20 Healthy, Low-Calorie Dishes for Quick Weight Loss
Ignore all the fad diets -- for weight loss, there’s no magic pill or substitute for simply burning more calories than you take in. That doesn’t mean suffering with a piece of celery and a lettuce leaf for lunch, though. There are plenty of delicious foods for indulging without 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.
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Stir-fry has a lot going for it in terms of health. The traditional seasonings, including garlic, ginger, and onion, are super-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, and don’t skimp on other veggies, such as peppers and snow peas. Seasoned with low-calorie chilies and soy sauce, rather than thick, store-bought sauces that can hide a lot of calories, this is a dish for filling up without packing on the pounds.
Dessert can be tough for people trying to lose weight, and it’s important to have options. Grilling makes it easy to avoid high-fat sweets, because caramelized stone fruit is just as tasty as any pie or cookie, offering 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 and 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. (Some other vegetables, such as yellow summer squash, also work.) It cuts the calories by more than half, and in-season zucchini is even cheaper than pasta by volume. For the best texture, be sure to salt and drain the zoodles, squeezing to remove excess moisture before adding sauce. That way, they stay firm and don’t make the dish too watery.
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.
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 tried-and-true, oatmeal is a dieter’s best friend. A small serving in the morning can keep you full for a good while 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 part of the problem.
Salads should be a daily staple for dieters. They offer seemingly endless variety and can be delicious with a little experimentation and creativity. They also travel well. It’s a good idea to 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 to find a favorite or maintain variety.
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.
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.
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 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.
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, plenty of cilantro, and hot sauce. Sour cream lovers can substitute 1 tablespoon of Greek yogurt to get the effect. (Skip the chips and tortillas; they add a lot of carb-loaded calories.)
Sometimes the need for fries is so great, it's 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; and 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.
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Fresh berries are a treat and don’t need much to be delicious on their own. Bring out their expressive 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.