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10 Secrets to Making Recipes Healthier

By Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD

We all have those tried and true recipes handed down from our parents and grandparents that we treasure. Many of our regular go-to recipes that we rely on are family favorites, but not necessarily winning any health awards. With a few simple tweaks, you can transform your tried-and-true recipes into good for you, healthy, delicious and nutritious foods your family will love.

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Lightening up recipes without losing flavor can be done in a number of ways. Look the recipe over and see where you can make minor changes to improve the nutrition, cut the extra fat, sugar, salt or calories without compromising the delicious flavor. Experiment and be adventurous. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  1. Spice it up. Using more herbs and spices may help add flavor when you reduce the amount of sodium and/or fat. Fresh or dried, herbs and spices add so much flavor and health benefits to foods. Vinegars, citrus and mustards are another way to power up flavor. You can reduce the salt in most recipes by half or totally as long as you pump up the flavor with other ingredients. Be adventurous and experiment with seasonings to add great flavor to your recipes.
  2. Modify cooking techniques. Roasting, grilling and caramelizing are just a few techniques that add incredible flavor without added calories. Skimming the fat when it settles on top may help slash the fat and calories. Leave edible skins on fruits and vegetables to help increase fiber. Oven bake chicken and fries instead of frying is another technique that goes the distance. Non-stick cookware allows you to use less oil or cooking spray to pan fry.
  3. Reduce portion sizes. Some recipes are not suitable for a healthy makeover. Enjoy these family favorites less often and in smaller portions. Serving smaller portions look bigger when plated on smaller plates or bowls.
  4. Swap high fat, sugar or salty ingredients for healthier options. Lower the amount of these ingredients or use a healthy swap (see Healthy Substitution Swaps below). Using fruit puree or yogurt in place of fats in baked goods is just one example of replacing high-fat ingredients with more nutritious options.
  5. Increase the amount of produce in recipes. Fruits and vegetables are the foundation of a healthy diet and should be front and center at every meal. Try produce in season for the most delicious flavors. Increasing the proportion of fruits and vegetables in recipes is easy. Add more produce in soups, salads, casseroles, egg dishes and sandwiches.
  6. Use healthy fats. Fats are an important ingredient to many dishes adding flavor and yummy mouth feel. Whenever possible, use non-tropical vegetable oils, avocados or nuts to compliment your recipes.
  7. Go for the grain. Pick whole grains over refined grains. Most whole grains are high in fiber, B vitamins, magnesium, zinc and other nutrients. Studies show that whole grains contribute valuable health benefits.
  8. Eat more beans. Meat, fish and chicken are all great sources of protein but so are beans. Pick one day a week when you swap out your meat for a vegetarian bean dish. Or substitute beans for half the meat in your recipes. Beans are inexpensive, high in protein and have fiber along with a wealth of good-for-you nutrients.
  9. Cut the sugar. In most recipes, you can reduce the sugar by one-third to one-half. In many baked goods, you can cut back on sugar or replace it with sweetener alternative blends and still enjoy good results. Adding more sweet spices like cinnamon or flavorings like almond extract can help boost sweetness.
  10. Reduce select ingredients. In some recipes, you can reduce the amount of high-calorie ingredients without affecting the deliciousness of the dish. Use less cheese, frost only the top of a cake, use less oil and more vinegar in salad dressings.

Healthy Substitution Swaps

Less of this   More of this
Heavy cream >> Fat-free half and half, evaporated skim milk or skim buttermilk
Butter >> Trans fat-free margarine, non-tropical vegetable oils or avocado
Bacon >> Turkey bacon, Canadian bacon or lean ham
Ground beef >> Extra lean ground sirloin, ground turkey or chicken breast
Sour cream >> Fat-free Greek yogurt, light or fat-free sour cream
Cream cheese >> Fat-free ricotta cheese pureed with fat-free cream cheese, low-fat or non-fat cream cheese, Neufchatel or low-fat cottage cheese pureed until smooth
Baking chocolate >> Unsweetened cocoa powder
Whole milk >> Skim or low-fat milk
Enriched flour >> White whole wheat flour or half enriched and half whole wheat flour
Enriched pasta >> Whole wheat or 50% whole wheat pasta

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