Kiss Teeny Portions Goodbye with These Magical "Filler Foods"

If portion control isn't your strong suit, and you can't do without your favorite indulgences, "filler foods" are your new best friend.

I would love to be the kind of person who can eat small quantities of food and feel satisfied—three chips and a small scoop of guacamole, or three tablespoons of macaroni and cheese… But when it comes to these rich foods I love, I don’t seem to have the willpower (yet?) to stick with the small quantities. I tend to cruise right past the serving size toward two or three servings sizes before I notice!

Working on my cooking this year has led me to a solution to this portion-control issue: what I call “filler” foods. “Filler” foods are full of nutrients but low on calories, adding great flavors to meals but also allowing me to stretch the sweet, creamy, or otherwise rich garnishes I use on them. My plate can still be full without being inappropriately calorie heavy, which helps given how much of weight loss is reliant on eating fewer calories! Filler foods are so helpful that I wanted to share a few of my favorites, and favorite ways to use them, with my fellow dieters.

Ring Your Bell

Lately, my favorite dipper to substitute for chips and pita are slices of bell peppers. Hummus, salad dressing, and other popular dips can pack a big calorie punch when you factor in a bunch of carb-heavy chips, but peppers have some scoopability and a really nice crunch to them without all the calories and carbs. I don’t like raw carrots very much, but a lot of people say they are the perfect substitute in dip situations too. 

Be Like Popeye

My first, and most obvious, filler is salad greens, usually spinach. When I thought “I don’t like salad,” for a long time, what I was really saying was “I don’t like eating plain salad greens and raw veggies on top.” If I think about salads as a way to stretch a small amount of my favorite rich foods and feel full after, they become much more appealing.

The filler here are the greens themselves, and the rich additions can be anything from nuts and bacon to Caesar dressing to an avocado blended with Greek yogurt. As long as my total calorie intake is reasonable, I can put my favorite toppings on a really big bed of lettuce and stretch them far.

Take a Many-Layered Approach...

A favorite filler of mine in soups and stews are onions – these are also good on top of burgers to add flavor. Cooked onions don’t have a ton of calories even if you use a bit of oil to give them flavor, and they bring a heartiness to soups and chili that allows you to use less oil and meat (which can make those dishes unexpectedly calorie-dense). I find celery and carrots can be helpful for this as well. 

Veg Out

In casseroles, I have had success with blending cooked veggies (spinach or broccoli or lots and lots of tomatoes) with whatever cheesy filling I’m creating so that it tastes like cheese but is actually lower-calorie than expected. This makes a great veggie lasagna, or even a meat lasagna where you replace half the meat with a veggie-cheese mixture. You may notice the difference, but the flavor and portion size will still be there.

Have a Grainy Day

My latest filler strategy has been replacing both a starch and a meat in a meal with quinoa – the protein fills you up but the flavor makes you think rice or pasta. While still relatively caloric, quinoa lets you cut down large meat servings to just enough meat for flavor, which can make a filling serving when mixed with lots of veggies and great spices.

I know that others have great solutions for the problem of “small-looking meals” that I haven’t yet found: I’ve heard great things about lettuce wraps and other means of eliminating sneaky carbs that we can actually do without. What do you use to make your meals feel large and flavorful without adding excessive calories as a result?

Make it WayBetter

Make a list of your favorite “filler” foods and always have them on hand. That way you’ll have no excuse not to health-ify your favorite foods when cravings hit!