The skinny on Hungry Girl’s low-calorie success from Lisa Lillien

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

If you’re one of the million subscribers who gets a daily email from Lisa Lillien, the creator of the Hungry Girl brand and author of three bestselling cookbooks created to help hungry girls like herself enjoy food without sacrificing health, you know the woman likes her exclamation points.

“Fiji apples are like nature’s 100-calorie packs!” she exclaimed today as she inaugurated the cooking stage at the L.A. Times Festival of Books. With her trademark Cheshire-cat grin -- Lillien really does look like her cartoon counterpart that graces her books and emails -- she shared her “secret weapon” pantry products that have inspired many of the Hungry Girl low-calorie recipes.

Fiber One, Tofu Shirataki noodles, the Laughing Cow Light and Creamy Swiss Original topped her list of favorite products, each of which she uses as substitutes in recipes for higher-calorie favorites. You can faux-fry onion rings with Fiber One or use Tofu Shiraki instead of pasta for a fraction of the calories, she said. What about the spreadable cheese Laughing Cow with 35 calories per wedge? “I throw it in anything,” she said. “I would vote for Laughing Cow cheese for president! It’s that good.”

Her last two cookbooks -- “Hungry Girl 1-2-3: The Easiest, Most Delicious, Guilt Free Recipes on the Planet” (St. Martin’s Griffin 2010) and “Hungry Girl 200 Under 200: 200 Recipes Under 200 Calories” -- both hit No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list. She sent her first Hungry Girl e-mail out in 2004 to 80 people and now has millions of followers. Lillien now leads a team of 11, who try recipes and scout products from her Los Angeles headquarters.

Like her tagline says, she’s not a nutritionist, she’s just hungry. Lillien shops at the same supermarkets as her subscribers and is dedicated to making diet changes “for the long haul,” she said. Rather than spend her energy resisting food, she tweaks and changes favorite recipes -- and creates new ones, like her “chocolate chip softies,” a personal favorite. The not quite cookies, not quite muffins use pumpkin as a base rather than oil or butter. It’s got to be good to get a Hungry Girl stamp of approval, and there’s a reason a million people are cooking the Hungry Girl way. Bottom line: The food is good for you, and you can feel good about eating.

“It’s easy, you just have to commit to yourself that you’re going to make it happen!”