Get Something for Nothing: 25 Nearly Calorie-Free Foods

Tame cravings with very low-cal veggies, fruits, snacks -- even desserts

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD

We all want to have our cake and eat it, too...oh, and we want the cake to have zero calories! While calorie-free cake remains a food fantasy, there really are foods that cost us almost nothing to eat, calorie-wise. These are what I call "free foods" and "almost free foods."

I know what you're thinking, but it's not all "rabbit food" -- some fruits, packaged snacks, and even frozen desserts make the grade. So if you're craving something to munch but can't spare any calories, check out the list below of low-calorie options -- along with some recipes to dress them up.

But first, a bit of definition: "Free foods," in my opinion, are those that have 25 calories or less per reasonable serving. "Almost free foods" have 25 to 60 calories per reasonable serving. Portion control is key here. While 2 cups of popped, 94% fat-free microwave popcorn may contain only 40 calories, if you eat the entire bag you'll end up with closer to 200 calories -- definitely not an "almost free" food situation.

You'll find these "free" and "almost free" foods in four basic areas of your supermarket.

1. The Produce Section

Many vegetables that are high in water and fiber content end up being "free" or "almost free." So if you're in the mood for something with crunch, think about these "free" options ("Free" foods, eaten in reasonable quantities, don't have to be journaled; if you like, journal 1 cup of these veggies as 1/2 cup vegetables without added fat):

  • 2 large celery stalks = 13 calories, 1.2 grams fiber
  • 2 cups shredded romaine lettuce = 18 calories, 1.4 grams fiber
  • 1/2 cucumber = 20 calories, 1 gram fiber
  • 1 medium tomato = 25 calories, 1.3 grams fiber
  • 1/2 cup sugar snap peas = 30 calories, 3.4 grams fiber
  • 1 carrot = 30 calories, 2 grams fiber
  • 1 cup jicama sticks = 45 calories, 6 grams fiber

You don't have to be a rabbit to enjoy these snacks -- especially if you dress them up with a "free" dip from this quick recipe:

"Free" Ranch Dip

Journal as: 1/4 cup low-fat plain yogurt

2 tablespoons fat-free sour cream
3/4 teaspoon Hidden Valley Ranch Dip Mix

  • Blend sour cream and ranch dip powder together in a small cup or dish with a spoon.
  • Serve with raw veggies as a wonderfully nutritious snack.

Yield: 1 serving

Per 2-tablespoon serving: 25 calories, 1 g protein, 4 g carbohydrate, 0 g fat, 0 g fiber, 230 milligrams sodium. Calories from fat: 0%.

And believe it or not, vegetables don't have the "free foods" market cornered. Some lower-calorie fruits make the cut, too (Journal each as 1/2 piece of fruit):

  • 1 peach = 37 calories, 1.6 grams fiber
  • 1/2 grapefruit = 37 calories, 1.7 grams fiber
  • 1 cup sliced strawberries = 50 calories, 2.5 grams fiber
  • 1 cup watermelon pieces = 51 calories, 0.4 grams fiber
  • 1 cup papaya pieces = 54 calories, 2.5 grams fiber
  • 3/4 cup apricot halves = 55 calories, 2 grams fiber
  • 1 cup cantaloupe cubes = 56 calories, 1.3 grams fiber
  • 1 orange = 60 calories, 2.3 grams fiber

2. Frozen Food Section

Fresh, raw veggies aren't your only vegetable option. Here are some "almost free" veggies you'll find in the frozen food section (Journal 1 cup as 1/2 cup vegetables without added fat):

  • 1 cup winter mix vegetables = 25 calories, 2 grams fiber
  • 1 cup Tuscan-style vegetables = 25 calories, 2 grams fiber
  • 1 cup mixed broccoli, cauliflower, and carrots = 25 calories, 2 grams fiber
  • 3/4 cup whole green beans = 25 calories, 2 grams fiber

3. Packaged Products

Jell-O is basically made from water, sugar, and non-digestible gel. So sugar-free Jell-O is as "free" as it gets:

  • 1/2 cup of Sugar Free Jell-O (cherry, lime, strawberry-banana) = 10 calories

Not everyone goes for sugar-free Jell-O, but if you like it, you can jazz it up with 1/4 cup of any of the fruits listed above, or 2 tablespoons of fat-free whipped topping (adding 20 calories to the total). To keep it from being boring, try this pretty parfait:

"Free" Jell-O Parfait

Journal as: 1/2 piece fresh fruit

1/2 cup small cubes prepared Sugar Free Jell-O, chilled (flavor of your choice)
2 tablespoons fat-free whipped topping
1/2 cup sliced strawberries (or substitute another fruit listed above)

  • Spoon 1/4 cup of Jell-O cubes into a parfait glass or other small glass. Top with 1/4 cup of the sliced strawberries, then 1 tablespoon of the whipping topping.
  • Repeat layers with remaining Jell-O, strawberries, and whipped topping.

Yield: 1 serving

Per serving: 55 calories, 2 g protein, 8.5 g carbohydrate, 0.3 g fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 1.5 g fiber, 75 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 5%.

While they're certainly not "free," there are a few packaged grain products that can be considered "almost free" when eaten in moderate portions (Journal the servings listed below as 1/4 cup starch without added fat):

  • 94% fat free microwave popcorn. 2 cups popped = 40 calories, 2 grams fiber
  • Quaker Rice Snacks, Apple Cinnamon. 8 mini cakes = 60 calories
  • Quaker Rice Snacks, Caramel Corn. 8 mini cakes = 60 calories

4. Frozen Dessert Section

That's right, folks. You can even find "almost free" foods in the frozen dessert section of your supermarket. I bought one type of the frozen bars listed below, and my pre-teen girls have been enjoying them as cool afternoon snacks.

These are the products I found that qualify as "almost free" (Journal each as 1/4 cup fruit juice):

  • Dreyers Whole Fruit Bars, No Sugar Added (strawberry, tangerine, and raspberry). 1 bar = 30 calories, 1 gram fiber. (Keep in mind that each bar has 2 grams of sugar alcohols, which are sugar substitutes that may have a laxative effect if eaten in large amounts.)
  • Dole Fruit Juice Bars, No Sugar Added (strawberry, grape, and raspberry). 1 pop = 30 calories (each pop contains 2 grams of sugar alcohols).

Originally published June 04, 2004
Medically updated June 6, 2005.

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