Easy Swaps for Healthier Eating
Try these simple food swaps plus 18 recipes to help you eat a little healthier!
Marisa Moore is a registered dietitian, nutritionist, and culinary nutrition expert. Swaps photographs by Brittany Conerly. Graphic design by Luke Atwood Abiol.
As a registered dietitian, my work is all about helping people upgrade recipes for better flavor and nutrition. Now this doesn't mean swearing off your family's classic macaroni and cheese or other favorite foods! In addition to my general advice to try adding more vegetables to dishes (always a good thing), I like to try some simple swaps for healthy upgrades.
What are healthy food swaps?
Traditional food swaps often focus on reducing calories or swapping out junk food. But weight loss is not the main story when it comes to food swaps for healthier eating. Instead, you might use fruit for sweetness, look for high-fiber food swaps, find ways to add healthy fats, or add a vitamin and mineral boost to your recipe.
Most people have heard of swapping Greek yogurt for sour cream, whole-wheat for refined white flour in bread and bagels, and nuts for granola, but there's more! Here are eight creative ideas to help you start thinking about how to build a more nutritious plate.
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Make your other recipes green with envy by adding avocado in unexpected ways. Avocados provide healthy fats, fiber, and other nutrients. They make a great swap for cream and other ingredients that are high in saturated fat. Take advantage of the fruit’s luscious texture to add dairy-free creaminess to smoothies, mousse, muffins, cupcakes, and icing.
You’re only five ingredients away from this pretty avocado ice cream. This recipe uses two avocados as the base, bananas for sweetness, and a little coconut cream for a vegan, dairy-free treat that can be made in a food processor.
You won’t miss the butter in this fudgy brownie recipe. Adding avocado delivers a boost of good fats and moisture to the easy, dairy-free dessert.
You've surely heard of using fruit juice or fresh fruit such as bananas as a natural sweetener. Choices from the dried fruit aisle are another great option (though just to confuse things, dates are technically a fresh fruit rather than dried). Dates are naturally sweet and provide some vitamins and minerals such as potassium, iron, and fiber that you don’t get from regular sugar. You can use dates to sweeten recipes while reducing added sugar.
While you can’t simply swap dates for sugar in your aunt’s favorite layer cake and expect it to work, dates add a rich, caramel-like flavor to a variety of recipes. Use them to sweeten smoothies, plant based milk, puddings, or one of these next options.
In this almost magical recipe, skip granulated sugar and turn pitted dates into a creamy caramel sauce with the help of boiling water and coconut milk. Drizzle the sauce on popcorn, or dip apples for a delightful and fruity treat.
These top-rated homemade energy snack bars are the perfect make-ahead recipe. With a whole cup of dates, the bars are a chewy snack balanced with a little crunch from chia, flaxseeds, and almonds.
White beans’ fairly neutral flavor lets them show up in many different recipes almost undetected. They’re great for adding a creamy texture to soups and sauces without any cream. White beans are also a heart-healthy source of protein, fiber and magnesium.
Cook a fresh batch at home or choose unseasoned, lower-sodium canned navy, great northern, or cannellini beans. Then seamlessly swap beans into a variety of sweet and savory recipes from smoothies to soups.
Puree cooked white beans to thicken and add a silky texture to this Tuscan white bean soup — no cream necessary. Use this same technique to add creaminess to a loaded potato soup or white chicken chili. Try the beans plain or punch up the flavor with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil or a handful of fresh herbs.
This veggie- and fiber-packed dip will remind you of those hot spinach and artichoke dips so popular at restaurants. But this vegan one gets a boost of protein and fiber courtesy of a white bean puree — plus a little cheesy flavor from nutritional yeast.
Similar to chocolate hummus but with a softer, more whipped texture, this two-ingredient chocolate protein mousse is the quick, easy, and chocolatey snack you didn’t know you needed. Make a batch at the beginning of the week for sweet and satisfying grab-and-go snacks!
Face it. Salt is a flavor enhancer that cannot truly be faked, swapped, or substituted. It magically brings other flavors to life. Luckily, most people don't need to eliminate it completely.
But if you are cutting back on sodium or your recipe is just missing something, adding a bit of acid might do the trick. Thanks to the wide variety of citrus from grapefruits to oranges, and vinegars from apple cider to sherry vinegar, there is no shortage of ways to add a squeeze, splash, or grating of flavor to recipes.
Why stop at lemon juice when you have the whole lemon in hand? The natural oils in citrus zest impart more flavor than the juice. Need proof? With just a handful of ingredients and a sprinkle of salt, this grilled asparagus tastes plenty exciting, thanks to the lemon zest!
Fresh lime juice delivers a punch of flavor to make these fish tacos irresistible. Shallots, jalapeño, spices, and fresh cilantro play key supporting roles, too — you won’t much miss the salt.
It’s hard to narrow down the ways to use vinegar in cooking, but a classic balsamic vinaigrette works with dishes from fresh salads to roasted vegetables and chicken. This one includes olive oil, balsamic vinegar, honey, and Dijon mustard for tangy sweet flavor.
Aquafaba is the liquid from a can of chickpeas or white beans. And this swap is not necessarily one that’s healthier. Instead it’s a plant-based alternative to egg whites for when you’re whipping up vegan desserts and more. Aquafaba does not contain the protein or other nutrients you’d get from egg whites. But it offers some versatility in the kitchen and becomes a key ingredient if you are going plant-based.
If you didn’t know you could make an eggless mayo at home, save the liquid from a can of chickpeas or white beans, grab your hand mixer, and whip this one up!
Fresh strawberries, coconut cream, and aquafaba come together in this light, whipped, plant-based dessert. It’s a pretty one that’s perfect for brightening up any table.
Swap aquafaba for egg whites in these vegan macaroons. This recipe uses the ingredients you’d typically find in the traditional cookies, including almond extract, coconut, and almond flour. The vegan dark chocolate is a welcome addition.
Affectionately known as “nooch,” nutritional yeast is both a seasoning and a supplement. It’s high in vitamin B12, and just 2 tablespoons packs about 4 g protein. Stir nutritional yeast into sauces or sprinkle on roasted vegetables, popcorn, and other snacks for a nutty, almost cheesy (vegan) flavor.
Light and crunchy, these kale chips are seasoned with garlic and nutritional yeast for a savory snack that won't make you simply miss potato chips.
Nutritional yeast is the key ingredient in this dairy-free mac and cheese recipe. Swap in broccoli or cauliflower for a little variety, or toss them in for a triple-veggie boost.
Mushrooms can be subbed in for half the meat in meatballs, burgers, tacos, stuffed peppers, and more. For ease, try chopping mushrooms in the food processor to add to your recipes throughout the week. Mushrooms add fiber, vitamin D, moisture, and rich umami flavor to enhance a variety of dishes.
Not sure about swapping mushrooms for meat? Start small. These turkey meatballs include some mushrooms mixed in with the usual meatball ingredients for a flavor boost.
Going with mushrooms for some of the beef in this burger is a delicious way to reduce saturated fat and improve the nutritional value of your typical burger. Ounce for ounce, mushrooms also provide fewer calories when compared to beef. The blended technique is not just delicious, it also helps stretch the beef so it goes a little further on the dinner table! You can use ground turkey, beef, or another meat with crimini or white mushrooms. Simply mix the mushrooms with the ground meat as you would any other ingredient.
Chickpeas are a good source of fiber and plant protein, which work together to help you stay full. Chickpeas are versatile, too — and a gluten-free swap for flour in blondies and cookie dough.
No regular flour needed in this sweet treat. Whip up an easy dessert that’s packed with protein and fiber using a can of chickpeas and some nut butter. Buy the monk fruit sweetener at natural foods stores and some supermarkets.
Cookie dough lover? Grab a spoon! Where you’d typically combine eggs, flour, and sugar, this edible cookie dough is made using cooked chickpeas and nut or seed butter. The chickpeas add protein and fiber, and the “dough” is fine to eat without additional cooking. With a generous sprinkle of chocolate chips, it’s just sweet enough and can be easily customized for your preference.
To your health!
What’s the best diet for you? It depends. Whether you're looking to make more heart-healthy choices, keep your blood sugar steady, lower your cholesterol, or simply add more calcium or fewer refined carbs to your diet, what goes on the plate can make a big difference. Explore more ideas in these next articles.