Can't Find An Ingredient? How To Make Healthy Food Swaps

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Have you ever gone to the store with a recipe in mind, but couldn’t find the ingredients you needed? Sometimes, stores sell out of popular items making it harder to plan meals. Unfortunately, many people are experiencing this for the first time during this novel coronavirus outbreak (COVID-19) due to panic buying.

If you’ve run into this cooking conflict, fear not! There are plenty of ways you can adjust your shopping list to create dishes similar (and equally delicious) to your original recipe.

A Guide To Picking Recipe Substitutes

  1. Visit other parts of the store. Can’t find something in the produce section? Look at canned or frozen options instead. No pasta for your spaghetti? Try making zucchini noodles or turning to spaghetti squash.
  2. Look for items that make your recipes healthier. Sometimes your substitute can actually lower saturated fat, sodium and/or sugar or even increase fiber. For example, if your recipe is calling for bread crumbs, try substituting oatmeal. Or try substituting pureed pumpkin for some of the oil in your muffin recipe.
  3. Try something new. Branch out of your comfort zone with recipes or ingredients that you aren’t familiar with. Never made eggplant before? Pick one up and try turning it into a personal pizza or roasting it with other vegetables.

Food Swap Ideas

If your local grocery store or market is out of an ingredient, try one of these creative swaps to cook without sacrificing flavor:

  • Fresh herbs: Try in dried or powered form. You only need about a third as much as you would if you were using fresh herbs.
  • Breadcrumbs: Use oatmeal or make your own by toasting whole-wheat bread.
  • Tomato sauce: Mix ¾ cup tomato paste with 1 cup water and your favorite spices for an easy sauce substitute.
  • Sour cream: Plain Greek yogurt is a healthy alternative with a similar texture and flavor.
  • Packaged broths: Reconstitute bouillon cubes with plenty of water for the perfect broth base to any dish.
  • Potatoes: Try mashing up parsnips or cauliflower instead.
  • Rice: Swap out for quinoa or cauliflower rice.
  • Ground beef or turkey: Look for frozen options like hamburger patties. Or, try making your own plant-based option with mashed beans and grains, or texturized vegetable protein.
  • Oatmeal: Heat up a new grain such as quinoa and top it with fruit and/or spices such as cinnamon.
  • Pasta: Spiralized vegetables such as zucchini or carrots, or spaghetti squash are nutrient-rich substitutes for noodles.
  • Buttermilk: Add a tablespoon of lemon juice or vinegar to a cup of milk.

Using What You’ve Got

Sometimes, it’s not a matter of finding the right foods, but the right quantity of food. Maybe you had to settle for a smaller container than what you usually buy. Or maybe you are looking to use up food staples you already have in the house, but don’t have enough for a whole recipe.

Use these opportunities to get creative with your cooking by making the most with what you have. Not enough ground beef? Try mixing in chopped mushrooms, veggies, breadcrumbs, rice, or other meat and vegetable proteins to make meatloaf. Only half a box of pasta left? Add in shredded or spiralized carrots at the end of cooking for a healthier pasta dish.

Other resources on the internet are available for you as well. Just type in what ingredients you have, and you are sure to find recipes that suit your needs!


For up-to-date information about Henry Ford Health System’s response to the coronavirus, visit henryford.com/coronavirus.

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Bethany Thayer, MS, RDN, is the director of the Henry Ford Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention. Learn more about Bethany.

Categories: EatWell