Doing It Light

Some simple tips for making your meals — and spirits — a bit less weighty.

Nowadays, it seems that a number of popular diets echo the same message: In order to eat healthier you need to cut something out rather than simply balancing or cutting back. No carbs, no fat, no grains – we love diets that tell us “NO!”

But if you want to slim down and eat smart for a lifetime, you gotta lighten up, both in terms of your food and your attitude. You don’t necessarily have to make any drastic changes or total eliminations in order to manage your weight and support good health. Sometimes it’s the smallest gestures that have the biggest impact.

Shifting Gears

I’ve found that one of the best ways to change one’s attitude about food is to start by changing one’s habits. For instance, for a long time I thought I could “reason” my way to better fitness simply because I had all the knowledge I needed about what to eat and how to cook it. The problem was, I spent a whole lot of time thinking and cooking and comparatively little time in the gym. I eventually figured out that self-knowledge does me little good if I can’t get off the couch. One visit to a nutritionist netted me a meal plan I could work with and a framework within which to apply my food smarts. The change in attitude resulted in a lot more regular dates at the gym and 9 fewer pounds.

Here are some ways you can lighten up:

Concentrate more on controlling portion sizes and maximizing activity rather than counting calories or making secret pacts with yourself (e.g., “I can eat this pound cake now if I starve myself later”).

Instead of candies, cookies, or ice cream for dessert, opt for berries, sorbets or a small portion of delicious cheese. Go for intensity of flavor, not sweetness.

When dining out, eat three small courses such as soup, dinner salad and a poached fish or grilled meat appetizer rather than a large main dish. Restaurant portions for entrées are typically large and a 2 to 4 ounce appetizer serving of fish is preferable to a 14-ounce half-chicken entrée. A bonus: The larger variety of flavors, colors and textures from a few small plates will help sate your appetite better than a monster mono-serving.

Stop—then go! Try to sit each day for your meals, taking your time to eat and enjoy yourself. Ignore that voice inside your head that tells you to multitask or “hurry up.” Then, when you’re finished eating, go! Find a few moments for a little exercise after meals. Always use the stairs and park the car a few blocks from work so you’ll walk more. If you take the bus or subway to the office, get out a stop early each way.

The Light Direction

The key to light cooking is to take a commonsense approach: Keep it fun, satisfying and flavorful while lightening up on unhealthy fats, sugars, refined carbs and non-nutritive foods whenever possible. Avoid “diet foods” and gimmicky items that emphasize “low carb” or “low fat” over good nutrition. Seek out the best quality meats and produce available. (Getting acquainted with your local co-op, organic grocer or farmers’ market will help!)

Here are more simple tips for making your food a bit lighter:

Serve hearty vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower as sides or bases to dishes in place of the usual rice, pasta or potatoes. Mixed field greens also make a fine foundation for grilled meats or fish and many Asian dishes.

Replace refined carbs with whole-grain ones whenever possible. They’re healthier and stave off hunger longer, but they’re also far more flavorful.

Instead of settling for gallon-size containers of flavorless and unhealthy “cooking oils,” cook foods in small amounts of olive or canola oil. After cooking, drizzle on a bit of tasty cold-pressed olive or toasted sesame oil for more satisfying taste and texture. Or skip the additional oil and dribble on a little balsamic vinegar instead.

Cut your bread intake in half with open-face sandwiches. Lay a handful of greens on top, and you can still pick it up and eat it with both hands.

Instead of piling sliced cheese on your sandwiches, try layering roasted red pepper and cucumber with a little goat cheese, feta or grated Parmesan.

Bake your spuds and root vegetables instead of frying them. You’ll eliminate gobs of “referred fats” from the frying process. Slice sweet potatoes, rutabagas, parsnips and beets into long fingers, spray them judiciously with olive oil, and bake at 475 degrees until crisp-tender.

Want to add some “oomph” to baked foods? Dip them in low-fat yogurt seasoned with lime juice and curry powder. It adds lots of flavor without a lot of calories.

If you’re looking for a lighter alternative to high-fat salad dressings, roast and purée some carrots, then whisk in some mustard and vinegar. Use it for both greens and cold vegetables.

Keep jars of salsa around. Even poached chicken breast can be jazzed up with some homemade or all-natural store-bought salsa.

Steam plenty of vegetables. (broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and green beans) and keep them on hand in your fridge for healthy snacks.

Invest in a juicer. Juicing is an ideal way to lighten up many recipes. I like to use vegetable juices as the foundation for great broths and sauces. Try simmering carrot juice with minced shallots and herbs. Reduce it by about 50 percent and serve under grilled sea bass, broiled chicken, or pan-seared pork tenderloin.

Think Asian. Homemade Asian sauces and seasonings have powerful flavor and don’t rely on a lot of fat. Stock up on soy, mirin, rice wine vinegar, chili garlic sauce, ginger and citrus. Try mixing 1 tablespoon lemon juice with 2 tablespoons soy sauce, one minced scallion and 3 tablespoons grated daikon radish for a dynamite “relish.” Spread it on any broiled, poached, steamed or grilled foods.

Begin to incorporate tips like these and you’ll find that saying “yes” to your health and your palate is infinitely more satisfying than saying “no” to either one. Eager to get started? Try the recipe on the right.

Andrew Zimmern is a celebrated chef, expert culinary instructor and Experience Life's regular Edibles columnist.

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