“If a stress-eating, postmenopausal, southern chef can lose 65 pounds, then anybody can!” says Virginia Willis. A former kitchen director for celebrity chefs like Bobby Flay and Martha Stewart and author of the get-lean guide Fresh Start, Willis got in shape by making simple substitutions and tracking her portion sizes. Fortunately for us, she’s sharing her valuable dietary tips to take away the guess work. Her tricks never sacrifice on deliciousness and are easy enough for anyone to try. From crunchy chicken and fish to tasty broths to comforting peanut butter balls, these recipes are approachable and highly versatile, making your next low-cal dinner a no-brainer.
Chef Willis’ Weight Loss Story
Raised in a food-loving Georgia family, Virginia Willis then went to culinary school in France. For years, her go-to ingredients were “butter, butter, butter and maybe a little cream,” she says with a laugh. She was fond of big helpings, but it had little to do with physical hunger. “I ate for emotional reasons — because I was happy, sad, anxious, bored. Other times, it was just because what I was cooking tasted so good. Basically, I love to eat!”
Her career took off, and she didn’t worry much about her diet until her 40s, when early menopause hit. As her weight soared to 232 pounds, “I felt lousy,” recalls Willis, who eventually tried tracking portions. The tactic worked at first. But when life got stressful, she abandoned her efforts and regained more than 20 pounds. Years ticked by. “I wasn’t happy with how I moved, how I looked, or how I felt,” she says. Then one day, she aggravated an old back injury — and pandemic restrictions meant no surgery or physical therapy. Shaken and in pain, “I went to my computer, printed a list of foods good for back health and stuck it on my fridge.” From there, Willis began to take baby steps that changed everything.
Slimming Secrets From a Pro
Willis continued educating herself, building this arsenal of tricks to keep her taste buds happy as excess fat disappeared. Below, discover the tips that she used to ensure she stayed on track without getting bored.
Willis’ new staples came from the list on her fridge, including omega-3–rich fish, plant protein from beans and seeds, antioxidant-rich produce, olive oil, and nuts. “It kept me focused on what’s good and good for me,” says the chef, who still eats carbs but now chooses veggies over starchy sides.
Bacon and Breadcrumbs
Food lovers crave more than plain salmon and broccoli, right? “Absolutely!” says Willis, who gives fish and chicken a crunchy crumb coating and punches up dishes with ingredients like bacon, blue cheese, hot peppers, and maple syrup. “Food loaded with texture and flavor is more satisfying, so you naturally eat less,” she insists.
Willis also uses a weight loss app to track her portions. “It’s very grounding to measure everything,” says the chef, who doles out things like peanut butter and ice cream with a 1 tablespoon cookie-dough scoop. “It’s a guardrail to keep me on track.” Scientists agree: When we track, we may increase our chances of weight-loss success!
Willis read that staying super-hydrated is healing, so in addition to lots of water, “I started making broth using veggie scraps. It’s became my go-to snack. It’s delicious, boosts my energy, and is surprisingly filling!”
Sometimes, you just want dessert. “Instead of depriving myself, I make mine with less sugar and healthier ingredients,” says Willis. “Two of my cookies and fruit after supper make a perfect ending to the day. I never find myself prowling the cabinets later in the evening.”
“When I started, I thought walking would help rehab my back, so I went as far as my body would allow,” Willis says. Turns out, walking fights inflammation by lowering blood sugar and stress hormones. “Even when I could barely get around the block, it helped my stress.” Each day, she walked farther and ate better. “One day, I went up stairs with no pain at all, and it hit me: My body is healing.” It was shrinking, too. All told, Willis shed 65 pounds. Her back is pain-free. “I just got my blood work checked. At age 55, it’s better than it was 20 years ago.” Her best advice: “Progress is progress no matter how small. Just start — you’ll be amazed by where you end up!”
A Simple Recipe That’s Sure to Delight: Peanut Butter Balls
Chef Virginia Willis’ treats have all the delish, but half the sugar of most recipes. These peanut butter balls make for a quick and tasty bite.
Ingredients (Serves 12):
- 1 cup crunchy peanut butter
- ½ cup sugar
- 1 egg
Heat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Combine all ingredients. Roll into 24 balls. Place 2 inches apart on a lined sheet; flatten each with a fork. Bake until browned and set, about 10 minutes. Set sheet on a rack to cool. Enjoy with fruit.
This article originally appeared in our print magazine, Woman’s World.