Recipe Makeovers for All-American Food

Cook up lighter versions of American cuisine classics.

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

Reviewed by Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD

I love all the cuisines that make up our American food culture. Where else can you find almost every type of food under the sun, from Indian to Thai, Chinese and Japanese; Italian, Greek, French, Mexican, Cuban, Vietnamese, Indonesian, and more? Yet there are still foods that seem unmistakably American.

There are foods that may have been invented elsewhere, but have morphed into American phenomena, like French fries, fruit pies, cupcakes, popcorn, bagels, pizza, and the entire category of "salads." There are foods we've put our own spin on, like pancakes and waffles, grilled cheese sandwiches, and muffins. And then there is truly American food, invented on U.S. ground by Americans, like Toll House cookies, corn dogs, cornbread, doughnuts, potato chips, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Another great American food contribution: almost all things ice cream, like ice cream sandwiches, hot fudge sundaes, and root beer floats.

All these all-American foods are fantastic and part of our culinary heritage. The problem is that most of them provide few nutrients and little fiber -- but a load of calories. Some classic American foods are admittedly impossible to make over while retaining their desirable characteristics - doughnuts, for example. But many others can be "doctored" to be lower in calories and fat and still stay true to the yummy food Americans have come to know and love.

Here are 12 all-American foods that lend themselves to taking the calories down a notch, followed by some lightened-up American recipes.

American Food Makeover No. 1: Apple Pie

According to The Food Encyclopedia, apples were introduced to North America in the 17th century from Europe and West Asia. Apple dishes have been woven into American cuisine ever since, from apple crisp and caramel apples to apple pie.

Makeover Tips: Make a lighter apple pie by using a lower-fat, part whole-wheat piecrust, and by using less sugar in the filling. No butter needs to "dot" the filling or the top crust, either.

American Food Makeover No. 2: Chocolate Chip Cookies

By most standards, the chocolate chip cookie is the quintessential American cookie. And one of the most recognized chocolate chip cookies is the Toll House Cookie. Using small pieces of semisweet chocolate, Ruth Graves Wakefield created America's original chocolate chip cookie in 1939 at her Toll House Inn near Whitman, Mass., according to The New Food Lover's Companion.

Makeover Tips: Use a lower-fat margarine with plant sterols in place of stick butter or margarine in your chocolate chip cookie recipe. You can decrease the sugar by a fourth, and replace half the white flour with whole-wheat flour. Using a bit fewer chocolate chips will also shave some calories and fat grams.

American Food Makeover No. 3: Cornbread

This is an All-American quick bread that's made in all different styles (Southern, skillet, sweet) with all sorts of possible accoutrements (green pepper, cheese, bacon, onion, etc.). There have been all sorts of names for cornbread, and it has many variations that are part of American culinary history, such as johnnycakes, hushpuppies, and spoon bread.

Makeover Tips: Lighten cornbread recipes by using less fat in the batter (substitute a less-fat margarine with plant sterols for bacon grease, lard, or shortening) and replacing that fat with low-fat buttermilk or fat-free sour cream. For some recipes, you can make a fat substitute blend using canola oil and fat-free sour cream. Use fewer eggs (substitute two egg whites or 1/4 cup egg substitute). If your recipe calls for "stir-in" ingredients like bacon or cheese, you can use a reduced-fat option and add less of it. Up the fiber in your cornbread by substituting whole-wheat flour for half of the white flour called for.

American Food Makeover No. 4: Corn Dogs

This favorite carnival and state fair treat, in which a hot dog on a stick is dunked into thick cornbread batter and deep-fried, was created in 1942 by Texan Neil Fletcher for the State Fair, according to The New Food Lover's Companion.

Makeover Tips: Use leaner dogs (there are several "light" brands available), and bake your corn dog until the cornbread batter is firm instead of deep-frying it. If deep-frying is a must, at least use a cooking fat that's higher in monounsaturated fat, preferably one that also contributes plant omega-3s too (like canola oil).

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