Simple swaps can improve the health quotient of your meals.
Everyone seems to be trying to eat healthier these days. And while it can be a daunting task, one of the easiest ways to sneak a little more nutrition into your day — often with fewer calories, fat, salt and sugar — without even noticing a difference is to swap out certain ingredients for other, more healthful options.
Here, several nutrition professionals share their favorite healthy swaps that don’t sacrifice flavor.
1. Cauliflower for cheese
As a kid, Robin Foroutan hated cauliflower. But she loved her mom’s veggie lasagna, which happened to use crumbled cauliflower in place of ricotta cheese.
“Everyone now knows about cauliflower rice, which I love, but if you add a little almond creamer or even cashew cream, garlic, salt and oregano, it can be ricotta-esque,” says Foroutan, a registered dietitian with the Morrison Center in New York City.
She now makes her own gluten-free version of the lasagna using thinly sliced zucchini and yellow squash in place of noodles.
2. Beans for heavy cream
When a soup or stew recipe calls for heavy cream, Vandana Sheth, a registered dietitian in the Los Angeles area and member of the U.S. News Medical Review Board, walks to the cupboard for a can of garbanzo or cannellini beans instead. Pureeing the beans, she says, “acts as a thickener and adds a silky, creamy texture at a lower calorie budget.”
What’s more, beans are a healthy, plant-based source of protein and fiber. Simply substitute a half-cup of pureed beans for a half-cup of cream in a recipe.
Emilie Vandenberg, a registered dietitian with the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, also recommends using beans to make creamy soups richer. “Blend beans and broth to make soup creamy instead of using heavy cream. For every 1/2 cup of cream called for, replace it with a 1/2 cup of pureed bean and a 1/2 cup of broth.”
3. Bean water for eggs
Before you dismiss bean water — the liquid left in a can or left over after soaking chickpeas — as something to be drained directly into the sink, consider this: That liquid, known as aquafaba, works as an egg replacement in creams and sauces for vegans, people with egg allergies and folks monitoring their daily cholesterol intake, says Nancy Farrell, a registered dietitian nutritionist and an Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics national media spokesperson based in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
“It helps to provide consistency in texture,” thanks to its ability to emulsify, or blend oil and non-oil ingredients, she says. One tablespoon of aquafaba serves as a yolk, two equal an egg white and three replace a whole egg.
4. Beans for fat
Sensing a theme? Beans are a superfood that can add nutrition and cut calories and fat from a range of dishes, even desserts.
Mia Syn, a registered dietitian based in Charleston, South Carolina, recommends using beans in brownie and blondie desserts to “boost the overall nutrition (including the protein and fiber content) and lower the calories and fat.”
To do this, Syn recommends using “well-rinsed black beans in brownies and well-rinsed chickpeas or white beans in blondies to make these baked goods moist, soft and fudgy. While recipes may vary, typically using beans in these traditional recipes will allow you to cut back on the amount of oil, butter and flour used.”
5. Pistachios for breadcrumbs
Try preparing your fish (or poultry) “green.” Coating a baked tilapia with crushed pistachios adds a tasty punch and ups the nutrition factor when compared to a coating of bread crumbs.
Plus, “pistachios’ nutty flavor pairs wonderfully with fish and poultry for a savory dish,” says Lori Zanini, a registered dietitian in Manhattan Beach, California. “They’re also the only green nut, which gives a fun pop of color to elevate any dish while adding more plant-based protein and fiber.” Six grams of protein and 3 grams of fiber per ounce, to be exact.
6. Mushrooms for meat
Similarly, mushrooms can easily be swapped in for meat in some dishes, Syn says. “Minced mushrooms take on a similar texture to ground meat and soak up the flavors that they’re cooked with.”
For recipes that call for ground meat like tacos and homemade burgers, she recommends replacing “half the meat with minced mushrooms using about 8 ounces (mushrooms) per pound of meat. Not only does this lower the overall calories of the final dish and add an earthy savory flavor, it boosts the overall nutrition with B vitamins, vitamin C and vitamin E.”
You can also stretch ground meat dishes like meatloaf and meatballs — and increase your plant intake — with a mix of chopped veggies.
7. Yogurt for mayo or sour cream
Syn recommends replacing mayo and sour cream with nonfat plain yogurt in dips, dressings, toppings or baked goods.
“The final texture will be nearly identical, but the end result will be significantly lower in calories and saturated fat.”
8. Ground flaxseed for flour
If your gravy or other sauce is looking thin, fatten it up with flaxseed, not flour, suggests Felicia Stoler, a registered dietitian in New Jersey.
While flaxseed does bring serious nutrition to the table, mostly in the form of healthy omega-3 fatty acids and fiber, there’s more reason to experiment with any swap than that: “Sometimes it’s just about using foods differently,” Stoler says. “We get caught up in habits, like using flour to thicken a sauce versus using another ground grain or seed.”
She recommends looking to the internet for recipe ideas and not being afraid to experiment. “You may just find a new flavor combination.”
9. Dark chocolate for milk chocolate
While the sweet, creamy joy of milk chocolate that melts in your mouth is delicious, an easy, healthier swap is replacing any milk chocolate with dark chocolate, Vandenberg says. “Dark chocolate offers more antioxidants and less sugar,” which can provide a better health profile when you need something sweet.
10. Cauliflower for potatoes
Cauliflower again. This highly nutritious and versatile vegetable has a mild taste, which means it can be swapped in for a variety of other foods, Syn says.
“Cauliflower can add volume and nutrition to a handful of dishes for very little calories or carbohydrates. Use cooked cauliflower in lieu of or in addition to potatoes in mashed potato recipes. Cauliflower soaks up the flavors you cook it with and is a good source of fiber and vitamin C.”
11. Nutritional yeast for cheese
“For recipes that call for grated cheese like pasta, roasted vegetables or egg dishes, use nutritional yeast in its place,” Syn says. “This non-dairy, cheesy-tasting substitute provides key nutrients such as B vitamins, iron and zinc.”
12. Soda water or kombucha for cocktail mixers
Eating healthy usually means limiting alcohol intake, but if you’re having a cocktail, you can make it a little better for you, Vandenberg says. “Soda water provides a sugar-free and calorie-free mixer option that still imparts flavor and carbonation.” Kombucha, which is a type of fermented tea, “is another great mixer option because it’s flavorful, but much lower in sugar than soda.”
13. Less sugar for more sugar
Vandenberg notes that “sugar can usually be reduced by 25% to 50% without significantly impacting taste or texture. In some cases, if reducing sugar, liquid may sometimes need to be increased” to help offset those alterations in taste and texture.
13 healthy food swaps:
— Cauliflower for cheese.
— Beans for heavy cream.
— Bean water for eggs.
— Beans for fat.
— Pistachios for breadcrumbs.
— Mushrooms for meat.
— Yogurt for mayo or sour cream.
— Ground flaxseed for flour.
— Dark chocolate for milk chocolate.
— Cauliflower for potatoes.
— Nutritional yeast for cheese.
— Soda water or kombucha for cocktail mixers.
— Less sugar for more sugar.
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Update 03/09/22: The story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.