Have you ever stumbled across a recipe only to look at the ingredients or the nutritional information and realize that while it sounds fantastic, it is not something you feel is a healthy option to serve for dinner? Is there a recipe from your childhood that always brings you great comfort but you never cook it because it’s full of unhealthy fats? There may be some tweaks that you can make to the recipe that will make it more nutritious. Today, I am going to introduce you to some tactics I use when altering a recipe. For me, the goal is to make it something I can enjoy while at the same time ensuring it is fueling my body in the healthiest possible way.
One of my favorite classes I took while studying for my degree in nutrition was Experimental Foods. Not only was the professor, Dr. Choi absolutely amazing, interesting and funny, but the class was very eye-opening. We spent the entire semester studying various foods and experimenting with substitutions to recipes. In a typical class, each group of students prepared the same recipe, but with different substitutions for particular recipes to see what happens when the recipe was altered. I will say that for certain some of them were an absolute disaster. This is not to say that it can’t be done, but sometimes it takes a bit of trial and error to figure out what works best.
Photos from Experimental Foods Class Spring 2017
Measuring ingredients for our recipe (left)
Samples of all different preparations for the class to taste (right)
Even before taking Dr. Choi’s class, I have always enjoyed cooking and playing around with recipes. I’ve been doing it for years. I think I started doing it with the primary goal: to cut calories and fat. Today that is still important to me but I also look at ways to make the overall health of the dish better. It’s possible to improve the health of a dish by cutting fat or calories as well as by adding other foods such as plant-based protein, vegetables and grains.
The first step is to determine what your goal is with the recipe? What do you hope to achieve?
Is it to reduce the calories?
Is it to reduce the fat?
Is it to boost the nutrients? (adding veggies or whole grain)
Is it to make into a vegan or vegetarian dish?
Is it some combination of the above?
The next step is to really think about the actual recipe you want to change. How strongly are you attached to the way it’s originally made? Is it something you’ve been eating your entire life that you are greatly connected to? This step is an important consideration as your connection to the recipe may limit the amount of changes you should make to the recipe.
In some instances there is definitely an emotional aspect of eating and experiencing food. Here’s an example, my mom made homemade biscuits growing up and they are about as unhealthy as a food can get — made with white flour and lots of vegetable shortening. But I love these biscuits and when I eat them, they evoke childhood and family memories that I am not willing to part with. So I choose to eat them on limited occasions and when I do, I fully enjoy the experience and the memories it brings back.
It’s important to note that not all recipes can be altered and taste exactly the same. Sometimes it’s better to leave it alone and enjoy it in limited amounts. Or you you may be able to make adjustments that you feel you can live with, or even better, you may even create something better.
The one area of cooking that I am not super confident in my abilities is baking. Therefore, I will not be giving recommendations on changes you can make in baked goods. At its heart cooking is all about chemical reactions and nowhere is this fact more obvious than in baking. Even making the slightest change sometimes comes with an unpleasant outcome. There are definitely things you can do but I am not very familiar with using them.
Reduce serving size
This is probably the first step that I consider when I am looking at a recipe. Mainly because it is the easiest and you know you won’t be affecting the taste and flavor of the meal. You may be able to supplement the smaller portion with low calorie side dishes such as salad or fresh veggies.
Reduce the amount of oil in a recipe
If you are sautéing vegetables, you may definitely be able to reduce the oil by half or even use non-stick spray in place. In my opinion, many recipes typically use way more oil than is absolutely necessary. So this is typically another one of the first ingredients I consider in the recipe.
Replace butter in the recipe with healthy oil
A pretty easy swap in my opinion (except in baking – see note above). I recommend this switch because butter contains saturated fat which isn’t as healthy for your heart. But you will still get a similar fat mouth feel from healthy oils such as extra virgin olive oil, canola oil or safflower oil. This change may alter the flavor of your dish and you may need to play around with it a bit. In particular, butter contains salt, so you may find the dish may need a bit more salt added. To get started you may want to consider replacing half the butter with oil to try out the recipe, and then go from there.
Reduce the amount of sugar
I am referring to added sugars in smoothies, beverages, homemade salad dressings, dips and sauces. Making changes to sugar in a recipe is definitely more challenging. Our taste buds are particularly attracted to sugar and many of us are accustomed to eating and drinking foods with lots of sugar. However, it is possible to train your taste buds to appreciate less sugar, but it takes some time and getting used to the change. Another option is to use non-calorie sweeteners to replace sugar. In all honesty I am not a huge fan of these types of sweeteners because they are so processed. Also, I worry about the damage they may do to my body. But if you choose to use them, this change will definitely take some experimentation as most non-calorie sweeteners are way sweeter than natural sugar so it won’t be a tablespoon for a tablespoon in all instances.
Reduce or eliminate meat in casseroles and stews and supplement with beans, lentils or other protein
I use this change a lot because I mainly eat vegetarian. If you aren’t totally on-board with vegetarian, you can definitely replace some of the meat with a legume. Legumes are definitely lower in calories and saturated fats than meat so any changes here will make a healthier recipe.
Change the method of cooking
If an item is typically fried, consider baking it instead. One of my favorite snacks is tortilla chips with guacamole or hummus. But tortilla chips are typically fried and full of fat and calories. Plus, if I buy them at the store, I will ALWAYS eat more than the serving size on the package. My solution to this problem was to I perfect a way of baking tortilla chips that is really simple and easy and results in great tasting chips.
Reduce amount of cheese or supplement some of the whole fat cheese with 2% cheese
I use this one a lot as well. You will note here that I recommend 2% cheese and not fat free cheese. The reason is that in my opinion, fat free cheese greatly lacks in flavor and typically doesn’t melt well. So, while you will significantly reduce the overall fat you will likely negatively affect the flavor and even the texture of your dish. In recipes where there isn’t a 2% cheese available or I just prefer the flavor of the full fat cheese, I consider the possibility of reducing the amount of cheese in the recipe.
Replace sour cream with plain Greek yogurt
I don’t even buy sour cream anymore. I use plain Greek yogurt for sour cream in recipes and even on my baked potato or tacos. If you compare 100 gram servings of non-fat yogurt to sour cream, the non-fat yogurt comes out way ahead, providing 10 grams of protein while the sour cream only has 2 grams. And full fat yogurt is much lower in fat than sour cream.
Does it taste a bit different? Yes, it does, but I found that over time I adjusted. Another trick is to consider adding spices or cilantro and lime to your yogurt to camouflage the flavor of the yogurt a bit. This trick is perfect when making tacos!!! In my opinion, there is little flavor difference between the fat free and 2% plain Greek yogurt, but my preference has always been for the 2% mainly because of the texture.
Replace some of the whole eggs with egg whites
This exchange works well with eggs in casseroles or in recipes where it is acting as a binder. I did that in this recipe for the Cheesy Quinoa Broccoli Bites. It originally called for two eggs and I replaced one with two egg whites and in my opinion, the results were the same.
Use seasonings and herbs to jazz up the flavor when taking out ingredients
You can boost the flavor of any dish by using additional seasonings or fresh herbs when you make recipe alterations. There isn’t a straightforward answer here, it will just require a little bit of practice to see what works.
Bulk up the recipe with whole grains or vegetables
Use this method to boost the overall nutrient profile of the recipe or to camouflage the changes you’ve made. Adding vegetables to side dishes such as rice and grains to create a pilaf is one suggestion. Another idea is to boost the grains and vegetables in a casserole. The addition of them compensates for the reduction in the amount of meat in the dish.
I leave you with this one last thought. If there is a dish that you really love and enjoy, I suggest keeping it as is. Even in cases that it may not be the healthiest dish to eat. I am not saying eat it every day or every week, but it is okay to eat it from time to time. Nutrition is all about overall balance. What you eat at one meal or even in a day isn’t going to destroy your health but rather what you do day in and day out.
I hope you will try your hand at altering recipes to improve the nutrition. I would love to hear how it goes or any other tricks you may have for changing recipes. Please leave me a comment here and tell me all about it. You can also submit any questions through contact me. I will definitely to get back to you with an answer.