're not just saying everything is fantastic, and B. so they can trust your taste buds. If you say something's good, they'll know it' good, and if you say something's not so good, they'll agree with you and know it's not so good. It keeps the (Hungry Girl) brand credible.

dailySpark: Have you had any disasters in the Hungry Girl kitchen or in your personal kitchen?

Hungry Girl: There haven't been any disasters, but there have been a few recipes that we'd had to give up on. The one that comes to mind was a cookies and cream pie that we just couldn't get right after seven to 10 versions of it. It just never turned out the way we wanted.

For awhile it was crème brûlée--crème brûlée was a tough one to do. But then somehow, I met the crème brûlée queen, Debbie Puente. She has this crème brûlée book, and we worked with her to develop a guilt-free crème brûlée.
If we mastered crème brûlée, I feel like there's no stopping us.

Lisa Lillien, aka Hungry Girl

dailySpark: What is your latest favorite snack?

Hungry Girl: I love the Fiber One yogurts, and they've been filling the fridge--anytime someone sees them, they buy them for me. They're like "I saw yogurt with your picture on it," so I've got a lot of them and I've been eating those a lot lately.

I just really love Fuji apples. I know that's not the most exciting snack, and it's not new and different, but I eat an apple a day.

I like light string cheese, too. It's satisfying and it's protein, and it's good!

dailySpark: There are some people who complain that a lot of your recipes are made with really processed foods, and you’ve said that's what people crave. How do consider these recipes? Are these meant to replace three meals a day and two snacks? Or are these for when you feel a craving?

Hungry Girl: Well, I feel like a lot of the Hungry Girl recipes are made with foods that are natural. So I feel like the people that want to call out the processed food are not really paying attention to the Hungry Girl philosophy in general, which is eat a lot of fresh foods, a lot of whole foods, a lot of vegetables, a lot of lean meats, and a lot of fruit. And a lot of recipes are made with those things.

Now the recipes that call for processed and packaged foods, some of them are more "craving foods" and some of them are staples. I'd have to think about each recipe individually to say "that's a once a week food, that's a once a month food…" They're meant to just fit into people's lifestyles, and you can eat as much of that as you want or as little.

I feel like the majority of people eat packaged foods at least sometimes.

dailySpark: You just said that you really like Fuji apples, you like string cheese and yogurt. What are some other staples in your daily diet?

Hungry Girl: I love Vita-Tops. It's all the stuff you named (earlier). I love the Tofu Shirataki noodles, Yoplait light and Fiber One yogurts, I love Laughing Cow cheese, I love egg substitutes or egg whites, high-fiber, low-calorie tortillas--those are all my staples, and broccoli cole slaw is something I eat nonstop. I just do so many different things with it, and that's just shredded broccoli, cabbage and carrots.

I eat a lot of vegetables and a lot of fruit.

Just to get back to the processed food thing: Anybody that would say Hungry Girl onion rings are bad--they use Fiber One breakfast cereal, onions and egg substitute and you bake them. So anyone who could pull that apart--what are you saying? You're better off going to fast food place and getting onion rings? It's not like people are choosing between our onion rings or an apple. People are choosing between our onion rings or diner onion rings.

dailySpark: I signed up for your newsletter years ago, long before I started at SparkPeople. I remember I had just moved back from overseas, and I was trying to keep a healthy lifestyle here in the States. I remember thinking these recipes were a great way to dip my toe into healthy eating. Do you get a lot of people who tend to see your recipes as a bridge to carry them into healthy eating?

Hungry Girl: I do. That's a great way to put it. I feel like there's a lot of information out there and people saying you only have to eat only whole foods, shop the perimeter of the store. For a lot of people, the reality here in this country is that they're eating a lot of fast food and a lot of junk food. Hungry Girl is a perfect bridge to marry the two, and it's a great solution. It's helping hundreds of thousands of people, and it's definitely doing a lot for people who didn't even know how to go about making changes (to be healthy) and being satisfied.

dailySpark: You've written two cookbooks: Hungry Girl: Recipes and Survival Strategies for Guilt-Free Eating in the Real World and 200 Under 200: 200 Recipes Under 200 Calories. Do you have any plans for other books?

Hungry Girl: Yes! In fact, there will be another book coming out March 30, with another fun hook. There will probably between 165 and 200 recipes in that book. And there's a recipe card set of some of the Hungry Girl classics that will be out in November.

dailySpark: Before I let you go, I do want to touch on exercise, because I know that's an important part of your healthy lifestyle and certainly that's a big part of the SparkPeople plan. So how do you stay in shape, in addition to your bodybugg?

Hungry Girl: The good thing about the bodybugg is that it shows you that even running around the house or playing Rock Band helps you burn calories. I used to hate exercise. I was a person who was afraid of the gym, and I didn't want to be seen at the gym. I didn't want to lift a weight or go on a treadmill. I didn't want to drink water.

I realized that exercise doesn't have to be painful. The key to anyone succeeding in exercising is to find something they like to do. For me, it's treadmilling for the most part. I do some weight training a couple of times a week, but I'm on the treadmill walking almost daily. I try to be on that treadmill at least five times a week, and I have a Tivo right there in the treadmill room. So I'm watching my favorite TV shows and not even realizing that I'm walking. So whether it's finding a friend to go walking with or going hiking or finding something you like to do, I think it's really important. I think people who don't exercise are going to have a lot harder time losing weight or just being healthy in general.

dailySpark: How do you stay motivated? Do you ever have off days?

Hungry Girl: I do have off days, like anybody. I live by the 80/20 rule, so 80% of the time I'm eating the foods I should be eating--and it could be Saturday night and I'm sticking my spoon into the brownie sundae when I'm out to dinner. I think that's the best way--to not be so extreme that you just deprive yourself completely of something. It makes me feel like I'm completely in control, and I love it. I feel like the people who have the most trouble are the people that are too extreme, who won't even let a bite of anything pass their lips. Once you get past that stage and you can really master it, it's easier to stay motivated and stay on track.

Are you a fan of Hungry Girl? What is your favorite HG recipe? Does Lisa inspire you?