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Diet Recipes for the Rest of Us

Updated on March 11, 2013
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Every diet book wants to be special. However, there’s only so many ways to say eat a healthy diet and get some exercise. The writer is still left with a lot of pages to fill. One easy and fun way to do that is to include a lot of recipes. Well, it’s not a lot of fun and not very easy, due to the formatting involved, but it serves the purpose.

And order to be extra special, these recipes are always “from scratch” and feature all fresh ingredients. Which is great if you’ve got the time and money and energy. However if like most of us you already have a pretty busy life with finite energy and little or no money to burn, these recipes can be a barrier to following a long term weight controlled lifestyle.

Before you, my imaginary objector, points it out—yes, food prepared with all fresh ingredients from scratch can taste better than food prepared with store-bought sauces and dried herbs and spices. But often times the difference is negligible. I once heard a chef describe how he and another chef friend were joking around one day and decided they could produce a perfectly fine, relatively upscale restaurant menu using only canned and prepared ingredients. Of course, if you’ve been on a cruise ship, you already know this can be done fairly successfully.

At all times, it’s a compromise between the ultimate in flavor for a particular dish, and the reasonably achievable flavor given the time and resources you have to work with. If you’ve been in any restaurant at all, by the way, you’ve also experienced this in action.

So for all the times you want to eat healthy and don’t have 6 hours to cook, here are the following pointers.

Sauces—do not make them from scratch. Instead buy high quality versions from the upper end grocery store in your vicinity. Compare the different brands on the shelf. If one has more carbs/calories than the other and the taste is the same—you know what to do! Do buy fresh or fresh frozen premade sauces whenever possible over canned or bottled.

Some Sauces to Buy Ready Made

Pasta sauce

Spaghetti sauce

Pizza sauce


Pico de gallo


Tomato sauce

Tomato paste

Anything tampenade





Baba ganoush


Pickle relish


Hot chili sauce

Cocktail sauce

Tartar sauce

Barbeque sauce

Always buy pre-chopped/minced garlic and ginger to use whenever the recipe will end up cooking these items. If they are to be eaten raw you will need the fresh ones. A clove of garlic is about 1/3-1/2 teaspoon of the pre-chopped stuff.

Buy pre-squeezed lemon and lime juices and use these whenever the recipe calls for the juice of one lemon etc. A lemon yields about 2-3 tablespoons of juice, and a lime 1-2 tablespoons depending on the size. Replace any other squeezed juice with the bottled stuff—check the label to avoid too many other ingredients or added sugar, which might affect the taste.

Buy premixed chili or curry powder—use whenever the recipe is a curry or chili. If you use them, eliminate any cumin, coriander, cayenne, or turmeric from the recipe.

Use a good quality boxed/bottled/canned chicken/beef/vegetable broth instead of making it from scratch.

Use frozen vegetables for soups and stews when you are adding things like corn or green peas or carrot cubes.

If your budget permits, buy as much pre-chopped stuff as you can. Really when you look at all the waste you end up with when you trim certain items such as celery and pineapple, you are probably not saving any money by doing it yourself.

If you can afford it, definitely buy pre-chopped onions and green peppers— it saves a lot of tedium. When I say that, remember of course if you enjoy chopping onions, by all means continue to do so.

Never prepare beans such as black, kidney, navy, chickpea or pinto from scratch if they are going to end up in a salad, soup, stew or chili. What a pain in the tuchis that is, and frankly beans taste like beans no matter what you do. Instead buy canned beans and place them in a colander and rinse off the goo and soda ash (that’s what makes that foaming when you rinse them) and then add them into the recipe only enough to heat them thoroughly before eating. Nota bene: This will not work for baked beans, unless you buy the prepared kind in cans and just eat them. You have to start with uncooked beans for a homemade baked bean recipe to work.

Also never have anything to do with rendering fresh tomatoes into a sauce or recipe. Buy crushed/diced or chopped tomatoes as the case may be (use plum tomatoes for anything Italian).

I hope I don’t have to tell you not to get involved with making your own phyllo dough, eggroll rappers, puff pastry or pasta. People who can do those things so much better than you can have contributed their talents to the cold case or the freezer at your local high-end grocer or specialty store. That goes for piecrusts as well.

When a recipe calls for any kind of fancy salt, use regular iodinized table salt. Salt is salt—it doesn’t taste any different. You can get away with using the regular ground black pepper if you don’t have any peppercorns to grind or a grinder. It won’t be quite as piquant, but most people won’t be able to tell the difference in the finished product.

One of the most annoying things about diet book recipes is they will tell you to use a fresh version of an herb or spice, meaning that you have to buy a whole big pile of expensive vegetation that you will only use a little bit of. For example the recipe will call for a tablespoon of fresh cilantro, which means you have to buy this big huge wet bunch of cilantro at the grocery store and after you get your tablespoon you throw the rest into the vegetable crisper where gradually turns to slime until you finally accept the fact that you are not going to use anymore fresh cilantro right now and you throw it out. Or you buy on of those cute little plastic cases of fresh rosemary or whatever and it costs $6 and then you again never get around to needing fresh rosemary and it turns black in your refrigerator.

If you think it’s worth it, buy the tubes of pre-ground spice instead. Otherwise use the dried version. If its something crazy like dill seeds, buy the smallest container you can find. As a general rule use 1/3 of the amount you would use of the fresh herbs. For example, if a recipe calls for a tablespoon of fresh basil, use 1/3 of a tablespoon of dried.

Now nothing said here is meant to disparage the joy of creative gourmet cooking. When you do have the time and inclination, by all means get out there chopping garlic, crushing nuts and whipping up homemade puff pastry. Every so often you’ll want to haul out that breadmaker/pasta machine/hot dog cooker etc. that you got as a wedding or Christmas gift and go to town. Rather this advice is intended to make it easier to make healthier the day-to-day grind of shoveling up food to feed your family and significant other as well as yourself. And if you currently live alone, you know first hand the soul-destroying ennui of cooking real meals for yourself and yourself alone.

Substitutions to save you time and/or money

fresh diced/crushed tomatoes-- canned diced/crushed tomatoes

fresh herbs-- dried or tubes of herbs

homemade crusts-- premade crust

dried beans-- canned beans

garlic bulbs-- chopped/crushed garlic

ginger roots-- chopped ginger in glass or tube

fancy salt-- table salt

peppercorns-- ground pepper

multicolored/white pepper-- black pepper

onions/celery/green peppers-- pre-chopped onions or celery

sauce from scratch-- high quality premade sauce

homemade phyllo etc.-- fresh or frozen phyllo etc. from the store

head of lettuce-- bag of lettuce

squeezed fruit juices-- bottled or frozen fruit juices

stock-- canned or boxed stock

curry or chili spices-- curry or chili powder mix

chopped carrots-- frozen carrots

corn off the cob-- frozen corn


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