Dressings, sauces, and marinades are tasty, but they can also serve up excess calories, sodium, and unhealthy fats.
Let’s be honest: while some people eagerly dig into a plate of plain salad greens, for most of us it’s really the dressing that prompts us to pick up the fork. The same is often true of foods like chicken, fish, or pasta. How the food tastes is often more the result of what’s on it than what’s in it. The problem is, the wrong bottle of salad dressing, sauce, or marinade can quickly take your meal from healthy to questionable in a couple of glugs.
"Many commercial sauces and dressings contain a lot of sodium, added sugars, and saturated fats," says Kathy McManus, director of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Two tablespoons of your average supermarket barbeque sauce has more sugar than a glazed donut. The same amount of Italian salad dressing may contain as much as 350 milligrams of sodium, she says. That’s more salt than you’d get in a medium order of McDonald’s fries.
Other prepared marinades and sauces, particularly those that are cream- or butter-based, could also leave you spooning a substantial serving of unhealthy fat and calories onto your plate.
But that doesn’t mean you should resign yourself to eating nothing but naked lettuce or plain chicken. The trick is to finish off your dishes with toppers that are appealing, but that won’t send your diet into the danger zone.
"The benefit of having sauces or dressings is that they can make some foods more appetizing," says McManus. "They can also help give you more variety." And the right toppers don’t just make food tasty; done right, they can also amp up the nutritional value of your meal.
"I like to put a simple salsa on fish or chicken, which can increase fruit or vegetable intake," says McManus.
Below are three recipes that provide a tasty way to top off your meals, without the drawbacks.
Oil and vinegar salad dressing
When it comes to salad dressing, sometimes the best option is to keep it simple. An oil and vinegar topping tastes great and is also a healthful option.
1/4 cup balsamic or red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon minced garlic
dash ground black pepper
Combine the ingredients in a bowl, whisk until they’re blended, and serve.
Tip: Keep in mind that vinegar and a vinaigrette are two different things. A vinaigrette is a sauce that contains vinegar, oil, and other ingredients; vinegar is a combination of water, acetic acid, and some flavorings.
Instead of using barbeque sauce or a marinade on poultry or fish, try a flavorful salsa. Switch it up by substituting pineapple for mango, or mint instead of cilantro.
1 medium mango, peeled
2 fresh tomatoes, seeded
1 seedless cucumber
1 small red onion, diced
pinch black pepper
1 bunch cilantro, chopped
Chop the mango, tomatoes, and cucumber into small chunks. Mix with the onion, salt, black pepper, and cilantro.
Tip: Another option is to flavor your meat with a spice rub instead of a marinade. These mixes of dried herbs and spices add flavor without the unhealthy ingredients.
A simple pesto sauce is a nutritious option for chicken, fish, or pasta. "This can increase your intake of nuts, fresh herbs, and extra-virgin olive oil," says McManus.
4 cups basil, packed
1/4 cup pine nuts
2 ounces Parmesan cheese
4 cloves garlic
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
In a food processor, pulse the basil and pine nuts several times. Add the Parmesan cheese and garlic and pulse again. With the processor running, stream in the olive oil and process until blended. Add pepper and a pinch of salt to taste. Serve as a sauce for pasta or as a finishing touch on baked or broiled fish or chicken.
Tip: Change it up by substituting walnuts or hazelnuts for pine nuts, or adding Romano cheese instead of Parmesan. When adding the pesto to pasta, be sure to reserve a small amount of the pasta water to mix with the sauce.
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