Cooking Makeovers

by Charles Platkin, PhD

Stuff It with Vegetables
The next time you throw a burger on the grill, it doesn’t have to wreak havoc with your diet — just a few simple substitutions can save you a lot of calories and fat. To start, use lean ground beef instead of regular, or, for even less fat, try ground turkey. Next, give your burger some extra texture and flavor by mixing the meat with chopped mushrooms, peppers, and onions — you’ll have the same size burger but it will be much lower in calories — and you’ll also be getting the health benefits of all those vegetables.

For variety, experiment with other vegetables, like chopped water chestnuts or sundried (not oil-packed) tomatoes. Vegetables work great as fillers for many other foods as well, such as omelets and sandwiches.

You can also try this when you’re making meatloaf. To compensate for the lack of fat in the beef, spray the pan with cooking spray (e.g., Pam) to keep the meat from sticking.

  • Hamburger with ground beef (6 ounces): 481 calories, 34g fat, 0g carbs, 40g protein
  • Hamburger with lean beef and vegetables (6 ounces): 364 calories, 21g fat, 14g carbs, 30g protein

Replace Whole Dairy Products
You can replace almost any dairy product (e.g., cheese, milk, or sour cream) called for in a recipe with a low-fat or nonfat version, saving a significant number of calories. For instance, chef Terry Conlan, author of Fresh (Favorite Recipes Press, 2002) and executive chef at the Lake Austin Spa Resort in Austin, Texas, says his single favorite product for cooking is fat-free sweetened condensed milk. “It does everything that whole condensed milk will do for a lot less calories. We use it to make flan, cream pies, roasted tomato bisque, and much more.” He also recommends melting reduced-fat or fat-free cream cheese to use in lieu of heavy cream or half-and-half. For example, he makes a quick and easy key lime pie using fat-free sweetened condensed milk with a combination of fat-free and reduced-fat cream cheese.

Pound It Out
One of the tricks I discovered when I owned a restaurant, and later used to help me lose weight, was to use a mallet to pound and tenderize chicken (and other meats), making the portion appear larger. In fact, I have the local supermarket pound out the boneless, skinless chicken breasts I buy so they are paper-thin. This also allows for very rapid cooking using almost no oil.

Use Artificial or High Intensity Sweeteners
The word on the street is that Splenda (sucralose) can be used to replace sugar in almost all cooking, including baking, because it doesn’t lose sweetness with high heat. Sucralose is one of the safest sugar substitutes on the market.

Juice It
Using a juicer to make and create sauces is another way to cut hefty calorie costs while cooking at home. Scott Uehlein, executive chef at Canyon Ranch Spa in Tucson, Arizona, finds that many vegetables and fruits can be juiced into a great sauce to replace the creamy, buttery sauces often used to add flavor to foods. His favorite tip is to juice a golden ripe pineapple, which makes a thick, tasty sauce with plenty of froth. The pineapple juice can be used as a sweet and sour dip and can also be brushed on steamed, grilled, baked, or broiled foods during the cooking process. He especially likes it with lobster tails. If you don’t own a juicer, food processors and mixers often have juicing attachments available.

Uehlein also suggests juicing then simmering sweet, ripe tomatoes or carrots in a pan until they reduce and thicken, and then simply adding sea salt, lemon, and dill for a great-tasting, low-calorie sauce.

Make It Thick and Tasty
One of my favorite cooking tricks is to use cornstarch as an instant, fat-free thickener for sauces and gravies. “Just mix some cornstarch in cold water and add it to your stir fry. Saute vegetables with nonfat spray, seasoning, and lemon juice; add cornstarch, and then toss with pasta instead of making a cream-based pasta sauce. Or add cornstarch to meat juices to create a thick gravy without the added fat,” offers famed healthy cooking expert Cary Neff, author of Conscious Cuisine (Sourcebooks Trade, October 2002) and culinary consultant to Jenny Craig.

Pureed vegetables are another way to thicken sauces and stews. “Just a bit of cooked, pureed potato thickens ‘cream’ of asparagus soup so that no cream is needed. The same is true with pureed beans in veggie soup,” says Jorj Morgan, author of the forthcoming book Fresh Traditions (Cumberland House, August 2004).

Use Condiments, Herbs, and Spices
Whereas a bland “diet” meal can be pretty boring, highly flavored condiments help satisfy the senses. “Use a variety of vinegars such as raspberry, balsamic, and red wine,” suggests Melanie R. Polk, MM.Sc., R.D., FADA, and director of nutrition education at the American Institute for Cancer Research. You can also use low-fat vinaigrette dressing for your cooking. “By coating vegetables, chicken, or other foods with a low-fat vinaigrette, you avoid the fattening oils [one tablespoon of oil has 120 calories], with flavorful results,” reminds Neff.

You can also experiment with unusual condiments such as liquid smoke. “Liquid smoke is a seasoning made from water and concentrated smoke that mimics the flavor of smoked meats. It can be used to enhance almost anything, but especially split pea soup, braised greens, and baked beans, and it has virtually no calories,” says Lawrence J. Cheskin, M.D., professor of medicine and human nutrition at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and author of Recipes for Weight Loss (Rebus, 2003). Buy liquid smoke online at

Polk also suggests using fresh herbs. “There’s nothing like cutting fresh herbs such as thyme, cilantro, or rosemary from a pot on the patio and adding them to cooked grains, grilled chicken, or fresh green beans.” In addition, culinary experts recommend cooking with fat-free, low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth to avoid using oil — it’s a great way to bake, roast, simmer, or saute.

Send in your unusual or unique “calorie-saving cooking tips” to If your idea is published, you’ll receive a $20 check and a FREE copy of the forthcoming book The Automatic Diet (Hudson Street Press/Penguin).

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