There’s no magic formula to losing weight (other than
calories in < calories out), but there are some shortcuts, tricks, and tips that I’ve discovered through my four years of Clean Livin’ that could help you navigate the broken glass that’s hidden in the grass. These tips may not work for everyone, but they work for me, and if you can try them and not mind the changes, you get the added weight loss benefit for free.
Think about it this way: if you can substitute one thing for another that’s just as good (or sometimes even better) it’s one small step toward cutting out a small number of calories, but those small numbers add up over the course of a day, week, or year.
Stupid Human Tricks
- Downsize Your Plate – Since you’ll likely be done eating before you end up feeling full, most people will know that they’re done eating by looking down at their empty plate. You can reduce your calorie intake simply by making your plate smaller. It sounds stupid, but it works. I usually eat most of my meals on a salad or small dessert plate.
- Pre-Portion Everything – Don’t eat from a container or bag unless you intend to eat the entire thing. Sure, you may stop when you’re full, or when you’ve had a serving, but you’re far more likely to over-eat when you can’t see the portion that’s going into your stomach. Place what you intend to eat on a plate or bowl prior to eating it. If you decide you want more, at least you’re deciding to eat more and not just mindlessly shoving food down your craw.
- Measure Your Food – Unless you’re eating something that’s prepared and individually portioned, the only way you’re going to know just how much meat, beans, or soup you’re having is to measure it out with a measuring cup or weigh it on a food scale. Studies have shown that people underestimate the portion size of even something as simple as a chicken breast by 30–40%. It only takes a moment to put your plate on the scale, tare it (i.e. zero it out), and weigh a portion. You can even keep taring the scale between adding additional food to it. Weighing your food is the most accurate way to measure the calories in that food, because the volume of solid food items can vary between measuring depending on how the food is oriented or packed.
- Slow Down – I’m as guilty of eating too fast as anyone. Studies have shown, however, that people who eat more slowly also eat fewer calories than people who scarf down their food. Not only does it take about twenty minutes for you to start feeling full after you start eating, but by chewing your food more you taste it more, and will find that smaller portions won’t leave you feeling hungry afterwards if you eat your food more slowly.
- Pay Attention – My wife and I still eat while watching television sometimes. We almost always eat official “meals” at the dining room table, but will often eat an evening snack while watching a movie or TV show. We try to combat overeating by portioning our snacks (usually fruit or air-popped popcorn) in the kitchen and then taking our bowls to the sofa, but it’s probably still a bad habit that promotes mindless eating. Have you ever finished eating only to discover that you didn’t even notice you were eating by the time you were done? This is especially frustrating when you’ve been eating something unhealthy, because now you’ve not only eaten a large number of calories, but you didn’t even get to enjoy them. That doesn’t sound like fun. If you’re going to eat potato chips, at least eat them mindfully so you can enjoy the experience.
- Mustard Instead of Mayo – Mayonnaise is an emulsion of oil and egg, but it’s mostly oil. Mustard is usually comprised of ground mustard seeds (mustard is a plant), vinegar, and salt. Unless you get honey mustard or mustard mixed with some other sugary concoction, it’s usually zero calories, whereas mayo is 100 calories per tablespoon, which is about as much as you’d put on a sandwich if you don’t use a lot of mayo. You get the added benefit that mustard is tastier (although I do admit a love of mayo on certain types of sandwich).
- Fat Free Singles Cheese – If you’re going to eat processed American cheese anyway, switching to the 25–30 calorie variety versus the 60 calorie per slice regular is a no-brainer. They’re also usually individually wrapped and melt really well, so they’re great in omelettes, on sandwiches, and as a cheesy additive to beans. I actually prefer the taste of the fat-free vs. the regular slices of my local supermarket’s brand. The Kraft fat free singles are generally available everywhere, though, and are also very good.
- Reduced- or Non-Fat – I’ve been drinking 1% or 2% milk instead of whole milk for so long that the whole milk (typically 4% fat) tastes too creamy to me now. However, skim milk just tastes watery and thin. It’s amazing what 1% of dairy fat can do to the taste of milk. Switching from whole milk to 1% will save you 60 calories per cup. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but adding up a few 25–75 calorie substitutions in a day can mean an extra pound lost per month. Cheese is another area where you can get reduced or non-fat varieties of some cheeses. As with the fat free singles cheese, skim-milk (which is sometimes harder to find than “part-skim” varieties) mozzarella is another example where if you’re mixing it into a recipe or using it to top a baked dish you won’t even miss the added fat and the calories that it brings. Easy substitution.
- Leaner Cuts – You probably already consider boneless, skinless chicken breast a diet food, but did you know that the more succulent pork loin is ounce-for-ounce less caloric than chicken breast? Believe it, bucko. When eating red meat, like steak, you can probably switch out a fattier ribeye or sirloin for a leaner filet mignon or New York strip steak. Ground beef is usually labeled with the percent of lean meat that’s in the container, but with steaks it’s harder to tell, especially when you’ve been trained to look for good marbling (the white marble strains in the otherwise red meat is the fat). Barring buying a leaner cut of beef, grilling it so that the fat drips between the grates is a healthier option than pan-searing it so that it reabsorbs its fat while cooking. Pro tip: while letting the steak rest for a few minutes, take some marinade and pour it over the steak to make it juicier. Yes, after cooking. While the meat fibers cool and the protein strands relax they’ll wick up that flavorful juice and make even leaner cuts of beef taste fantastic. Just be sure to use a low-calorie marinade or you’re just substituting beef fat calories for calories in the marinade.
Easy Foods To Cut
This one is harder to provide examples for, because the high-calorie foods that you eat often but don’t really enjoy that much will be different for you than they are for me, but I can at least share a list of foods that I’ve cut out or those of which I’ve drastically reduced my consumption.
If you’re eating something out of habit or just because it’s there (for example, snacks that are available in the office) and you wouldn’t miss them, just cut them out. Not eating something you don’t even like isn’t a sacrifice at all. If you examine what you’re eating every day and really think about it, there are probably at least a few foods that you can give the pink slip.
While I haven’t completely barred any food from my diet (because I’m not on a diet, I’m just eating better), there are a bunch of things that I hardly ever eat anymore.
- The Offender: Soda/Pop – Of course, as I list soda as a beverage I rarely consume, I just finished drinking a tiny plastic cup of Coke Zero while I type this on an airplane. I used to drink a few cans of regular Coca-Cola Classic while at work (because it was there) every day, and switching to coffee and then water made it easy to remove hundreds of calories from my daily intake. I don’t miss it at all, although I did buy a SodaStream carbonator to make fizzy water for when I want some bubbles, which is hardly ever.
The Lower-Calorie Substitute – I usually drink plain old filtered or tap water (I know, I’m boring).
- Offender: High Carb Breakfasts – I used to eat a lot more bagels, pancakes, and waffles than I do now.
Substitute: Usually yogurt with a bunch of nutritionally-strategic additives – granola, berries, walnuts, flax seed, chia seed, or other foods that I’m getting into my diet by adding them to my morning mélange. I’ll have eggs for breakfast once or twice a week (and then maybe once again for lunch or dinner). I’ll have oatmeal once or twice a week (which I should increase but I like my yogurt more).
- Offender: Sugary Desserts and Snacks – I used to eat a lot of cake, pie, or ice cream for dessert.
Substitute: – I’ll have some fruit or popcorn. Sometimes in the summer we’ll splurge and have some frozen yogurt or kefir, which is about 100–120 calories per 5 oz, as opposed to the 200ish calories in the same volume of ice cream.
- Offender: Cheeseburgers – Man, I loves me a good burger. Add cheese, bacon, and katsup to really kick things up a notch, especially if you throw in a side of crispy french fries and a tasty cold beer.
Substitute: – There is no substitute for a burger. I just eat them less frequently. I enjoy them a whole lot more when I do eat them now, though, and will grill up the burgers myself rather than get them at a restaurant.
- Offender: Sausage – Most sausages are loaded with fat (and other things).
Substitute: Chicken Sausage – Before you close your browser in disgust, just hear me out. I used to be like you, scoffing at the idea of a chicken sausage or some other ridiculous hot dog substitute, but in the past few years chicken sausages have really kicked it up a notch. At one-half to two-thirds fewer calories than their pork or beef counterparts, chicken sausages can be well spiced and mixed with healthy alternatives to fat, like apples, peppers, or even low-fat cheese. Living in Chicago, I’m particular partial to the new chicken sausages from Vienna Beef. They’re so good I actually prefer them to their hot dogs (although I do miss the natural casing snap of the standard dogs).
- Offender: French Fries, Rice, Bread Stuffing, Pasta, and other Starches – Growing up most meals would consist of a well-rounded plate of some meat, fish, or other protein, some vegetable, and some starch like macaroni & cheese or rice. The problem with these starches is that they provide a ton of calories without providing that much in the way of nutrition.
Substitute: Beans – Beans also contain a lot of starch, of course, and with that, a lot of calories compared to vegetables or proteins. However, beans are also loaded with dietary fiber and vitamins, and are thus really good for you. I usually don’t eat more than a half-cup serving of beans at any given time, but they’re excellent (and if you spice them up, much tastier than boring ol’ white rice).
Small changes to your eating habits add up over time to big weight loss. A few calories here and there don’t seem like much, but you can easily lose a pound a week by reducing your calorie intake by just 350 calories a day; reduced because you’ve found ways around starving yourself by eating lower-calorie foods that taste just as good (or better) than their higher-calorie culinary equivalents.
Truth be told I don’t eat that much red meat these days, but sometimes a nice grilled flank steak or filet mignon is a nice side dish for a big salad. Yes, I’ve flipped the portions. The meat isn’t the main course, it’s a side dish to vegetables. You won’t miss the difference between 4oz and 8oz of meat, especially if you’re eating it slowly, don’t have it very often, and savor every bite. If anything, you’ll probably enjoy it more when you do eat red meat. ↩
I was interviewed by WalkJogRun.net for their podcast a few weeks ago, but there were audio issues so today they posted a transcript of the interview along with some photos from Clean Livin’.
I’ve previously written about WalkJogRun and it’s a great site for plotting the distance and path of my walks, and better yet, finding a great walking or running route when you’re traveling. They also have a fantastic iOS app and their podcast is always full of great information. I talked to Caitlin of WJR about Clean Livin’, my history of being a fat guy, and about my weight loss success over the past four years.
Being interviewed has given me the bug to start a podcast. Any interest in hearing me prattle on about Clean Livin’ for 15–20 minutes a week?
You can read a transcript of the interview at the WalkJogRun blog.
Now that I’ve lost more than 189 pounds, I’ve crossed another (minor) milestone and have lost more than three-fourths of the total amount that I need to drop (250 lbs from my highest weight of just over 451 pounds).
I was really close two weeks ago, and then my wife and I went on vacation to San Francisco. In my hubris, I was planning to try to lose weight while on vacation, but the best laid plans often go awry when you’re faced with eating every meal out. I figured that I could eat an extra 500 calories a day without gaining weight, since I usually maintain a deficit of 800–1000 calories. Sounds easy, no? I started out okay, but those bowls of cioppino, loaves of sourdough bread, and mission burritos aren’t going to eat themselves.
So I can’t say that I did my best. Sure, I continued to log what I ate and count the calories, but after the first few days I stopped worrying about it. When I came back I logged my weight and found that I’d gained three pounds (although I lost the first pound a day later after I flushed out all the salty restaurant food and lost the water I was retaining).
It took me a few more days to get back into the swing of Clean Livin’, but as of this morning I weighed-in at 261.8 lbs, which put me down below the ¾ mark.
You’re in my sights, 250 pounds.
Plus, there’s all that great Napa Valley wine that needed drinking. ↩
Sometimes you’re going to miss one of your goals, overeat, not have time for an exercise session, or otherwise screw up. Once you hit one of these failures to your fitness routine you may as well just give up, right? Cry yourself to sleep, shake your fist at the sky, and lose any hope of ever being in good shape. It’s over.
You could just shrug it off, go for a walk, and eat better next time. Everyone has a favorite unhealthy food – their own personal kryptonite. For me, it’s hamburgers, beer, Chinese food, pizza, and other savory, often fried, things. My wife is really into noodles. You may have a sweet tooth for ice cream, or like salty snacks like potato chips and pretzels. Maybe it’s all of the above. Whatever your vice, let’s say you ate some of it and now you’re feeling bad about yourself.
Embrace the Process
When you eat too many calories at a single meal, you’re not failing at the process. Occasional slipping is part of the process. So don’t despair and think of it as a setback or problem. You’re not on a diet, you’re making better choices for the rest of your life. Depriving yourself of any enjoyment of food is only going to last so long. Rather than eliminate everything you enjoy eating, you just want to cut back on the unhealthy things. Then eat them sometimes. It’s okay.
How well you’ll fare with your healthier lifestyle in the long-term is largely dependent on how you handle failure in the short-term. The good news is that unlike most things in this world, how you think and feel about things is entirely within your own power (although it doesn’t always feel that way). Seriously, you’re in complete control of your own attitude. So you can either choose to despair and gain weight again or shrug it off, do the right thing most of the time, and succeed. You fall down. You get up. And so it goes.
Bruce Wayne: I wanted to save Gotham. I’ve failed.
Alfred: Why do we fall, sir? So that we can learn to pick ourselves up.
Bruce: You still haven’t given up on me?
– Batman Begins
Hair of the Dog
So, you had a few drinks, appetizers, dinner, and dessert out with friends last night and now it’s the sober light of day and you’re beating yourself up about it. You’ve totally blown it, right?
Maybe not totally. While your body is still processing all of those extra calories you can force it to burn those first by exercising the next morning. So don’t wallow in guilt, get out there and walk, run, or lift heavy things. That extra energy hasn’t yet been stored as fat, so you can burn it off by exercising your muscles which will consume those calories rather than make you fatter.
Even if it’s too late, it’s never really too late. Just eat better next time. One meal’s not going to hurt you. The worst part about restaurant food is all of the salt anyway, so give yourself a day or two to recover from the excess sodium that makes your body retain fluid.
My wife and I went to the Chicago Botanic Garden on Saturday to walk around, look at flowers, and take pictures on a gorgeous Chicago summer day (sunny, clear, a little breezy, low 70s). As we were exiting the vegetable garden I saw a giant pumpkin and remembered having my picture taken with it the last time I was at the Botanic Garden back in April 2007. I remember being shocked and ashamed to discover just how fat I’d gotten when I first saw the photo.
Here’s that photo from 2007 and another one that was taken on Saturday. Sure, that was five years ago, and I actually gained more weight between April 2007 and when I started my Clean Livin’ in June 2008, but I’m still probably over 150 pounds lighter now than I was when that first photo was taken.
It’s helpful to consider how far you’ve come whenever you slip a little. One meal isn’t the end of the world, and you can usually make it up or at least try harder later. Give yourself a pass now and again so you don’t have to feel like a failure.
Cooking your own food is the best way to know what ingredients are going into each dish you eat, which makes it easier to track how many calories you’re consuming each day. Sometimes when you get home from work you may not want to have to go through the hassle of cooking, especially if you don’t have healthy ingredients on-hand. While eating out, getting takeout, or having a pizza delivered would be a lot easier than having to go to the supermarket to buy food and then come home, cook it, clean up the kitchen, etc., it’s also not as good for you.
To reduce the friction of cooking it helps to have some go-to ingredients at the ready. Most of these don’t require any forethought or take much time to prepare a quick and nutritious meal.
I’ll be using the term “pantry” loosely, and for this post will just mean “a place in your house where you can store food,” including the refrigerator and freezer. Whether you have a walk-in pantry, room in your kitchen for shelving, or just a cabinet next to the dishes with enough space to store some canned-goods, you can load that area up with healthy foods.
Before you stock-up on healthy pantry items, take a few minutes to go through the food you already have on-hand. Get rid of anything that you’re not going to eat. If it’s expired, throw it out. If it’s still good, but you’re not going to eat it, put it in a box and donate it to a local food bank or charity.
This isn’t a screed about getting rid of junk food or removing temptation from your sight. This is about cleansing – getting rid of the things that are taking up room that things you’ll want to keep on hand will need. Even if you have a giant walk-in pantry that’s only a quarter full, trimming the cruft will be invaluable both organizationally as well as in creating a fresh start to keeping healthy things at the ready.
Last year my wife and I moved from renting a huge place with a dine-in kitchen (it was bigger than my college apartment, practically a live-in kitchen) to buying a place with a more traditional, modest kitchen. I miss the large island and tons of counter space, sure, but I miss the pantry closet and room for additional shelving even more.
Now our pantry is limited to two kitchen cabinets (whose top two shelves are mostly out of reach even for a tall guy like me) and a corner cabinet with a built-in lazy susan. It’s not much, but of course we also tend to eat a lot of fresh things which mostly live in the fridge.
Even with a modest amount of space we manage to come up with healthy meals most nights, having to stop by the grocery store only to pick up fresh things, or re-stock items we’ve run out of.
- Eggs – I love eggs, and we always have them in the house. Besides being great for when you want to, um, eat eggs, they’re also a common ingredient in breads, used as a binder in ground meat, used to provide some lift in waffles or pancakes, and many other uses.
- Bread – Sure, I don’t eat as much bread as I used to, but I tend to always have a loaf on-hand in the freezer. I like hearty, whole grain bread. The new Arnold’s “Health Full” varieties are excellent, and at 80 calories a slice, not too much of a ding in your daily caloric budget (as long as you only eat one slice at a time).
- White Corn Tortillas – Maybe these aren’t a pantry staple for most Americans, but we swear by white corn (instead of flour or the grittier yellow corn) tortillas. We use them to make tacos at least once a week, and use them in place of bread with stews like my wife’s family recipe “spicy tomatoes” (or sub-in potatoes or eggplant for the tomatoes).
- Cheese – We always keep fat free singles cheese in the fridge, as well as some one ounce medallions of goat cheese from Trader Joe’s. They keep for a long time and we never seem to use enough goat cheese to warrant buying a whole log of chevre.
- Butter – Butter? But… but… that’s a saturated fat! Yes, it’s not the healthiest thing in this list, but it’s tasty, contains few ingredients which are more natural than margarine and so-called healthy spreads, and a pound of it tends to last about three months in our house. A little butter (at 100 calories per tablespoon) goes a long way.
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil – Great on salads, for lightly coating any vegetable, and making hummus, olive oil is a heart-healthy oil that also tastes good. The taste, of course, makes it problematic for applications where you don’t want the oil to taste like much of anything (like in baking) but when you want the taste of olive oil, accept no substitute. The downside of EVOO (other than price) is that it has a low smoke point, which means it’s not useful except for lower-temperature cooking. I find it’s fine for roasting vegetables (give some brussels sprouts a toss with 1 tbsp of olive oil) but for pan cooking, you need something else.
- Cooking Spray – Cooking sprays like Pam are a great low calorie way to oil a pan lightly without contributing too many calories. Pam and their competitors get away with claiming their spray is “0 calories” because of a loophole in the nutrition facts guidelines which let you claim zero calories if there’s less than a certain threshold of oil in a serving (that threshold is currently 0.5g). You know what a “serving” of Pam is? One-quarter of a second. That’s four servings per second. I’d estimate that I usually use 3–4 servings, depending on the size of the pan. It’s still a LOT less oil than you’d use if you were just pouring canola oil from a bottle, though.
- Canola Oil – Canola oil is one of the healthier oils, doesn’t add much flavor to a dish, and has a very high smoke point, so you can cook things at high temperatures with it before the oil burns.
- Low Fat Milk – Milk does a body good! It really does. While studies have shown that drinking milk may help you lose more weight milk is also a low-calorie, high-nutrition beverage chock full of calcium and numerous other vitamins. I think the sweet-spot for me is 2%. Skim milk just tastes watery to me, and 1% isn’t much better. I also tend to buy the ultra-pasteurized milk because it stays fresh so much longer than standard pasteurized milk does.
- Flour – You can’t make your own healthy bread without having a little flour in the house.
This one will be short. Canned goods are great things to keep in the pantry, though, because they essentially last forever. Whether you’re stocking your bomb shelter or pantry, canned goods can provide that “always at the ready” convenience we crave.
- Tuna Fish – White albacore tuna packed in water (not oil) is a fantastic low-calorie, low-fat source of protein, and a high source of omega–3s. While canned tuna isn’t incredibly versatile, you can still use it to make tuna salad for sandwiches or salads, toaster oven tuna melts, etc.
- Beans – We usually keep at least a few cans of black beans, pinto beans, chickpeas (aka garbanzo beans), and maybe some white beans (aka cannellini beans). Of course, there are many other kinds of beans: kidney, navy, great northern white, etc.
- Low-Sodium Chicken Broth – Canned beef broth is awful, but chicken broth from a can (or usually a cardboard aseptic pack) is so close to making your own broth/stock that you may as well save yourself the hassle. Useful for soups, braises, anything where you could add a little meaty flavor instead of water.
- Tomatoes – Whole or diced, having canned tomatoes in your pantry means you can make all sorts of tomato-based dishes in a pinch without having to have fresh tomatoes, which tend to go bad pretty quickly.
You notice what’s not on that list? Canned soup. Loaded with sodium (yes, even the “reduced sodium” varieties) canned soups are generally saved for a “once in a while” kind of food list along with pizza, pasta, and cheeseburgers.
While I’ll eat canned soup from time to time (usually some yuppie brand from Whole Foods, whose sodium per serving is less than 200mg), but in general we’ve taken to making our own more often. If we do keep canned soup “in stock” it’s usually tomato soup or cream of mushroom, for making sauces or just because tomato soup and a grilled (fat free singles) cheese is so darned tasty, and when you’re sick, just what the doctor ordered.
Canned vegetables are also not on that list, but that’s mostly because their quality is generally far, far lower than frozen vegetables. Stick to the bags of frozen, except for:
- Beets – Canned beets are almost as good as fresh (depending on application), and require no boiling, peeling, or other work.
- Artichoke Hearts – Another vegetable you can’t really get frozen, and probably wouldn’t want to if you did, artichoke hearts are delicious by themselves in a salad, or mixed with a little bit of olive oil, panko breadcrumbs, and parmesan cheese to make a little artichoke bake that’s a great side-dish with a nice piece of fish.
Jars and Bottles
Foods that come in jars tend to require refrigeration once they’ve been opened, but let’s walk through some standards to keep on hand.
- Spanish Green Manzanilla Olives – Usually stuffed with a mild red pepper called pimento, green olives are a fantastic addition to salads, can be just eaten on the side, and are even good heated in dishes. My wife introduced me to sliced green olives as a pizza topping, which I found off-putting at first but have come to enjoy. They’re salty, high in omega–3s, and low-cal.
- Marinara Sauce – Just because we don’t eat much pasta these days doesn’t mean we don’t still use some tomato sauce for mixing with vegetables. Sure, you can make your own sauce from fresh or canned tomatoes, but that takes hours. Not all jarred sauces are created equal, but I like the Classico brand of standard tomato sauces (skip the creamy ones or any containing cheese).
- Fruit Jam – You want to try something? Eat a piece of toast with jam and no butter. I’ll bet you won’t even miss the butter, and you’ll save yourself around 100 calories (depending on how much butter you use).
- Lemon and Lime Juice – For a splash of flavor on vegetables, seafood, or to add a nice brightness to sauces, Real Lemon in a jar is great. While we usually try to keep fresh limes in the house for squeezing on tacos, in a pinch the stuff from the bottle will do.
- Maple Syrup – While I’ll make waffles or pancakes from time to time, most of the time we use maple syrup for oatmeal (just a teaspoon per bowl).
- Honey – In oatmeal or tea, honey is a great natural sweetener.
We don’t really use as many condiments as we used to. I always like to have katsup and mayo in the fridge, although the current bottles are getting pretty old.
There are some condiments, though, that I use regularly.
- Low-Sodium Soy Sauce – The name is a bit of an oxymoron, since soy sauce is essentially a liquid flavored salt, but the reduced sodium still has plenty of flavor and not quite as much sodium in each serving.
- Balsamic Vinegar – Spring for the more expensive kind that’s been aged, comes from some land far away, etc. The cheaper stuff doesn’t have even remotely the same flavor and you’re not going to use much of it at a time. We hardly ever buy salad dressing, instead opting for a little bit of good extra virgin olive oil (see above) and a splash of balsamic vinegar. Sometimes we’ll get a balsamic made from fruit other than grapes, like fig, black cherry, or pear. I’m partial to the fig. We just got a thing of chocolate balsamic, which tastes really good on its own but tastes weird on salad (to me, my wife loves it).
- Hot Pepper Sauce – Hot sauce can liven-up even the most chaste of dishes. I usually have a few on my table (most hot sauces don’t require refrigeration): Cholula for eggs, some kind of habenero sauce for when I want to crank up the heat, sambal olek and sriracha for adding a nice Thai spice to stir fries, and maybe some kind of smoked sauce, like a chipotle pepper sauce, for giving meat and vegetables a nice smokey barbecued flavor. Want a way to punch-up a dish without adding extra calories? Hot sauce is your amigo!
- Dijon Mustard – You want to add a lot of flavor to a sandwich without adding calories? Mustard to the rescue!
- Frozen Vegetables – Packed at the height of their freshness, frozen vegetables are often fresher than the fresh produce you can get at the supermarket. If you’re intending to cook the vegetables anyway, frozen veggies are very convenient. Some are better than others, but you can’t go wrong with frozen corn, peas, green beans, okra, and cauliflower. I’ve found that frozen carrots and broccoli tend to get mushy fast, so stick to fresh for those. Thankfully carrots last for weeks in the fridge.
- Coffee – Yes, I keep my coffee beans in the freezer.
- Berries – You can buy bags of frozen berries, but I’ve found that fresh blueberries freeze amazingly well and stay individual. Add a handful to your yogurt or oatmeal and they defrost in just a few minutes.
- Walnuts – Nuts will keep better in the freezer, and we always have walnuts in an airtight container for yogurt or oatmeal.
- Uncooked Peeled and Deveined Shrimp – They come in bags with various numbers on them like 16/20 or 26–30. Those are the average count per pound. So the smaller the number, the bigger the shrimp, and usually the bigger the shrimp, the more expensive. I usually opt for middle of the road “medium” to “large” sized shrimp, as they’re big enough for cooking up on their own, eating in tacos, salads, etc. Getting them frozen means always having some shrimp at the ready for a quick weeknight meal. You can defrost a few servings in a bowl full of water in about ten minutes, pluck the tails off, dry them quickly on some paper towels, and you’re ready to toss them in a hot sautée pan. They cook in a minute or two per side.
- Oatmeal – Filling, healthy, cholesterol-lowering oatmeal is a great, quick & easy breakfast. We usually keep two kinds in the pantry: quick rolled oats that have been par-cooked so that you can simply add hot water and enjoy them in a minute or two (or just put cold water and oats in a bowl and microwave for a couple of minutes), and steel-cut Irish oats which are better (nuttier, chewier) but take longer (although are just as easy to make).
- Granola – So this is really just another way to eat oats, but I loves me some granola in my morning yogurt. You can’t eat a lot of it, because it’s high in calories, and you can get some brands that are loaded with sugar and oil, but if you’re careful granola can be a healthy way to jazz-up your yogurt. I like the “Bear Naked” brand’s fruit & nut variety.
- Whole Grain Brown Rice – We probably don’t eat as much rice as we should because it’s higher in calories than most beans or vegetables. If you’re going to eat rice, though, stay away from that bleached white rice that’s been stripped of the healthiest part of the seed (yes, the part you eat of the rice is actually the seed). Rice has several layers, like an onion (or an ogre) and with whole grain brown rice, only the outer indigestible hull is removed, leaving the healthy bran and germ intact. White rice is further refined and polished, which eliminates the aleurone layer that contains the rice’s healthy omega–3 and omega–6 fatty acids. It doesn’t matter if it’s long-grain or short-grain (that just depends on the variety of rice) but make sure it’s whole-grain.
- Beans – Beans again? Beans are one of the healthiest foods you can eat, so sure, we keep some in cans, some dry. The texture and flavor of soaked dried chickpeas, for instance, is completely different than canned, but it requires the forethought to soak them for 12–18 hours before you want to eat them (there are tricks to knock that down to an hour or two with a pressure cooker), whereas canned chickpeas are immediately ready to be pulverized into hummus, coated with spices and roasted (they get crunchy and nutty), or just enjoyed in a salad. So keep some in a can, some in a bag.
- Lentils – A staple the world-over, lentils haven’t really caught on in the U.S.
- Brown Rice – Whole-grain brown rice is an excellent source of fiber and complex carbs.
- Popcorn – Not microwave popcorn, just a bag or jar of unpopped kernels. We recently bought a microwave popcorn air popper, which is basically a specially-shaped bowl with a lid that’s meant for nuking raw kernels of popcorn so that you can make it without using any oil. It works great, and it takes no longer than a microwave bag of popping corn.
- Panko Breadcrumbs – Panko, sometimes called Japanese breadcrumbs, are different than standard breadcrumbs mostly due to the shape of the crumb. Examined closely they resemble those little tire spikes (caltrops) that James Bond would drop behind him to flatten the tires of a bad guy who’s chasing him. Panko crumbs tend to stay crispier because less of their surface area touches the item to which they adhere, so they don’t get soggy like traditional breadcrumbs. You can even get things reasonably crispy with panko crumbs by baking rather than frying.
Most spices are for all intents and purposes non-caloric, and make all the difference when making low-fat meals. A little spice goes a long way toward making even the most mundane mélange of vegetables taste gourmet.
Here are some spices you should consider keeping in stock:
- Salt – Everything tastes better with salt. You have to be careful about how much salt you use, as consuming too much may raise your blood pressure and cause you to retain fluid (and water is heavy, so you won’t lose weight as fast). This is our go-to spice, though. I can’t think of a single meal that doesn’t have salt added.
- Pepper – Peppercorns were once so valuable they were used as currency. I have to admit that I don’t put ground black pepper on as many things as I used to, aiming for a larger variety of spices, but salt & pepper are so ubiquitous in American cooking that to not list them together would be a misdeed.
- Cayenne Red Pepper – Hot pepper is completely different than black pepper and adds a lot more spice.
- Red Pepper Flakes – Not as spicy as Cayenne, and usually containing seeds which aren’t digestible, red pepper flakes are great on salad, pizza, flatbreads, and italian dishes.
- Paprika – Yet another ground pepper, paprika adds a nice heartiness and color to rice dishes, goulash, soups, stews, and sauces. I especially like Spanish smoked paprika which gives a nice barbecued smokey flavor to marinates and spice rubs.
- Garlic Powder – Simple dried and ground garlic powder is a godsend when you don’t have fresh garlic. Skip the garlic salt (you can better regulate how much salt is in your dish separately) and I’ve found that dried minced garlic tends to need a lot of time to reconstitute, so is only useful in things that take a long time to cook in a liquid.
- Dried Jalapeños – Rounding out our pepper section, dried jalapeños are not exactly a common spice staple. Nonetheless, we’ve been picking up some from our local spice house (you can get them online too). They’re great for adding to a dish to get a nice spiciness quickly, adding to scrambled eggs, and soups.
- Tomato Powder – Here’s another one that’s harder to come by, and you can always keep those little cans of tomato paste in the pantry, or if you can find the little toothpaste tubes, those are good too. The problem with the cans of tomato paste is that you have to use it all shortly after opening the can, whereas with the tube or tomato powder you can use just a little dash or spoonful in a dish to make a nice tomatoey sauce in no time flat.
- Cumin – There’s no better way to make something taste all Mexicany than to add a little cumin.
Go buy a bunch of stuff to stick in places in your house so you don’t have to go shopping when you want to make a quick meal after work.
Sure, most canned goods have an “expiration date” on them, but that’s usually a “Best By:” date and doesn’t mean that the food inside the can will no longer be good after that date, provided it’s kept in a cool, dark place and not heated in the can. ↩
An easy way to remove the tails from shrimp, especially those that have otherwise been shelled, is to gently pull the head of the shrimp with one hand while you pinch the tail from the bottom with the other, like you’re squeezing it out from a tube of toothpaste. It pops right off and you get all of the meat from the tail. ↩