Adapting meals
Lyndel Costain

If you're watching your weight and have a family to feed, you don't want to be constantly cooking separate meals. But with some smart shopping and a few tweaks to favourite recipes, everyone can enjoy healthy family food.

Shop smart

Losing weight is all in the planning. Whenever possible, plan meals ahead for the week and make a shopping list to ensure you have the right foods to hand. Think about the fresh, chilled, frozen and storecupboard items you need. Then go shopping when you're not hungry or stressed! Planning ahead helps the budget too.

Stock smart

Ensure you have foods from the main food groups to make up balanced meals. Remember that frozen or canned vegetables and fruit (look for reduced sugar and salt versions) are not only convenient, but nutritious too. Herbs, spices, lemon juice, olives, garlic and soya, tomato or chilli sauce (use to suit family tastebuds) all add low-fat flavour to dishes.

Cook smart

Use lower fat cooking methods such as grilling, baking, roasting (on a rack to let fat drip away), stir-frying, chargrilling, steaming, microwaving or barbecuing. When using oil, measure out small amounts with a spoon. When making casseroles, pasta sauces or chilli, cook or brown lean mince or diced meat in its own juice or use just a little oil or oil spray. Make mash with semi-skimmed milk - adding other vegetables such as carrots, parsnips, cabbage or onion adds flavour (and more nutrients). Dry roast potatoes by par-boiling, brushing with a little oil or oil spray, then baking.

Health tip
Children under five often have small appetites. They should have varied, but not 'low-fat everything' diets, to ensure they meet their nutritional needs.

Smart sauces

Use this guide to create sauces with taste but without excess fat.

  • Make a gravy using gravy powder and water, rather than fatty juices from the meat.
  • Make white sauce with skimmed or semi-skimmed milk and thicken with cornflour (make a paste by mixing one tablespoon of cornflour with two tablespoons of skimmed milk) rather than butter and flour. For a cheese flavour, use a small amount of a strong cheese, such as Parmesan or extra mature cheddar rather than lots of a mild cheese.
  • Tomato or vegetable-based sauces are ideal for pasta, rather than creamy ones.
  • If buying sauces, look for brands with less than 5g fat per 100g.

Here's how to adapt some family favourites to create a healthier and tastier dish.

Fish pie
  • Use salmon or tuna canned in water or brine (rinse and drain well).
  • Make a white sauce and flavour with parsley, mustard or a little curry powder.
  • Add some peas and/or corn for extra filling vegetables.
  • Top with mashed potato, made with semi-skimmed milk.
Spaghetti bolognese
  • Cook the minced beef (or try turkey or soya or Quorn mince for a change) in a non-stick pan over a low heat.
  • Stir continuously to stop food sticking and drain off any fat that comes out of the meat.
  • Add finely chopped onions and garlic (if liked) and other favourite vegetables, such as tomatoes, grated carrot or peas. Think about adding other flavourings such as herbs, tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce and pepper.
  • When cooked serve over pasta with a big green salad.
Serve smart

Vary the proportions of food on the family's plates to suit their needs. Make sure you have plenty of vegetables or salad - half fill your plate. Top jacket potatoes with no-fat Greek yoghurt or fromage frais and think twice before adding butter or margarine to vegetables.

Health tip
Active, growing children need a healthy balance of protein-rich foods, energy giving bread, potatoes or cereals, fruit and vegetables, and dairy foods plus nutritious snacks.

Store cupboard basics

Keep your kitchen cupboard stocked with these healthy and filling meal basics. Look for no added or reduced salt and sugar versions of canned foods.

  • Fresh or dried pasta, egg noodles, rice, couscous, cracked wheat, barley and other grains.
  • Canned beans, pulses, sweet corn - keep a variety for use in soups, casseroles, salads, fillings for wraps, pasta dishes or on toast.
  • Canned salmon, mackerel, sardines, pilchards - for salads, sandwich fillings, pasta or a snack on toast.
  • Canned tomatoes and pasta - for antioxidant packed, flavour-rich low-fat sauces.
  • Canned fruit or berries in juice - for snacks, toppings for cereal or yoghurt, or use to make pancake or meringue fillings or nutritious smoothies.
  • Low-fat rice puddings or custards - canned or long life (great with fruit too).

This article was last medically reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks in October 2005.
First published in May 2001.

What's a healthy weight?
Getting started
Learning to eat well
Did you know...?
Adapting meals
Life stages