You might be known and loved by your kids, friends, and neighbors for a mac ‘n’ cheese or fudgy chocolate cake recipe that tastes incredible, but packs an unhealthy punch.  You know this, and you want to do something about it.

But knowing how to lighten your favorite recipe can seem confusing. Should you replace all the butter with applesauce? Steam instead of deep-fry? Substitute low-calorie sweeteners for sugar? And after you’ve made all these adjustments, will you recognize your trusted treat?

No. No. No. And yes. The section below lists basic ways to lighten your favorite recipes, without making them unrecognizable. Rather than make every possible change to Aunt Dee’s Decadent Delight at the same time, try these modifications one at a time.

For example, in a breakfast bread recipe that calls for large quantities of sugar and butter, don’t try to use applesauce and prune puree instead. Chances are that the recipe will taste “funny,” and if you do eat it, each piece will remind you of what it could have been. So, try making smaller changes first, then tweak the recipe as you go.

Don’t worry: before your oatmeal raisin cookies turn into a handful of dry oatmeal with a raisin on top (the beginning of a great granola), remember that food should be enjoyed. We need a certain quantity of calories, fat, carbohydrates, etc. every day. The trick is to find healthful ways to make a dish’s flavors and nutritional profile complement each other. Also remember that when you embrace a more health-conscious lifestyle, your food preferences may gradually change, too—and that vegan granola might not look so bad, after all.

Bon appetit, buen provecho, and enjoy.

Dairy and dairy alternatives

Opt for low fat, fat-free products, or a combination of both, instead of full-fat dairy ingredients. For example, try using nonfat Greek yogurt instead of full-fat sour cream as a garnish for soup. Or, consider using a dairy alternative such as soymilk or almond milk, which will decrease the amount of saturated fat and cholesterol in the recipe overall.

Example:

  • Try nonfat Greek yogurt instead of full-fat sour cream.
  • Use soymilk or almond milk instead of milk
  • You might notice: A thinner taste or mouth-feel, but it depends on the type of food. In baked goods such as breakfast breads, or many soups, the difference is hardly noticeable.

Butter and oils (fats)

“I would rather trust a cow than a chemist,” said Dr. Joan Gussow, a food pioneer who inspired Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver. Whether or not you follow a vegan diet, Gussow’s ideas about natural, rather than processed, ingredients, still apply. Rather than trying to eliminate fat from your diet, look at ways to reduce it (but make sure you still get enough!).

Butter: In savory goods, if a recipe calls for copious amounts of butter, try replacing it with extra virgin olive oil, aka EVOO, coconut oil or canola oil that has not been genetically modified (labeled as non-GMO or containing no GMOs).

Example:

  • Sauté garlic and onions in EVOO, instead of butter.
  • Use EVOO instead of butter in dips, dressings, etc.
  • Note: If you want to reduce the amount of olive oil, try using a nonstick frying pan and EVOO cooking spray, decreasing the amount of liquid EVOO you begin with.

In sweet baked goods, don’t try to eliminate all the butter at once.

Example:

  • Decrease by half the amount of butter the recipe calls for. Substitute EVOO or canola oil for the other half.
  • Replace up to half the fat with a fruit puree such as applesauce. Decrease slightly the amount of sweetener in the recipe.
  • You might notice: A less “rich” product, or a subtly different flavor from the oil.  Try adjusting the proportions of butter to oil. And/or, embrace a lighter taste! See the end of this section for new flavors to enrich your favorite treat. To help reduce this potential effect, try adding healthful fats such as chopped nuts or even pureed vegetables to increase the recipe’s “rich” taste.

Whole grains

Quinoa. Teff. Brown rice. Amaranth. Barley. Oatmeal. Whether you choose a familiar name or meet a new whole-grain friend, consider ways to add unrefined grains to your favorite recipes. You probably already know that whole grains are healthier than refined grains, because whole grains contain all the nutrients of the grain seed—bran, germ and endosperm—while “white” or refined grains no longer have their same natural composition (the nutrient-rich bran and germ are generally removed).

In baked goods, try replacing at least half the white flour with white whole wheat flour, or whole wheat pastry flour. The latter two are both whole wheat, but white whole wheat flour is more coarsely ground than whole wheat pastry flour, and contains more protein and gluten. Increase the ratio of whole grains to unrefined grains as the recipe permits. If you’re feeling just a bit adventurous, try exploring less common whole grains (such as quinoa, teff or amaranth) and enjoy discovering a new carbohydrate-rich favorite.

Example:

  • Use brown rice or wild rice instead of white rice.
  • Try whole-grain bread or whole-grain breadcrumbs in stuffing or bread puddings.
  • You might notice: A denser texture in baked goods; play with the ratio of white to whole wheat, white whole wheat, or whole wheat pastry flour to achieve the desired texture. Avoid overmixing to help prevent an unappealingly dense texture. Benefits of whole grains include a heartier taste, and a richer, nuttier flavor.

Note: Make sure that your bread is 100 percent whole grain by checking the ingredients list. If you see “unbleached enriched flour,” “enriched flour” or similar items, move onto the next package.

Change the produce proportions

One of the easiest ways to add vegetables and fruits to your diet is to simply add more of them to your recipes. Currently, the United States Department of Agriculture and Department of Health recommends that we fill half our plate with fruits and vegetables. Rather than focusing on the processed foods that healthier cooking decreases in your diet, concentrate on the deliciously wholesome foods that healthier eating encourages.

Example:

Vegetables

  • Increase the ratio of vegetables and/or legumes to pasta in your pasta salad. As a bonus, you’ll add more flavor and fiber to the dish, which will help keep you full longer.
  • Add more vegetables to your pizza, whether as extra toppings, or pureed (such as red peppers) in a tomato sauce.

Fruit

  • Add fruits such as pomegranates and apples to salads.
  • Add or increase the proportion of fruits like dried cherries in cookies.

You might notice: A more moist dish, especially if adding more vegetables or fruits to baked goods. If this becomes a problem, try decreasing the ratio of wet to dry ingredients.

Other notes:

As much as possible, include unprocessed, “whole” foods without a lot of salt, sugar or fat added. When a recipe calls for packaged or processed goods, such as breadcrumbs, opt for a brand that contains less salt, sugar or fat than most. This allows you to better control the final product’s taste and nutritional value.

If one technique for lightening a recipe doesn’t work, don’t give up hope. Try a different variation, and look at similar recipes to see how others deal with, for example, vegan macaroni and cheese (hint: it can involve anything from cashew cheese to pureed cauliflower). Keep an open mind—and an open mouth.


About the Author

Midori Yoshimura

Contributing writer, freelance copyeditor, and avid walker

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