Making Recipes work for you

Updated: Nov 11, 2020

Learn to adjust recipes to meet your needs.

Knowing how to modify a recipe or cooking without one is an important kitchen skill. Consider these questions the next time you follow a recipe and use these tips to customize them to fit you and your families food preferences.

Over the past month, I’ve doubled down on my search for tasty and fun recipes to teach in the upcoming Fork & Pan classes. I've tested methods from cookbooks, websites, and even meal kit services. The goal is to get exposure to a wide variety of cuisines, cooking techniques, and ingredients.

As I go through the recipes, I imagine how to modify them to meet the needs and goals of the classes. I consider the equipment required, time available, ingredient accessibility and cooking complexity. I make notes about changes along the way and end up with a tailored recipe for each class.

Recipe modification can be a useful tool at home as well. Most recipes do not need to be followed with precision. Instead, recipes serve as framework, which are customizable.

Here are some questions to consider the next time you are following a recipe. Think about the ways you can personalize your meals to fit you and your families preferences.

1. What ingredients are available?

Have you ever gone to the store with a specific recipe in mind, but the store is out-of-stock of a key ingredient? While it can be frustrating, it doesn’t mean you have to switch gears completely. Instead, try swapping out the ingredient with a similar alternative.

Here are a few swap ideas for inspiration:

  • Need a can of puréed / diced / crushed tomatoes? Try buying whole peeled tomatoes instead. The author of The Food Lab, J. Kenji López-alt, suggests keeping your pantry stocked with whole-peeled tomatoes rather than purchasing the more processed alternatives. The few extra minutes of preparation will add more complex flavors to your dishes. Plus, it will keep you from having to run to the store to buy the pre-prepared options.

  • Opt for a plant-based protein: While most grocery stores are well stocked in the meat department, swapping out a meat-based protein for a plant-based alternative is an effective way to add variety to your diet and lower your grocery bill.

  • Vary your veggies: Have you ever heard the saying “eat the rainbow”? It means to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables that differ in color. When cooking, try adding a variety of colorful fruits or vegetables to your dish. Or if you are familiar with cooking a specific vegetable, see if it comes in another color. Have you ever tried purple kale? A purple carrot? Or an orange cauliflower?

Pro tip: Before you go grocery shopping, take a peak in your kitchen to see if you have ingredients that you can use as substitutes in your meal.

2. Which produce is in season?

Try swapping out fruits or vegetables from the recipe with options that are in season. You’ll get more bang for your buck because in-season produce are more nutritious, taste better, and are often cheaper than out-of-season alternatives.

Or, if you have your heart set on making a dish that requires produce that isn’t in season, try using a canned or frozen version. Fruits and vegetables are packaged during their peak ripeness and are often cheaper than fresh produce that aren’t in season.

When purchasing packaged produce, be sure to check the label and make sure it doesn't have added sugars or salt. For canned fruit, look for items that are packed in water rather than in syrup. For canned vegetables, look for options that have no salt added.

Pro tip: If you have a canned vegetable on hand that has added salt, rinse the vegetable in a colander before eating. Rinsing the vegetable can reduce the sodium content by 30%!

3. Which foods do you (and your family) prefer to eat?

Try pairing foods you (and your family) enjoy with the ones you want to try. This is called “associative conditioning.” It's a technique that can even help encourage children to try new foods.

Here are a couple of ways you can use associative conditioning:

  • Use familiar ingredients in a new recipe. If you have a new recipe you want to try, but you know you (or a family member) won’t like an ingredient, then try replacing it with something everyone will enjoy.

  • Use a familiar recipe with new ingredients. If you have an ingredient you want to explore, try adding it to a recipe / meal that you (and your family) are comfortable eating.

Sometimes trying too many new things at once can be overwhelming. Try using associative conditioning to making new food introductions easier.

4. How can you make the meal healthier?

You don’t need a total diet change or a complete meal makeover to start eating healthier. Typically, small changes over time are what do the trick when it comes to establishing life-long healthy habits. Here are some questions to consider when you cook your next meal:

  • “How can I make this just a little bit healthier?” Maybe that means modifying the cooking method, choosing a healthier fat or eating just a little bit less. What is one small change that would make it just a little bit better?

  • “Am I using nutrient-dense ingredients?” Nutrient-dense means it’s packed full of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients with relatively low calories. Conversely, calorie-dense foods are high in calories while relatively low in nutrients. For example, try swapping out processed grains for whole grains. Use brown rice instead of white or whole wheat flour instead of white flour.

  • “What fruit or vegetable can I add to this meal?” Most people know they need to get at least 3-5 servings of fruits and vegetables per day, but how to do that exactly remains a mystery for most. One way to get you closer to your goal is to ask yourself which fruit or vegetable you could add to each meal.

Knowing how to modify a recipe or cooking without one is a kitchen skill akin to chopping vegetables. It can improve your confidence in the kitchen and to make the act of cooking more enjoyable.