Pros: Great format; speed; convenience; taste
Cons: Very occasional use of artificial sweeteners
Rating: 5 out of 5
First posted 9/13/2002
Roughly a year and a half ago (or something like that), my husband and I decided we needed to lose some weight. My doctor recommended Weight Watchers, so we used their “at home” program (no meetings!). The WW program requires that you count the “points” value of your food (found through some weird calculation of calories, fat, and fiber), and stay within a certain range every day (determined by your weight and the amount of exercise you get).
Calculating the points value of things can be tricky when you do a lot of your own cooking. You have to look up the values of all the individual ingredients, add up, divide by the number of servings… You get the idea. And worse, once you start counting up the points value of your typical high-fat dinner, it can be a bit shocking! So when we heard about their cookbooks, the Annual Recipes for Success line (in which they collect the recipes from their magazine every year), we were tempted – they provide the point values with each recipe, you see. And of course, the recipes are designed for people who need to lose weight, so they don’t have huge point values.
We have several of these cookbooks now (there’s a new one every year), but my favorite so far is “Weight Watchers Annual Recipes for Success 2002.”
These recipes are primarily designed for busy people. Weight Watchers realizes that most people these days don’t have time to cook a three-course meal after work in the evening. Thus, these are quick and simple recipes. Usually they fit about three to a page, so you know they can’t have huge long lists of ingredients! Recipe instructions are broken down into short, numbered steps, and they only rarely have more than four steps.
Also because of their target audience of busy professionals, many of these recipes make use of “convenience foods.” Instead of mucking with phyllo dough, you’ll be told to buy frozen miniature phyllo shells. A recipe will call for a pre-packaged marinara sauce instead of giving you instructions for making one. While they don’t restrict themselves to only the simplest ingredients, they do try to avoid truly exotic stuff, thus ensuring that you’ll almost always be able to find what you need in your local supermarket.
My only reservation here is that, every once in a long while, they go overboard with this. I hate the aftertaste of fake sweeteners, for example, and a very few of the recipes try to cut corners by using sugar-free pudding or ice cream as ingredients. Sometimes they recommend a frozen pre-cut ingredient when it just really wouldn’t take that long to chop the florets from a head of broccoli. Luckily this doesn’t happen too often, and in the latter case you can just buy the fresh broccoli.
For the most part I like the layout. Underlined recipe title, maybe a quick note about the recipe, a list of ingredients, and brief numbered recipe steps. There’s also a listing of the number of servings, and for each serving the points value, the “exchanges”, calories and percentage of calories from fat, protein, fat and saturated fat, carbohydrates, fiber, cholesterol, iron, sodium, and calcium.
Recipes don’t trail onto the backs of pages, so there’s no flipping around. Little side-bars explain various details to help you out (like the one that suggests spraying a measuring cup with cooking spray before measuring peanut butter so it’ll come out easily, or the one that explains the effects of caffeine on the body). My only complaint here is the use of that bane of recipe instructions: “combine the sugar and the next five ingredients.” I recommend taking a pen and boxing the ingredients that get mixed together so you don’t have to stop several times to count and make sure you’re mixing the right things.
The book includes a few other cool things. For example, there’s an index by points in the back. So if you’re planning dinner, and you’ve found a 7 point entree and you know you don’t have more than 2 points left for the side dish, you can look up 0, 1, or 2-point dishes to find something appropriate. Very handy! There’s also a normal index, which is good but not great (there’s just something weird about looking up “apples,” for example, finding three recipes, and then having it say, “see also Desserts,” where you find several other recipes that weren’t listed under apples).
There is also a 9-week, 7-day menu planner in the back that lists the total points for each day’s meals at the bottom so you can easily find something that will fit within your range. Where I find this most useful is in the example it sets–it reminds you of some of the simpler ways to get low-point side dishes and snacks. For example, one day’s dinner side dishes might be “steamed new potatoes, 1 cup; green beans, 1 cup; papaya, 1 cup.” Also, it includes a number of other very simple recipes in it (and yes, you can find them in the index). There’s even a brief table of low-fat ingredient substitutions in the front, as well as a guide to food storage (how long you can keep things and where you should keep them).
Sections include Appetizers & Beverages, Breads, Desserts, Fish & Shellfish, Meatless Main Dishes, Meats, Poultry, Salads, Sandwiches, Side Dishes, Soups & Stews. Like most Weight Watchers cookbooks, it includes “success stories” from members who’ve lost weight and kept it off. Scattered throughout are small pockets of gorgeous color photos of select recipes.
Here’s where things get strange. I mean, this is a diet cookbook. Worse than that, it’s a diet cookbook aimed at producing simple, quick, easy recipes using convenience foods. Most of the cookbooks like this that I’ve tried (including one or two of Weight Watchers’ other cookbooks) have sucked. But this one?
This one is great!
It skillfully uses high-flavor ingredients, plenty of fresh vegetables and fruits, and even “fattening” ingredients in small amounts to produce nutritious, low-fat, and delicious recipes.
Mushroom tartlets have smoked Gouda in them. A Cinnamon Swirl Loaf includes honey, butter, and plenty of cinnamon. A low-fat caramel dipping sauce for apples makes use of fat-free caramel sundae syrup, fat-free milk, cinnamon, vanilla, and frozen fat-free whipped topping to create a light, delicious dessert. There’s a Bananas Foster recipe that I just can’t wait to try. The Lime Tartlets pack a heck of a sweet-tart punch in a tiny package (and I bet you never expected tartlets would be a quick-and-easy recipe, did you?). The Warm Fresh Apple Cake is delicious comfort food at its low-fat best.
A Mexican Tortilla Casserole is filling, meatless, spicy, and a bare 5 points. Rustic Corn Cakes with Creamy Cumin Sauce were certainly a hit here, as was the Marinated Three-Tomato Salad (which is even better if you make it with sweet grape tomatoes instead of the cherry tomatoes it calls for).
Occasionally we run across a recipe that doesn’t thrill us, but this rarely happens. Usually I find that Weight Watchers’ cream sauces (Vegetable Alfredo, for instance) leave a little to be desired.
But by and large their recipes pack a heck of a flavor punch for very little effort or time invested. Even better, Weight Watchers has reasonable ideas about what people eat. They don’t get their low point counts by skimping on serving size – even my husband (who’s over 6 feet tall) usually finds their portion sizes to be adequate.
All in all, this book and its companions are quite worth buying if you’re trying to lose weight or avoid gaining weight. Even when we aren’t dieting we still tend to make recipes from this book just because they’re that good! Best of all, we have yet to stumble across a single mistake in the recipes – these must have been kitchen-tested quite well indeed.
Note added August 2006: Obviously this isn’t entirely compatible with South Beach, however, if you want to follow that diet, you can still get a lot of use out of this cookbook. It does, after all, emphasize use of fresh vegetables and low-fat ingredients. In part you’ll need to pick your recipes carefully, but you can also get a lot of mileage out of substitution. If a recipe calls for a lot of white rice or pasta, substitute with a smaller amount of whole-grain rice or pasta and maybe some additional vegetables. Substitute sweet potato or other vegetables for white potato.