Recipe Makeovers: 10 Healthy Cooking Commandments

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Recipe Makeovers: 10 Commandments of Healthy Cooking

'The Recipe Doctor' shares her top recipe lightening tips By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

When it comes to the not-so-ancient art of "making over" recipes to make them lighter and healthier, I think I can safely say that I qualify as an expert.

I've written 25 books (and counting) on an assortment of nutrition topics, but I'm certainly not an authority on all of them. Sure, I wrote about getting through menopause without hormone therapy, but I haven't spent my career researching menopause. And I've written about what to eat if you have irritable bowel syndrome, type 2 diabetes, acid reflux, and migraines. But I relied on specialists in these areas to review what I wrote, as I'm not a specialist in these very important topics.

But with lightening recipes, it's a different story. I've been doing this since I was a graduate student in the early 80s, which, according to my calculations, means I've lightened thousands of recipes!

I don't mean to brag, but I can take a quick glance at a recipe and know, with pretty good accuracy, what I can get away with changing and still end up with a dish that tastes terrific. I know off the top of my head what the magical minimum amount of fat is for most bakery recipes (muffins, cakes, brownies). To recipes you wouldn't think could be lightened (like fried chicken, jalapeno poppers, tempura, and English toffee), I've said "bring it on!" and found success. (OK, now I really am bragging -- so sorry!)

Over the years, I've changed my focus to incorporate the latest nutrition science. For example, we now know that the type of fat we cook with is important, so I switch to the "smart fats" whenever possible. I work to increase the fiber and nutrient content of recipes just as I work to cut sodium and decrease calories from fat and sugar. Being "The Recipe Doctor" is part of my professional identity, and I am grateful for (and fond of) this responsibility.

All that said, I would like to share with you what I call my 10 Recipe Lightening Commandments. These commandments are the culmination of years of recipe testing and tasting. I pass them to you in good faith.

My 10 Recipe Lightening Commandments

1. In most bakery recipes (muffins, cakes, cookies, coffee cakes, brownies, nut breads, etc.) you can substitute whole-wheat for half the white flour called for. Compared to 1/4 cup of white flour, each 1/4 cup of whole-wheat flour adds 3.5 grams of fiber and various phytochemicals, and doubles the amount of magnesium and selenium. The extra fiber helps slow digestion and increase fullness.

2. In most bakery recipes, you can replace half of the sugar with Splenda (or a similar artificial sweetener). This cuts the calories from sugar in half, saving you 48 calories per tablespoon of sugar you replace.

3. In egg dishes (quiches, frittatas, omelets, breakfast casseroles), you can use egg substitute in place of half the eggs. In other words, if the recipe calls for 6 eggs, you would blend 3 whole eggs with 3/4 cup egg substitute (1/4 cup of egg substitute replaces each egg). You can replace half the eggs in bakery recipes with egg substitute as well. By replacing one large egg with 1/4 cup egg substitute, you'll shave 45 calories, 5 grams of fat, 1.6 grams of saturated fat, and 213 milligrams of cholesterol.

4. In many bakery recipes, you can cut the fat ingredient (butter, margarine, shortening, or oil) in half. In other words, if a cake recipe calls for 1 cup of butter or margarine, you can usually use 1/2 cup instead. Remember to replace the missing fat with a similar amount of a moist but healthful ingredient (fat-free sour cream, orange juice, low-fat yogurt, applesauce, etc.) This change cuts both fat and calories, since each gram of fat translates into 9 calories as opposed to 4 per gram for protein or carbohydrate.

5. Cook with reduced-fat or fat-free products when available -- and when they taste good. Try fat-free sour cream, reduced-fat cheeses, light cream cheese, light mayonnaise, reduced-fat or light sausage, less-fat turkey bacon, light salad dressings, and light or low-fat ice cream or frozen yogurt. Many cut calories and saturated fat along with total fat. A few fat-free products are in my arsenal as well: fat-free sour cream and half-and-half, chicken broth, wine, strong coffee, fruit purees, and fruit juice. These foods add moisture, and sometimes flavor, to recipes where you aren't using a lot of fatty ingredients.

6. Never deep-fry when you can oven-fry or pan-fry with a lot less oil. Choose canola oil or olive oil, and use about 1/2 teaspoon per serving (depending on the item). When you pan-fry or oven-fry in a controlled amount of oil, you can cut a lot of the fat and calories your food would soak up if it were submerged in hot oil. For every tablespoon of oil you cut, you'll save 120 calories and 13.5 grams of fat.

7. Use whole grains in your recipes whenever possible. We've already talked about whole-wheat flour, but you can also substitute brown rice for white rice, add barley to stews and casseroles, and look for recipes that call for oats. Whole grains offer fiber to fill you up, along with a plethora of health benefits.

8. Extra ingredients and embellishments can often be removed or cut in half. If a recipe calls for chocolate chips, you can use less. If it calls for dotting your casserole or pie with butter, you can skip this step. In a cake recipe, you can use half the original amount of frosting (in a double-layer cake, just frost the top and middle and forget the sides). And in some cakes, bars, and cookies, you can skip the frosting in favor of a light sprinkling of powdered sugar. Using 2 tablespoons of frosting instead of 4 will shave 130 calories, 4.5 grams of fat, and 2 grams of saturated fat. Each tablespoon of chocolate chips you skip cuts the calories by 50 per serving, the fat by 3 grams, and the saturated fat by almost 2 grams.

9. Use top-quality ingredients when possible. Start with the best-tasting, freshest ingredients you can find. For example, I use fresh garlic (I buy it already minced in jars) and fresh herbs when I can -- they usually have more flavor than the dried. Use extra-fresh fish, the sharpest reduced-fat cheddar cheese, and so on. All this means your lighter dish will be more likely to pass muster with the masses!

10. Switch to "smart fat" ingredients when possible. Certain fats, when used in moderation, actually have health benefits! Omega-3 fatty acids (found in fish and some plant foods like canola oil and ground flaxseed), as well as oils that contain monounsaturated fats (like olive and canola oil) and foods high in monounsaturated fats (like avocado and almonds) may help protect against heart disease. In recipes, you often have a choice of which oil or margarine to use, or you can choose to add fish instead of red meat. When a recipe calls for melted butter or margarine, you can often substitute canola or olive oil.

Originally published March 2, 2006.
Medically updated May 28, 2008.


Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, is the "Recipe Doctor" for the WebMD Weight Loss Clinic and the author of numerous books on nutrition and health. Her opinions and conclusions are her own.

©2006 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.

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Reviewed on 6/27/2008

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