By Megan O. Steintrager
This year, instead of making super-restrictive, hard-to-keep diet resolutions, here’s an idea: Just make a few tiny tweaks, swapping out unhealthy craves for delicious tasting, better-for-you substitutes. Each of the changes below is small, but taken together, they add up to a much healthier diet, with less junk to zap your energy and more nutrients to boost your well-being.
Crave Bacon? Shake On Smoked Paprika: While the saying goes that everything is better with bacon, we all know it’s best to limit consumption of cured and smoked meats, which have been linked to various cancers. Enter smoked paprika, which gives a smoky, almost meaty flavor to stews and other dishes (it’s especially good in lentil stew). For a sweet, salty, spicy bacon substitute, sprinkle sweet potato slices or shiitake mushroom slivers with smoked paprika and a little salt before roasting, then use in place of bacon bits.
Crave Salty Foods? Try A Squeeze of Lemon: It’s common advice to use herbs and spices to enhance the flavor of food instead of salt. But sometimes what a dish needs is a completely different kind of flavor enhancer. Before you grab the salt shaker, try adding tartness by squeezing fresh lemon juice over steamed vegetables, pasta dishes—lemon is a great match for Parmesan cheese—chicken and fish, or as a finishing flourish for soups and stews. Try this trick with other citrus fruits, as well as other acidic ingredients like apple cider vinegar, too.
Crave Ice Cream? Blend Some Frozen Bananas: Sometimes nothing will beat the craving for the icy treat, but the creamy texture and flavor of ice cream can be had without all the fat and sugar, and in seconds! Peel and freeze overripe bananas, then use a blender or food processor to whip the banana into a creamy mixture with other fruits, and flavorings like vanilla beans and raw cacao. For a more robust blend with healthy fats, try adding organic nut butters. If you want to really go bananas, consider investing in a Yonanas, which turns out remarkably soft-serve-like treats.
Crave Pasta? Make Oodles of Zoodles: Unless you have a gluten allergy, there’s nothing wrong with eating the occasional bowl of regular whole-wheat pasta, but to really get the bang for your buck, add a serving of vegetables in place of pasta by making noodles out of vegetables, such as zoodles (zucchini noodles). You can use a spiralizer to turn various veggies (beets, carrots, kohlrabi, squash, sweet potato, turnip, broccoli, etc.) into noodles that can be swapped into your favorite noodle-y dishes like spaghetti and meatballs, pad Thai and chicken noodle soup—or chicken zoodle soup. If you are not ready to invest the money or counter space in a spiralizer, you can just use a regular vegetable peeler to make veggie strands.
Crave Full-Fat Sour Cream or Cheese? Eat It! Non-fat products tend to be pumped up with stabilizers, sugar, and other sketchy ingredients to make them mimic the real thing. Instead of globbing non-fat sour cream and heaps of low-fat cheddar onto your baked potato or burrito, use a small amount of the full-fat products, which taste better and have a more pleasurable mouth feel, so you’re likely to use less.
Crave Chocolate? Seek The Dark Side: At this point, most of us know about and have fully embraced the fact that dark chocolate has real health benefits. But don’t grab whatever package says “dark chocolate” at the grocery store — the United States has no official rules about what can be labeled “dark chocolate,” so what’s sold as “dark” can contain a wide range of cocoa solids; less actual chocolate generally means more added sugar, fat and fillers making up the rest of the bar. For the best bet, look for chocolate that’s labeled at least 72% cocoa beans (cacao). Read Chocolate with Benefits for some of our favorite brands.
Crave Steak? Eat Grass-Fed Top Sirloin: 100 percent grass-fed steak has a healthier balance of fats than meat from cows raised on grain, and top sirloin is a lean cut — you get all the protein, iron, and satisfaction of steak without the extra calories of fattier cuts. Plus, you’re helping sustain the farmer who is feeding the cow a healthier diet, and keeping the soil more nutrient-rich.
Crave Sugar? Reach for Dried Fruit: Dried fruit sometimes get a bad rap because it has a lot of naturally occurring sugar, but dried fruit also comes with fiber, vitamins and minerals that refined sugar lacks. Dates, in particular, have a richness and caramel flavor that works well in treats like Deliciously Ella’s Classic Almond and Cacao Energy Balls and Minimalist Baker’s Healthy Brownie Granola Bars, or simply stuffed with almond butter and dusted with cacao for a really easy treat.
Prune puree is another secret weapon for adding moisture and sweetness to baked goods and other desserts; it pairs particularly well with dark chocolate. You can make your own prune puree by pulsing pitted prunes with hot water in a food processor (or grab a jar of prune baby food), then experiment with swapping out some of the sugar and fat in your favorite dessert recipes—blogger Laura Fuentes’ Yummy, Healthy, Fudgy, Chunky Chocolate Brownies look good.
Crave A Burger? Make A Blended One: There’s a growing movement in the culinary community to add veggies (especially meaty tasting, moisture giving mushrooms) to burgers to cut down on meat consumption. The James Beard Foundation has gotten involved in the Blended Burger Project and you’ll find a number of mushroom-boosted burger recipes on the organization’s website. (And remember to choose grass-fed beef when you’re making a burger.)
Crave Potato Chips? Go DIY: Next time you find yourself reaching for a bag of chips at the grocery store, grab a few sweet potatoes instead. Sweet potatoes are a true super food, loaded with fiber, vitamins B6, A and C, plus potassium and manganese, and they are easy to transform into chips: Just thinly slice sweet potatoes, toss with coconut, olive, or avocado oil and a sprinkle of fine sea salt, and roast in an oven at 425F until crispy and golden, about 10 minutes.
Crave a Cocktail? Make Sangria: Instead of the empty calories of liquor and sweet mixers, get some heart health benefits from red wine and fruit next time you want a festive drink. There are countless variations on sangria, but to keep it healthier, make a recipe with no added sugar (try using just a touch of raw honey if you need to sweeten the deal). You can improvise sangria without a recipe: Just combine a bottle of red wine, about a half cup of brandy and fruit (apples, oranges, lemons, berries — your choice!) and chill for several hours, then serve over ice, and cut with seltzer.
Also published on Medium.