6 Easy Ways to Keep Your Meals Healthy

Don't sabotage healthy foods with unnecessary calories.

By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

It's easy to sabotage perfectly healthy meals by piling on lots of unnecessary calories. Even grilled fish and vegetables can be bad for you if they're prepared with plenty of artery-clogging fat, or served with lots of high-calorie extras.

But healthy food doesn't have to be flavorless, says Ellie Krieger, host of the Food Network's Healthy Appetite show. "Food does not need to be loaded with fat, sugar, or calories to be delicious," she says.

Further, experts say, avoiding calorie-laden extras isn't hard -- as long as you know what to watch for.

To make better choices, both at home and in restaurants, follow these six tips for keeping meals healthy.

1. Keep It Simple.

Once you learn to enjoy the naturally delicious taste of foods, you'll realize you don't need to pile on high-fat or sugary toppings. For example, baked sweet potatoes and other veggies are very flavorful. All you need to do is roast them and top with a little flavor enhancer such as salt, pepper, spices, or herbs.

"When you use a roasting technique, it brings out the natural sweetness and adds a wonderfully delicious flavor," says Kreiger.

Also try grilling, steaming, or sauteing your veggies. But whatever you do, don't overcook or you'll turn the vegetables into bland-tasting mush.

"Try a hot Asian spice, low sodium soy sauce, or sauteing in chicken broth and topping with herbs," suggests Tara Gidus, MS, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "Any of these are healthier than potato or vegetable casseroles loaded with fat, sugar, and calories."

2. Be Salad Savvy.

Most of us feel smug when we eat an entree salad; after all, it's so much healthier than a burger. Or is it? Large salads served with bacon, cheese, croutons, and fried or high-fat meats, then topped off with creamy dressing, can contain as many calories as a burger and fries.

The healthiest salads come with lots of greens, vegetables, fruits, and beans. They can be topped with a sprinkling of nutritious higher-fat foods such as nuts, cheese, lean meats, egg, or avocado, then lightly dressed with vinaigrette, says Kreiger.

You can save even more calories by having the salad dressing on the side and using it sparingly. Or, try salsa as a fat free salad topping.

3. Have a Filling First Course.

Forget the chips and dip, and fried onion or cheese appetizers. Instead, have a soup or salad before dinner. Studies show that a green salad or bowl of broth-based vegetable soup before dinner can fill you up and help you eat less. For a satisfying, low-calorie, and super-nutritious meal, enjoy a bowl of bean or lentil soup along with a large green salad (lightly dressed, of course).

4. Forget Fried Foods.

Fried foods absorb a large amount of fat and add lots of fat calories. Experts suggest skipping fried foods -- even if they're fried in trans fat-free oil - because, while the fat is less saturated, it's still fat, and the calories are the same.

Save fried foods for occasional treats. Instead, fire up the grill, use a grill pan, roast, bake, poach, saute, stir-fry, or use any kind of other preparation that does not include immersing food in a hot vat of oil.

5. Drink Daintily.

Liquid calories add up quickly: "A cocktail before dinner and two glasses of wine or a few sweetened drinks, and you can consume as many 500 calories without a bite of food," says Gidus.

Drink sparkling water or other unsweetened beverages. And when it comes to alcohol, skip the pre-meal cocktail. Always drink alcohol along with food, experts advise.

"A cocktail on an empty stomach has a tendency to make you less restrained and eat more than you would if you save your alcohol to enjoy with the meal," says David Katz, MD, author of The Flavor Point Diet.

6. Pass on Bread.

The French wouldn't think of a meal without bread. But in our country, we often can't stop with one slice. It's usually the refined white kind, slathered with butter, or dunked in olive oil.

If you really need bread with your meal, experts suggest having a slice of whole-grain bread -- plain or with just a touch of fat.

Olive oil is a healthier option than butter -- but only if you use a limited amount.

"Use a spoon to drizzle just a little olive oil onto your bread," says Gidus. "If you dip bread into a plate of oil, it acts like a sponge and absorbs much more than you need, piling on the fat calories before you eat your meal."

Published November 22, 2006.

SOURCES: Ellie Krieger, RD, host, Healthy Appetite TV show; author, Small Changes, Big Results. Tara Gidus, MS, RD, spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association. David Katz, MD, MPH, director, Prevention Research Center, Yale University; author, The Flavor Point Diet.

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