In Monday’s post on how simple it is to make good ol’ tomato mozzarella pizza at home from scratch, I mentioned that I try as much as possible to make my own versions of recipes, in order to keep them healthy. While pizza is a great example of this — delivery from Domino’s being high not only in calories and fat but in processing and preservatives — the truth is, it’s often easy to make even smaller modifications to recipes you already make at home to transform them into healthier alternatives. Here are a few of my favorite ways…
1. Use whole ingredients
I know this seems like a no-brainer here on We*Meat*Again, but you’d be surprised how easy it is to get caught up in the “usual routine” of a recipe and never think to make an easy substitution. Instead of a store-bought jar of tomato sauce (which may contain corn syrup, especially if you’re budget conscious) buy a jar of diced tomatoes or some fresh ones and simmer them into your own.
Really think about the ingredients list on your favorite dishes. Use Velveeta in your homemade baked macaroni and cheese? Canned condensed soups for slow cooker casseroles? You’d be surprised what an easy swap actual cheddar cheese or pureed carrots could be. Play around, think about the texture and consistency of the ingredient you’re substituting, and the treatment it will receive in the recipe (heat, melting point, etc.) and brainstorm a whole ingredient that you can reasonably expect to behave the same way. You might even create an interesting new flavor profile!
2. Find smarter substitutes
When these trade-offs work, it’s not only healthy, it’s exhilerating! You can feel proud to have come up with a clever trick to reform your recipe — and most of these substitutions will not dramatically affect the flavor of the recipe (or will do so in a positive way!) Some of my favorites include applesauce, mashed banana or yogurt for eggs , butter or oil (reduce fat, add nutrition!), crushed walnuts or rolled oats for bread crumbs (an easy high-carbohydrate trap), and vinegars in place of salad dressings.
But smarter substitutions don’t all have to be completely off the wall. Trade-offs as simple as milk for heavy cream, or whole wheat flour for bleached white flour make a difference, too. By subtracting an unhealthy ingredient, you often get the chance to add in some extra nutritional benefit.
3. Reduce the fat content
This is really a subset of the above idea. One of my favorite magazines is Cooking Light, and they are a fantastic recipe resource for healthier versions of things. But the strategy the editors and kitchen testers there follow is to avoid substituting ingredients, and instead find ways to reduce fat or calories.
They usually achieve this by reducing the amount of fat ingredients, such as butter or oil, swapping egg whites for eggs and cutting back the amount of sugar in a recipe. And in doing so, they’ve found that most recipes, including those for baked goods, can be made equally as delicious without any “weird” or vegan ingredients, just by including a little less.
For example, you can reduce the amount of sugar by one-third to one-half in most baking recipes, and instead, add spices such as cinnamon, cloves, allspice and nutmeg, or flavorings such as vanilla extract or almond flavoring to boost sweetness.
I tend to prioritize finding other ingredients over using less of an unhealthy ingredient. Partly, this is because I also try to avoid processed foods. I’d rather use cheddar cheese than reduced fat 1/3 all “natural” cheeze product simply because it’s “reduced fat.” I embrace a little fat here and there. But a marriage between tips #2 & #3 can go a long way to overall reforming your diet.
4. Cut out the unnecessary
One of the most flawed aspects of following a recipe you find blindly (especially if that recipe comes from any chef featured on the Food Network) is that you can get caught in a cycle of unnecessary unhealthiness simply because the ingredients make the cooking process a bit easier, a bit fattier in flavor or texture (and therefore more mass-market appealing) or a bit more familiar.
Example: I’m working on reforming a Rachel Ray recipe for shepherd’s pie with a mashed potato/parsnip topping to include buffalo meat. (It’s going to be epic. I promise to post it soon.) But the woman has the following included in the mash: potatoes, parsnips, milk, butter, sour cream AND two whole cups of shredded cheddar cheese.
Now, I have made delicious mashed potatoes many many times, and I can guarantee you don’t need four different ways to make them creamy. In fact, a combination of milk and vegetable stock gets a creamier and flavorful mash pretty easily, and with the least amount of fat possible (and trust me, mashed potatoes are my absolute favorite food). But if you are so freaked out by experimenting with new ingredients, you might just follow the recipe to the letter without questioning such a bizarre overuse of fat.
A few simple steps here and there, and a focus on whole, fresh foods, is an easy way to begin the process of transforming your diet into a whole, healthy, sustainable one. While eating well is a lifestyle commitment, you can take baby steps to get there, and this is a great place to start!
What are your tips and tricks, readers, for transforming the recipes you know and love into better versions of themselves? Leave a comment and share your ideas with the rest of us!