7 easy ways to make home-cooked food healthier

sweet potato fries
© DronG

These simple swaps replace less healthy ingredients with ones that are equally, if not more, delicious.

If cooking healthy at home brings to mind sad platters of boiled vegetables, do not despair, it doesn't have to be such a grim thing. With a few handy strategies up your sleeve – and without relying on the over-processed low-fat/low-calorie versions of ingredients – you can make healthy food that tastes every bit as delicious as its less healthy brethren. Here are some tried-and-true tricks for more wholesome cooking.

1. Olive oil for butter

In my youth I used to quip that butter was my favorite food group, but when I discovered the wonders of olive oil, I never went back. Its diversity and complexity are addictive, and aside from in baked goods and some fancy sauces, I can use it almost anyplace I might have used butter before. Think: Sauteing, bread dunking, dressing steamed vegetables, on top of popcorn, and tossed with pasta, to name just a few ideas. (For baking, I swap fruit purees for butter; for topping pancakes and waffles, I've switched to nut butters.)

2. Miso paste for salt

Salt does magical things to food, there's a reason why merchants once traded salt ounce-for-ounce with gold. But it also does not-so-magical things to one's blood pressure, alas. As delicious as salt is, it doesn't offer a huge array of health benefits; on the other hand, miso paste does. Like salt, fermented soybean paste is high in sodium, but it also comes with vitamins and minerals. Additionally, as a fermented food, it provides a good dose of probiotics.

All of that said, the best part might be its incredible flavor and the way it transforms food. It's heavy on the umami (giving plant-based dishes a meaty (though not meaty-tasting) feeling) and adds a salty, rich depth of flavor. Add it to soups, dressings, pastas, baked dishes, steamed vegetables tossed with olive oil, anything sauteed, rubbed on roasted vegetables, in marinades, and instead of anchovies in Caesar salad.

3. Pureed cauliflower for cream

Because seemingly humble, banal cauliflower is actually a super sexy rockstar. Who knew? See more here: 7 ways to use cauliflower as a luscious secret ingredient.

4. Baking for fried

Squash blossoms© Baked, stuffed squash blossoms. (Photo: Melissa Breyer)
Frying food is one of the humanity's more tempting inventions. So crisp, so delicious, so unhealthy. That said, the oven can do a pretty decent job replicating some of that fried-food texture. At our house we bake corn tortillas for chips (brushed with olive oil and baked straight on the oven rack at 350F for a few minutes or until golden), sweet potato fries, root vegetables (sliced thinly, brushed with olive oil, baked at 350F until crisp) for chips, and anything that would normally come breaded and fried. You can apply the same method I use here: Baked, stuffed squash blossoms are a revelation.

5. Zoodles for pasta

The cutesy portmanteau name (zucchini + noodles) and a preponderance on Instagram made me wary of zucchini noodles, but I was wrong. Handled properly, they are delicious! I even prefer them to regular pasta, which I still love, but starts to taste like a mouthful of flour after eating zoodles for a while. You buy them premade from many supermarkets, but they are easy to make at home, as long as you don't turn them into mush.

TIPS FOR HOMEMADE ZOODLES

  • Use the outer part of the squash for the best texture, saving the core to use in soup, a salad, stir-fry, etc.
  • A mandolin slicer works wonders, but you can easily use a knife to cut the long strands as well.
  • Rather than boiling them, give them a quick saute in olive oil over high heat. Do not cook them until they are mushy.
  • Don't pair them with a big, heavy, and wet sauce. They go well with zesty, bold flavors, but not a sauce they will drown in. Olive oil and herbs, pesto, or a light fresh tomato sauce are all delicious.

6. Plain Greek yogurt for sour cream

Out of all the healthy swap cliches out there, this substitute is an easy one to adopt without resentment. Zero fat Greek yogurt, for those watching their saturated fat intake, is thick and creamy, and has the sour cream tang. Greek yogurt has less fat, fewer calories, and more protein; and while only some cour creams have probiotics, nearly all yogurt does. You can use it for a straight-up swap on things like baked potatoes; it's also genius in baked goods, dips, and dressings.

7. Beans for meat

You knew this one was coming, right? But really, plant-based foods are healthier for humans and the planet we inhabit, and by a large degree. And as it turns out, beans are even more satisfying than meat ... at least according to one study, which concluded that beans and peas proved to be more satiating than pork and veal-based meals. Meanwhile, even just a little red meat is linked to an increase in the risk of death. (If you need more convincing, see: 8 reasons to eat a lot of beans.) Use beans instead of meat in soups, tacos, casseroles, vegetable burgers, stews, chili, pasta sauces, and anywhere else you want some bulk and protein.

7 easy ways to make home-cooked food healthier
These simple swaps replace less healthy ingredients with ones that are equally, if not more, delicious.

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