Why I Don’t Cook “Light,” “Diet,” or “Healthy” Recipes

updated May 1, 2019
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Post Image
(Image credit: Nealey Dozier)

I have been known to say that any cookbook is a weight loss book, because I strongly believe that cooking for yourself at home is the best way to lose weight. I know this axiom isn’t totally accurate (hey, Paula Deen!), but it contains a lot of truth.

Another reason I like to issue this advice is that I’ve seen weight loss and home cooking goals evaporate in the face of recipes that are engineered to be low-cal, low-fat, and low-sodium. Those recipes can also be incredibly low-flavor. Regardless of how “good” the nutrition facts of a dish are, it doesn’t benefit your health or your weight loss efforts if you don’t eat it, or if you’re snacking an hour later because dinner didn’t satisfy.

There are some good, health-conscious food magazines out there—Eating Well and Cooking Light come to mind. I subscribe to and occasionally cook from these magazines. But I am constantly making substitutions: whole milk for 1%, sour cream for fat free sour cream, coconut milk for light coconut milk, 85% lean ground beef for 90%. I’m also routinely doubling the amount of olive oil or butter called for.

Why? Recipes geared toward weight loss can take things too far. Sure, they shave off a few calories or grams of fat, but at what cost? It’s done at the expense of flavor and the pleasure of a wonderful, home cooked meal. When you cook something that turns out just OK, that is lean and wan, that doesn’t wow you, you are simply not going to go to the trouble of making it again.

That’s why I always suggest that people who are trying to lose weight seek recipes out from non-diety sources such as this website, Epicurious, or food magazines that focus on delicious food and solid cooking techniques such as Fine Cooking or, my personal favorite, Cook’s Illustrated.

When you go to these sources for recipes while trying to lose weight it’s true you need to apply your common sense. If a recipe calls for a stick of butter, two cups of cream, or a pound of bacon, maybe you should save it for a special occasion. But the vast majority of recipes from trustworthy sources aren’t like that.

And even when a recipe that appeals to you is quite rich, constraining portion size and serving it with a big salad or platter of roasted vegetables, it can and should fit in to your weight loss plan. I’ve been eating a bacon-laced pork-and-beef meatloaf weekly while losing weight and it hasn’t hindered my progress; a small slice with a good salad is a satiating delight I savor.

When you are choosing recipes, don’t make “healthy” your top criteria. Pick the dishes that appeal to your own tastes, the ones that sing to you, the ones that make you excited to both get into the kitchen and make them and then, just as importantly, to eat them. And hopefully make them again.

The reward for cooking at home needs to be great food you enjoy if you are to do it consistently, and it’s clear you should. Recent research from the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins found that those who regularly cook at home eat fewer calories and enjoy better health.

That’s cooking at home, period, not cooking health food at home.

Loving Food While Losing Weight

Is it possible to talk about the fraught space of food, body, and weight in a healthy, thoughtful way? We think so, and we’re presenting a monthlong column exploring one food-lover and food writer’s journey towards finding her own personal balance. Joy Manning is joining us this month with her own stories, practical tips, recipes, and perspective on the real-life struggle between loving food and loving your body.