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10 inexpensive steps to healthier recipes

You can lighten any meal with these cheap and easy solutions.

By Karen Datko Dec 3, 2009 9:17AM

This guest post comes from Kris at Cheap Healthy Good.


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 a while, you won’t need to consult any guides. You can lighten any dish straight off the top of your head.

Below then, are 10 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 another 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.

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).

Replace every two eggs with three 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.

Thicken soups and chili 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.

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.

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 to reduce the fat from the nuts and cheese.
See: Strawberry and avocado salad.

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 fromage 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.

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.

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.

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 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.

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.

Related reading at Cheap Healthy Good:

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