Sometimes, it seems eating healthy means forgoing flavor and chowing down on nothing but steamed veggies and plain grilled chicken. Boring! We’re fans of making meals that are wholesome and delicious. One of the best ways to add some flavor while keeping calories and fat content in check is to stock up on lighter condiments, sauces, marinades, and dressings that make any meal more exciting for the taste buds. Here are a few classic condiments (and ways to use them) that will boost the flavor of any healthy meal.
This savory sauce made of ground sesame seeds (roasted or raw) is a staple in many Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines. Tahini paste is an essential ingredient in Middle Eastern favorites like hummus, baba ghanoush, and halva. When combined with other ingredients (usually some combination of water, garlic, lemon juice, and spices) tahini makes a great base for salad dressings, marinades, and dipping sauces.
- MaraNatha Sesami Tahini: This all-natural brand makes both roasted and raw tahini varieties. Both options have exactly two ingredients: sesame seeds and salt.
- Woodstock Organic Tahini: The key to a kick-butt sauce is a high-quality tahini base. Look no further than this organic, unsalted variety.
- Homemade: Making tahini from scratch is so easy it doesn’t even require a recipe (here’s one anyway, just in case). Put a few cups of sesame seeds (lightly toasted or raw) in a food processor and blend away until the mixture is creamy and smooth.
The French fry’s BFF is actually fairly healthy — the popular sauce is made of vinegar, tomatoes, salt, pepper, and spices. But most mass-produced versions are loaded with sugar (in the form of high-fructose corn syrup), a boatload of salt, and tons of chemicals and preservatives. Ketchup’s uses are nearly infinite, from being slathered on burgers and hot dogs, used as an ingredient for barbeque sauce, or drizzled atop a plate of eggs and hash browns. Score a natural, low-sugar bottle or DIY.
- Nature’s Hollow Sugar-Free Ketchup: The name says it all. This condiment made with Xylitol (an artificial sweetener) instead of sugar has only 11 calories per tablespoon.
- Annie’s Naturals: Made of organic tomatoes with only a dozen calories per serving.
- Homemade: Seven ingredients (and three of them optional) and a quick whirl in the blender are all it takes to make a jar of homemade ketchup.
This mellow-yellow sauce is pretty healthy. Mustard plant seeds are loaded with antioxidants, anti-inflammatory compounds, and essential minerals like selenium. Less-processed varieties with fewer preservatives have the most nutritional benefits. Pay attention to salt — many brands pack a powerful punch in the sodium department. Slap some of this spicy stuff on a sandwich, use it as a dip for pretzels or vegetables, or add it to salad dressings, marinades, and sauces for extra flavor.
- Maille Dijon Originale: This fancy-pants, authentic sauce was invented in France in 1747. It’s smooth, creamy, and delivers just the right amount of kick.
- Grey Poupon: It has arguably the silliest name on this condiments list, but good ole’ Grey is worth the giggles. The whole-grain variety packs an extra sharp punch.
- Homemade: Maple syrup, horseradish, and cayenne pepper balance each other out in this DIY mustard recipe.
Photo: Hannah Cordes / Blue Kale Road
Although other varieties of Thai hot sauce exist (especially at Asian markets and in Southeast Asia), Sriracha is pretty much a brand name in the United States. Huy Fong’s wildly popular hot sauce adds spicy punch to nearly any dish, from pizza to stir fry to eggs.
- Huy Fong: The trademark red rooster bottle with a green cap pretty much dominates the American market. And we’re OK with that — the low-cal hot sauce is made from vinegar, hot peppers, garlic, and salt.
- Homemade: Making this brand-name hot sauce from scratch is pretty easy, and it only takes five ingredients. Letting the chiles, garlic, salt, and vinegar marinate overnight makes the flavor extra-spicy.
Need more spice in your life? Harissa is a bright red paste made of hot peppers, spices, garlic, and olive oil. In Northern Africa, it’s as ubiquitous as ketchup, often flavoring soups and stews and being used as a dipping sauce or sandwich spread. Many recipes are flavored with mint, coriander, cumin, and caraway seeds, and some brands contain tomatoes.
- Le Cabanon: This ubiquitous French variety comes in a brightly-colored tube and contains tomatoes, onions, and the traditional spices. It’s pretty easy to find in grocery stores or online.
- Mina: This jarred variety is a lil’ bit fancier (and more expensive), but it’s super authentic and simple enough to go with anything. With only six ingredients, Mina is ideal for more flavorful recipes.
- Homemade: Harissas range from a very simple spicy paste to a sauce loaded with spices and veggies. This basic recipe is a good one for harissa newbies, while this more flavorful version is great for more adventurous palates.
Photo: James Ransom / Food52
It isn’t a cookout without a hunk of juicy meat (or tofu!) slathered in sweet, spicy barbecue sauce. Unfortunately, many brands are loaded with sugar, sodium, and tons of wacky ingredients and preservatives. These healthier versions are a bit lighter but just as tasty. Use BBQ sauce on burgers, hot dogs, ribs, fish, brisket, grilled chicken, potatoes tofu, pizza, or vegetables.
- Dinosaur Bar-B-Que Sensuous Slathering Sauce: The name’s a mouthful, but this delicious sauce straight out of Syracuse, New York is worth the tongue-twister. It’s the perfect balance of sweet, smoky, and salty.
- Annie’s Organic Original BBQ Sauce: With no unpronounceable ingredients, this basic sauce has just enough smoky flavor to perk up any meal.
- Homemade: We bet you can’t guess the secret ingredient in this flavorful, grown-up sauce. It’s red wine! A splash of booze gives this homemade version plenty of deep, rich flavor.
This aromatic green sauce gets its name from how it used to be prepared with a mortar and pestle — the Italian word for “pounding" or “crushing” is pestare. These days, we’re more likely to buy the garlicky sauce in a store or whip up a batch in a food processor. Pesto is fairly high in fat due to its olive oil, parmesan cheese, and pine nut base, but they’re primarily healthy fats. It gets its signature hue and flavor from handfuls of basil and garlic. Pesto can also be made with other greens and nuts —kale and walnuts or parsley and almonds, for example — but the original combination is by far the most popular. That said, a little goes a long way, especially when using a brand (or recipe) made with fresh ingredients and no preservatives. Pesto is perfect for jazzing up sandwiches, pasta dishes, seafood, eggs, meat, or just spread on toast.
- Buitoni: The classic green container is pretty ubiquitous throughout North America, and for good reason. Although less punchy than homemade versions, this preservative-free pesto is a classic, balanced option.
- Scarpetta: Cheese-avoiders, cheer up! This brand makes a wide variety of products, including sundried tomato, mint, and vegan pestos! The dairy-free variety includes tofu instead of cheese.
- Homemade: If it’s not broken, why fix it? Traditional pesto is a classic for good reason.
Photo: Jim Bob Barnett
Sweet, salty, and smooth, teriyaki sauce is soy sauce’s grown-up big brother. Anyone who’s ever been to a Japanese steak house knows this stuff is amazing on grilled meat, fish, rice, vegetables, or stir-fries. Authentic Japanese teriyaki sauce is actually easy to make because it has just four ingredients: soy sauce, mirin (a mild, sweet rice wine), sake, and brown sugar.
- Soy Vay Veri Veri Teriyaki: Back in the 1980s, a Jewish man met a Chinese woman, and the Soy Vay line of Asian sauces was born. The brand’s classic teriyaki is strongly seasoned and contains all-natural ingredients.
- Annie Chun’s: This popular brand is easy to find at most major grocery stores. Plus, it boasts a smooth, light flavor perfect for marinating.
- Homemade: As mentioned above, it’s pretty darned easy to make teriyaki sauce from scratch at home. After mixing together soy sauce, brown sugar, mirin (rice wine), and sake, bring the mixture to a boil and then reduce to a simmer and cook for about 20 minutes. Voila!
Soy Sauce or Tamari
Photo by Kate Morin
These Asian sauces are quite similar, but different in one crucial area. Soy sauce is made of a combination of fermented soybeans and wheat, while tamari sauce includes just soybeans. As a result, tamari is smoother, less salty, and more viscous than traditional soy sauce (plus, it’s gluten-free). Both are great for dipping, marinating, stir-frying, and making more complicated sauces and soups. Why not get a bottle of both and taste-test to pick the winner?
- San-J: This high-quality Japanese company makes a whole line of gluten-free soy and tamari sauces, including low-sodium versions.
- Eden Foods: This natural food company also produces several varieties of organic, gluten-free, and non-GMO soy sauces and tamaris.
- Homemade: Unless you’re a pro fermenter with all necessary equipment and expertise, we don’t recommend trying to make authentic soy sauce at home. However, it’s fairly easy to make a soy-less version with the same salty, umami flavor from vegetable bouillon, vinegar, molasses, and spices. Plus, it’s perfect for those with soy allergies.
Photo: Deb Perelman / Smitten Kitchen
Hoisin is basically the Chinese version of barbecue sauce. Like Japanese teriyaki sauce, it’s thicker than soy sauce and combines sweet, salty, and sour flavors. Hoisin is most commonly used in Peking duck and Moo Shu dishes, but it’s also great in stir-fries, soups, and as a marinade for fish and meat. Many popular hoisin sauce brands are available at Asian markets or in the Asian food aisle of most large chain grocery stores.
- Lee Kum Kee: This Hong Kong-based brand sells one of the most popular versions of hoisin sauce, both in China and the United States.
- Wok Mei: With no artificial ingredients, no MSG, no sugar, and no gluten, this all-natural hoisin sauce is as good as it gets.
- Homemade: Hoisin sounds exotic, but it’s possible to make it at home from other pantry staples and condiments (it’s like the Inception of sauces).
Sofrito is a pungent, aromatic sauce used as a base in Spanish, Portuguese, Caribbean, and Latin American cuisine. Sofrito is an important component of soups, stews, rice and beans, and more complicated sauces in these cultures. It’s usually made by sautéing garlic, onion, peppers, and tomatoes in olive oil. Jarred versions can be packed with preservatives and MSG; so, in general, it’s easier (not to mention cheaper and healthier) to make it at home than buy a prepared version.
- Chulita’s Famous Sofrito Verde: This all-natural green sofrito (green sofrito is tomato-free and made with green instead of red bell peppers) has just eight ingredients.
- Despensa la Nuestra: Pricier and more tomato-dense than many commercially-available sofritos, this gourmet version would make a great gift for a paella-loving pal.
- Homemade: While different geographical areas include different ingredients, this recipe includes all of the main ingredients in nearly every version of sofrito.
It’s time to think outside of the taco. This Tex-Mex staple is awesome on everything from eggs to wraps to burgers (and obviously Mexican staples like rice and beans, burritos, tacos, and enchiladas). Choose a variety with few preservatives and lots of veggies that’s also low in sodium.
- Green Mountain Gringo Salsas: For South of the Border flavor, look no further than…Vermont? This spicy, tomato-rich salsa made with all natural ingredients is a bonafide crowd-pleaser.
- Amy’s Salsa: No MSG, no trans fat, no preservatives, and best of all, no unpronounceable ingredients and fillers. Amy’s salsa comes in mild, medium, and black bean and corn to please every palate.
- Homemade: Luckily, DIY salsa is one of those recipes that’s easily tweaked to fit personal preferences. Add more or fewer jalapenos, garlic, or spices to change the flavor in this easy blender salsa recipe.
This sauce is common in Southeast Asian cooking, especially Thai, Vietnamese, and Indonesian cuisines. Made with peanuts, soy sauce, garlic, and spices, it’s almost freakishly tasty and perfect as a dip for grilled meats or to smother noodles with .
- San-J Thai Peanut Sauce: This well-balanced, all-natural bottled sauce hits all the important flavors — salty, spicy, sour, and sweet.
- Thai Kitchen Peanut Satay Sauce: Another classic peanut dipping sauce. Thai Kitchen products are pretty easy to find in regular supermarkets throughout the United States.
- Homemade: This blender peanut sauce recipe is as adaptable as it is easy. Add or remove extra seasonings (red pepper flakes, cilantro, etc.) to make your perfect sauce.
Photo: Anika Malone
Though not nearly as popular as teriyaki sauce, Japanese ponzu sauce is fairly healthy and extremely versatile. It’s made from rice vinegar, citrus juice, soy sauce, kelp, bonito flakes, and mirin, a low-alcohol, high-sugar rice wine. Use it as a dipping sauce for seafood or sushi, a marinade for chicken, vegetables, or meat, or mix it with oil for an easy salad or cold noodle dressing.
- Kikkoman: The popular brand known for its MSG-free soy sauce makes a pretty decent ponzu sauce, too.
- Mitsukan: This version offers a more complex boost of citrus, with lemon and orange flavors and no MSG.
- Homemade: Of course Mark Bittman, the king of home cooking himself, has a recipe for DIY ponzu sauce. Track down some of the more complicated ingredients at an Asian grocery store.
MayoPhoto: Tim Nauman / Mother Earth News
The creamy white spread gets a bad rap, but not all mayo deserves it. If cholesterol or fat consumption is an issue for your individual diet, try a lighter or homemade version. Another easy option? Go light with the knife! Use mayo on sandwiches, deviled eggs, in salads (potato, chicken, tuna, cole slaw, etc.), and blended with herbs and spices to make flavorful dipping sauces. Pro tip: To cut back on the mayo but still keep the flavor and texture, try mixing it half-and-half with Greek yogurt when making deviled eggs or tuna/chicken salad.
- Hellman’s Light: Classic flavor for half the calories and fat. We'll take it.
- Reduced-Fat Vegenaise: Made with flaxseed and oil, this vegan favorite has 5 grams of fat per serving.
- Homemade: While it’s not necessarily healthier, homemade mayo usually tastes way better than jarred stuff, plus it allows home cooks to use their fave oil and other all-natural ingredients. (Warning: it can be tricky to master mayo making.)
Photo: Dorami Chan
This condiment is exactly what it sounds like — a pungent, salty, and above all fishy sauce made from fermented fish (usually anchovies) and various spices. Fish sauce is very high in sodium, but because it’s such a strong flavor it’s usually used quite sparingly (as in, a few drops of sauce per pot of soup). Overall, fish sauce is on the healthier end of the condiment spectrum, with very few calories and zero fat. Most American markets carry only one or two popular brands; try an Asian specialty supermarket for more variety. Fish sauce is perfect for soups, stews, marinades, dipping sauces, and for stir-fries, curries, or other Asian dishes that need a kick in the pants, flavor-wise.
- Red Boat: This top-shelf Vietnamese-style sauce contains anchovies and sea salt that have been fermented in traditional wooden barrels for a smooth, rich, balanced flavor.
- Squid: This inexpensive Thai-style sauce is bolder, saltier, and fishier than many brands. It’s a bit smokier than Vietnamese-style fish sauces, with tons of umami flavor. Plus, it’s by far the easiest brand to find in the U.S.
- Homemade: Making this pungent sauce at home requires a strong stomach and preferably a stuffy nose. For non-squeamish types (the process requires some serious fish butchery), try this recipe with only three ingredients!
What are your favorite condiments for jazzing up a healthy meal? Share your thoughts in the comments below or tweet the author @SophBreene.