This post may contain affiliate links which won’t change your price but will share some commission.
I didn’t truly know how to cook until I transitioned my family to a real food diet a few years ago. Sure, I could follow a recipe and put a nice dinner on the table. But I didn’t really have to think. I didn’t know how to make substitutions. I didn’t know how to adapt recipes if I was missing some of the ingredients. I couldn’t look at a bunch of leftovers in the fridge and figure out how to pull together a meal with them.
Switching to real food taught me how to think in the kitchen. Now I make substitutions almost automatically, and I switch out ingredients without worrying that things might not taste right. I’m constantly playing with recipes, and I’d like to share some guidelines that will help you to convert some of your favorite old recipes to real food.
Converting Recipes to Real Food
The first thing to do is look at the ingredient list. There will probably be some whole food ingredients on there, but there may be several highly processed ingredients on the list. Follow the substitution tips below for converting recipes to real food.
Most recipes for baked goods call for white flour. This is not a whole grain product, and it should be used sparingly. If you’re making a birthday cake or other special treat, go ahead and use white flour. It won’t hurt you to eat it on occasion. But for day-to-day baking, it’s better to use whole grain flour.
White whole wheat flour is my favorite. It’s a little lighter in texture than regular whole wheat flour, so the final product doesn’t come out very dense. When substituting white whole wheat flour for all-purpose white flour, you’ll want to add a little extra liquid to the recipe. Whole grain flour is a bit thirstier than white flour, so you need an extra tablespoon of liquid per cup of white whole wheat flour. If you’re using regular whole wheat flour, you’ll want to add two tablespoons of extra liquid per cup of flour because it’s even thirstier than white whole wheat.
For gluten-free baking, I use this gluten-free flour mix. Brown rice is the primary flour, and I also include tapioca starch and potato starch in the mix. Arrowroot starch is another good option to include in place of tapioca or potato starch if you can find it. This mix can be substituted one for one with white flour in baking recipes.
Almond flour and coconut flour are good gluten-free alternatives, too. Each flour acts differently, so I recommend that you first experiment with recipes that call for these different types of flour so you can get a sense of how they work.
Many traditional recipes call for white sugar, brown sugar, and confectioners sugar. These are all highly processed, and they’re best saved for special occasions. For everyday sweetening, pure maple syrup, honey, date paste, and bananas are better whole food sweeteners. They’re minimally processed and they add nutrients to your final product.
When substituting honey or maple syrup for sugar in a sauce or a main dish recipe, you can usually substitute it one for one. But in baking, these liquid ingredients can impact the texture of the final product. To substitute honey or maple syrup for white sugar in a favorite recipe, simply replace the sugar with honey or maple syrup and reduce the added liquid in the recipe by ¼ cup for each cup of sweetener used. For example, if a recipe calls for ½ cup sugar, you can use ½ cup honey or maple syrup and eliminate 2 tablespoons (⅛ cup) of other liquid in the recipe.
In many cases, you can cut the amount of sweetener substantially and still enjoy a delicious dessert. For example, a batch of muffins may call for 1 cup of sugar, but if you only use ⅔ cup of sweetener, it will likely still be delicious. I keep experimenting with a recipe until I get it just sweet enough.
Many recipes call for vegetable oil or canola oil. These oils are highly processed, and the high heat exposure during processing causes oxidation. Consuming these oils can lead to inflammation and other health problems, so it’s best to avoid them.
Better options for cooking and baking include butter, ghee, and coconut oil. Olive oil can be heated at low temperatures, but it reaches its smoke point and breaks down at 400 degrees (or less, depending on quality). If you use it for cooking, you should keep it at a low temperature. Olive oil is a great choice for salad dressings and other uncooked recipes.
You’ll often find condiments such as mayonnaise, barbecue sauce, pasta sauce, pizza sauce, or enchilada sauce in an ingredient list. For mayonnaise, you can often substitute Greek yogurt. Homemade mayonnaise is a good option too. I like to keep homemade condiments on hand in small portions in the freezer so I have them available whenever I need them. They take very little time to make, and the results are delicious and healthy.
For many years, popular nutrition advice has suggested that low-fat dairy is the way to go. Studies are now indicating that this is bad advice. After years of hearing that a low-fat diet will make Americans healthier, Americans have fallen prey to more obesity and diet-related illness than ever before. This NPR article highlights some of the research that shows that a diet including full-fat dairy leads to smaller waist lines, not bigger ones.
Full-fat dairy is less processed that low-fat dairy, and it contributes to increased flavor and satisfaction. When low-fat dairy is used, many recipes and processed food products include extra sugar and other unhealthy ingredients to make up for the loss of flavor that disappears with the fat.
This is a simple recipe substitution. When a recipe calls for low-fat dairy products, substitute the full-fat version. Many cheese, including mozzarella and ricotta, are often sold in low-fat versions, but keep looking on the shelf until you find the whole milk version. Packaged grated cheese often contains anti-caking chemicals that you don’t want to eat, so buy cheese by the block and grate it yourself.
I have a dairy sensitivity, so I limit the amount of dairy I eat. Non-dairy substitutes can be full of unhealthy ingredients, so I recommend reading packages carefully. Homemade coconut milk is a great substitute for milk in all sorts of recipes. I often use coconut oil in place of butter with delicious results.
Do you have favorite old recipes that are difficult to convert to real food? Tell us about them in the comments and we’ll see if we can help.