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How to make your favorite recipes healthier

Are some of your favorite recipes simply not very good for you? These easy tweaks can help you turn them into healthier versions of themselves—without sacrificing the flavors you love.

Here's what the American Heart Association and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics suggest:

Cut unhealthy fats

  • If a recipe calls for red meat, use lean cuts—such as beef or pork with "loin," "round" or "sirloin" in their name. Then trim the fat edges off before cooking and drain any melted fat.
  • When cooking poultry, use breasts—they're leaner than legs and thighs. Be sure to remove the skin too.
  • Swap whole milk or half-and-half for low-fat or fat-free milk. It's an easy switch for most recipes, though some dishes, like puddings, may be runnier.
  • Try these dairy trades too. Instead of heavy cream, use evaporated skim milk; instead of sour cream, use low-fat, unsalted cottage cheese plus low-fat yogurt. Replace full-fat cheeses with low-fat, low-sodium ones.
  • Refrigerate stews, stock and soups, then remove the hardened fat.
  • Use healthy vegetable oils (such as canola, safflower and olive oil) instead of solid fats (such as butter, lard and hard-stick margarine) and tropical oils (such as palm and coconut oil).

Scale back sodium—a main component of salt

  • Use as little salt as possible. In most recipes, you can halve the salt.
  • Add flavor without salt. Season with spices (such as cinnamon, cumin, coriander or chili powder), fresh or dried herbs (such as sage, rosemary, oregano or basil), and garlic.
  • Use low-sodium broth in soups and sauces.
  • Pick fresh or frozen poultry that hasn't been injected with a sodium solution. Look for words like "saline," "broth" or "sodium solution" on the label—they're red flags.
  • Choose canned veggies labeled "no salt added."
  • Consider salt substitutes. But be aware they may not be advised if you have certain medical conditions, like kidney disease—so check with your doctor.

Sweeten sparingly

  • As a rule of thumb, you can cut the sugar by one-fourth to one-third of what the recipe calls for without any noticeable difference in flavor.
  • Sub unsweetened applesauce or mashed cooked sweet potatoes for some of the sugar when baking muffins, cookies and cakes.
  • Make glazes and marinades with a low-calorie sweetener.
  • To perk up foods when curbing sugar, add vanilla, nutmeg or cinnamon.

Boost whole grains

  • Replace half of the all-purpose white flour in most recipes with whole-grain flour.
  • Choose brown rice instead of white rice and use whole-grain pasta.
  • Add fiber-rich barley, wild rice or rye berries to soups and stews.
  • Replace the breadcrumbs in meat loaf with uncooked oatmeal.
  • Toast or cube whole-grain bread for stuffing.

Pack in nutrient-rich produce

  • Add grated, chopped or shredded veggies into meat loaf, mashed potatoes, pasta sauce and rice dishes.
  • In recipes like burgers and meatballs, replace half the ground meat with cooked, finely chopped mushrooms.
  • Toss in dried, chopped fruit in quick breads and other baked goods.
  • Add puréed produce to replace the oils in baked goods—for instance, applesauce in oatmeal cookies, bananas in muffins or zucchini in brownies. Often you can make a one-to-one switch.

Use healthy cooking methods

  • Rather than frying—which adds fats and calories—bake, roast, broil, stir-fry, grill or sauté.
  • Use a rack to drain off fat when baking, roasting or broiling.
  • Use nonstick cookware or coat pans with nonstick spray.
  • Keep meat moist by basting it in fruit juice or vegetable broth rather than drippings.

Reviewed 3/5/2024

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