That said, not all recipes are created equal. Just because a meal is homemade doesn’t mean it’s necessarily healthy. (Grandma’s apple pie may be delicious, but it could also call for a whole week’s worth of sugar and butter.) The good thing about doing your own cooking is that you have full control over what goes into—and what you get out of—each meal. By applying some expert-recommended smart substitutions and creative modifications, you can make almost every recipe more conducive to your goals.
1. Save the salt for the end.
To avoid feeling bloated or swollen the day after a meal, registered dietitian Ilana Muhlstein tries to cook with as little salt as possible. Instead, she challenges herself to use more spices, herbs and quality ingredients for flavor.
"Many recipes will call for salting the food at almost every step, which results in a very high-sodium dish," she says. "I recommend waiting until the very end, when you can taste the dish to determine how much salt it really needs. Sometimes, even vegetable soups won't need added salt or salted broths to make it flavorful and delicious."
2. Slash the sugar.
It’s time to demote sugar from its typical starring role to an occasional supporting character. Chelsey Amer, MS, RDN, CDN and creator of CitNutritionally.com, recommends cutting out or reducing the white stuff whenever possible—not only in your morning cup of coffee, but in any recipe that calls for it.
"Our taste buds adapt over time, so if you gradually reduce the amount of sugar you add to recipes, you won't notice over time," she says, noting that it’s best to start slowly. "At first, reduce the amount of sugar by 25 percent—so if a recipe calls for one cup of sugar, use 3/4 cup. Then, try leaving out a little bit more the next time." (Tip: You can use unsweetened applesauce instead of sugar in many recipes, and flavor coffee with a sprinkle of cinnamon.)
3. Throw your recipe a bone.
Sharon Brown, clinical nutritionist and founder of Bonafide Provisions, suggests sneaking bone broth into everything you cook. "From the vegetables you sauté to the meats that you braise, bone broth supports a healthy immune system and strengthens the gut lining," she says.
To also support her brain health, she puts two cups of bone broth in a saucepan, adds chopped mixed veggies and two eggs and boils for about 10 minutes. Brown eats this bowl of gut-healing, nutrient-dense, protein-loaded breakfast every day. It also comes in handy when you’re sick.
4. Trim the fat.
Amer points out that most recipes—if you're not baking—will work and taste just as great if you cut the source of fat in half, which includes any added oil or butter. "Many recipes will overdo it, whether it's buttering a pan or adding an extra drizzle of oil at the end," she says.
And when it’s not possible to cut, try using a smart swap. When the recipe calls for full-fat sour cream, mayonnaise or heavy cream, you can usually use a lighter, healthier swap, like Greek yogurt or low-fat cottage cheese, without much difference in taste. "Another great way I like to make recipes healthier is by using a healthier form of fat," Amer says. For example, she uses avocado in her healthy tuna salad instead of 100 percent mayonnaise.
Muhlstein points out that salad dressings, marinades and dips are also great examples of unnecessary fat content. "Salad dressing recipes typically call for two to three times as much oil than vinegar, and it usually doesn't take that much," she says. "Start making the recipe using half as much oil as the recipe asks for and you will likely discover that it makes for a more flavorful and less greasy salad."
5. Use healthier cooking methods.
It’s not just about what you cook, but how you cook it. By using better-for-you methods, you can improve the nutritional profile of your meals without altering the ingredients.
Here’s your cheat sheet: Not-so-healthy methods include frying in oil, cooking in large amounts of butter and boiling (which can reduce a food’s nutrient content). Some healthier cooking methods are grilling, baking, steaming, roasting, stir-frying and—perhaps surprisingly—microwaving.
6. Trade noodles for zoodles.
It’s not a new or unique idea, but there’s a reason you hear about it so much—it works. Next time you’re craving a pasta dish, use a spiralizer to turn zucchini into thin strips or ribbons, sauté until tender and then add your favorite sauce, veggies and/or proteins. You’ll enjoy almost the same taste and texture of pasta, without the unwanted carbs or calories. (Tip: Spaghetti squash also serves as a healthier pasta stand-in.)
7. Swap in whole grains where you can.
Experts agree that whole grains are better for our health. In fact, the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends including at least three servings of whole grains each day, instead of refined grains, which have had much of their nutrients stripped away.
If a recipe calls for white rice, use brown. Substitute white bread or tortillas for whole-grain versions. Or, instead of all-purpose flour, use white whole wheat flour. "These minor swaps will add extra fiber to your recipes, without much change to the flavor," says Amer.
8. Add veggies to (almost) everything.
Michelle Beckner, certified health coach with Michelle Beckner Family Wellness, recommends adding veggies to almost anything (sweet or savory) by shredding up carrots, sweet potatoes, zucchini or whatever you enjoy. For example, she often adds veggies to overnight oats, meatballs or muffins. You can even add some pumpkin or squash puree to spaghetti sauce for some added nutrition and a hint of sweetness.
To get the biggest health benefit, Beckner suggests sticking with in-season produce, as it tends to have a much higher nutrient content. In the winter months, swap out peaches for pears or zucchini for carrots.
Bonus: When you beef up the veggies, you can cut down on the amount of meat, fish or poultry, which will help to reduce the overall fat and calorie content of the meal.
9. Try a new flour.
Enriched white flour has had a lot of its original nutrients stripped out of it. Fortunately, there are healthier options that don’t mean compromising on taste. Registered dietitian Laura Morton with Morton’s Grove suggests trying various types of flour, including whole wheat, oat, coconut, almond and chickpea. "Different flours definitely change the outcome of a baking recipe and require a little research or experimenting, but the added fiber, protein and vitamins make it worth it," she says.
Beckner typically replaces up to half of the flour in her recipes with buckwheat flour. "This gluten-free flour is packed with protein and adds a deeper flavor," she notes.
10. Cut the cheese.
Although we wouldn’t suggest that you eliminate cheese altogether, it can be reduced for most recipes without altering the taste or texture too much. Tip: Try using bolder cheeses, such as goat cheese, feta or sharp cheddar, so that a little goes a long way in terms of flavor.
By implementing some of these smart swaps and strategies, you can continue to enjoy all of your favorite recipes while cutting fat and calories and boosting your nutrient intake.