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13 easy ingredient swaps for healthier cooking

You won't even be able to tell these dishes are better for you.

cauliflower-fried-rice-recipe-chowhound
This story is part of New Year, New You, everything you need to develop healthy habits that will last all the way through 2020 and beyond.

If you're not used to doing it, eating healthy often seems like a chore, but it doesn't have to be difficult or joyless. Even just tweaking little things here and there -- like adopting meatless Mondays, weaning yourself off soda or picking less-processed food -- can add up to big benefits, whether you're looking to lose weight, have more energy or just feel better about your food choices.

One of the easiest methods is to start making small substitutions instead of totally overhauling your diet all at once.

If you don't want to try the Whole30 challenge or go completely vegan or gluten-free -- let alone commit to restrictive paleo or keto diets -- you don't have to! You don't even have to swap out burgers for kale salads, or skip dessert. Just start making minor changes like the ones we recommend below.

We promise they're all doable, and even if you only do them some of the time, they'll have an impact. Incorporate a few into your weekly routine and before you know it, you'll notice that eating healthy is actually pretty easy -- and enjoyable, too.

1. Replace refined white sugar and flour with healthier alternatives

Baked goods don't have to be unhealthy -- even if you struggle with the whole "in moderation" part -- if you experiment with swapping out some of the usual ingredients, like refined white sugar and flour, for other things. Chowhound's guide to making healthy dessert lays out ways you can substitute common ingredients with things like applesauce and aquafaba.

But here's one of the suggestions that may sound harder to swallow: swapping black beans in for flour, at least in chocolate desserts. As the Minimalist Baker's vegan and gluten-free brownies (pictured above) prove, you'll hardly notice the difference. And as a bonus, these are loaded with fiber and healthy omega-3s. Get the vegan gluten-free black bean brownies recipe.

2. Use non-dairy milk in your smoothies (and sneak in some spinach too)

healthy-smoothie-chowhound
Chowhound

The easiest way to add some extra health into your life? Drink it up! Smoothies are a favorite (and less austere than detox juices), but they're only as healthy as the things you put in them -- so consider choosing non-dairy milks instead of moo juice, harnessing the probiotic power of yogurt (bonus: protein boost), using frozen fruit instead of ice to pack in extra fiber and nutrients and sprinkling in some superfoods. You can even sneak in spinach without it tasting like a salad: Try Chowhound's healthy blueberry smoothie recipe and see for yourself. You can also swap in coconut yogurt or oat yogurt along with that non-dairy milk. 

3. Lay off the Lays and make your own veggie chips

kale-chips-recipe-chowhound
Chowhound

As a general healthy living tip, pretty much everything in the vending machine should be off limits. But if you're jonesing for some potato chip crunch, veggie chips can be a great option without the guilt (i.e. tons of oil, salt, additives and preservatives). And you can make them from pretty much any vegetable you like, from sweet potatoes and carrots to kale. See Chowhound's guide to making homemade veggie chips (no dehydrator required). But remember: These are still intended as a treat, not your daily serving of veggies; try to work in simple steamed, roasted and raw vegetables as often as you can.  

4. Snack smarter with plant-based junk food

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Conversely, when you don't have time for DIY treats -- or if you're caught out away from home and must give in to a snack attack -- just make relatively better choices. Look for vegan and gluten-free versions of your favorite chips and candy. They may not qualify as health food, per se, but they're often significantly healthier than their conventional alternatives, and taste just as great (truly, Beanfields nacho chips are amazing and you can't tell they're vegan or made of beans). See also: keto chicken chips and other plant-based snacks. Baby steps are still steps, after all. You can also try making healthier snacks at home, like naturally sweetened fruit leather, for instance.

5. Try quinoa instead of rice, oats and other grains

healthy-quinoa-breakfast-porridge-recipe-chowhound
Chowhound

If you're not doing keto or paleo, whole grains are great, and always nutritionally preferable to more processed forms, but almighty quinoa may be even better. It's a literal superfood, it's gluten-free, it contains all nine essential amino acids the human body needs -- and it can stand in for lots of other ingredients, like rice, oats and even wheat.

It's technically a seed, but it works like a grain (and it is still not paleo- or keto-compliant, FYI); you can use it as the base for salads and soups, serve it with curries and even bake with it. While the majority of quinoa recipes are savory, they can be sweet too, like Chowhound's healthy quinoa breakfast porridge with figs.

6. Substitute spinach for some of your meat or dairy

spinach-lasagna-recipe-chowhound
Chowhound

If you're not a big vegetable person, sneaking veggies into food is a time-honored trick that works with kids and picky eaters alike (and even lets you force yourself to get more roughage in your diet). You don't have to stick to spinach, but it's especially easy to incorporate into all sorts of dishes, from lasagna to dips and even pesto (and smoothies, as mentioned above). Try Chowhound's "hidden" spinach recipes to get a sense of just how many dishes you can work it into.  

7. Cut back on booze by making mocktails

mocktail-non-alcoholic-cocktail-recipe-dry-january-chowhound
Chowhound

Whether you're doing "Dry January" as your health challenge du jour or just trying to cut back a bit (or, um, a lot), it's possible to make mocktails that are just as complex and delicious as actual craft cocktails. The key is building layers of flavor with ingredients like fruit juices (though beware, they can be high in sugar), infused simple syrups, flavored bitters and even herbs. We bellied up to 10 bartenders and got enough non-alcoholic cocktail recipes to see us through several weekends.

If you're going to stick to your spirits, at least consider cutting out added sugar. Try a zero-calorie liquid sweetener in place of simple syrups.

8. Use cauliflower in place of rice, flour, meat and potatoes

cauliflower-fried-rice-recipe-chowhound
Chowhound

Even if you don't think carbs are the devil, it never hurts to work more veggies into your life, and cauliflower rice is an easy way to do it. It's versatile, healthy and can be served in place of nutritionally weak white rice in any dish, from burritos to stir-fries and beyond. Get the cauliflower rice recipe.

And note that cauliflower pizza crust is also pretty great. Ditto buffalo cauliflower with blue cheese dressing (you seriously won't even miss the chicken). You can even blend cauliflower into a creamy sauce that uses less (or no) dairy. See Chowhound's piece on how to use cauliflower for more ideas. 

9. Substitute Greek yogurt for other fats

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Chowhound

Greek yogurt is pretty great on its own, especially if you go with non- or low-fat versions. You can swap in plain Greek yogurt in place of many other fats like mayo, sour cream, butter and oil in a whole host of recipes. For instance, try it in healthy mac and cheese, a garlicky sandwich spread, a delectable yet healthy dip, homemade frozen yogurt and as the creamy element in both chicken salad and slaw.  

10. Cut back on cheese by swapping in nutritional yeast

Vegans have known for a while now that nutritional yeast is a great (and healthy) substitute for regular cheese -- it's nutty, slightly salty and, well, cheesy even while being free of dairy. Sprinkled on its own over pasta, popcorn or salad, it can stand in for parmesan, but it's also great when used to deepen the flavor of cheese sauces and queso dip. Just look at the Minimalist Baker's roasted jalapeño vegan queso recipe above and tell us you wouldn't think that was made with some sharp cheddar! (In fact, it's cashews and nutritional yeast instead.) 

11. Try lettuce wraps in place of tortillas

burrito-bowl-recipe-chowhound
Chowhound

If you've ever tried to eat healthier at fast food joints, you may have asked to hold the bun, or even substituted lettuce for the bread. It works, but what's infinitely more enjoyable is making the same swap for tortillas, which are similarly thin and foldy. (If you can't do it, at least opt for corn tortillas instead of flour, since they're healthier.) Use the lettuce, though, and you can justify adding a little bit more sour cream and cheese. Try this taco lettuce wraps recipe, or Chowhound's breakfast burrito bowls recipe.  

12. Embrace the zoodle (and other veggie noodles instead of pasta)

Have a saucy dinner planned? Swap out noodles, even the healthier kinds, with zoodles. Those are noodles made out of spiralized zucchini. Once you get the hang of making them, they're a great healthy alternative to regular or wheat pasta -- and you can also shave them into thin sheets as an alternative to traditional lasagna (see Chowhound's noodleless zucchini lasagna recipe). But branch out even further and try zoodles in soups too (like pho) and stir fries such as this zucchini noodle pad Thai.  

13. Ditch milk chocolate for dark

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Pixabay

Whether you're just grabbing a bite of something sweet or getting ready to bake a more virtuous batch of bean brownies, the mere act of choosing a darker chocolate (that is, one with a higher cacao percentage) can count as a healthy move. Dark chocolate is rich in antioxidants, after all, and has much less added sugar -- and most of it is vegan too. See our picks for the best dark chocolate bars to munch on. Then just try not to eat the entire bar at once. Baby steps.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.