One of the toughest challenges of calorie counting is overhauling your recipe card collection.
Half of my family is from the South, so a good portion of my home recipes involve a whole lot of butter, breading and frying. And personally, I don't think a recipe can ever have too much cheese.
Unfortunately, butter, breading and cheese can add a lot of calories to a main course.
When I began keeping a running tally of how much I ate each day, my initial plan was to add more prepackaged meals to my diet. After all, it's easy to count calories when they're listed right there on the cardboard box of my Healthy Choice Cafe Steamers.
The up side of prepackaged meals is they're low in calories and it's easy to keep track. The down side is most of them aren't filling, and they're not the healthiest option. I spent more months than I care to admit eating frozen dinners, canned soups or boxed macaroni and cheese for lunch.
It didn't take long for me to get tired of processed foods. Sure, I was losing weight, but I never felt full. And I no longer enjoyed eating.
My new best friend
Months of eating the same old food gets tedious, so I started sifting through my recipe cards and browsing food blogs to find a new collection of healthy, tasty and low-calorie dishes.
A pattern quickly emerged in the recipes I collected. One ingredient stood out above all others.
My apologies to vegetarian and vegan dieters, because the miracle ingredient I recommend above all others is the good ol'-fashioned chicken breast.
On average, a baked boneless, skinless chicken breast has about 220 calories. I usually round up to 250 calories (I'd rather overestimate how much I eat than underestimate). Even rounding up, that's a low calorie count for a main course.
Chicken breasts offer a good dose of protein, which is good nutrient when losing weight because it can reduce hunger and also helps repair muscles after workouts.
My favorite thing about chicken, though, is its versatility. Adding seasoning to a chicken breast can add a lot of flavor without adding calories. I can eat chicken seven nights a week for dinner, but each meal tastes completely different because of the new blend of spices and seasonings.
Listed below are two of my favorite chicken dishes. Add a side of your favorite vegetables to each one, and you've got yourself a healthy, filling, low-calorie dinner.
Italian-seasoned chicken breast
This recipe comes from Nutritious Eats, a blog operated by a registered dietitian. When on the hunt for weight loss-friendly home cooking, a dietitian's website is a good landing spot.
The recipe calls for:
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 chicken breasts, butterflied
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1 heaping teaspoon dried basil
1 heaping teaspoon dried oregano
2 large garlic cloves, minced
To prepare the meal, heat the tablespoon of olive oil in a cast iron skillet over medium heat. Season the chicken breasts lightly with salt and pepper, then sprinkle 1/2 teaspoon of dried basil and 1/2 teaspoon of oregano over them. Sprinkle about a 1/4 teaspoon of the garlic powder on top.
The original recipe calls for placing the breast in the skillet at this point, seasoned side down, and then sprinkling the other half of the spices on. I tend to work a bit differently in the kitchen — I prefer to rub the seasonings into both sides of the chicken before dropping it in the skillet.
Once you place the chicken in the skillet, cook for five minutes on one side. Add the minced garlic, then flip the breasts and cook another five to eight minutes, or until the meat is cooked through and golden brown. The browned bits of garlic left in the skillet can be added to chicken, along with any juices.
Once plated, squeeze a bit of lemon over the chicken breasts for an extra burst of flavor.
Find the original recipe online at nutritiouseats.com/italian-seasoned-sauteed-chicken-breasts.
Spicy garlic lime chicken
This one comes from All Recipes online magazine. It's one of the first dinners I ever tested on my husband and has remained a longtime favorite in our house. Once my weight loss efforts started, I moved it to the top of my recipe list.
An important note before making this recipe: It's important to use half-breasts instead of full chicken breasts to ensure they cook correctly and all the way through.
The recipe calls for:
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/8 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1/8 teaspoon onion powder
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon dried parsley
4 chicken breast halves
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 tablespoons lime juice
Set aside an additional 2 teaspoons of garlic powder
Mix the salt, black pepper, cayenne, paprika, garlic powder, onion powder, thyme and parsley in a bowl and rub generously over the breasts until they're completely covered in seasoning.
Heat the butter and olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Once the butter and oil are hot, saute the chicken about six minutes on each side. Sprinkle with lime juice and the additional two teaspoons of garlic powder as the chicken cooks another five minutes. Stir frequently to coat evenly with sauce.
Don't worry when you see the outside of the breast getting black – the blackened exterior is full of spicy kick and seals the juicy inside.
The best part? All of that flavor comes at a low calorie cost.
JULIE BARICHELLO is an assistant editor at The Times documenting her weight management and health improvement journey. To share your own weight management story, contact her at 815-431-4072 or firstname.lastname@example.org.