Often, taking foods out of your diet can mean missing out on family favourites; not a popular move. While there are some meals I no longer make, for the most part, moving to a nutrient dense diet does not mean having to forgo your favourites. Here is my approach to transposing recipes to meet my dietary restrictions.
First of all, list the foods you no longer eat. In my case;
- Cow dairy (I can tolerate sheep, goat and buffalo dairy).
- Gluten. This means no wheat (including ancient forms such as spelt), barley, rye, triticale, farina, kamut, wheat berries, farro and couscous. I also avoid oats; whilst they don’t contain gluten, oats are often processed in the same location as gluten containing grains and can become contaminated. Also, the protein in oats is similar to gluten, and can cause issues for some people.
- Legumes, including peanuts and peanut oil.
- Industrial seed oils – the highly processed oils extracted from soybeans, corn, rapeseed (the source of canola oil), cottonseed, and safflower seeds.1
- Processed sugar.
- Highly processed foods.
Then I look at foods I am trying to include in my diet:
- Organic, free-range and where possible re-generatively farmed meats.
- Bone broth.
- Good quality fats.2
- Herbs and spices.
My next step is to look at a favourite meal recipe, with pencil in hand. I cross out any ingredient I no longer eat, then I see if I can find an alternative. For example, rather than soy sauce, I will use coconut amino sauce; if the recipe uses a gluten flour to thicken the sauce I use arrowroot flour; if it uses a fat I no longer use, I replace with a fat I do use. Sadly I am not a fan of cauliflower, but if you are, you can also use cauliflower as a substitute for rice or as the main ingredient in a white sauce.
I then see if I can add any vegetables to help increase my vegetable intake. This is easy in recipes that are mince based like Bolognese, meatloaf or burgers/rissoles. For recipes like meatloaf and rissoles, make sure you get the balance right or the final result may fall apart a bit. I find equal parts of mince to vegetable works best and include a binder like an egg (or two) in the mix as well. See my mini meat loaf recipe.
- Almond meal. Available from supermarkets or bulk wholefoods suppliers. I make my own from the pulp left over after making almond milk – spread the pulp on a tray and dehydrate in the oven at 65° C for several hours until dry (alternately use a dehydrator), then run through the food processor on pulse four or five times and store in a jar in the pantry). Almond meal seems to have a similar absorption level as standard wheat flours. Note home made almond meal tends to be lighter than the shop bought so use the volume measure, not the weight measure. For example, 120g of store-bought almond meal equates to 1 cup, but 120g of my homemade almond meal equates to 2 cups! So if the recipe calls for 120g, I would only use 1 cup of homemade almond meal.
- Coconut flour. Be aware this is quite sweet and absorbs more liquid than standard wheat flour; as such, the ratio of flour to liquid will need to be adjusted.
- Arrowroot flour. This is great for thickening sauces and gravy. I find it very light for baking so use in in combination with almond or coconut flour at a ratio of three parts almond meal (or coconut flour) to one part arrowroot.
There are other gluten free flours, but these are the ones I use consistently. I enjoy buckwheat products, and believe buckwheat flour is good for cooking with, but I have never cooked with it. If you are a beginner I suggest sticking with almond, coconut and arrowroot to start.
The standard commercially available gluten-free flours are made from rice flour, teff flour, tapioca (arrowroot) flour, sorghum flour, potato starch, garbanzo flour or buckwheat flour (or a combination thereof). Flours such as rice, corn and potato starch are high in carbohydrates, so keep this in mind if you are aiming to keep carbohydrates low; almond and coconut are excellent alternatives. Arrowroot is also high in carbohydrates, but is generally used in smaller quantities.
If gluten free pasta is not working for you, you can substitute zucchini, carrot or pumpkin noodles made with a julienne peeler. You can also use a mandolin or a spiraliser – but I find I have more waste with these – no big deal if you freeze and use in other meals such as soups or stews. With zucchini noodles I pour the hot pasta sauce on top, and that is usually enough heat to cook the noodle. If I am making a stir fry noodle dish, I quickly fold through just before serving so as not to overcook. With carrot I dip the noodles in boiling water for a minute and then strain. For pumpkin I place the noodles on a baking tray, drizzle with melted butter, ghee or macadamia oil and bake at 180° C (fan forced) for 8 to 10 minutes.
Herbs and spices
You can recreate a lot of your favourite flavours by using the herbs and spices which evoke your favourite cuisines. A lesson I learned is to think about whether you will use a whole packet of spice. Cumin is a good example, you can use that in Middle Eastern, Asian and Indian recipes, so you will likely use the whole packet if you are experimenting. I try to think about what I am likely to cook in the coming week and whether that herb or spice can be used in more than one dish. Whole seeds last longer than powders, so if you think you may not use the spice powder while it’s at its peak flavour, you may want to buy a pack of the whole spice, and pan roast and grind as required, which only take a couple of minutes.
I have yet to find a recipe which provides the versatility of a loaf made from gluten-containing grains. I have found a commercially available loaf called No Grainer, which makes excellent sandwiches. Having said that there are very tasty savoury loaves which tick several boxes when it comes to replacing bread in your diet. One of my favourites is Sarah Wilson’s Inside-Out Bread. It is almost a meal in itself and lends itself to changing around the ingredients. I eliminate the parmesan (cow dairy), sometimes replacing it with pecorino3 (a sheep’s cheese I can tolerate). I also play around with the herbs and the ham (any cooked meat works). It all depends on what I have in the fridge. Once I was out of zucchini, so used pumpkin – it worked a treat.
There are a lot of great sweet treats which (in moderation) comply with a healthy diet. I make a basic apple cake, which is delicious. I often experiment with flavours, that’s how I came up with my pistachio cake. The original apple cake recipe called for two cups of almond meal, I replaced one cup of almond meal with finely ground pistachios and added other flavours like ginger.
In most sweet recipes, I reduce the sweetener by about 1/3. This can make the recipe dry, so I make up the liquid difference by adding more of another liquid ingredient already in the recipe. For example, if the recipe calls for three tablespoons of maple syrup and one quarter of a cup of olive oil, I would put in two tablespoons of maple syrup, one quarter of a cup of olive oil and an additional tablespoon of olive oil. It doesn’t have to be olive oil you adjust; if there is almond meal in the recipe you might add a tablespoon of almond milk. Similarly for coconut flour, you could add coconut milk.
There’s a paleo version of just about every sweet you can imagine. Explore the links below for some sites my family and I use.
Be aware, as your palate changes over time on a healthier diet, you may find you want to reduce the amount of sweetness in the deserts you make. This is great, but remember, if you are providing this food to people who eat the standard Australian diet, they may find the food lacking in sweetness. You may want to boost to the recipe level to cater to their taste.
There are many paleo and vegan recipes which you can adjust to your liking. Look at a few of these and see what relationship they have to your family favourites – if you are the creative type, you may be able to come up with a hybrid that suits your dietary requirements, your taste buds and some of your family traditions.
The following are some of my family’s go-to sites for healthy recipes:
- Be sure to purchase good quality, traditional pecorino that is actually sheep’s milk cheese; some cheaper versions are a mix or 100% cow’s milk cheese.