It’s your goal to eat better, and there are thousands of healthy recipes out there waiting to be discovered. But what about your tried-and-true favourites — like your mom’s hearty casserole and Grandma’s famous cake? Or all of the tempting creations laden with rich ingredients that don’t meet your healthy new standards?
One word of advice… upgrade! Here are some ways to make your favourite recipes healthier, according to experts.
Try a new technique
How you cook is as important as what you cook, and many recipes have some leeway when it comes to cooking methods. For instance:
- Need to fry or sauté? Use good quality non-stick cookware to reduce or eliminate the need for fats and oils. You can also use nonstick cooking spray or broth to add some flavour and prevent sticking.
- Put away the frying pan and try other techniques like poaching, baking, broiling, roasting or grilling.
- Baste with broth, fruit or vegetables juices or wine instead of butter or fats.
- Cook rice and pasta until it’s firm (al dente) to slow the release of sugars into your blood stream as it digests.
- Make vegetables more interesting by steaming with herbs, braising or roasting. They’ll be more flavourful, and you won’t need to add salt or butter.
- Prepare the ingredients yourself. Instead of using roasted nuts (which are high in salt and fat), buy raw and toast your own. Start with dried beans and lentils and cook them yourself rather than using canned — they’ll contain less salt and digest easier with a proper soaking.
(For more tips, see Healthy cooking techniques from the Mayo Clinic.)
Swap an ingredient
Some ingredient substitutions are easy — like using frozen yoghurt instead of ice cream or whole wheat pasta instead of white — but some require a little know-how to maintain the texture and flavour of the food. Here are some common swaps to try:
- All-purpose (white) flour: You may not be able to replace it all, but you can substitute up to half with whole wheat flour. If you’re experimenting with other flours — like oat, rice, barley, spelt or kamut — talk to the staff at your local health food store to find out which ones work best.
- Bread crumbs: Rolled oats or crushed bran cereal can make a crunchy coating, plus they add fibre and other nutrients.
- Butter, oil or shortening: In baked goods, substitute the equivalent amount of apple sauce or prune puree (i.e. 1/2 cup applesauce instead of 1/2 cup oil) for half the amount required in the recipe.
- Eggs: Use two egg whites or 1/4 cup of an egg substitute in place of one whole egg.
- Sour cream: Try low-fat or fat-free versions, or substitute in plain yoghurt for a probiotic punch.
- Ground beef: Choose leaner choices like ground chicken or turkey instead. If it has to be beef, try a leaner ground.
- One ounce of chocolate: Replace with three tablespoons of cocoa. You get the antioxidants, but not the fat and sugar.
- Iceberg lettuce: Whether its sandwiches or salads, use dark, leafy alternatives like spinach, romaine, bok choy and swiss chard to add more flavour, fibre and vitamins.
(For more suggestions, see Healthy ingredient substitutions.)
Got a recipe with a lot of extras — like nuts, dried fruits and candies? You can often leave out one of these ingredients without significantly sacrificing taste. Try leaving the pine nuts out of the pesto, or skip the marshmallows on the yams.
You can also drop the garnishes or condiments. For instance, dust the top of a cake with icing sugar in place of frosting, or skip the extras like coconut, chocolate shavings or candies. Skip the pickles and some of the creamy toppings too.
Reduce the amount
Sometimes there’s a reason for all the salt and sugar: Cooking is chemistry, and the right ingredients create the right chemical reactions. However, you many not need the amounts called for in the recipe:
- Salt: When you’re baking, you can leave out up to half of the salt. The one exception: if the recipe uses yeast, use the full amount of salt to avoid dense or flat results. (Baked goods with yeast require salt to help them rise.)
For appetizers, entrees, salads and soups you can often leave out the salt entirely — especially if you’re using other ingredients like soy sauce or soup stock that contain sodium. Try using herbs and spices instead to flavour food.
- Sugar: How low can you go? Experts advise you can reduce the amount of sugar in a recipe by one third to one half, depending on your sweet tooth. Other ingredients like vanilla, almond extract, cinnamon, cloves and allspice already bring out the natural sweetness in foods.
As with salt, yeast also relies on sugar for the leavening process, so avoid altering the amount of sugar, honey or other sweeteners in baked goods that use this rising agent.
In addition, you can reduce the amount of fat in recipes by using the ingredient substitutions mentioned above.
Increase the fruit and veggie content
If you’ve cooked for fussy kids (or spouses!), you know that sneaking in more fruits and vegetables is an art form. Here are some ideas:
- Add extra vegetables to sauces and soups. (You can sneak some vegetables in by pureeing them, if needed.) Same goes for pizza toppings, salads and grilled sandwiches.
- Add extra fruit — dried or fresh — when baking or making a salad. (Like raisins or cranberries in oatmeal cookies, or apple slices in your salad.)
- Use tortilla wraps or pitas instead of making sandwiches (there’s more room for vegetables).
- Offer salsa, chutneys, hummus, or bean-based dips as toppings, spreads and sandwich fillings instead of sour cream or cream cheese.
- Skip the syrup and use fruit puree to top yoghurt, pancakes or ice cream.
Downsize the portions
Some recipes don’t lend themselves to much alteration — but scaling back the serving sizes of rich dishes is an easy way to cut calories, sodium and fat. Round out the plate with healthier choices — like fruits, vegetables and salad — that compliment the dish. For instance, serve up a slimmer slice of chocolate cake and top it with strawberries, or pair a creamy casserole with a vegetable-laden salad on the side.
And beware of this dieting mistake: don’t load up on bigger portions because the recipe is healthier. If you want to make cutbacks in your diet, keep your eyes on portion size.
Tips for success:
- Look for examples. There are many made-over recipes online — give them a try and see what you can learn from their example. (Both the Mayo Clinic and WebMD’s Healthy Recipe Doctor have sample recipe break-downs.)
- Get a second opinion. When you’re researching recipes on the Internet, read the user comments to see what other cooks may have done differently. Food blogs are also a good source of information and inspiration.
- Don’t change too much. You don’t have to dive in with an extreme makeover. If you’re not happy with the results, you won’t be able to pinpoint the problem areas.
- Take notes. Write down what you changed and how you liked the results. Jot down any suggestions you have for future cooking.
- Try again. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t achieve perfection the first (or second) time. Finding the ideal flavour and texture may take a little work.
Want to know how your changes translate to calories, fat, protein and fibre? Try a recipe analyzer tool like About.com’s Calorie Count or Spark Recipes’ Recipe Calculator to find out the nutritional information.
Sources: MayoClinic.com, WebMD, Johns Hopkins Health Alerts
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