THE BLOG
10/24/2011 07:15 am ET Updated Dec 24, 2011

How to Cook Like a 'Biggest Loser'

After 12 seasons with the show, I've learned that our contestants, like most Americans, are very busy people. As a professional chef and registered dietitian, I am able to suggest BL-friendly menus and recipes that are easy to prepare. There aren't too many fancy ingredients or expensive kitchen tools to buy. However... portion size is always key, so measuring tools are a must.

At the beginning of each season, I take the new cast grocery shopping and teach them the importance of serving sizes. This is one of their most important lessons. Since weighing and measuring food is vital to create an accurate accounting of daily calories, it's important to have a few reliable measuring tools on hand. I always recommend:

• A liquid measuring cup (2 cup capacity)

• A set of dry measuring cups (includes 1 cup, ½ cup, 1/3 cup and ¼ cup sizes)

• Measuring spoons (1 tablespoon, 1 teaspoon, ½ teaspoon and ¼ teaspoon)

• Food scale

• Calculator

And here are a few of my must-have kitchen tools:

Food Scale: In terms of cooking, all of the above will come in handy. Be sure that the food scale you choose measures grams. (A gram is very small, about 1/28th of an ounce.) Most of your weight measurements will be in ounces, but certain foods, such as nuts, are very concentrated in calories, so a portion size will be much smaller. Food scales range in price from a few dollars to $30 dollars or more. Some of them are digital and a little more expensive. Fancy versions may even have an internal database of foods to calculate the number of calories in the food you're weighing. I suggest referring to "The Biggest Loser Calorie Counter" to calculate the calories for you, as any scale isn't nearly as portable and you probably won't have an extra scale at work or in your car!

Squeeze bottles: Another favorite kitchen tool I love to keep on hand is a variety of squeeze bottles. Not only do they allow you to aim, shoot and squeeze small amounts of sauce or dressing recipes into a pretty design on your plate (instead of pouring out a too-big glob) but the narrower the opening, the slower the pour, meaning that you use less dressing or sauce. And the most key point is that this means fewer calories. I even like to put purchased/bottled dressings and sauces into squeeze bottles because it delivers a much smaller portion and they're so easy to use.

Spray bottles: Cooking oil spray is used throughout this book to facilitate minimized use of added fat. Rather than using aerosolized cans, it's easy to make your own cooking spray. Spray bottles are available in health food stores and can be filled with your own fresh oils as needed. For regular baking and sautéing fill the spray bottle with a mild-flavored oil. Cooking oils can be stored in a cool, dark place for up to four months. Because they are composed of highly unsaturated fats, they will turn rancid within several months after opening. Buying a large bottle with a great price tag is not the best option since you'll be adding less oil to your cooking. When in doubt of your oil's freshness, throw it out and open a fresh bottle. One tablespoon of rancid oil can ruin the flavor of an entire recipe.

Hand held zester/grater: This multi-tasking tool has regular workouts in my kitchen. Did you know that more than 50 percent of the Vitamin C in citrus fruits is in the peel? For that reason, I love to grate the zest of lemon or orange or whichever citrus fruit I'm using (or eating) into a pitcher of water, or onto my salad or cereal. I love the citrus flavor, plus I know I'm getting an extra bang of Vitamin C and not wasting any part of the fruit. The other use for this tool is grating hard cheeses such as Parmesan or Romano. That's right -- losing weight does not mean saying goodbye to cheese. Yes it's high in calories, but a little bit goes a long way and this tool allows you to finely grate a gently "dusting" of cheese on your whole grain pasta or your salad without breaking your calorie bank.

Ingredients

It's sometimes difficult to convince the contestants (or my clients) that going forward, they're going to have to cut a bigger slice of their monthly budget for groceries. It's hard to swallow, even when I tell them they'll be saving on prescriptions and doctor's visits later on. But once they start seeing the scale move downward and feeling their energy and mood surge upward, it becomes seductive and they know they've made the right decision.

In terms of shopping, it's a no brainer to say that organic is better, but I know not everyone can afford that. If you can -- great. The other thing you will learn as you become more comfortable in the kitchen, is that the quality of your recipe end-product is a function of the quality of the ingredients you put in it. Buy the freshest and best quality ingredients you can afford.

If you were/are a hard-care fast food and processed food eater, switching over to the BL style of clean eating (along with the exercise!) will really make a difference in how you taste and appreciate food. When you swap out salty, sugary, fried and processed foods for clean eating and fresh ingredients, your palette will notice the difference. You'll be placing more emphasis on ingredient and shopping decisions you hadn't considered before.

I'm always adding to my repertoire of ingredients, always looking for new products in my pantry to share with the cast and viewers in my weekly blogs.

Other ingredient and shopping tips include:

  • Trying to buy seasonal and local produce will help ensure better value, as well as better flavor. Fresh fruits and vegetables are optimal, but frozen are perfectly fine.
  • Buy less -- waste less If you're buying more fresh produce than you used to (and you probably will be), you may find it beneficial to tack on an extra trip to the market each week to be sure that you use up your purchases instead of stocking up and allowing some of it to go to waste. This is particularly true when you're getting started and aren't quite sure how long all of those fresh veggies will last.
  • If your store doesn't carry everything you need (nonfat Greek-style yogurt, nonfat ricotta or bottled egg whites), be sure to ask your grocer to order it. These days all stores want to retain their loyal customers, and if you're looking for a particular ingredient, chances are that other customers are too -- just ask!
  • Shop with a list and stick to it! It will curb impulsive purchases, especially if you're hungry
  • If you are following a sodium restricted diet, you can refrain from using salt in your recipes (conversely you can feel free to enhance the seasonings to your taste if you don't have any restrictions).
  • When possible, try to use fresh herbs instead of dried -- the flavor is much more robust. If dried herbs are your only option, remember that 1 teaspoon dried herbs = approximately 1 tablespoon fresh herbs
  • Pure vanilla extract is one of my all time favorite ingredients. Though a good quality product may seem expensive, a little bit goes a long way. I always have a small dropper bottle (from the health food store) on hand, filled with vanilla extract. I use it to add a few drops to my lattes or to make my own unsweetened vanilla yogurt at home.

Methods

I have a lot to say about the importance of good fats in a healthy diet. But because fat is so rich in calories, it's important to make your choices carefully. I like to eat my good fats in the form of avocados, nuts, seeds and a little olive oil here and there. In terms of cooking, I can really keep the calorie count down when I focus on methods that do not require added fat:

Dry heat cooking uses hot air or fat for heat transference, the methods we will use require minimal or no additional fat. Non-stick cookware and the correct temperature become key components in assuring our success!

Dry Heat Methods:

Baking - this method cooks food in the oven at a controlled temperature, usually in the range of 200-500 º F, which is considerably lower than broiling and grilling temperatures. For this reason, baking usually takes longer. Also, since the hot air circulating around the pan is what actually cooks the food, don't crowd the oven without expecting the baking time to increase. Non-stick pans are what we want; that way we'll have no excuse to add extra oil.

Roasting - like baking, this is accomplished in an oven where food is surrounded by heat in a closed environment. The resulting coloring, from light to deep golden brown, adds depth to flavors and richness to the color of any pan juices

Broiling - this method involves placing food directly under a heat source such as an open flame or an electric heating element. Cooking is usually accomplished rapidly since the temperatures are quite hot. In addition, the food's surface will brown. Your undivided attention is required here because this method is fast!

Grilling - this style of cooking places food directly over a heat source which can be charcoal or different types of wood. The temperature range frequently used is 400-500, allowing the food to cook very quickly, depending on how close it is to the heat source. Like broiling, this method results in browning, a crispy exterior and depending on the heat source, can integrate the wonderful enhancement of smoky flavors.

Dry sauté - the sauté method of cooking typically uses a moderate amount of oil and/or butter. Sauté means "to jump" in French. This method is very quick and therefore uses high heat. With a good non-stick pan and an optional mist of oil, we can accomplish the same result with just a trace of fat. The key is to ensure that the pan is hot before adding food to reduce the chances of sticking. A good non-stick sauté pan is required and an oil mister makes "oil rationing" a breeze!

Wet Heat Methods:

Poaching - allows placement of food directly into water or another liquid which may have seasonings added to it. The item to be poached, such as a salmon filet or chicken breast, is submerged in hot liquid and simmered just until cooked. Although there are special pieces of equipment available for poaching fish, and eggs, a shallow saucepan works very well.

Pressure Cooking - uses a special piece of equipment (pressure cooker), which is a heavy pot with a very tight fitting lid. This "pressure chamber" allows food to cook quickly and drastically reduce cooking time. But the main point is that no fat is required for this method.

Steaming - allows placement of food in a metal or bamboo basket over water; allowing the steam to circulate around the food, thereby cooking it without submerging it in the liquid. Although water works well as a poaching liquid, you can also use fat free broths and seasonings to boost the flavor

Because fat has mouthfeel and carries flavor, cutting back on it can quickly change the texture and appeal of your favorite dishes. For that reason, it's key to understand the value of enhancements in healthy cooking.

Enhancements include the addition of an ingredient either to:

• compensate for the loss or reduction of another

• achieve optimal nutritional balance (by adding fiber or protein, etc.)

• or most importantly, to add flavor and/or texture!

This is perhaps the most essential, and least understood, aspects of healthy cooking. One of the most valuable uses of enhancements in lowered fat cooking is to add flavor and texture, both of which are lost when we reduce or eliminate fat. Let's face it, it's not easy to stick to a new way of eating if it doesn't taste good.

Perhaps the best example of enhancement is the addition of herbs and spices, which really gives us unlimited creativity. The addition of enhancements may take place during different stages of the cooking process.

In the initial stages, enhancements may be made with a marinade or a dry rub. A marinade is a liquid often containing an oil, an acid, (such as lemon juice, wine or vinegar) and a variety of herbs or spices. The acidic component usually helps to tenderize the meat, though care must be taken not to use too much acid because it will break down the proteins and change the texture. Salt should not be used in a marinade because it draws the moisture out of the meat. The purpose of a marinade then, is not only to tenderize, but also to add flavor, or enhance it! A dry rub is a mixture of herbs, spices and sometimes a paste of onions and garlic. Because they don't contain liquids, dry rubs do not tenderize, but they are fat free and great flavor boosters!

Enhancements in the form of spices or herbs may also be incorporated during the cooking process. Fresh herbs may also be sprinkled over a dish as garnish or at the last moment to retain their fresh flavors. the possibilities for using enhancements are numerous. But when we consider seasonings borrowed from regional and/or ethnic cuisine, the options are endless.

Cheryl Forberg, RD is a James Beard award-winning chef, nutritionist for NBC's "The Biggest Loser" and NYT bestselling author. Her latest book is "Flavor First" (Rodale). She lives on a farm in Napa, California. For plenty of scrumptious recipes, check out her website.