As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten more aware of my health and the importance of making healthy food choices. While I love looking at all those awesome, decadent recipes on Pinterest as much as everyone else (cookie-stuffed brownies, anyone?), I also enjoy finding ways to make recipes I find a bit healthier (if they aren’t already) and trying out new ways to make old favorites a bit lighter. Thanks to some easy swaps, I’ve found that it’s possible to have your cake and eat it too. Whether you’re trying to lose weight or just want to live a healthy lifestyle, these are some of my tried-and-true swaps and substitutions I like to use. Of course, sometimes you just need to go the full fat, full flavor route (let’s be honest, “skinny” cheesecake just doesn’t taste as great as the original) but if you’re making dinner for yourself at home, why not try out some ways to lighten up your meal? I think you’ll be just as pleasantly surprised as I was to find that things can be pretty healthy and still taste great, too!
Replace Oil or Butter
Unsweetened Applesauce: I almost always substitute oil or butter in a recipe for applesauce (use a 1:1 ratio). You can’t taste it in most cases, and it doesn’t affect baking times. Plus, with the sweetness from the applesauce, you can cut the amount of sugar you add as well. If you use applesauce to replace butter, you might want to try only replacing half the butter at first. I’ve found that subbing works best if the recipe calls for melted butter; sometimes using applesauce instead of room-temperature butter can slightly affect the consistency. Applesauce works in breads, cookies, and cakes (even muffins!), and is particularly successful in spice cake or chocolate cake. I wouldn’t recommend using it in red velvet, or cakes with a particularly mild/delicate flavor. Baking time will not need to be adjusted, but as mentioned, you might want to slightly reduce the amount of sugar called for in the recipe. Any unsweetened applesauce works, but my favorite brand to use is Trader Joe’s Gravenstein variety.
Plain Nonfat Greek (or regular) Yogurt: You can replace butter, oil, or shortening in recipes with yogurt to reduce the fat and calories. This works best in brownies, but it’s also good in cakes, cookies, muffins, and breads. As an added bonus, the yogurt makes baked goods extra moist. If you use Greek yogurt, be aware that you’ll get that slightly tangy taste (you’ll also get some added protein!), so you might want to just use normal yogurt in cakes, cookies, breads, or muffins with a milder taste and save the Greek stuff for brownies or anything with chocolate. Greek yogurt also works well in chewy cookies. As far as ratios go, you can do a 1:1 ratio, but I’ve found that it works better cut the butter the recipe calls for in half and replace the other half with 1/4 cup of yogurt for each cup of butter called for. So, if your recipe calls for one cup butter, use 1/2 cup butter and 1/4 cup of yogurt. If you’re using yogurt in place of oil or shortening in a recipe, use 3/4 cup yogurt for every cup called for of oil/shortening. As far as changes in consistency when using yogurt, I’ve noticed when I’ve made cookies with yogurt instead of butter, the volume slightly decreased. Also, the baking time may be slightly less, so keep a close eye on the oven when your baked goods are close to being done.
Canned Pumpkin Puree: This is quite possibly my favorite substitution. I love adding pumpkin, especially during the fall. If you want to replace oil, use a 1:1 ratio, or to replace butter, do 3/4 cup pumpkin for every cup of butter. Be sure to use canned pumpkin puree, not homemade (homemade puree tends to be too watery). Pumpkin puree works well in cakes, breads, and even cookies, and it’s particularly perfect for spice cakes or chocolate cakes (you won’t even taste the pumpkin in Devil’s Food cake). Unlike applesauce, pumpkin will add a distinct flavor to most recipes, so I save it for recipes where I want to be able to taste pumpkin, like pumpkin chocolate chip muffins, pumpkin spice bread, etc. When using pumpkin puree, the baking time may be slightly less.
Mashed Ripe Banana: I don’t really like subbing butter with mashed banana, as you can almost always taste the banana. It’s fine for brownies or something where the banana taste is a welcome addition, but otherwise it can ruin an otherwise-great recipe. I’m also not a big fan of mashed avocado.
Unsweetened Applesauce: To sub applesauce for sugar, use a 1:1 ratio but reduce liquid in recipe by about 1/4 cup. This works particularly well in oatmeal cookies. If you are using applesauce to replace fats in a recipe, you can also usually reduce the amount of sugar called for.
Vanilla Extract: Cut sugar in half and add tsp of vanilla instead.
Stevia: I’m slightly wary about using Splenda when baking, or using any artificial sweeteners, for that matter. However, I feel a bit better about using stevia because it is all natural. For a calorie-free sugar substitute, use 1 tsp liquid stevia or 2 tbsp powder for every cup of sugar. Be aware that many stevia products in grocery stores are actually not pure stevia; I buy Truvia, which is a stevia blend. If using Truvia or a similar product, it’s typically a 1:1 ratio, but check the box to see their suggestion.
Sometimes, you can also just reduce the amount of sugar a recipe calls for, anyways. Obviously, it depends on what you’re making, but I’ve noticed that some recipes I’ve made are way too sweet, so the next time I make them, I cut back on sugar (lots of people comment on Ina Garten’s baked goods recipes saying she adds too much sugar, for example). It’s helpful to read comments on a recipe you’ve found online to see if any substitutions others have done have been successful.
Replace an Egg
If you’re all out of eggs or just don’t feel like using them, you can replace one egg with 1/4 cup yogurt, 1/4 cup vegetable oil, 1/3 cup applesauce, or 1/4 cup canned pumpkin. You can also save calories by using egg substitutes like Egg Beaters.
Replacing Flour in Brownies
Surprisingly, you can replace flour in brownie recipes with black beans and you won’t even taste the difference! If anything, they actually taste better. Use a 1:1 ratio (1 cup flour for 1 cup black beans, drained, rinsed, pureed).
Whole Wheat Flour for All-Purpose Flour
To add some nutrition to your baked goods, replace some or all of the white flour in a recipe with whole wheat flour. Whole wheat flour will affect the consistency of what you’re making, so if you plan on using it, I’d suggest only substituting half of the white flour for whole wheat. For best results, I like to use white whole wheat flour (I buy mine at Trader Joe’s), which lends itself better to recipes and doesn’t affect texture quite as much.
Shirataki Noodles: You might have heard these referred to as the “miracle noodle”. The tofu shirataki noodles are only about 20 calories per serving, while the regular yam ones are *almost* no calories. Because of the low calorie content, I like to use these noodles with peanut sauce (which tends to be kinda high calorie) or other toppings like cheese that I normally hold back on with regular pasta. Texture-wise, these are bit rubbery, and can take some getting used to. The first time I tried them, I bought the fettuccini style and hated it; now I usually just buy spaghetti or angel hair noodles. The best place to buy shirataki noodles is at Asian supermarkets, but some grocery stores also carry them (usually they are in the refrigerated section with the tofu products). I personally prefer the tofu shirataki noodles; they’re easier to find and have a better taste. While you can technically eat these right out of the package, the best way to prepare them and make them taste better is to drain and rinse them in hot water, pat dry with paper towels, and then dry-fry them in a pan for a few minutes before adding additional ingredients like sauce and toppings. These are ideal for Asian noodle dishes, but sometimes I just toss them with a bit of olive oil, parmesan, basil, and fresh tomato.
Spaghetti Squash: Recently, spaghetti squash has become a pretty popular pasta substitute (some restaurants even carry it). It’s pretty versatile (you can even use it in casseroles) and has a lot less calories than normal pasta. That being said, the texture is not the same, nor is the taste, so don’t expect an exact replica. I find that spaghetti squash works best with Italian flavors. I like to roast my squash and then prepare it and keep it in the fridge for a week. When I feel like having pasta, I take out the squash and put it in a pan on medium heat with a bit of olive oil and Italian seasonings. I like mine with just a bit of tomato sauce and parmesan cheese; it’s also great with meatballs or veggies.
Whole Wheat Pasta: This is the easiest swap for “normal” pasta. It won’t necessarily save you that many calories, but it’s far better for you than non-whole wheat noodles. It’s also the easiest to find out of these three options, and it’s obviously the most versatile. There is a slight difference in taste and texture (like brown rice instead of white), but it’s well worth it; personally, I prefer the taste. Switching to whole wheat is so easy, there really isn’t a good excuse not to.
Butter & Oil Substitutes
When possible, replace at least some of the butter in a recipe with a healthier fat like olive oil. When sautéing veggies or protein, I like to use low sodium vegetable or chicken broth instead of oil or butter. It still gives some nice flavor but doesn’t have all the added fat and calories.
2 Egg Whites instead of 1 Whole Egg: Okay, personally, I like using whole eggs. Egg yolk isn’t going to hurt you. However, sometimes I will use egg whites instead of whole eggs to save some calories or if I’ve already had eggs earlier in the day. For example, if you’re making scrambled eggs for breakfast, try doing one whole egg and two egg whites instead of two eggs. It will still taste good, I promise.
Ground Turkey instead of Ground Beef: Next time you make lasagna, try using turkey. It’s a leaner meat, better for you, and it’s also lower in calories. And yeah, it will still taste good. I have lean ground turkey in my freezer and use it for everything from taco salads to pasta dishes.
Coconut Milk instead of Cream (in soups): If you don’t have any cream, or just don’t want to use heavy cream, replace it with coconut milk. I always have a can of Trader Joe’s Light Coconut Milk in my pantry, just in case (it’s also great in plenty of other recipes). It won’t make your soup or stew super coconut-y, don’t worry, and it will give you the same texture that cream would. You could also just use skim milk, but I’ve found coconut milk works better both for flavor and texture.
Nonfat Plain Green Yogurt instead of Sour Cream or Mayo: This is a big one. I always use yogurt instead of mayo when making tuna salad (I assure you it works perfectly), but it’s also great for adding to enchiladas or taco salads in place of sour cream, or mixing into creamy dips like ranch. If a recipe calls for sour cream, you can use yogurt instead; just add it at the last minute if what you’re making is hot.
Spinach/Arugula Mix instead of Lettuce: Lettuce isn’t bad for you, obviously, but if you replace the lettuce in your salad with dark leafy greens like spinach and arugula, your salad will pack more nutritional punch. I like to buy the Spinach Arugula blend by Fresh Express and use it in everything from pasta dishes to salad.
Corn Tortillas instead of Flour: I’m one of those people who always used to order tacos and burritos with flour tortillas, so I understand if you think flour tortillas simply taste better; I totally agree with you. But switching to corn is better for you; it saves you lots of calories, and they also have less sodium, fat, and carbs than their flour counterparts. I like to buy my tortillas at Trader Joe’s– they’re cheap and I prefer the taste over brands like Mission. Keep tortillas in the fridge or freezer to make them last longer.
Bragg’s Liquid Aminos instead of Soy Sauce: There’s a lot of debate over whether liquid aminos is really all that better, but I use it and I like it and that’s that. My roommate actually was the one who bought it, and I’m glad she did because I use it at least every other day sometimes. Liquid Aminos is a zero-calorie, lower sodium soy sauce substitute. It’s great for stir fry, sauces, and anything you would normally use soy sauce in. As far as availability, I’ve found it at most grocery stores.
Fresh Salsa instead of Ketchup: I’ve never been a huge ketchup fan, anyways (except for with some grilled cheese, yum!) but I love salsa, so this is an easy swap for me. Salsa is a flavorful substitute that has less sugar and additives– it’s also less calories, at about 10 per a 2 tbsp serving. Salsa with fries might not be the best combo, but if you like ketchup with eggs, try using salsa instead. It’s also awesome mixed into macaroni and cheese, with grilled cheese, or on top of a burger. I really like all the salsas Trader Joe’s sells– they’re affordable and flavorful, and more convenient than making it myself.
Natural Peanut Butter instead of Reduced Fat: While you may think buying reduced fat Skippy is better than sticking with the original stuff, it’s not as healthy as it sounds. In this case, reducing the fat means more sugar and less healthy fats, all for about the same amount of calories. When it comes to nut butters, it’s best to just go natural, and make sure you read the label to make sure you really know what you’re eating! I love CB Nuts peanut butter, while my roommate swears by Adam’s; find your natural favorite and stick to it.
Spices and Seasoning instead of Added Salt, Oil and Butter: You don’t have to use a bunch of oil and butter or salt to give your meal flavor. I rarely add salt to my meals (and if I do, it’s a pretty small amount)– instead, I like to use things like garlic powder or salt-free herb blends to kick up my dishes. Whether you use fresh or dried herbs, it’s a lot better for you than dumping in a bunch of salt. Because I prefer to sauté my vegetables in broth instead of oil/butter, I like to add spice to give them a stronger flavor. My personal favorites to have on hand include chili powder, cayenne, oregano, cumin, Italian seasoning, garlic powder, and smoked paprika.