When making any dietary changes, people tend wonder if they will be able to enjoy their favorite meals ever again. Fear not, my fellow health-conscious friends! With a few simple techniques, you’ll be able to take a critical look at any recipe and know how to make it work for your health goals.
If you’re just dipping your toe into the plant-based pool, I suggest making just one or two adjustments per meal rather than all of them. Small changes compound over time and also give your family’s taste buds a chance to acclimate to lighter, more plant-strong meals.
Below are a Holistic Health Coach’s tips to make ANY meal healthier:
1. Pick a Protein- Even if your family isn’t plant-based, reducing meat consumption has a profound effect on our health. Having a few meat-free meals a week can reduce cholesterol, the extra fiber can help regulate blood sugar and protect against Type 2 Diabetes, help protect against cancer, reduce your exposure to hormones (and often antibiotics) found in animal products, and save you a few dollars. By substituting beans, lentils, edamame, tofu, or tempeh in place of the meat, you’ll reduce the saturated fat, cholesterol, and hormone content in any dish.
2. Ditch the Dairy- Saturated fat, IGF-1 promotion, and casein, oh my! Dairy is linked to digestive issues, heart disease, IBS, osteoporosis, hormone-based cancers, and auto-immune issues. It’s easy to ditch the dairy in a recipe with an equal amount of unsweetened plant milk. I find that almond milk works well for many recipes without changing the flavor profile of the dish, but there are dozens of alternatives from oat milk, to coconut milk, to hemp milk, to cashew milk!
3. Excuse the Eggs- Did you know that according to the USDA, the egg industry must avoid using the words like “healthy,” “nutritious,” “good for you,” or even the word “safe.” Eggs are the most concentrated source of cholesterol that humans consume and one of the top 8 allergens. In order to substitute eggs for baking, you can make a flax egg. Simply mix 1 tablespoon of ground flax seeds with 3 tablespoons of warm water and let sit for 10 minutes to thicken. This mixture will form a gelatinous liquid that works wonderfully as a binder and thickener in baked goods, casseroles, and even pancakes. You can also do the same with ground chia seeds, but you’ll be left with little black specs in your recipe—so it’s a matter of preference on presentation. If you’re looking for a scrambled egg substitute, try this tofu scramble!
4. Omit the Oil- Depending on the recipe, you can either completely leave out the oil, or find a suitable substitute. For sautéing vegetables, you can use water or a splash of vegetable stock to keep them from sticking to the pan. In baking, you can use silicone baking dishes to avoid the need to grease the pan or use parchment paper as a liner. In baking recipes themselves, unsweetened applesauce usually does the trick in place of oil. For salad dressings, try using hemp hearts in place of oil and giving it a quick process in the blender. In order to get the same fatty “mouth feel” of oil in a finished dish, simply toss on a few slices of monounsaturated fat-rich avocado!
5. Reduce the Refined- As much as we all love a good noodle based dish, semolina pasta is heavily refined. The same goes for white rice where the bran and germ are removed from the rice grain, taking much of the fiber, vitamins, minerals, and protein with them. When looking at a recipe, try substituting a different whole grain for rice or pasta. Quinoa, millet, barley, oats, and yes, good old brown rice make wonderful replacements for heavily processed grains. Instead of semolina, try a less refined pasta such as chick pea pasta, brown rice pasta, red lentil pasta, or whole wheat pasta (if you aren’t gluten sensitive). You can also switch up a dish by serving it over potatoes instead of a grain.
6. Sub the Sugar- Refined white sugar has zero nutritional value. For many recipes, it’s easy enough to switch refined sugar for something more natural such as maple syrup or honey (if you use honey). However, you can also use fruit to sweeten some dishes. Try using soaked dates instead of sugar in a dressing or sauce recipe. Add apples to a green juice or smoothie recipe to make it more palatable for kids. Use ripe bananas (or banana mylk!) in your oatmeal or for cereal. Use diced sweet potato to sweeten a soup or chili for balancing spice or acidity. Note: if you’re baking and using a liquid substitute for refined sugar (such as maple syrup), make sure to adjust the dry ingredients accordingly.
7. Amazing Additions- While it’s easy to focus on what to remove or replace in order to make a dish healthier, why not try adding more nutrients? Add a handful or two of greens to a smoothie or soup. Stir in some shredded carrot or zucchini to a sauce recipe. Toss in some finely chopped fruits to sweeten your salad. Shred spinach and dice tomatoes to top your casserole just before serving. Any time you see a recipe, think about how you can add more colorful fruits and vegetables without changing the texture of the dish.