When making the switch towards a diet of whole plant foods, it can be a confusing and frustrating experience finding the right substitutes for certain ingredients in recipes. Here are some solutions for alternative plant based foods which you can use to replace animal foods or unhealthy processed food products in recipes to make them healthier.
Eggs serve many purposes in recipes that involve baking and beyond, but they contain the most artery-clogging cholesterol of almost any food, with the exception of brains. They can have an inflammatory effect on the body and lead to chronic disease if consumed every day. Luckily, I've found that eggs have been so easy to replace in many recipes.
In baked goods, depending on what sort of recipe you are making and, try some of the following options:
- Flax egg- 1 tablespoon ground flaxseed + 3 tablespoons water, let sit for 3-5 minutes and stir until jelly-like
- Chia egg- 1 tablespoon ground or whole chia seeds + 3 tablespoons water, let sit for 3-5 minutes and stir until jelly-like
- Coconut yogurt
- Mashed banana
- Pumpkin or sweet potato puree
- Prune puree
When trying to decide which replacement to use in a certain recipe, consider the flavor profiles of the replacement and use the neutral flavored replacements like flax and chia for recipes where you don't want to add too much moisture or flavor from fruit or vegetable based alternatives.
For times when you want scrambled eggs, try a tofu scramble instead. I find the key with these is choosing your favorite spices, adding water to the spices to form a spice paste, and then adding that into the pan with the tofu to fully coat and marinate it.
I have found shifting from using cow's milk to nut based milks to be relatively easy, but the process has not been free from error. There are many plant milks out there that have wonderful creamy neutral flavors that can be used in any recipe as a milk replacement, but then there are other plant milks that claim to be unsweetened and plain and yet somehow have an aftertaste or additional flavor that comes through unpleasantly in certain recipes. Before using a certain plant milk in a recipe, make sure to taste it first to make sure it has a neutral enough taste to go in a savory dish without altering the flavor.
Here are some of my favorite neutral tasting brands of plant milk:
- Almond Breeze Original Unsweetened
- Forager Cashew Milk, Unsweetened Plain
- Califia Farms Almond Milk, Unsweetened Plain
Try out many different brands that your local grocery stores offer and find the most neutral tasting ones available. There are all kinds of plant milks available, from nuts and seeds to grains and legumes, there are so many plant milk options out there!
- Almond Milk
- Cashew Milk
- Coconut Milk (can be dangerously high in saturated fat, choose low fat when available)
- Hemp MIlk
- Oat Milk
- Rice Milk
- Soy Milk
- Flax Milk
- Macadamia Milk
- Buttermilk (take any plant milk and add 1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar to 1 cup milk)
Giving up cheese was something I knew wouldn't be easy for me. When I first went vegan I relied on the realistic vegan cheese substitutes, which are actually very realistic and get better and better each year. There are brands like Treeline, Miyoko, Chao, Follow Your Heart, and Parmela's Creamery who make delicious alternatives to dairy cheese which are great for while you're transitioning off the dairy, but if consumed daily long term, they can ultimately be unhealthy as they are mostly made of processed oils.
I was pleasantly surprised to find many ways to replicate a cheesey flavor in my recipes without using oil. The answer is mainly in using ground or blended whole nuts and a magical yellow powdery substance called nutritional yeast, which as you may guess from the name actually packs a pretty decent amounts of nutrients.
Here are some ways to make your own cheese substitutions:
Parmesan- 3/4 cup cashews + 1/4 cup nutritional yeast + 1/4 teaspoon salt
Blend in a food processor or high speed blender until powdery in texture.
Cheesy Sauce- There are so many ways to make a creamy cheese-like sauce. Certain recipes call for cashews or other nuts as the base of the sauce, which are so creamy and delicious but can be high in fat. While nuts are still whole foods they shouldn't be consumed in excess. I use them in limited amounts in some of my recipes like this Creamy Alfredo Sauce, or the sauce in my Cheezy Potato Quesadillas
There are also many lower fat sauces that use a base of potatoes, carrots, or squash, often combined with plant milks and nutritional yeast and spices like onion and garlic powder to give a savory flavor. Try out this Butternut Squash Mac and Cheese for a nut-free surprisingly cheesy sauce.
When looking for the right meat replacement in your recipes, consider where you are at in your transition. If cravings from meat are leaving you in a place where whole foods like potatoes, beans, lentils, squash, and hearty grains aren't cutting it, it may be time to try some realistic replacements like Gardein, Beyond Meat, or the Impossible Burger. These processed foods are not healthy, but they are lower risk to your health than actual animal meat, and in the short term they can be very useful in managing cravings.
As you continue your plant based journey, foods like tofu, tempeh, and seitan can be even healthier replacements than the heavily processed realistic food products. Make sure to season and marinate these well, as they are flavorless but provide a great texture and backdrop for any flavors you wish to add. Try combinations of low sodium tamari, liquid smoke, spices and herbs, tomato paste, tahini, and maple syrup to infuse savory, sweet and spicy flavors.
There are plenty of whole foods which can be very meaty and filling when included in recipes like tacos, burritos, and quesadillas, where the meat can be replaced mashed beans or lentils. Beans and lentils also make a great addition to stews, soups, chilis, and sauces. Try out these beany recipes for a high protein alternative to meat:
Cooking without oil can be a daunting process. When I first made the switch I was terrified everything was going to burn to the pan or I was going to end up with soggy vegetables, which is possible but avoidable with the right precautions.
For sauteing vegetables in a pan, instead of oil use small amounts of liquid such as water or any of the following:
- Vegetable broth
- Tamari or coconut aminos (low sodium)
- Vinegar (balsamic, white wine, apple cider) depending on recipe
Using a nonstick pan will be especially helpful when cooking without oil, but even in a regular pan it can be a breeze to saute foods in other liquids. Start by adding the ingredients into a dry pan, once the edges get golden add small splashes of water (a tsp or 2) to the hot pan and use the steam to free up the ingredients and allow them to unstick from the pan and be moved around.
The key isn't to add so much liquid that they sit in boiling water, it's to keep the pan as dry as possible while using a bit of liquid to keep things moving in the pan.
When replacing oil in baking there can be some trial and error involved but my go-tos are usually nut butters like peanut or cashew, apple sauce, mashed banana, coconut milk, coconut yogurt or I simply omit the oil and hope for the best!
To coat pans and keep things from sticking while baking, I like to use non-stick silicone cookware or line the pan with parchment paper.