Fast Flavors: 17 Speedy Taste Boosters

Supermarket products can spice up low-cal cuisine in a hurry

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

I know what it's like to be cooking in the trenches: You're trying to cook dinner fast because everyone's hungry, while the kids are asking questions about homework and your spouse is trying to tell you about his day (and you're trying hard to listen). Or you're trying to pull something together in a rush before you have to jump back in the car and pick up your other child at dance or soccer practice.

Oftentimes, you're "winging it" by whipping up dinner with whatever you happen to have in the pantry and refrigerator. Add to that the goal of cooking healthy and lower-calorie, and you've got yourself a tall order after a long day at home or work. I understand, because I've just described a typical weeknight at my house!

Given this harried scenario, the ability to add flavors quickly to your lower-calorie cooking is a hot trick to have in your back apron pocket, don't you think?

I've got a few personal favorites -- products I tend to use often in my kitchen. But I also traveled around a grocery store with my clipboard in hand looking for other options, and I found all sorts of fast ways to add flavor. There were butter-flavor sprays (even one with a garlic/herb flavor) in the margarine section, nonfat and low-fat 30-minute marinades on the BBQ sauce shelf, and I hadn't even hit the spice aisle yet!

Fast Flavors From Your Grocery Store

Here are 17 ways you can add fast flavors to your cooking:

  1. Freshly ground pepper. Buy a colorful and flavorful assortment of peppercorns and fill a battery-operated peppermill for fast (one-handed) fresh-ground pepper.
  2. Bottled salsa. Salsa adds quick flavor to chicken, quesadillas, egg dishes, and more. In some supermarkets, you can even find flavors like Tequila Lime, Roasted Garlic Salsa, or Mango Peach Salsa. Two tablespoons of salsa adds a lot of flavor for only about 15 calories.
  3. Mrs. Dash salt-free seasoning blends. With a flip of the wrist, you can add an assortment of flavors to all sorts of dishes (stir-fries, veggie sautes, egg dishes, casseroles, meat, pasta, potatoes, and more). There are many blends to choose from: Garlic & Herb, Southwest Chipotle, Onion & Herb, and Spicy, just to name a few. One-fourth teaspoon contains 0 calories and 0 mg sodium.
  4. Taco seasoning packets. These are a fast way to add flavor to beef, chicken, or refried beans for use in Mexican dishes or dips. Check the label; some brands are higher in sodium than others. Two teaspoons contain about 15 calories and 330-430 mg sodium, depending on the brand.
  5. Grill Mates Marinade packets (McCormick). Available in several flavors, ranging from Black Peppercorn to Garlic, Herb & Wine, these packets turn into a marinade when blended with water, oil, and vinegar. Keep in mind that salt is the primary ingredient in some flavors. Also, remember that you don't have to use the entire 4 tablespoons of oil the package calls for; you can probably get by with half that amount. Just increase the water by 2 tablespoons. Other brands, like Durkee, also make these packets.
  6. Grill Mates rubs. These seasonings are designed to go straight on the meat, no mixing or blending required. They come in different flavors for chicken, pork, and steak. Two teaspoons of the chicken flavor adds 260 mg sodium and only 15 calories.
  7. Bottled 30-minute marinades. Open the bottle and pour the marinade over the meat or vegetable of your choice, then bake or grill. What could be easier? One tablespoon of Lawry's brand contains 15-30 calories, 0 gram fat, and around 400 mg sodium, depending on the flavor.
  8. Bottled BBQ sauce. Add flavor to your ground beef when making burgers, jazz up your chicken sandwich, or make a quick BBQ pork or beef sandwich by mixing the shredded meat with some BBQ sauce. Two tablespoons of your basic BBQ sauce adds around 60 calories, 0 grams fat, and 240 mg sodium.
  9. Fancy mustard. A little mustard adds fast flavor to your tuna or chicken salad, meatloaf, sandwiches, and baked chicken or pork. French's Honey Dijon has 10 calories, 0 grams fat, and 40 mg sodium per teaspoon, while a teaspoon of Spicy Brown Mustard adds 5 calories, 0 grams fat, and 50 mg sodium.
  10. Flavored, marinated tuna. It's a bit pricy, but you can buy already flavored tuna in varieties such as Zesty Lemon Pepper, Hickory Smoked, and Sweet & Spicy. A 2-ounce serving has 70 calories, 1 gram of fat, and 250 mg sodium.
  11. Cream-style horseradish. Use this high-flavor jarred condiment in sandwiches, meats, sauces, and more. One teaspoon only adds 10 calories, 0.5 grams fat, and around 20 mg sodium.
  12. Bottled Asian sauces. These add flavor to stir-fry and meat dishes and can also be used as a quick dipping sauce for appetizers. Several types are available, but the two that will probably be most useful are spicy kung pao sauce and hoisin sauce. Two tablespoons contribute around 45 calories, 1 gram fat, and 450 mg sodium.
  13. Balsamic vinegar. This is a VERY flavorful vinegar, and it stands alone better than most other types. You can use it in recipes without having to balance the acid taste with oil. Add balsamic to salads, sauces, marinades, dips, etc. I like to drizzle some over fresh mozzarella layered with tomato slices and fresh basil (served on bread).
  14. Molly McButter butter sprinkles. Usually found in the spice section, these come in two flavors; regular and cheese, to use on veggies, potatoes, and other dishes. One teaspoon of the regular has 5 calories and 180 mg sodium; cheese contains 5 calories and 125 mg sodium. Butter Buds is another brand of butter sprinkles.
  15. Bottled minced garlic and ginger. Garlic is one of my favorite fast flavors, probably because I cook Italian-style dishes a lot. It's fast because I use minced garlic from the bottle. Just spoon out a teaspoon or two and off you go; no presses, no garlic skin, no smelly fingers. Just as easy is minced ginger in jars, most useful when you're cooking Asian-style dishes.
  16. Creole and Cajun seasoning. My advice here is to check the labels. This particular type of seasoning blend is often loaded with salt (it's the first ingredient in most cases). One-fourth of a teaspoon can contain around 310 milligrams of sodium.
  17. I Can't Believe It's Not Butter spray. These are found in the margarine section and come in Original and Garlic & Herb flavors. If you use it as a topping, it adds 0 grams of fat and 15 mg sodium. Some people use it to flavor vegetables and potatoes. While we're on the subject of flavor sprays, a new line of these is being sold on the Flavor Spray Diet web site (and possibly other locations). You won't believe the flavors they carry: Parmesan cheese, smoked bacon, cookies and cream, birthday cake, and many more. The company says the sprays have 0 calories and 0 grams of fat; each 2-ounce bottle costs around $6. My guess is that either you are a "flavor spray" type of person or you're not. If you are, you might want to check these out.

Originally published September 28, 2005.
Medically updated September 2006.

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