Food & Drink

11 Easy Ways to Be a Healthier Cook Without Sacrificing Flavor

tortilla pizza
AS Food studio/Shutterstock

When it comes to dieting and eating well, we often look for the easiest solution. Ten days of only grapefruit, cutting out all carbs, or intermittent fasting might briefly trim the waistline, but will also drive a person nuts. And more often than not, intense diets end up boomeranging the dieter into overindulgent French fry, powdered-donut relapses. Don’t go extreme! 

Instead, employ these top nutritionist- and chef-approved tricks and substitutions to easily cut fat, calories, and carbs in the kitchen without corrupting the flavors of all the foods you love. 

Cook in broths and balsamic to eliminate extra cals

Cooking in butter or any oil comes at a high caloric price. Instead of pan-frying meat, fish, or veggies, Dr. Stephen Gullo, New York’s famous nutritionist to the elite, suggests lightly simmering them in a mix of broths, balsamic vinegar, and/or wine. This method is fantastic for chicken and fish, as well leafy greens and mushrooms that tend to absorb a lot of oil, and therefore, fat. The resulting food is super tender and flavorful! And as an added bonus, you're left with a pan sauce at the end. The texture will never be crispy, but the flavor will 100% make up for it. Feel free to throw in some capers, olives, and/or tomatoes as well as other flavor-boosting ingredients. 

Salad with yogurt dressing
ziashusha/Shutterstock

Sub protein-rich Greek yogurt for creamy, cold stuff 

Thick Greek yogurt is high in protein, calcium, and probiotics, so it covers most health bases. Its uses go well beyond the morning parfait. Substitute it for mayo in chicken and tuna salads, for sour cream as a garnish, and even for some of the oil in your salad dressings. Love that decadent onion dip? Dr. Gullo suggests substituting Greek yogurt instead of sour cream and flavoring it with dried onion mix. And while nothing compares to the consistency of whipped cream, a dollop of tart Greek yogurt pairs beautifully with sweet desserts.

Debating which fat percentage to buy? Don’t fear fat-free, as it's higher in carbohydrates than fattier versions of yogurt. And ladies: “Women burn fat better than carbs; carbs increase insulin and fat storage. More fat tends to satiate appetite, which means you eat less,” shares Dr. Gullo. Basically, fuller-fat varieties will tide you over longer, whether it’s as a snack or topping.

Cut meat with mushrooms for umami with half the fat

Mushrooms are known for their meaty texture and flavor, which is why nutritionist Sara Haas suggests, "substituting some or about half of the beef in hamburgers, Sloppy Joes, and tacos with finely chopped mushrooms. You’re still getting the umami flavor that you get with beef, but now you’re getting a vegetarian source from the mushrooms. This cuts out some fat and subsequently calories, too. Plus you’re getting a boost of mushroom nutrition -- Vitamin D, B vitamins, and potassium.” And, on top of those benefits, it's also an excellent way to make a little bit of meat go a long way. Healthy and economical!

Eat low-carb spiralized squash in lieu of spaghetti

OK, so nothing can really replace a big ole bowl of pasta, but so long as you understand that, spiralized zucchini or spaghetti squash can be pretty decent low-carb analogs. For zucchini noodles, spin zucchini in a spiralizer or shave thinly with a vegetable peeler, and then towel off excess water. Depending on your dish, they can be eaten raw or cooked briefly (one to two minutes) and then tossed like pasta. Spaghetti squash should be cut in half, seeded, and roasted until tender (here's a recipe). Then, using a fork, shred the the squash into what will resemble thin spaghetti.   
A 200mg bowl of cooked pasta is around 260 calories and up -- a bowl of zucchini pasta is 34 calories and spaghetti squash is a little more at 60 calories. That’s a huge difference! Zucchini pasta tends to be a bit heartier in texture, while spaghetti squashta is more delicate, but both are delicious with virtually any regular pasta sauce.

Replace heavy pizza crusts with extra-crispy tortillas

The average slice of pizza has at least 285 calories, and is loaded with fat and tons of salt. To get a pizza fix without all the extra stuff, start making your own ridiculously easy pizzas at home, with low-carb tortillas for the pizza dough. Top it with some tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, and basil, then use a cast-iron skillet to make it perfectly comparable to a super-crispy thin crust. Fold it in half and you’ve got yourself a calzone. Dr. Gullo swears by it! 

Thinly slice shiitakes for badass fake bacon

To many, bacon is the perfect food. However, for vegetarians or anyone just watching their waistline and cholesterol, bacon sadly isn’t a friend. To make a healthier and vegetarian bacon substitute, chef Olivia Roszkowski from the Natural Gourmet Institute suggests thinly slicing shiitakes, a meaty mushroom known for its high umami levels, then tossing them with olive oil and sea salt. Bake at 350F for 10 to 15 minutes, until crispy. It ain’t bacon, but it’ll placate cravings.

Use applesauce as a moist binder in baking

Applesauce can be used as a substitute for oil when baking quick breads, cakes, and muffins, and adds a ton of moisture to certain baked goods.

Always buy unsweetened plain applesauce, so as not to affect the sugar levels of the recipe.  Swapping in applesauce will affect the final consistency and texture of the baked good, so depending on what you’re making, you might want to first try subbing in the applesauce for half of the oil and experiment from there. 

Blend cashews for crazy-creamy, dairy-free sauces

In place of butter or heavy cream, Chef Roszkowski suggests using soaked and pureed cashews as a thickener for soups, sauces, or condiments. It’s a healthy, protein-packed alternative that's delicious even if you do eat dairy. 

By simply mixing in Sriracha, chipotle peppers, pesto, or minced sun-dried tomatoes, you have a wide range of ready-to-go creamy sauces that are perfect on meats, vegetables, and fish. However, if you’re counting calories, these nuts still have a lot, so don't go too... nuts!!  

Oatmeal with cinnamon
Africa Studio/Shutterstock

Trick your taste buds with cinnamon

Warm and comforting cinnamon is an essential spice for your pantry, and adds a natural sugar-free sweetness to any dish you use it in. While cinnamon is certainly not a substitute for sugar, a pinch in a pie or in your morning yogurt or oatmeal can trick your taste buds, which will help you cut down on other sweeteners. Plus, cinnamon has a lot of wonderful health benefits. It is said to stimulate the brain, relieve sore throats, fight fatigue, and ease stomach pain. So sweet or not, you should be using it.

Swap fatty butter with avocado

In baking recipes that call for butter, substitute about half with avocado. Be wary of the full swap, as those recipes often require the rise and fat coating that butter provides and that avocados can’t, but in savory applications -- such as cream sauces or mayonnaise-heavy dishes -- this factor is not as important. So feel free to go all in! For optimal use, make sure the avocado is nice and ripe

To put things in perspective, the average number of calories in one cup of avocado is 234 versus the 1,627 in one cup of butter. So yeah, even that half-swap makes a difference! 

Make adult potato chips 

Salty, crunchy things are a life staple and a craving we shouldn’t have to deny ourselves. But they're also greasy and caloric. So instead of going for regular chips, make your own nutrient-packed alternative. Chef Roszkowski suggests tossing dark leafy greens -- like beet tops or kale -- in a small amount of oil and salt and roasting them at 350 F for 10 minutes. The result: crunchy vitamin chips. They're tastier than they sound, we swear!

*All calorie information is from the USDA


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Julianne Feder is a contributing writer for Thrillist. She enjoys cuddling up to a big bowl of Greek yogurt and Nutella! Follow her @TheGastroNerd or watch her at YouTube.com/c/Juliannefeder to get more nerdy food insights and other healthy cooking tips.