Healthy Cooking Substitutions

Healthy Cooking Substitutions

Healthy Cooking Substitutions

The Ultimate Guide to Healthy Ingredient Substitutions, Part 2: COOKING

If you’re trying to live a healthier life, it helps to learn how to cook healthy food. That doesn’t mean you need to go to culinary school or sign up for a cooking class—there are SO many resources available to help us learn at home! There are tons of delicious, healthy recipes out there that we can try, but you also don’t need a recipe. Recipes are more like guidelines, and we can use them as inspiration for our own ideas. (More about this in my Creativity in the Kitchen blog!) As we experiment in the kitchen, we learn about the foods that we like and simple healthy substitutions that we can make.

We went through some healthy baking alternatives in part 1 of this ULTIMATE GUIDE to Healthy Baking & Cooking Substitutions, and now it’s time for part 2! Again, if you have ideas to add to this list, I’d love to hear them. There are always more creative substitutions we can make!

Part 2: Healthy Cooking Substitutions

Healthy cooking requires some flexibility and some creative thinking! Check out these ideas for healthy substitutes, whether you’re looking for low-fat, low-carb, vegan, or gluten-free options. Some are simple, some are surprising!

Salt Substitutes

Herbs

Fresh or Dried Herbs

  • Easy way to add tasty flavors without salt!
  • Dried herbs can be stored in your spice cabinet and won’t spoil like fresh herbs.
  • No Sodium
Spices

Spices & Seasonings

  • Spices are loaded with flavor, and you can combine them in so many ways. 
  • Choose low- or no-sodium seasonings. They’ve got enough flavor on their own!
  • No or Low Sodium
Peppers

Fresh Peppers & Garlic

  • Sauté fresh peppers in garlic to boost savory flavors and cut down on the salt you need.
  • Choose sweet or hot peppers!
  • Low Sodium
Meat, Chicken, & Tuna Substitutes

If you’re vegan, vegetarian, or just looking to eat less meat, there are some easy substitutions you can make in chicken or tuna salads, chilis, burger patties, or meatballs.

Chickpeas

Chickpeas

  • Instead of tuna or chicken salad, make a chickpea salad!
  • Loaded with plant-based protein.
  • Vegan & Vegetarian
  • Low-Fat
  • High-Fiber
  • Plant-Based Protein
Black Beans

Black or Kidney Beans

  • Vegan & Vegetarian
  • Low-Fat
  • High-Fiber
  • Plant-Based Protein
Quinoa

Quinoa or Bulgur Wheat

  • Cook hearty whole grains like quinoa or bulgur wheat into your chili instead of ground meat!
  • 1 cup cooked quinoa has 8g protein and 6g fiber!
  • Vegan & Vegetarian
  • Low-Fat
  • Gluten-Free
  • High-Fiber Grain
Mushrooms

Mushrooms

  • Great ground meat substitute! Chop mushrooms into burger patties, chili, or pasta sauce.
  • 1 cup sliced only has 16 calories, 2g carbs, an 0g fat.
  • Vegan & Vegetarian
  • Paleo
  • Low-Fat
Lentils

Lentils

  • Another awesome source of plant-based protein.
  • Sticks together well for dishes like “meat” loaf.
  • One cup of cooked lentils has about 18g protein and 15g fiber!
  • Vegan & Vegetarian
  • Low-Fat
  • Plant-Based Protein
Grain, Carb & Starch Substitutes

If you’re gluten-free, paleo, or follow a low-carb lifestyle, it might seem like you have to say goodbye to rice, tacos, and pasta—but you don’t! Check out these easy and sneaky alternatives:

Rice & Pasta Substitutes

Since white rice is a more refined grain, it loses more important nutrients during the milling process. This is why brown rice and quinoa have become a popular healthier choices. For the same reason, as alternatives to white pastas, there are countless whole-grain pasta options out there: whole wheat, black bean, quinoa, red lentil. But, many people also want non-grain or lower carb options to satisfy that rice or pasta fix:

Cauliflower Rice

Cauliflower/Broccoli Rice

  • Low-calorie and low-carb alternative to rice, no cooking required.
  • Find it at the grocery store, or make it yourself!
  • Easy way to fit in extra veggies!
  • Vegan & Vegetarian
  • Paleo
  • Low-Carb
  • High-Fiber
  • Gluten-Free
Zucchini Noodles

Zucchini Noodles

  • Vegan & Vegetarian
  • Paleo
  • Low-Carb
  • High-Fiber
  • Gluten-Free
Spaghetti Squash

Spaghetti Squash

  • This veggie has a natural spaghetti-noodle texture inside!
  • 1 entire squash (6 cups “spaghetti”) contains about 210 calories and 42g carbs—the same as 1 tiny cup of pasta!
  • Vegan & Vegetarian
  • Paleo
  • Low-Fat
  • High-Fiber
  • Gluten-Free

Bread & Tortilla Substitutes

Choosing whole-wheat breads and healthy tortillas can be great healthy options, especially when replacing those made from refined grains. But, there are also gluten-free, low-carb, and paleo-friendly substitutes!

Sweet Potato Toast

Sweet Potato Toasts

  • Toast a thick slice of sweet potato instead of bread! Top with avocado, a fried egg, cream cheese, peanut butter—whatever you like!
  • Also try using cooked and sliced sweet potato rounds as a quiche or pie crust!
  • Vegan & Vegetarian
  • Paleo
  • Low-Fat
  • Gluten-Free
Cauliflower

Cauliflower

  • Vegan & Vegetarian
  • Paleo
  • Low-Carb
  • High-Fiber
  • Gluten-Free
Lettuce

Lettuce Wraps

  • Super simple low-carb alternative!
  • Fill up romaine or Bibb lettuce leaves with a bean salad or taco fillings. Try iceberg lettuce wedges as a burger bun.
  • Vegan & Vegetarian
  • Paleo
  • Low-Carb
  • Gluten-Free
Spring Rolls

Rice Paper

  • Turn your favorite sandwiches and wraps into refreshing summer rolls!
  • Made from rice flour. Only about 24 calories and 6g carbs per wrap.
  • Vegan & Vegetarian
  • Low-Carb
  • Gluten-Free

Breadcrumbs Substitutes

Many store-bought breadcrumbs are loaded with sodium or added sugars, especially high-fructose corny syrup! You can absolutely make your own healthy breadcrumbs using healthy, whole-grain breads. And, there are loads of other breadcrumb options that are gluten-free or low-carb. Feel free to mix and match some of these ideas to create a breadcrumb mixture all your own!

Oats

Oats

  • Use rolled or quick oats mixed with herbs as a low-sodium breading.
  • Choose certified gluten-free oats for GF breading!
  • Also a great binder in meatballs and meatloaf.
  • Vegan & Vegetarian
  • Low-Fat
  • Gluten-Free
  • Low-Sodium
Flaxseeds

Flaxseed & Chia Seeds

  • Grind up flaxseeds or use flaxseed meal as a nutritious, low-carb breading.
  • Mix with herbs for extra flavor.
  • Add chia seeds to a breading mixture for texture and crunch.
  • Both rich in fiber and omega-3 fatty acids!
  • Vegan & Vegetarian
  • Paleo
  • Low-Carb
  • Gluten-Free
  • High-Fiber
  • Low-Sodium
Corn Flakes

No-Sugar-Added Cereal

  • Crush Cornflakes and use as breading in dishes like faux fried chicken.
  • Better yet, use whole-grain options like brown rice cereal or bran flakes.
  • Add 1-2 Tbsp flaxseed meal/chia seeds for texture.
  • Vegan & Vegetarian
  • Low-Fat
  • Gluten-Free Options
  • Low-Sodium
Almonds

Almonds

  • Finely chop raw almonds and mix with herbs and spices for a zesty, crunchy breading.
  • Great lower-carb option.
  • Vegan & Vegetarian
  • Paleo
  • Low-Carb
  • High-Fiber
  • Gluten-Free
  • Low-Sodium

Mashed Potatoes Substitute

Cauliflower

Cauliflower

  • Boil, flavor, and purée into a low-carb mash.
  • So sneaky and tasty, you’ll never know the difference!
  • Vegan & Vegetarian
  • Paleo
  • Low-Carb
  • High-Fiber
  • Gluten-Free
Dairy & Fat Substitutes

If you’re dairy-free or vegan, you’ve got to know which healthy substitutes you can use for common ingredients like cream, mayo, or yogurt. There are plenty of alternatives to get those same creamy textures! If you do eat dairy but are on a low-fat diet, there are always low-fat dairy products, as well as plenty of other fuel-filled options.

Egg Substitutes (for Cooking)

Eggs are full of healthy fats and nutrients, but some people on a low-fat diet may want to reduce their fat intake while still enjoying protein-packed eggs and omelets. There’s even a sub for scrambled eggs if you’re vegan! (There are vegan substitutes for eggs in baking, too—more on that below in “Part 2: Healthy Baking Substitutions.”)

Egg whites

Egg Whites/Substitute

  • Low-calorie, high-protein, with the fat of the yolk removed.
  • Egg substitute are egg whites naturally colored yellow using beta-carotene.
  • Use in scrambles, quiches, frittatas, baking, or smoothies!
  • Paleo
  • Low-Fat
  • High-Protein
Tofu

Tofu

  • Scrambled tofu is a great vegan alternative to scrambled eggs!
  • Still a good source of healthy fats & amino acids.
  • Vegan & Vegetarian
  • Low-Carb
  • High-Protein

Sour Cream & Mayonnaise Substitutes

Sour cream is a common base for savory, creamy dips, as well as a topping on items like tacos, baked potatoes, or soups. Mayonnaise is a popular spread on sandwiches, and it’s the classic dressing used in chicken or tuna salads. If you’re on a low-fat diet, dairy-free, or vegan, you can find alternative creamy options!

Greek yogurt

Greek Yogurt

  • Low-Carb
  • Low-Fat Options
  • High-Protein
Tofu

Silken Tofu

  • Softer than traditional tofu.
  • Thick, creamy texture when blended.
  • Can sub for sour cream in dip recipes.
  • Add flavor to make your own vegan sour cream!
  • Vegan & Vegetarian
  • Low-Carb
  • High-Protein
Avocado

Avocado Mash

  • Creamy, dairy-free sub for mayo in chicken/tuna salads, and as a nutritious spread on sandwiches.
  • Vegan & Vegetarian
  • Paleo
  • Low-Carb
  • High-Fiber
Hummus

Hummus

  • Dairy-free and low-fat alternative to mayo in chicken/tuna salads, and as a creamy spread on sandwiches.
  • So easy to make your own!
  • Vegan & Vegetarian
  • Low-Fat
  • High-Fiber
  • Plant-Based Protein

Yogurt Substitutes

Yogurt can be a great snack on its own, and it’s often used as a creamy element in recipes. If you’re dairy-free or vegan, try some of these substitutions:

Coconut yogurt

Coconut, Almond, & Soy Milk Yogurts

  • Most of these are higher in healthy fats, but you can find some light versions.
  • Beware of added sugars! Look for unsweetened varieties.
  • Vegan & Vegetarian
  • Paleo
  • Low-Carb
Tofu

Silken Tofu

  • Blends easily into a yogurt substitute as well!
  • For savory Greek yogurt flavor, blend 1 cup silken tofu with 2 Tbsp lemon juice and 1/4 tsp salt.
  • Vegan & Vegetarian
  • Low-Carb
  • High-Protein

Cheese & Cream Cheese Substitutes

Both cheese and cream cheese contain healthy fats, but you may be cutting back if you follow a low-fat lifestyle. You can find low-fat cheeses, low-fat or whipped cream cheese products, as well as Neufchatel cheese, which is a spreadable cheese that’s lower in fat than traditional cream cheese. But, there are several other options, including some for vegan and dairy-free folks! While you can find some vegan cheese or vegan cream cheese products, these often tend to be very processed and often not-so-fuel-filled, which is why they didn’t make this list.

Nutritional Yeast

Nutritional Yeast

  • Made from deactivated yeast, sold as yellow flakes/powder, with a nutty cheesy flavor.
  • Great, cheesy condiment in mashed potatoes, scrambled tofu, or popcorn.
  • Used in recipes to create cheesy flavor, like vegan mac & cheese!
  • Vegan & Vegetarian
  • Paleo
  • Low-Fat
  • High-Fiber
  • High-Protein
Cashews

Cashews

  • Blend into a tasty, dairy-free cream cheese!
  • Soak cashews for a few hours, blend, and use nutritional yeast to create that cream-cheesy flavor.
  • Vegan & Vegetarian
  • Paleo
Cottage cheese

Cottage Cheese

  • Puree 1 cup cottage cheese to sub for 1 cup cream cheese.
  • Lower in calories and fat, loaded with protein.
  • Can use low- or full-fat.
  • Low-Fat
  • High-Protein

Heavy Cream Substitutes

Cream can add richness to dishes like soup or pasta sauce, but what if you’re vegan, dairy-free, or watching your fat intake? Don’t worry, you’ve got options. (More on baking substitutions for cream and other dairy items in Part 2!)

White beans

White/Cannellini Beans

  • Plant-based way to create creaminess
  • Add broth to make texture more creamy, less thick.
  • Sub 1 cup puréed bean mixture for 1 cup cream in soups & sauces.
  • Vegan & Vegetarian
  • Low-Fat
  • High-Fiber
  • Plant-Based Protein
Cashews

Cashews

  • Soak raw cashews and blend for a creamy addition to sauces and soups.
  • Vegan & Vegetarian
  • Paleo
Potatoes

Potatoes

  • Vegan & Vegetarian
  • Low-Fat
Tofu

Tofu & Soy Milk

  • Blend equal parts tofu & soy milk together to sub for cream in a vegan pasta sauce!
  • Vegan & Vegetarian
  • Low-Carb
  • High-Protein

Butter Substitutes (for Sautéing)

Butter can be a great, healthy option for some lifestyles. (Read more about this in my Six Sneaky Superfoods blog!) But, others following a dairy-free or vegan lifestyle may choose to avoid it, and there are plenty of other options for cooking and sautéing.

coconut oil

Coconut Oil

  • Like grass-fed butter, high in natural saturated fats.
  • Good for high-temp cooking.
  • Contains medium chain triglycerides (MCTs), which are burned as energy instead of stored as fat, and can improve metabolism.
  • Vegan & Vegetarian
  • Paleo
  • Low-Carb
olive oil

Olive Oil

  • Higher in monounsaturated fats (MUFAs) and polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs).
  • Best raw or for lower-temperature cooking, because olive oil oxidizes when it reaches too high of a temperature.
  • Vegan & Vegetarian
  • Paleo
  • Low-Carb
coconut oil spray

Cooking Spray

  • Can help control the amount of oil you put in the pan or on a baking sheet.
  • You can find both olive oil and coconut oil cooking sprays!
  • Vegan & Vegetarian
  • Paleo
  • Low-Carb

There are so many possibilities for healthy substitutions in our cooking. It may take some experimenting to find what works, but as long as you’re working with foods and flavors you enjoy, it’s hard to go wrong. Get creative, trust your tastebuds, and start health-ifying your cooking! Also, be sure to check out Part 1 of this guide—Healthy Baking Substitutions—for more ideas!

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Nadia Sheikh About the author

Passionate wordsmith and weirdo, hungry for adventures.