August 6, 2011

How to adapt your recipes for low-cal cooking

The Fit Bottomed Girls recently ran a post about Rachael Ray and the healthiness of her recipes. While Rachael often dubs her meals “figure friendly”, they are often far from that! Rachael’s 30 Minute Meals tend to use whole, natural ingredients that are certainly healthier for you than fast food or restaurant meals… but many times, the portion sizes or amount of extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) or butter seem unnecessarily large. Having cooked over 300 of Rachael’s recipes myself over the years, I started writing a comment to add some other tips of my own, but it ended up being so long that I thought I’d turn it into a blog post for all of you.

As many of you long-term readers know, I LOVE Rachael Ray – I taught myself to cook several years ago by watching her show and duplicating her recipes. I learned very quickly that you can make several easy modifications and your dish will indeed be super healthy. When I first started blogging, I was working in consulting but was on a project in New York City that didn’t require me to travel, so I was cooking a lot. Like many diet bloggers, I started posting the recipes I made along with the modifications I made to them and the nutrition stats when I was done (if you want to check those out, check out my meals tag in the tag cloud on the sidebar).

It’s been a while since I’ve done one of those healthy meal posts, but if you all are interested, I could certainly start doing that again. Hey, it might get me back to trying some new innovative recipes instead of just making up my own with whatever I have in the fridge/freezer/pantry! Tonight I’m off to a friend’s wedding for dinner, though, so I’m not going to be cooking anything. In the meantime, I thought I’d provide my top tips for lightening up a 30 Minute Meal (or any recipe, for that matter):

As others have said, whenever you make a Rachael Ray recipe, the first step to “healthifying” it is to cut most of the olive oil. Most of her recipes start with sauteing various ingredients in a pan, so what I’ve found works great is to first start with a nonstick pan – that immediately cuts the amount of oil you need to use in a recipe. I’ve found some great eco-friendly non-stick pans at TJ Maxx for under $20 a pop, which have a nonstick coating that is not Teflon, and won’t get in your food and cause cancer. They’re nothing super fancy, but they’re one of my favorite tools in the kitchen… and as I’ve realized this weekend while staying at my mom’s house in Albany, they’re the thing I miss the most when I’m trying to cook away from home.

Once you’ve gotten a nonstick pan and prepped all your meat/veggies/whatever’s going into it, I spray the pan with olive oil instead of pouring it from the bottle. I don’t like the chemicals and such that go into storebought aerosol spray oils, but a few years ago I was given a neat little sprayer called a Misto that allows you to fill it with whatever oil you want. With a few pumps, the oil comes out in a nice fine spray – perfect for getting exactly the amount of oil you need without excess.

After you’ve sprayed the pan and gotten all the veggies/meat/whatever inside, the smaller quantity of oil does make your food more prone to burning (particularly if you follow the time limits that Rachael sets out in her recipes). To mitigate this, all you need to do is a keep a close eye on your food, and shake the pan around a little bit as it cooks. (That last part has the added advantage of making you look like a “real” chef once you get good at flipping the food around in the pan without throwing it all over your kitchen. It’s a skill I’m still working on, but practice makes perfect!). When you shake the pan and see the food start to stick a little bit to the bottom, just add a few tablespoons of water and everything loosens right back up. (I just grab the pan, throw it under the faucet for a sec, and then slide it back onto the burner). Depending upon what kind of veggies are in there and the water content of those veggies, you may not even have a problem at all; other times, when you’re cooking meat or drier veggies, you may need to keep adding water a few times as it cooks away. If I find it’s a recipe where I’m having to add a lot of water to keep the food from sticking, I also toss in a little low fat chicken broth, which helps retain the rich flavor. The trick with this technique is not to add too much water at one time – you want your food to continue to saute instead of boil, and the only way to do that is by keeping the water content as low as possible without burning.

The other major tip I’ll give for cutting the calories in your cooking is to watch the carbs. So many home recipes (including Rachael’s) have some sort of carb base – usually rice, pasta, or potatoes. I once astonished my roommate by making a massive portion of Indian food that was under 300 calories – because instead of serving it over rice, I served it over steamed okra. If you can find a way to cut back on the “dry carbs” that are in your dish, you’ll probably drastically cut the calories as well.

While sometimes you’re just craving carbs and all you want to eat is a big bowl of spaghetti, other times, if you really think about it, the carbs are just a vehicle for bringing the yummy flavors of the rest of the food to your mouth. This is why when I’m at Chipotle, I opt for a bowl instead of a tortilla – the tortilla’s not going to add anything to my enjoyment of the burrito; it just makes it a handheld meal instead of something I eat with a knife and fork, and adds calories in the process.

Get creative about what you can do instead of dry carbs – veggies can help you really bulk up a recipe volume-wise without adding a lot of calories. You would be surprised how well a parsnip-and-cauliflower puree can substitute for heavy mashed potatoes! You can also try thickening the sauces of your dishes (by either cooking longer or adding a bit of cornstarch/flour) so that they don’t need to be piled on a mound of rice in order to be scooped up with a fork. The only caution here is to know your audience – as a single girl, I tend to just be cooking for myself, but your boyfriend/husband/kids/whatever may not like this option as much as the standard.

Happy low-calorie cooking!


2 thoughts on “How to adapt your recipes for low-cal cooking”

  1. Hi Laura – I applaud the idea of creating a safer home, and because there’s so much misinformation out there about the Teflon® brand, I’m not surprised that you are concerned. I’m a representative of DuPont though, and hope you’ll let me share some information with you and your readers, so that everyone can make truly informed decisions.

    In regards to Teflon® and cancer – The weight of evidence gathered from a number of significant health studies continues to indicate to us that there is no health risk to the general public from exposure to PFOA. Additionally, no authoritative body has designated PFOA as a human carcinogen. The U.S. EPA stated that it is premature to conclude that PFOA causes cancer. For more information, please visit and can provide you with additional information.

  2. Great post! I too learned a lot about cooking from RR. I watched a lot of her shows while on maternity leave, and my husband ate like a king!

    But then I bought a book, and I just couldn’t believe how fattening her recipes were. I always was pretty good at lightening her recipes. But she had a pasta recipe that used a pound of pasta and said it was 4 servings. I yelled “No, a pound of pasta is 8 servings”

    I have found that to be a problem in many cookbooks, from RR to vegan – if you follow their recommended portion size, you are easily looking at 700 to 1300 calories. About the only cookbooks that aren’t like that are the old-style Betty Crocker or Better Homes and Gardens. Still not “light”, but with much more reasonable portions.

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