If you've ever looked at your plate of chicken, quinoa, and steamed broccoli and thought, "This again…" you're not alone. While there are tons of ways to amp up the flavor of healthy fare without overloading it with calories, it's not something we're simply born knowing how to do. Even the talented contestants on MasterChef have to start somewhere.
"My grandmother inspired me to cook," says Lisa Ann Marchesi, a season seven contestant from Gillette, New Jersey. "She lived downstairs from us for a number of years when I was growing up. And with her kitchen underneath my bedroom, I spent a lot of time with her."
Though Marchesi works in the commercial insurance industry by day, her true passion is cooking. And it's that passion that guided her to launch Bella D'Oliva USA, an importer of extra virgin olive oil (one of these 20 Best Full-Fat Foods For Weight Loss), and, of course, to regularly cook up meals that she shares with her friends and family online. "My family follows my social media, which is where I'm always cooking and taking photographs. They told me I should try out for MasterChef," she explains. To continue inspiring cooks across the globe—especially those with an affinity toward healthier fare—Lisa Ann shared with us some of her go-to cooking hacks that are perfect for beginners and busy people with little time for meal prep.
Read on to find out how to lose weight while enjoying delicious, MasterChef-inspired fare, and for even more cooking hacks, check out these 32 Kitchen Hacks for Healthy Eating!
To add flavor to her meals without excess calories, Marchesi regularly sprinkles red pepper flakes or cayenne pepper (one of the 5 Best Spices for Fat Loss onto her food. "It spices up your meals and the heat helps you lose weight!" she tells us. Capsaicin, the compound that gives chili pepper its powerful kick, has proven to reduce belly fat, suppress appetite and boost thermogenesis—the body's ability to burn food as energy.
Realize That Simple Is Often Better
Sure, Lisa's a master in the kitchen, but that doesn't mean that every time her sweet tooth kicks in, she rolls up her sleeves and makes a cake. "I love blueberries and you'll always find a bar of dark chocolate in my fridge. So when I'm craving something sweet, I make myself a bowl of fresh blueberries and top it with some fresh chopped mint and finely shaved dark chocolate! It's a sweet, cool, and delish combination!" Plus, it's far healthier than downing a sleeve of cookies and it's simple enough that even the most remedial cooks can pull it off. For even more skinny-but-sweet how-tos, check out these 20 Easy Dessert Recipes.
Surprise Your Guests
Hosting a summer barbecue? Wow your guest by adding some surprising ingredients—and some Italian flair—to the all-American burger. "The quickest, easiest way to make any burger taste amazing? Season it with fresh herbs and spices. For an Italian style burger, add chopped parsley, onion, garlic, a little bit of oregano, and grated parmigiana cheese to the mix. Grill it and serve it with fresh spinach leaves, tomatoes, and basil," suggests Marchesi. Looking for more creative grilling ideas? All of these 21 Grill Recipes That Aren't Burgers are beyond delicious!
Add ACV to Tea
"To boost my metabolism in the morning, I add apple cider vinegar (ACV) and a drop of honey to my green tea. It not only tastes good, but it helps you lose weight," says Marchesi. How does it work? The ACV produces proteins inside the body that burn fat, while the green tea is packed with compounds called catechins that blast adipose tissue by revving the metabolism, increasing the release of fat from fat cells (particularly in the belly), and then speeding up the liver's fat burning capacity.
Dieters often rely on a steady stream of things like grilled chicken and oatmeal. So, needless to say, unless you mix up the seasonings and preparation methods to keep things interesting, it can become difficult to maintain your healthy eating habits. "To keep staples exciting, I'll add a Cajun or blackened seasoning to my grilled chicken. I'll pair it with brown rice and a black bean and corn salad," Lisa explains. She even keeps her AM meals interesting and light. "Oatmeal is something my whole family eats every day. We make our own variations by using fresh fruits and a drop of extra virgin olive oil." Sounds delish! For even more creative oatmeal ideas, check out these 20 Savory Oatmeal Recipes.
Watch How-To Videos
A lot of people want to improve their diets, but not everyone is a rockstar in the kitchen. Marchesi assures us that it ain't no thang! "If you want to fine tune your cooking skills, my number one suggestion would be to hit up YouTube and search for your favorite chefs and home cooks. It's the best way to learn their cooking techniques. Make sure you're watching it in the kitchen with the ingredients and following along!" To ensure the recipes you're making are the healthy kind, we suggest checking out The Choi of Cooking, a playlist devoted to simple meals and how-tos that can help you trim your waistline.
Amp Up Salads— And Eat Them Often
She may be surround by food 24/7, but you'd never know it by looking at Lisa's trim figure. To maintain her lean bod, she stays active and nibbles on small meals throughout the day. She also eats a bed of greens before every meal—which is a really smart move. Filling up on fiber- and water-filled foods like veggies can reduce overall calorie intake at mealtime by up to 12 percent, say researchers. To keep things interesting, incorporate new ingredients into your greens on the reg, such as fruit, nuts, and less common veggies like radicchio, edamame, and collards. For even more ways to lose weight eating greens, check out these 30 Salad Recipes for Weight Loss.
Make Your Own Dressing
The fastest way to ruin an otherwise healthy bed of greens is to top it with a sugary, chemical-filled bottled dressing. To keep her diet clean and her taste buds satisfied, Lisa Ann heads to the kitchen. "I love to make my own salad dressing. I use pure extra virgin olive oil and mix that with a little lemon, lemon zest, chopped fresh basil, fresh pepper, and sea salt." A super simple recipe that takes just a few minutes to make—there's nothing better than that.
EVOO + Fresh Herbs = Best Veggies Ever
Everyone knows that they should be eating more vegetables, but not everyone manages to rally when it comes to putting carrot to mouth. For most people, it's because they don't enjoy the taste of fresh produce—and don't realize how easy it is to amp up the flavor. "When I'm cooking vegetables, I like to drizzle them with extra virgin olive oil, garlic, red pepper, and fresh herbs from my garden like rosemary, basil, and sage," Marchesi reveals. If you prefer to nibble on veggies raw, consider pairing them with one of these 11 Best Hummus Choices.
Use Parchment Paper
Though the farm-raised salmon falls short in the health department, wild salmon is a nutritional star. Not only is it rich in omega-3s, a healthy fat that fights off metabolism-slowing inflammation, but it's also a great source of protein, a nutrient that increases post-meal calorie burn by as much as 35 percent! But it's not an easy dish to perfect. "I find the best way to cook salmon without drying it out is by steaming it," says Marchesi. "Try using parchment paper. Place the salmon in the paper and top it with your favorite seasonings and some fresh spinach leaves. Seal it tight and place it on a baking pan, pop it in the oven, and bake at 350 degrees for about 8 to 10 minutes. Take it out of the oven and put slits in the parchment paper to allow the steam to escape before serving."
Start an Indoor Garden
A DIY herb box is one of the most delicious ways to bring tons of fresh flavor to summer fare for minimal calories. And research suggests herbing things up can actually help slim you down. One study found that research participants ate significantly less of a strongly-scented dish than an equicaloric, mildly scented version. What are the best herbs to grow in the house? "Rosemary, parsley, oregano, sage, and basil. They're my staple ingredients and they only need water and a sunny spot to thrive," says Marchesi. For more no-sacrifice ways to cut calories and lose weight, check out these 26 Ways to Feel Full While Eating Less!
Healthify Baked Goods— While Improving the Flavor
"The easiest way to make healthier, less caloric homemade cookies? Switch out the butter for almond butter (a 1:1 ratio works great) and replace the flour with whole oats for the cookie dough," advises Lisa Ann. "For sweetness, use dried fruits to the mix like raisins and dates."
Eat This! Tip
To ensure you don't alter the texture of your favorite cookies, toss the oatmeal into a food processor and let 'er rip! The resulting mixture can be used exactly how you'd use white flour in all of your favorite recipes.
Make Garlic a Staple
Here's a flavor-boosting cooking tip anyone who owns a knife—and we mean anyone—can pull off: add garlic to more of your recipes. "My favorite healthy ingredient to cook with is garlic. It may be because I grew up using it in most of my Sicilian Italian dishes. The flavor never gets old and it's one of the healthiest natural ingredients out there!" says Marchesi. It's true; good ol' garlic was loaded with antioxidants that can help boost your immune system, help ward off heart disease, fight inflammation, and lower blood pressure. "The secret to unlocking the antioxidant properties in garlic is to mince, chop or slice up the cloves and let them sit for 10 minutes before putting them into a heat source. If you don't wait, you will actually lose their anti-cancer power," says Angela Lemond, R.D.N., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Chop some up and add it to steaks, pan-seared chicken, soup recipes, roasted veggies, or homemade salsa and hummus. It takes just a few minutes and can seriously elevate the flavor of your dishes.
Seek Out Inspiration
Can't think of any new ways to prep your morning smoothie? Sick of eating the same grilled chicken salad for lunch every day? Take out your phone and get inspired! To ensure she never gets stuck in a cooking rut—and never runs out of new ideas to pull together healthy, delicious dishes—Lisa Ann follows food bloggers on Instagram. And we've got to admit, we do the same thing! To see which IG accounts are among our favorite, check out these, 50 Best Chia Seed Recipes on Instagram!
Use Trending Ingredients Wisely
Unless you've been living under a rock for the past two years, you likely know that coconut oil is having a major moment—and it's well deserved. Studies have shown that the capric acid and other medium chain triglycerides (MCT) in the tropical oil can increase 24-hour energy expenditure in humans by as much as five percent. While burning an extra 100-120 calories per day might not sound like much, over a year, it amounts to at least 36,000 calories. Still, that doesn't mean you should slather it on everything. "While it may have a high heat point, good for cooking and baking, it may dry out your baking dishes," the MasterChef star says. "So I'd advise against using it things like cakes and baked vegetables and meat."