Ignore all the fad diets — for weight loss, there’s no magic pill. That doesn’t mean dieters have to suffer with a piece of celery and a lettuce leaf for lunch, though. There are plenty of delicious foods that don't require worrying about packing on extra pounds or undoing a workout. These low-calorie dishes feature inexpensive and nutrient-dense foods to help lose weight quickly while still enjoying meals.
Try this easy, delicious treat to enjoy a hydrating and flavorful beverage without added sugar or artificial sweeteners. Watermelon is at its lowest price during the summer, which makes healthy, low-calorie watermelon juice cheaper than chemical-laden alternatives such as sports drinks and sodas. To make, simply place chunks of cold, sweet, juicy watermelon in a blender and blend until completely smooth.
Stir-fry has a lot going for it in terms of health. The traditional seasonings, including garlic, ginger, and onion, are low-calorie and provide tons of nutrition. Some of the meat can be replaced with chunks of broccoli, one of the lowest-calorie foods available. Don’t skimp on other veggies, such as peppers and snow peas. Season with low-calorie chilies and soy sauce, rather than store-bought sauces that can hide a lot of calories.
GRILLED STONE FRUIT
Dessert can be tough for people trying to lose weight, and it’s important to have healthy options. Grilling makes it easy to avoid high-fat sweets, because caramelized stone fruit is just as tasty as any pie or cookie. Grilling provides layers of flavor from the ripe fruits themselves and the hot grill char. A tiny scoop of ice cream or yogurt on top won’t destroy this low-calorie dish, but stick mainly to the fruit to indulge guilt-free.
This trick is a game-changer for anyone trying to lose weight, cut carbs, or avoid gluten: Replace pasta with zoodles, or spiralized zucchini — which can be made at home with an inexpensive spiralizer. Some other vegetables, such as yellow summer squash, also work. Choosing zucchini cuts the calories by more than half, and in-season zucchini is even cheaper than pasta by volume. For the best texture, salt and drain the zoodles, squeezing to remove excess moisture before adding sauce.
BANANA 'ICE CREAM'
No one should have to miss out on ice cream — even people trying to shed pounds quickly. Instead of opening a pint, simply blend frozen bananas, pulsing until they are crushed and blending until smooth, to make a one-ingredient treat that's delicious and satisfying. Eat banana "ice cream" right away as soft-serve or stash it in the freezer for a harder consistency. Add flavor with cinnamon, vanilla, or even a few nuts.
The ultimate cleansing diet food, this powerhouse of a low-calorie dish fills the stomach and cleanses the gut. Praised since ancient Rome for its health benefits, cabbage soup has endless variations. Stick with simple ingredients such as onions, carrots, celery, garlic, vegetable broth, and crushed tomatoes. Season with salt, pepper, and chili and eat as much as you want, as often as you want.
This tasty dish doubles as breakfast or dessert. Sprinkle cored apples with cinnamon and a few raisins and bake at 350 degrees until soft (about 45 minutes). The result is a sweet flavor like apple pie filling, but with the calories of an apple. Enjoy with a small scoop of Greek yogurt for an extra layer of decadence.
SKINLESS CHICKEN THIGHS
Chicken delivers a healthy dose of animal-based protein, which can help curb cravings during a low-calorie stint. The fat is in the skin, so opt for skinless chicken. Thighs are cheaper than breasts and have more flavor in the meat itself, so they stay juicy and flavorful even without the skin. Season with salt and pepper and bake until cooked through. These can be enjoyed next to veggies or on top of a salad to complete a meal.
Dirt-cheap and filling, oatmeal is a thrifty dieter’s best friend. A small serving in the morning can keep you full with relatively few calories. Be sure to go for plain oatmeal and add toppings and flavorings such as raisins or a teaspoon of maple syrup. The flavored, packaged versions hide a lot of sugar and can turn this health food into a health disaster.
Salads offer seemingly endless variety and also travel well. Pre-make a few salads (with dressing stored separately) at the start of the week to have meals ready to go. Stick to a base of greens such as lettuce, spinach, herbs, or kale, and add three to four veggie toppings such as carrots, cucumber, tomato, celery, radish, asparagus, corn, and onion. Top with a sprinkling of raw seeds such as hemp or pumpkin, and stick with a simple vinegar- or citrus-based dressing — try 1 part vinegar to 2 parts oil, plus an emulsifier such as mustard, to make a basic dressing. Then try adding herbs, chili, garlic, and other flavorings.
Raw veggies are blended together to create this refreshing, tomato-based cold soup that is generally thought of as a delicacy rather than a health food. It's best made during summer, when tomatoes are flavorful and inexpensive, but gazpacho also gets layers of flavor from onion, bell pepper, and cucumber. Served with herbs and a drizzle of olive oil, it saves enough calories to justify sneaking a glass of wine to pair with it.
This cabbage-based salad is helpful for people with big appetites — it is so low in calories, it's possible to have as much as desired without counting calories. It keeps in the fridge for up to a week, so it’s worth making a big batch to have around for impulse snacking. Combine a head of shredded cabbage with a few shredded carrots, a sprinkling of celery seed, and cracked black pepper, then season with vinegar. Optional additions include cucumber and a tiny drizzle of sesame oil just before eating.
Snacks don’t get much cheaper than popcorn, which is a low-calorie alternative to chips and pretzels. When craving crunchy carbohydrates, air pop one-quarter cup of kernels and season with favorite spices. The kernels carry a lot of satisfying flavor without any of the fat or calories of similar snacks.
TZATZIKI AND CRUDITE
This is a good appetizer to bring to parties, where there is always temptation. Be prepared with a healthy and guilt-free platter. Yogurt-based tzatziki gets its flavor from garlic, dill, and cucumber, rather than heavy mayo and sour cream or cheese. Make the dip fresh at home with a recipe from the blog Natasha’s Kitchen and pair it with fresh veggies.
Going low-cal to drop pounds doesn’t mean having to skip barbecues. Just have veggie kebabs on hand to help you resist reaching for an extra hot dog or burger. Load skewers with tomato, yellow squash or zucchini, onion, mushrooms, and bell peppers and grill until they have a nice char. Make a sauce out of herbs, vinegar, and a small amount of olive oil to drizzle on top.
VEGGIE TACO SALAD
Mexican flavors and fresh ingredients lend themselves well to a weight-loss plan. Create a satisfying Mexican meal by layering taco-seasoned lentils or beans over crispy lettuce and topping with pico de gallo, a few slices of avocado, cilantro, and hot sauce. Sour cream lovers can substitute a tablespoon of Greek yogurt to get the effect. Skip the chips and tortillas; they add a lot of carb-loaded calories.
BAKED SWEET POTATO 'FRIES'
Sometimes the need for fries is so great, there is no use fighting it. When the craving hits, meet it with low-calorie sweet potatoes. Cut them into fries; coat lightly with oil, salt, and pepper. Bake in a 400-degree oven until they’re crisp on the outside. These aren’t entirely guilt-free, but at half the calories and fat of regular fries, sweet potato fries make it okay to indulge once in a while.
In this burger-obsessed nation, giving up meat even temporarily can seem impossible. Instead, try substituting a portobello mushroom. Meaty and packed with protein, it satisfies the craving when topped the right way. The condiments (especially mayo and ketchup) and bun still add their full calorie load, but the heaviest part of the meal is cut by two-thirds.
ROASTED VEGGIE MEDLEY
Roasted vegetables are packed with flavor — in fact, they often provide most of the complexity to meat-based dishes. Skip the calorie-heavy meatand add extra portions of veggies. Use a variety to get an array of flavors, such as onions, peppers, mushrooms, eggplant, broccoli, cauliflower, and even tomatoes. Season with salt and pepper and other favorites such as garlic, chili, and herbs. Add to salads, or enjoy alongside healthy grains such as buckwheat or quinoa for a complete meal.
FRESH BERRIES WITH BALSAMIC AND HERBS
Fresh berries don’t need much help to be delicious on their own. Bring out their flavor by drizzling with high-quality balsamic vinegar and a sprinkling of fresh herbs. The sweetness of the fruit will explode, creating a satisfying dessert, breakfast, snack, or palate cleanser during a meal.
A craving for carbs can derail any diet, so finding convincing substitutions can help. Try mashed cauliflower instead of mashed potatoes. Even with a dash of milk, this recipe is a vitamin- and fiber-packed improvement on the real thing.
Add your marinara sauce and even meatballs to spaghetti squash instead of pasta and get vitamins and fiber that nutrient-poor and calorie-dense pasta doesn't have. It's easy to cook in either the microwave or oven, too.
Want to dive into a rich, homemade lasagna but not eager to gobble up the calories? Leave meat out of the recipe and use eggplant or zucchini instead of lasagna noodles. Want to trim calories even more? Substitute cottage cheese for ricotta to lower fat.
Pre-cooked and made from yams, shirataki noodles are extremely low in calories and high in fiber. Consider adding them to any stir-fry or Asian-inspired dish.
Instead of scooping up calorie-dense dips with crackers that lack nutritive value and just add empty calories to your diet, switch to cucumber slices. Not only do they add a crisp snap to your snack, they're high in fiber and vitamins.