Category Archives for "Meals"

Is there such thing as a free food?

What do you think of when I say “free food”? If you’re like me, you might imagine lavish conference buffets, three-course lunches with clients “on expenses”, or that box of gorgeous doughnuts that someone brought into the office …

But here, I’m thinking about “free foods” on diet plans – ones which “don’t count” as part of your daily calorie or Points intake. It’s one of dieting’s holy grails … being able to eat as much as you want of particular foods and still lose weight. Maybe colleagues on various diet plans have told you about their “free foods”, “0 points foods” or “unlimited foods”. But do these mythical foods really exist … and if so, what are they?

All-you-can-eat salad bar…

The diet plans which I used as a teenager often included “free” or “unlimited” options. These were typically vegetables (most of which are very low calorie for their weight) – higher-calorie veg such as peas and sweetcorn were excluded. I ate a giant salad with lunch every day because it was “free” – though it actually worked out to about 50 calories, once I’d included the dressing.

(For those with a sweet tooth, watermelon and sugar-free jelly were also included. Diet fizzy drinks like diet coke, and low-sugar squash, are also “free”.)

So, can you really eat as much salad and veg as you like and still lose weight? The answer is almost certainly yes (hurrah!). There’s about 20 calories in a carrot – even if you eat five at a sitting, that’s only 100 calories (the same as a small cookie). I’m particularly fond of carrots, but even I probably wouldn’t eat more than a couple at a time…

Weight Watchers’ 0 Points foods

I’ve never followed a Weight Watchers’ plan, and I know many of you won’t have either – but I bet you’ve seen products in the shops labelled with their branding and with a “points” value as well as a calorific one. Some products, such as salad dressings, have 0 points per serving – which really means they have so few calories that they’re not worth counting. (Most low-fat salad dressings are about 10-15 cals per serving.)

There are also “0 points” recipes for foods such as soup, salads, and ratatouille – anything which consists of mainly vegetables and seasonings, which all count as 0 points. Yes, you’ll probably still lose weight whilst eating as much as you like of these – but be warned that if you have a very big appetite, they do have some calories and eating serving after serving of a “0 point” recipe could slow your weight loss.

For example, when I added up the calories for the ingredients in this rather yummy-looking 0 points ratatouille, it comes out as about 70 calories per serving. Now, having that in addition to the rest of your daily allowance won’t make any difference … but eating four or five portions of it might!

(If you want to have a go at figuring out the calories in your favourite “0 points” recipe, see my instructions on calorie counting recipes and try my handy calorie counter spreadsheet.)

I can imagine someone doing Weight Watchers’ by eating chocolate bars and crisps (both high in Points) and filling up on “0 points” foods … and then wondering why they’re not losing weight. My advice, if you are on Weight Watchers, would be to keep an eye on how many times a day you’re eating “0 points” foods – if you’re having more than four or five, you might need to cut back!

Slimming World free foods

Slimming World, another huge chain of dieting clubs with associated plans and products, appears to be even more generous than Weight Watchers’ when it comes to free foods. Their guidance varies depending on whether you’re on a “red” day or a “green” day:

  • Red day “free foods” include most fruits and vegetables, white fish, lean meats and eggs.
  • Green day “free foods” include fruit and vegetables, grains, beans, pasta, tofu, and eggs.

This gives me pause for thought. These are all healthy and low-calorie options, but it’s possible to make a whole meal out of either the red day free foods or the green day free foods – and eat rather a lot of it!

For example, I could concoct a vegetable and bean chilli from:

  • Peppers
  • Onion
  • Courgette
  • Chillis
  • Beans

(200 calories total for an average sized serving).

…and serve that with unlimited rice (a grain), easily clocking up a meal of 500 calories. Depending on how big my appetite was, it wouldn’t be hard to eat 1,000 calories or more of “free foods” on Slimming World. And if your recommended daily calorie intake is low (if you’re a small woman like me, it probably is), you could unwittingly be eating so many “free foods” that you’re not losing weight.

So what foods can I eat unlimited quantities of?

If you want a big lunch or dinner without clocking up the calories (and without faffing around counting them), I’d recommend sticking with these:

  • Salad (watch that you use low-cal dressing, though)
  • Veg except for parsnips, peas, sweetcorn and potatoes
  • Sugar-free jelly
  • Melon, watermelon or strawberries

Be wary of colleagues who insist that you can eat as much pasta/fish/egg/etc for “free”. The calorie values might be low, but if you’re nearing the end of a weight loss campaign, a few hundred calories a day makes a lot of difference.

(Image above by scorchez.)

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Office lunches – beyond the sandwich

It’s so easy to get stuck in a rut with lunch, eating a succession of sandwiches throughout the week – often with the same type of bread and the same filling each day. Whether you take in a packed lunch or buy something from the nearest shop, sandwiches can start to get boring.

But what alternatives are there which are just as easy to eat in the company breakroom, or in the local park? Here’s a few which I’ve eaten in the office:

Pasta salad

One of my favourite non-sandwich lunches is a homemade pasta salad. It’s easy to throw together in the morning, and transports well in a Tupperware box. Just pop it in the fridge at work and enjoy at lunch time. (Don’t forget your fork.)

Most supermarkets have some pasta salads alongside their sandwiches; keep an eye out for low-fat varieties. Even the standard ranges tend to be fairly healthy – pick chicken, prawns or tomato-sauce based options.

Rice salad

A rice salad is another easy lunch-time meal, and can often consist simply of last night’s leftovers: risotto or paella tastes just fine cold! (Just a reminder: never reheat cooked rice, and keep it properly refrigerated.) Brown rice is a great healthy option if you’re making your salad from scratch.

Again, you can find a wide range of ready-to-eat rice salads in supermarkets: look out for ones with plenty of vegetables or beans.


If you have access to a microwave at work, soup is a great option. (Some soups are also designed to be eaten cold.) Buy fresh soup if you can – or make your own and bring it to work in an airtight container – as tinned soups tend to be higher in sugar and lower in actual vegetables.

A bowl and spoon helps here, but if you’re lacking these, a big mug is just as good. Try a crusty wholemeal roll with your soup, or a few crispbreads.


One of my favourite lunches is cold noodle stir-fry; the flavours come out best when it’s been in the fridge for a few hours. This is also a great lazy option – cook extra stir-fry the night before, then pop the leftovers into a leak-proof Tupperware box in the fridge.

All you need to do in the morning is remember to pick it up!

Alternatives to bread

Sometimes, you don’t have to depart too far from the concept of a sandwich in order to get a decent change. How about switching your usual two slices of bread for:

  • A bagel (low fat cream cheese and smoked salmon works well)
  • Crispbreads (cottage cheese, hummous or guacamole are good toppings)
  • Rice cakes (again, cottage cheese complements these nicely)
  • Tortilla wraps (fill with salad and lean protein like ham or chicken)
  • Pitta bread (stuff with prawns and lettuce)

A monotonous diet often equals a failed diet, so pick a day each week (perhaps Fridays?) to take in a “different” lunch and make your midday meal something to look forward to.

(Image above by


New Diet-Friendly Dinner Recipes

One of The Office Diet’s readers wrote a few weeks ago to ask if I could add some more calorie-counted recipes to the site – I’m only too glad to oblige! The below recipes are all listed on the recipes page – or click on the title to go straight to the list of ingredients and the method.

All of these are dishes that I and The Boyfriend enjoy regularly, so rest assured they’ve been thoroughly taste tested. 😉

Sausage casserole with new potatoes or wholemeal rolls

355 cals / 21g fat for the sausage casserole
130 cals / 0.5g fat for a serving of new potatoes
110 cals / 2.5g fat for a small wholemeal roll

Get really good sausages for this, rather than using low-fat ones – you only need one sausage per person, and it’s worth the extra fat for the improvement in flavour. If you’re in the UK, the range of Taste the Difference sausages work brilliantly (we recommend the roasted red pepper and sweetflamed chilli variety.)

Pasta carbonara (a low fat version)

525 cals / 11g fat

You don’t have to miss out on creamy pasta while you’re on a diet. This version of carbonara is really quick and easy to make (it won’t take more than fifteen minutes) and is great comfort food if you’ve had a long day at work. It also tastes far more indulgent than the fat and calorie count would have you suppose…

Sweet and sour chicken with rice

570 cals / 6.2g fat

Make plenty of this one, pop the leftovers in the fridge and use them to fill a wholemeal pitta bread for lunch the next day: it’s just as good cold! The amounts given on the recipe page make enough for two servings and a bit left over.

(The sweet and sour pitta has 290 cals / 4g fat.)

Prawn tortilla wraps with salsa, guacamole and vegetable crudités

480 cals / 13g fat

A great summer dinner, because it doesn’t require any cooking, this has been one of our Friday night favourites for a while. Especially nice with a glass of wine (try using diet lemonade for a spritzer if you need to keep alcohol calories down.

If you’ve got a favourite diet-friendly recipe that you’d like me to add to The Office Diet, drop me an email – Or let me know if there’s anything else you’d like to see on the site!

(Image above by steven m)

  • Updated August 8, 2012
  • Meals

Five easy ways to make time to cook every evening

We all know that frozen ready meals, takeaways and endless sandwiches don’t make for great dinners. But sometimes it’s hard to find the time and energy to cook after a long day in the office. None of us want to come home, exhausted and hungry, and spend an hour chopping vegetables and cooking.

What we need is a healthy meal as quickly as possible. These are some of my failsafe tips for ensuring that preparing dinner is easy and fast.

1. Get everything ready in the morning

When you’re preparing your healthy packed lunch, allow an extra five minutes to sort out everything for your evening meal:

  • Transfer anything that needs to defrost (eg. prawns, chicken) from the freezer to fridge
  • Weigh the pasta/rice/potatoes
  • Grab any pots and pans you need and set them out
  • Dig out that jar of sauce or tin of chopped tomatoes from the cupboard
  • Check the vegetables are easy to access in the fridge

2. Buy bags of ready prepared vegetables

If you’re making a stir-fry, casserole, or anything that requires a lot of different chopped vegetables, it might well be worth buying these ready prepared. Supermarkets do a huge range of bagged stir fry veggies, and whilst you’ll get cheaper ones by buying loose, it’s worth going for the pre-prepared sort if time is at a premium.

3. Eat meals that require little “hands on” cooking

Some dinners need you to stand in the kitchen constantly stirring one pan, adding to another, and trying to keep a third from bubbling over. When you’re tired and busy, dishes that can be left to simmer on their own are best. Soups and stews are ideal, and simple meals such as baked potatoes with salad hardly require any preparation time.

4. Make double, freeze half

The majority of dishes can be refrigerated and reheated the next day, or frozen for use the following week. (Remember never to reheat rice, though.) When you’re making a bolognaise sauce, for example, double all the ingredients and keep half for another day – it will take a few minutes longer to prepare, but could easily save you three quarters of an hour on another night.

5. Take it in turns to cook

Agree at the start of the week with your partner or housemate which nights you’ll each be cooking on. This gives you both the chance to plan ahead and to be organised, and avoids any arguments when you come home from work about who’s had the worst day and consequently doesn’t want to cook…

One caveat is that you may find that you need to explain some basic healthy eating principles if you end up being served huge bowls of creamy cheesy pasta… (why not print out some of the recipes from The Office Diet for inspiration?)

(Image above by tschaut)

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  • Updated August 8, 2012
  • Meals

Things to do now the weather is warmer – get outside!

We’ve had some lovely warm weather here in the UK, and sunshine works better than anything else to encourage me to turn off the computer and get outside. When the length of summer is rather uncertain (it seemed like all of two days last year…), I hate feeling that I’ve “wasted” the sunny weather.

Here’s how to make the most of the warm weather for maximum health benefits.

  1. Escape from your desk

    During the week, take your packed lunch outside: getting out in the fresh air and sunshine is a great pick-me-up, and will do wonders for your mood and stress levels.
  2. Make the most of the longer evenings

    Now that the evenings are light and sunny, enjoy them! Don’t come straight home and slump in front of the television … instead, go out for a pre- or post-dinner stroll with your partner.
  3. Cycle or walk to work

    If you haven’t already made exercise part of your commute to work, this is a great time to get started. I ride my bike stubbornly through the winter months (with two sweaters, a thick coat, gloves and scarf) then through April (waterproofs essential), but for those who are less keen, sunny weather definitely makes cycling more appealing.
  4. Use sun protection

    I’m sure I don’t need to say this, but make sure you get some sun cream and use it. Even when the air doesn’t feel too hot, or when you won’t be outside for very long, your skin can easily burn.
  5. Have a picnic

    Take your dinner outside in the evenings – if, like me, you don’t have a garden that you can sit in to eat, head to the local park. And why not have a picnic instead of eating out at a restaurant at the weekend? Finger foods like small bread rolls or pitta breads, cold meats, low-fat cheese, crudités and fresh fruit all work well. Sneak in a treat or two, as well; walking to and from your picnic location will make up for it…
  6. Explore the countryside

    Long weekend walks are much more appealing when it’s not cold or raining. See if you can get some good walking plans for an area near you; I’m currently walking the Capital Ring around London, a section at a time.
  7. Eat in-season foods

    Some of my favourite fruits and vegetables are now in season, or about to be! Asparagus, jersey royal potatoes, strawberries … Lorna wrote about foods in season in May recently, so why not try something new?

If the weather is bright wherever you are, make the most of it and have fun!
(Image above by David Reece)


Recipes to cram five portions of fruit into yourself

This post is by Lorna Cowie, an artist and self-described “extreme foodaholic”. Her pirate salad made me grin; she knows my love for all things piratical… These are both office-fridge-friendly recipes, though The Office Diet will not be held responsible if your boss catches you with rum-scented breath…

Woe, woe are we all. I am totally getting sick of all the adverts saying “Eat five fruit or veg a day” or ‘One of your three portions of bran a day.’ I mean really, do we have to hear this whilst they advertise their new and improved apple? I think not.

Anyway, rant aside, I have found a delicious and almost naughty feeling way to get some of your “five a day” into your mouth, and to keep with the theme, they are all office related (for a change!)

Pirate Fruit Salad

I created this to cheer up Ali when she had been poking about something for me to write about for this website. I think it’s delicious and also you have full rights to talk like a pirate whilst you eat it.


  • 1 Apple
  • 1 Orange
  • 2 Rings of Pineapple
  • 1 Banana
  • Some grapes
  • Any other fruit you enjoy like strawberries etc etc.

Rum Syrup:

  • 4 tbsp water
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • 2 tbsp rum

Add all the ingredients for the rum syrup into a pan and bring to the boil, set it on simmer for 2 minutes and let it cool down completely.

Peel and chop up your fruit to make a normal fruit salad. I suggest chopping up half the orange and squeezing the other half into the rum syrup. Add the syrup and mix well before placing into a leak-proof box and putting into the fridge. Make sure you remember it in the morning when you go to work and enjoy with a good round of “YAAAARRR!” and “Where HAS all the rum gone”?

Baked Peach Melbas

  • 2 Peaches or Nectarines cut in half with stone removed
  • Handful of raspberries

Simply put the cut fruit onto some tin foil, fill the holes left by the stones with raspberries and fold them up in the foil so they are contained. Bake for 40 minutes in an oven at 180 degrees and leave to cool. Deposit into containers to take to work, put in fridge when you get to work and eat when you desire. These can be eaten hot or cold, don’t microwave the foil obviously, and you can even serve them with some fresh natural yoghurt.

What ever way we think about it, eating fruit and vegetables are good for us, so get as many as you can in you whilst you can and the above recipes beats chewing on a carrot stick, no?

(Image above by marinegirl)

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  • Updated August 8, 2012
  • Meals