I had an epiphany the other day.
Ever since I started eating real food, I’ve stayed far away from where my meal inspiration used to come from (if not picked up straight from the freezer aisle) — recipes from magazines, websites, and TV shows with eye-rollingly-typical “healthy” fare. Ingredients like, “Bouillon cubes,” and “Heart-healthy canola oil,” and “Fat-free sour cream” Barf. Barf. Barf.
So just the other day, when I really needed to figure out what to do with a pack of grass-fed short ribs I had bought, I decided I’d go ahead and check out one of my old standard recipe sites, at least to get some ideas. But what I discovered, was that even though most of the recipes called for some barfy ingredients, I knew just what I needed to replace them with! And the more I thought about it, the more I realized how easy this really is.
So, I’ve figured out a little system. You can make any terrible mainstream recipe, into a healthy “real food” recipe, with just a few easy tweaks. Promise!
Time to Real-Foodify those ingredients!
Do your favorite recipes call for any of the following?
Switch them out, or fix them up, with these ten easy solutions!
1. White Flour: Use Sprouted or Soaked Whole Grain Flours (Or Grain Alternative Flours)
Even if you spring for “whole wheat” flour bought at the store, that stuff really isn’t what it seems. The processing factories are just sprinkling back in wheat germ to white flour to get your basic “whole wheat.” That aside, even “whole grains” aren’t quite what the industry claims them to be. Not to mention, by the time they actually reach your pantry, they’ve usually gone completely rancid.
You see, grains in and of themselves are not the friendliest of foods. You gotta know how to work ’em.
For us traditional cooking folk, that means they need to follow what I call the “3-S Rule: Soaked, Sprouted, or Soured”, in order to be healthy, instead of potentially damaging to the body. If they’re not, the grains’ natural anti-nutrients can take away (rather than provide) minerals from you, and the difficult-to-digest grains can wreak havoc on your gut. The 3-S techniques work to counteract the anti-nutrients found in grains, and aid in digestibility.
So, if you’re baking, sprouted dry flour works marvelously. (Find sprouted flour available here.) Some recipes work okay to soak your flour instead. To do that, take whatever amount of liquid you were going to use, and soak the flour for at least 12 hours. If it’s water, add whey. If it’s milk, use kefir or yogurt instead. See the must-have cookbook, Nourishing Traditions, for plenty of recipes that use this technique, so you can apply it to other recipes.
If the recipe wants you to use already-made buns, rolls, or slices of bread, use sourdough. Try to get quality sourdough that was actually legitimately fermented, though. Another option is already-made sprouted bread products. Those are easier to find than real sourdough, from what I’ve seen.
Coconut flour or almond flour are great alternatives to grain flours. Coconut flour absorbs crazy amounts of moisture though, so you’ll need to adjust. For every cup of flour, replace with about 1/4 to 1/3 cup coconut flour and an extra cup of liquid, such as milk, as well as several extra eggs. You can find coconut flour here.
But, don’t beat yourself up if you decide to use a little white flour here and there. (I often bake with white flour myself—here’s why.) Some things like pastries and sandwich bread just won’t get the right consistency without mixing in at least a little bit of the white stuff. Just make sure your white flour is organic, because conventional flour is highly contaminated with toxic chemical pesticides.
2. “Low-Fat” or “Fat-Free” ___: Use Full Fat Product Instead
Typically dairy products. Never, ever buy low-or-fat-free dairy! Not only are low-fat dairy products totally gross (let’s be honest!) and filled with chemicals and additives to try to make them taste semi-normal, they’re also literally made with industrial waste — no one but the farmers’ pigs used to drink skimmed milk before someone smart in their marketing department decided to start plugging the waste product as “healthy!” And you’re not saving yourself from packing on the pounds either. The pigs were fed appetite-stimulating skim milk to fatten them up!
This step applies to “lite” versions of meat, too — skip the premium prices on boneless, skinless chicken breasts, or extra-lean beef. Buy as fatty of meats as you can. Whole chickens are awesome because you can use every last bit of them — even the bones and gizzards for making nutritious stock!
3. Canola or Vegetable Oil: Use Coconut Oil, Healthy Animal Fats, or Butter
Just in case you haven’t heard, vegetable oil is absolutely awful for you.
Wanna know what isn’t? Pretty much everything your doctor is telling you to avoid.
Saturated-fat-filled coconut oil (find the highest quality coconut oil here), butter (of course), and yes, even lard, are all actually quite healthy for you. These are heat-stable fats and won’t oxidize the way unsaturated vegetable oils do.
Veggie oils, such as canola or soybean oil, are highly processed and completely rancid before they even leave the factory. They have to add in a chemical deodorizer to the nasty oils just to mask the stench! Vegetable oils are also loaded with Omega-6, or poly-unsaturated fatty acids. We do need some O-6 fatty acids in our diet, but most people consume way, way too much. You definitely don’t want to go out of your way trying to increase your Omega-6 oil intake by choosing vegetable oil to cook with.
Poly-unsaturated fatty acids, or “PUFA” oils, have a devastating effect on the body’s metabolism. They inhibit thyroid function and contribute to weight gain, as well as many other health problems associated with a lowered metabolic rate.
So instead of PUFA oils, always opt for saturated fats, instead. The only plant-based sources of saturated fats you’ll find are coconut oil (find it here) and palm oil — both are healthy, traditional fats. For any animal fats, such as butter, lard, or tallow, you want to try to make sure they come from healthy, grass-fed animals. You don’t want to buy the lard that’s been sitting for Lord-knows-how-long in those ominous buckets on the floor of the bakery aisle — that stuff is hydrogenated, AKA, pure, straight-up trans fat. Real lard (rendered pig fat) or tallow (beef or mutton) are both healthy, traditional fats that have been used for centuries, before we ever started having heart attacks or other diseases of modern civilization.
Oh, and of course — the same thing applies to any recipe calling for margarine, crisco, or other fake versions of real fat. Ick! Don’t go there. Obviously.
4. Olive oil: Don’t cook with it. Replace with healthy fat
The olive is a fragile little guy! Olive oil has a low smoke point, and can turn from a fantastic antioxidant, to an oxidized carcinogen when it’s heated too much. If you really love the taste of olive oil in your cooking, go ahead and use it in low-temp sautes, preferably mixed with a saturated fat like butter. It’s best to avoid cooking with it at all, if for no other reason than quality, real olive oil (that isn’t laced with cheap veggies oils) is hard to find and fairly expensive. No need to waste precious olive oil in the name of “healthy” cooking! But don’t avoid it entirely — use it raw in homemade salad dressings that are delicious and easy to make! That way, you’ll avoid the toxic PUFA oils found in store-bought dressings, and you’ll be getting a dose of healthy fat. Find real, quality olive oil here.
Instead of cooking with olive oil, simple use another healthy fat like we just mentioned — coconut oil, animal fats such as lard or tallow, or butter. Clarified butter, or ghee, is great for frying and easy to make at home. (Or you can find amazing grass-fed ghee here.) Again, these are mostly saturated fats which are very heat-stable, and are just what you need for cooking, especially at higher temperatures.
Same thing applies to other fragile oils, such as sunflower, sesame, or peanut oil. Use a source of healthy saturated fat instead, unless just a little bit of the fragile oil is needed for flavor.
5. Meat or Eggs: Make sure they’re grass-fed or pastured
Let’s please avoid supporting the poop-filled lagoons of the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations world. Animals that are kept in factory farm confinement are diseased and drugged, and just shouldn’t be eaten. (Or treated that way!) But you don’t need to go vegan to eat ethically, either.
Animals kept in their natural environment, eating things like, oh I dunno — grass — instead of genetically-engineered soy and industrial waste, make for very healthy food that has nourished mankind for millenia. Always buy grass-fed or pastured meats and eggs, preferably local, when you can. Your next-best bet would be certified organic animal products, so you aren’t eating the GMO’s the animals themselves ate.
Oh and by the way? Definitely no need to throw away perfectly good yolks ever again in the name of uselessly avoiding dietary cholesterol. No more egg-white omelettes. Or egg-white anything. Or fake liquid “eggs” from a carton. Gross!
6. Fresh produce: Buy organic for any on the ‘Dirty Dozen’ list
Organic produce can be pricey. If you can’t afford to fully support pesticide-free, sustainable agriculture with your produce budget, at least stick with the O for the most-contaminated of fruits and veggies.
The Environmental Working Group comes out with a list every year of the best — and worst — of the produce section. The “Dirty Dozen” is the top twelve most pesticide and herbicide-contaminated produce items of the year. Splurge for the good stuff — organic, and ideally local — for apples, potatoes, and all the others on the list when you can.
7. Nuts or seeds: Soak and dry them!
Raw nuts and seeds in their fully-natural state actually aren’t best for your health. Nuts and seeds, just like with grains, contain anti-nutrients such as phytic acid, which bind to mineral stores in the body, depleting you of nutrition in your food.
Thankfully, these anti-nutrients are easy to neutralize through the simple practice of soaking nuts in a salt water solution. Then, you can dry out the nuts to restore their crunchiness, in a dehydrator (find those here) or oven at a low temperature overnight. If that sounds like too much work for you, you can find raw, already-soaked nuts, seeds, and nut butters here.
8. Beans or rice: Soak ’em first!
Ditch the cans. (And the Bean-o!)
Soaking beans is easy, and a great way to de-gas the magical fruit. It also makes the nutrients in the beans much more available to your body and prevents other digestive problems like heartburn or reflux.
Just like with grains and nuts, beans have antinutrients that make them more difficult to digest, but a simple soak will fix them right up. Take 2 cups of beans, cover with filtered water, and add 2 tablespoons of an acid such as apple cider vinegar or lemon juice, and let it sit overnight.
And did you know you can reduce mineral-blocking, antinutrient phytic acid in your brown rice just by soaking it for several hours before cooking? (Update: I’m not so sure about this one now. Soaking most likely makes it more digestible, and Sally Fallon says it reduces phytic acid, but Ramiel Nagel, author of Cure Tooth Decay, seems to disagree. But it won’t hurt to soak your rice, anyway, of course! Or you could just eat white rice instead, which is free of the bran, where the phytic acid lives.) Just add one tablespoon of lemon juice, vinegar, or whey to every cup of water used to cook your rice, and let it soak for about 7 hours before cooking.
9. Pasta: Make it yourself, replace with alternatives, or switch to einkorn.
Sadly, one of my old favorites is on the naughty list of processed foods. Most pasta made from processed white flour doesn’t provide much nutrition.
A better option is pasta made from whole, sprouted grains, which you can find online (available here) or in health food stores. But my absolute FAVORITE pasta is made from nutritious einkorn flour—available HERE. Both the whole wheat and white varieties are delicious, and the heirloom variety einkorn wheat offers many more vitamins, minerals, and other key nutrients than conventional wheat. I love einkorn pasta!
Rice pasta is another option for those avoiding gluten.
If you want to get even more adventurous, you can learn how to make your own sprouted pasta in CHEESESLAVE’s Healthy Whole Grains Cooking Class. Click here to sign up for individual classes (Lesson 3 is the one to learn how to make sprouted flour pasta.)
And if you’re avoiding grains, you can try experimenting with veggie pasta! Spaghetti squash can be scooped into noodles for — you guessed it — spaghetti! You can also get one of these gadgets to make pasta out of zucchini.
10. White Sugar: Use Organic, or Wholesome Sweetener Alternatives
White sugar isn’t the most nutritious thing in the world, but a moderate amount won’t hurt you. If you’re going to use it, get organic cane sugar. That way you know it’s not made from GM sugar beets, and it wasn’t grown with chemical pesticides.
Here’s some more wholesome alternatives to sugar:
- Sucanat (Dehydrated whole cane sugar juice)
- Real, raw honey (Hint: raw honey isn’t clear or pourable. It’s more like a thick, opaque paste.) Update: that might not always be true! Read the comments to learn more.
- Real maple syrup (Grade “B” is “Best!”)
- Coconut sugar (low glycemic and contains minerals, vitamins, and amino acids, available here)
- Molasses (Packed with B vitamins and minerals! Available here)
- Date sugar (learn how to make your own here!)
- Real stevia extract (Hint: stark white and resembling processed table sugar isn’t what we’re after. A liquid extract is a safer bet.)
But, don’t be fooled by “healthy” sweeteners out there that really aren’t. Avoid agave nectar, fake stevia powder, so-called “raw” sugar, and definitely artificial sweeteners like aspartame and even Splenda (which are potent neurotoxins).
Other Tips to Real-Foodify Your Meals
- Make sure your recipe isn’t fat-free! If it calls for a “drizzle” of oil, or a mere “tablespoon” of butter, you better start compensating for that craziness! Add in all the healthy fat you can to a meal, and if you’re left with a pan full of drippings that didn’t get soaked up, just pour it into a jar and re-use next time.
- Especially be sure to load up on saturated fats whenever you’re eating fruits or veggies — their nutrients are absorbed up to 50% more when consumed with healthy fats. That’s because many of the important vitamins in the food we eat are fat-soluble. Your body just can’t process and assimilate them without adequate fat intake.
- Make sure you’re using real sea salt if a recipe calls for salt. Learn more about sea salt here.
- Avoid any fake food colorings in baking recipes. Those are made with nasty petrochemicals. You can find natural food coloring in health food stores or online.
- If a recipe calls for pre-made condiments, try to use homemade. You might be surprised at how easy it is to make basics like mayonnaise or ketchup! Google is your friend for these, or you can consult Nourishing Traditions.
- Find ways to include fermented foods like cultured veggies or homemade yogurt or sour cream into recipes. And, kombucha and kefir are great for beverages. You can find recipes for all these things too in the cookbook, Nourishing Traditions.
- Add homemade bone broth or meat stock in whenever possible. You can commonly substitute water for nutrient-dense broth in recipes for sauces and soups, and you can even use it for cooking rice.
[UPDATE] Tips from our readers:
- Cream of mushroom canned soup? Dianella says, “In place of cream of mushroom we add: several mushrooms chopped, a half cup of cream, and a half cup of bone broth. Works great!”
Do you have any good tips for cooking real food recipes?
Share in the comments below!