You hear it all the time: It’s healthier to cook meals at home. That means, whenever possible, it’s best to avoid getting sucked into the takeout trap, as restaurant food is notorious for serving super-sized portions containing an overload of fat and calories. Meanwhile, you can’t open your social feed without seeing mentions and photos of meal prep, and how this way of eating is heralded by dietitians and nutritionists as the holy grail of healthy living.
That said, not all recipes are created equal. Just because a meal is homemade doesn’t mean it’s necessarily healthy. (Grandma’s apple pie may be delicious, but it could also call for a whole week’s worth of sugar and butter.) The good thing about doing your own cooking is that you have full control over what goes into—and what you get out of—each meal. By applying some expert-recommended smart substitutions and creative modifications, you can make almost every recipe more conducive to your goals.
1. Save the salt for the end.
To avoid feeling bloated or swollen the day after a meal, registered dietitian Ilana Muhlstein tries to cook with as little salt as possible. Instead, she challenges herself to use more spices, herbs and quality ingredients for flavor.
"Many recipes will call for salting the food at almost every step, which results in a very high-sodium dish," she says. "I recommend waiting until the very end, when you can taste the dish to determine how much salt it really needs. Sometimes, even vegetable soups won't need added salt or salted broths to make it flavorful and delicious."
2. Slash the sugar.
It’s time to demote sugar from its typical starring role to an occasional supporting character. Chelsey Amer, MS, RDN, CDN and creator of CitNutritionally.com, recommends cutting out or reducing the white stuff whenever possible—not only in your morning cup of coffee, but in any recipe that calls for it.
"Our taste buds adapt over time, so if you gradually reduce the amount of sugar you add to recipes, you won't notice over time," she says, noting that it’s best to start slowly. "At first, reduce the amount of sugar by 25 percent—so if a recipe calls for one cup of sugar, use 3/4 cup. Then, try leaving out a little bit more the next time." (Tip: You can use unsweetened applesauce instead of sugar in many recipes, and flavor coffee with a sprinkle of cinnamon.)
3. Throw your recipe a bone.
Sharon Brown, clinical nutritionist and founder of Bonafide Provisions, suggests sneaking bone broth into everything you cook. "From the vegetables you sauté to the meats that you braise, bone broth supports a healthy immune system and strengthens the gut lining," she says.
To also support her brain health, she puts two cups of bone broth in a saucepan, adds chopped mixed veggies and two eggs and boils for about 10 minutes. Brown eats this bowl of gut-healing, nutrient-dense, protein-loaded breakfast every day. It also comes in handy when you’re sick.
4. Trim the fat.
Amer points out that most recipes—if you're not baking—will work and taste just as great if you cut the source of fat in half, which includes any added oil or butter. "Many recipes will overdo it, whether it's buttering a pan or adding an extra drizzle of oil at the end," she says.
And when it’s not possible to cut, try using a smart swap. When the recipe calls for full-fat sour cream, mayonnaise or heavy cream, you can usually use a lighter, healthier swap, like Greek yogurt or low-fat cottage cheese, without much difference in taste. "Another great way I like to make recipes healthier is by using a healthier form of fat," Amer says. For example, she uses avocado in her healthy tuna salad instead of 100 percent mayonnaise.
Muhlstein points out that salad dressings, marinades and dips are also great examples of unnecessary fat content. "Salad dressing recipes typically call for two to three times as much oil than vinegar, and it usually doesn't take that much," she says. "Start making the recipe using half as much oil as the recipe asks for and you will likely discover that it makes for a more flavorful and less greasy salad."
5. Use healthier cooking methods.
It’s not just about what you cook, but how you cook it. By using better-for-you methods, you can improve the nutritional profile of your meals without altering the ingredients.
Here’s your cheat sheet: Not-so-healthy methods include frying in oil, cooking in large amounts of butter and boiling (which can reduce a food’s nutrient content). Some healthier cooking methods are grilling, baking, steaming, roasting, stir-frying and—perhaps surprisingly—microwaving.