A dietitian’s best recipe hacks

If there is one small silver lining from this pandemic year, it’s been the growing interest in home cooking. In Australia, Google searches for ‘healthy recipes’ more than doubled during the first lockdown in April1, as our favourite restaurants and cafes were forced to shut down. Whilst the initial dusting off of old recipe books may have been born out of necessity, many Australians have discovered long lasting passions for transforming the humble meat-and-three-veg dinner into something a bit more special.

Even though the initial rush of pandemic-induced kitchen enthusiasm may have died down and the sourdough starter has been neglected, a lot of families would like to keep the innovative home cooked meals going. As life hopefully starts to return to a new normal and daily schedules get busier, there are simple ways to avoid getting stuck in a cooking rut and keep dishing up healthy family meals. Dietitian Teri Lichtenstein, shares her tips below for the best recipe hacks to make your healthy #coronacooking a permanent feature for years to come.

1. Beans are your BFF

Canned beans and other legumes should be a regular feature on your weekly shopping list. Not only are they a nutrient dense source of plant protein that can be enjoyed on their own, but they are one of most versatile ingredients to spruce up a meal and provide essential nutrients for growing kids. Beans can be added to almost any meal from curries to soups, salads, burgers, stews and even baked sweets.

If a recipe calls for cream in soup, replace it with pureed butter beans for a lower kilojoule, lower fat option. Increase your intake of plant foods by swapping half the mince in your bolognaise for canned lentils. And give google a go and try one of the many recipes for black bean chocolate brownies – a great school lunch box snack item that provides an extra fibre and protein boost, but still with the delicious chocolate flavour.

2. Forget hide and seek

Getting your kids to eat their veggies doesn’t have to involve elaborate games of hide-and-don’t-seek, such as disguising them in a bolognaise sauce. In fact, your child is more likely to enjoy vegetables in the long run if you incorporate as a regular feature in as many meals as possible, and accept that rejection is a normal part of the process. Why not try making a freshly squeezed veggie juice as a fun kid-friendly activity and add in beetroot or carrot together with different fruits. Bulk up a quick fried rice meal with mixed frozen veg. Make a family frittata with any leftover veggies that are starting to go a bit limp. And with summer around the corner, keep a few cans of corn and beetroot on hand to add to your salads.

3. Cube it and freeze it

Many recipes include small amounts of fresh herbs. It can be quite frustrating when you don’t have these on hand or if you do, a lot of wastage occurs from buying a whole packet of herbs and only using a tiny amount. This is where ice cube trays come in very handy. Finely chop leftover herbs and spread across the tray. Cover each cube with a small amount of olive oil and freeze. Next time a recipe requires a specific herb, simply pop out a cube and add it to whatever you are cooking. Fresh lemon and lime juice can be frozen in the same way and don’t forget to grate the skin of the lemons and freeze, as lemon zest will take your corona cooking and baking to a new level.

4. Swap this for that

There is nothing worse when you’re all set to make a recipe and suddenly discover you are missing a key ingredient. The reality is that almost all ingredients can be substituted for something else. The list below provides some basic swaps for common flavours and ingredients but when in doubt simply use Google and in the search function type in the recipe ingredient followed by the word “substitute” and you will be amazed how many alternatives are available.

  • Greek yoghurt for sour cream – it is higher in protein and lower in fat, making it a healthier alternative

  • Honey or maple syrup for sugar – don’t be fooled by “refined sugar-free recipes”. There are over 50 different types of sugar and you can generally use any kind in a recipe. Remember, whilst some may be more “natural”, all sugars behave in the same way and it is preferable to minimise intakes of all kinds of added sugar. For a true healthier alternative, reduce the sugar in the recipe by half and substitute with pureéd apple or pear

  • If you don’t have a specific fresh vegetable on hand, use a frozen variety. Canned vegetables can also be used but add at the end of cooking as they are already tender

  • Cauliflower rice has become a big trend and is a great “white” vegetable substitute for kids who prefer white over brown rice.

5. Pimp it up

As much as many of us have found a new love for cooking, it can be easy to get into a rut and be found staring at the pantry shelves at 5pm with zero idea on what to make for dinner. It’s times like these that you need to pull out the bag of tricks and jazz up good ‘ol staples with some simple tweaks.

  • For a deliciously easy side dish, dress up a can of chickpeas with some pickled onions or chopped cucumbers, top with fresh herbs and a dollop of yoghurt

  • If the kids love two-minute noodles, try adding shredded chicken (shred leftover roast chicken and keep in the freezer to have on hand), frozen vegetables and omelette strips

  • Take whatever veggies are lurking in the crisper drawer, fold it into a bechamel sauce, layer a sheet of puff pastry on top and it’s pie night!

  • A dash of miso paste added to browned butter makes an irresistible, easy sauce for pasta or roasted vegetables

  • The simplest way to add some luxe to your meals is to throw in a handful of raw or roasted cashews, almonds, sunflower seeds or pepitas to your salads, stir-fries and pestos. The family will get the bonus of healthy fats too!

  • If you’re over the banana bread craze that consumed Australians during the first lock down, freeze your black-spotted bananas for summer smoothies. Or why not convert into a one ingredient ice cream? Soften for 15 to 20 minutes out of the freezer then whiz in a food processor until smooth and creamy. Add a tablespoon of cocoa powder for a choc-banana kid-friendly version, or a dash of a sweet, fragrant liqueur such as Cointreau for the adults.

Whilst 2020 will forever be known as the year of the pandemic, let it also be known as the year of recipe inspiration, shared family meals and a new found love for cooking. We all need good things to look forward to, and food is on the top of the list for many of us.


  1. Google trends report – ‘healthy recipes’, Australia.

This article has been written by the team of Accredited Practising Dietitians at www.foodbytes.com.au


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