Tuesday 13 January 2015

How to lighten up a recipe without sacrificing flavour

Back in 2013, when I was trying to fit into a bridesmaid dress, I got really good at the whole healthy eating lark. I managed to figure out the balance between losing weight and eating tasty homecooked food, and I thought I was set. Unfortunately, a variety of reasons saw me falling well and truly off the wagon (America, Christmas, new relationship – yeah, that’ll do it) but I’m determined to get back to where I was. As much as I want to lose weight – and I’ll admit it, I do – my goal is to feel the way I did when I was eating healthy, made-from-scratch food. I felt awesome! No bloating or tummyaches, and I got super efficient at food shopping. No waste, no overspending – I rocked.

One thing I got really got at was looking at a recipe and learning to lighten them up. I’m still going to post recipes on here, but I’m all for encouraging people to get into the kitchen, so here are my top tips.

Bacon & Chorizo
This pair are high in fat, but high in flavour, which makes them awesome to pop into a sauce. The key is not to use too much – you’d be surprised at how much difference a little bit can make. For bacon, I always buy medallions. All the fat has been trimmed off, and if you only add half a packet to a pasta sauce, it adds flavour but not many calories. I also really like the uncooked chorizo sausages you can get in the raw meats aisle - they have a lot more flavour than the cured stuff.

Low fat substitutes
Well, duh. I always buy low fat cheese and butter, for instance, but there are a few other good things out there. Campbell’s low fat mushroom soup is great (the full fat isn’t too naughty either, though) and makes a really easy creamy sauce, as does a tub of low fat Philadelphia (I always go for the ‘Light’ – never the lightest as I feel like it's mostly water though).

Add more carbs
This is such a simple trick, but it took me forever to realise it. If you’re making a pasta sauce, you’ll usually find that adding in a couple more portions of pasta will make no difference to the sauciness or the taste. Most pasta sauces can stretch quite far, and if you’re using a big pan (I love my wok), then you can just throw in six or eight pasta portions at the end, stir it all together and then portion it up. This means you’ll feel way less guilt about adding in ‘naughty’ ingredients like chorizo or cheese or red wine, because it’s going that much further – but you’ll still get the taste.

Weigh those carbs
Yeah, it might seem a bit much but it’s worth doing. When you serve pasta by eye, you’re pretty much guaranteed to overserve. Think about how many times you’ve been in an Italian restaurant and thought your pasta dish looked a bit small, but been nice and full by the time you finish? Exactly. I usually have 40-50g of pasta, and it’s always plenty. And I am a hungry girl.

Bulk out with veggies
It’s a no brainer really. There aren’t really any savoury dishes that can’t be improved by adding more vegetables. They add flavour, texture, and they’re good for you. A nice bulky sauce will stretch further and be much more substantial to eat. I always throw onions and mushrooms into everything, but I’m also a fan of peppers, courgette and leeks. Grated carrot adds bulk and sweetness to a tomatoey sauce, mushrooms will absorb the flavour in a slow cooked meaty dish like this one, and I love the texture of onions.

Lose the oil
Occasionally you need oil for dishes, but 9 times out of 10, you can lose it. Get a decent non-stick frying pan (or wok! I always vote wok!) and that will help a lot. I still find that food sticks a little, so I often add a splash of water. Food will cook fine, and if you’re making a sauce then you don’t need to drain it away. If a recipe calls for butter, I usually use Lurpak Lighter, but I make sure I use less than the recipe states. Butter counts as oil too, which isn't very good for you - but if you’re doing my trick of making one sauce stretch to lots of portions, then a couple of spoonfuls of butter isn’t too bad. The reason I mention it is that using butter is worth it for the flavour, but oil doesn’t really add any flavour. So what’s the point?

Go meat-free
I inadvertently ate vegetarian food a lot when I was being really good. I’d work up a recipe, and just wouldn’t see the point in adding meat. Some meats do add flavour, like I mentioned earlier, but others really don’t. I hardly ever put chicken in my sauces, for instance, because I don’t actually think it adds a lot of flavour - and if it's a choice between chicken and cheese, cheese is going to win every single time. A lot of meat substitutes aren’t too bad either, like Quorn mince – great in a Spag Bol, especially if you’re wary of eating too much red meat.

Season, season, season
A lot of diet food is rubbish because it’s tasteless. It’s full of salt, preservatives and not much else. It doesn’t have to be that way! I always throw in tons (and tons, and tons) of crushed garlic to everything, but I also love smoked paprika, dried rosemary, thyme and coriander (dried or fresh). I do add a little salt if a recipe calls for it, but I prefer to add lashings of black pepper instead. Balsamic vinegar and sweet chilli sauce add loads of flavour to loads of dishes, as do soy sauce, honey and sugar (or sweetener). None of those seasonings add anything to the fat content and have barely any calories (I rarely count them) but they can make a huge difference to the taste.

Portion it up
Even if you’re only serving one or two people that evening, portion up the entire dish as you serve it. That way you’ll have equal portions all stored away, and avoid giving yourself more than you intended. I love pasta bakes and lasagnes for this, because they’re so easy to portion up. I wrote a post on batch cooking that goes into more detail!



  1. Loved this post, Sarah! I'm trying to lose some weight before my first dress fittings in May and desperately trying to cook tasty flavoursome food without the unhealthy parts! I can see myself referring back to this a LOT... xx

  2. Bulk out with veggies! Yes, yes and yes. It's healthy and makes you feel fuller, I find.

  3. Sarah I am loving these tips as someone who is on a it of a health kick!

  4. Great tips! I am trying to get back into healthier eating and cooking more is part of that plan! x

  5. Love this post. I've got a trip to the spa at the end of the month and I've spent January obsessively counting calories. It's pretty hard when you own a cupcake shop :s

    Katie xoxo

  6. I love this, I am trying to meal plan a lot more and this will be really helpful!

    Maria xxx


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