7 Clever Ways to Lighten Any Recipe

Slash fat, sugar and calories without sacrificing flavor.

1 / 8

Eating well doesn’t mean forfeiting your favorite flavors. In fact, it’s possible to enjoy weekly staples with less fat, sugar and calories. From the foods you buy to the way you prepare them, there are simple ways to lighten even the richest of dishes.

Kaitlin Hornbostel, RDN, CNSC, with Presbyterian/St. Luke’s Medical Center, in Denver, Colorado, reveals the secrets to cooking light, flavorful meals. The first step, she says, is cooking most of your meals in your home kitchen. “I think when you're actually making the food yourself, you're so much more aware of what's going into it,” says Hornbostel. “It helps you make better choices.”

Medically reviewed in July 2018.

Buy lean

2 / 8 Buy lean

According to the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans, lean protein is essential in a healthy diet, as are plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthy fats. Our bodies rely on protein to function the way they should, but not all sources are healthy.

Some proteins, like certain cuts of beef, pork and lamb, are loaded with unhealthy saturated fats, which can increase cholesterol levels and up your risk for heart disease. When shopping for protein, load your cart with lower-fat options, like lean ground turkey, chicken breast or top sirloin.

The less fatty options are typically lower in calories, too. A three-ounce serving of lean turkey contains nearly 100 fewer calories and less fat than a similar portion of lamb.

Don’t forget plant-based proteins, like chickpeas and tofu. “Tofu is a great substitution because it takes on the nature of whatever flavors you're cooking it in,” says Hornbostel. Tofu contains just 60 calories per three ounces, and chickpeas, 67 calories per quarter cup.

To find the best protein substitutions for any recipe, check out the chef’s notes—and if you find the dish online, read reader reviews. These firsthand accounts will frequently offer tips to making even the leanest cut of meat more palatable.

Grill, bake or sauté

3 / 8 Grill, bake or sauté

Served by itself, on a hearty sandwich or beside a heaping helping of mashed potatoes, fried chicken is oh-so-tasty. The problem is, crispy fried chicken—like other fried eats—is dripping with unhealthy fats and a ton of extra calories. One serving of fried chicken breast from a popular restaurant chain will run you 390 calories and 21 grams of fat.

Lighten the load of this all-American classic—and almost any typically fried meat—by giving it a quick saute on the stovetop instead of dropping it into a deep fryer. But don’t be heavy handed with the oil. Although it's made mostly of good fat, a single tablespoon of olive oil contains 120 calories.

If you’re looking to skip the oil altogether, grab your nonstick pan, and coat your cookware with low-sodium chicken broth, with just 10 calories per cup. Other light cooking options: sprinkle your meat with calorie-free herbs and spices and pop it on the grill or in the oven. You can cook your favorite veggies the same way!

Cut the cream

4 / 8 Cut the cream

Many soups, stews and pasta sauces are made with heavy cream, which contains 821 calories and 88 grams of fat per cup. Fortunately, loading your pot with cream isn’t the only way to thicken your dish.

Some cooks substitute pureed tofu for heavy cream, which slashes fat and calories. Others thicken dishes with a little flour or cornstarch. And another sure-fire way to thicken your soups and sauces—and add a dose of vitamins and minerals—is mixing in pureed veggies. A large head of cauliflower contains just 210 calories and less than one gram of fat, so roast it, blend it up and pour it in. Potato puree will also do the trick, and one large spud contains 278 calories and less than one gram of fat.

In some veggie-based dishes, like butternut squash soup, you can ditch the cream entirely. Check out vegetarian- and vegan-friendly blogs for a multitude of additional delicious veggie purees, plus more swaps for heavy cream.

Give your ingredients a good chop

5 / 8 Give your ingredients a good chop

If you add healthy toppings like avocado, nuts and unsweetened dried fruit to your lunchtime salads and evening dinner plate, you might be taking in more calories than you think. For example, just four walnuts contain about 105 calories. Small servings of dried cranberries and creamy avocado are high in calories, too.

You can still add these extras; just give them a chop so you get the flavor in every bite of salad. The finer your chop them, the better they’ll be distributed throughout your dish, so you can ultimately use less without sacrificing flavor.

Load in the veggies

6 / 8 Load in the veggies

We’ve long been told veggies are staples in any healthy diet. In fact, Hornbostel suggests eating more non-starchy, nutrient-rich produce than any other food.

“Think about how your plate is divided up,” she says. “The biggest section should be vegetables, which can take up half of your plate.” She recommends rounding out your meal with a serving of healthy carbs, lean protein and heart-healthy fats, like avocado or olive oil.

Lighten up almost any meal, by tossing in your favorite mixed veggies. Grate zucchini into your turkey burgers or meatloaf for added vitamin A and potassium in every bite. Vitamin A is good for the health of your bones and white blood cells, and potassium promotes healthy blood pressure levels.

There’s more: Enjoy the flavor of your favorite rice dish without the high-carb price tag. Swap your usual white or even brown rice for riced cauliflower. This simple substitution will save you nearly 200 calories per cup.

Skip the store-bought sauces

7 / 8 Skip the store-bought sauces

Even healthy dishes can quickly turn into calorie bombs if they're loaded with unhealthy sauces. Sure, a serving of lean protein atop a bed of deep greens and colorful veggies is a healthy mealtime option, but what you drizzle on top may not be.

Many store-bought dressings are laden with fat, calories, sodium and added sugars. Lessen the load by whipping up your own dressings and marinades—it’s much simpler than you think.

“It's so easy to make a homemade salad dressing with some vinegar or lemon juice and some kind of oil,” says Hornbostel. Give some exotic flavors like grapeseed or avocado oil a try, or stick with an old favorite, like olive oil. You can marinate your favorite meats and veggies in this mix, too!

A teaspoon of olive oil plus 1/2 tablespoon of apple cider vinegar contains fewer than 45 calories. In comparison, a store-bought Italian vinaigrette contains 70 calories per serving, plus sodium, sugar and other additives.

Opt for egg whites only

8 / 8 Opt for egg whites only

Eggs are a quick and healthy source of protein, but their bright yellow centers, albeit rich in iron, vitamins and antioxidants, contain most of the food’s fat, calories and dietary cholesterol.

If you’re concerned about these, just use the whites. Nixing just one large egg yolk from your baking recipe or your morning meal will cut 54 calories and 4.5 grams of fat.

Looking to make the swap in your next casserole, soup, cookie or brownie recipe? Replace one whole egg with two egg whites or 1/4 cup of egg substitution.

If you still like the flavor of the yolk, mix two egg whites with one whole egg, instead of two whole eggs.

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