If you’re one of the millions of Americans trying to eat healthy, chances are you’re not looking forward to the bland options most folks associate with a vegan diet. But healthy food doesn’t have to taste bland. Here are five clean-eating yet equally tasty alternatives to the unhealthy comfort foods you crave—from creamy mac ‘n’ cheese to street tacos.
Chinese American takeout is irresistible. Deep-fried to a greasy goodness, it’s no secret why General Tso’s is one of the most popular cravings. Luckily, healthy alternatives do exist, including this one, which uses cauliflower instead of chicken (so it’s vegetarian friendly).
With its endless nooks and crannies, Cauliflower works particularly well for soaking up that iconic General Tso’s marinade. To make this dish even healthier dump your deep-fryer in favor of your oven. To emulate the crisp texture of fried food, dust your cauliflower in baking soda before placing it in the oven, then turn it up to broil for the last few minutes. The baking soda provides some of the crisp, caramelized edges you crave without the saturated fat.
When it comes to late-night cravings, tacos have always been at the top of the list, with Korean barbecue not far behind. It was only a matter of time before visionary innovators, among them Roy Choi, put the two together to form the glorious hybrid of Korean tacos. The very best Korean tacos are made with a Korean meat dish topped with the sweet, vinegary crunch of pickled daikon, cradled in a warm, toasted tortilla.
Korean tacos can be made healthier by omitting the meat. One option is to grind walnuts with soy sauce, cumin, and other spices for a surprisingly hearty and simple alternative to ground beef.
I prefer to emulate bulgogi—a sweet and savory Korean beef dish—using tofu. Many people shy away from tofu, citing a spongy texture and lack of taste. However, by drying and marinating it in the right seasoning, your tofu can take on a satisfying flavor and mouth-feel similar to that you’d expect from meat. Not only that, like meat, tofu is similarly high in protein but has the advantage of being low in saturated fat.
Dry your tofu and slice into long, thin strips. Make a bulgogi marinade (I like this one) and soak overnight (or at least a few hours). When finished, drain most of the marinade and toss the tofu in a hot skillet to pan-fry. Cook until golden brown with caramelized tips.
Top with homemade pickled slaw (like this one with carrot and daikon; I like to add cilantro and scallion, too). Kimchee and late-night karaoke optional, but highly recommended.
Vegan cheeses can be hit-or-miss, so I never paid much attention to dairy-free alternatives to dishes like mac ‘n’ cheese, where cheese is the star of the show. This recipe by Vegan Yumminess converted me. It combines potato with cashews, garlic, silken tofu, carrot, onion, and other seasoning to create a creamy topping that feels and tastes cheesy, while using whole, natural ingredients—no additives to thicken or over-flavor.
To really put this dish over the top, roast chopped broccoli in olive oil until it’s crisp, and mix it in.
Ah, Thanksgiving—the American holiday that has most become synonymous with over-indulgence. Turkey may be at the center of the meal, but at the center of the turkey…is stuffing!
Stuffing is typically made with stale bread and sausage, baked in animal fat. It can be pretty nap-inducing. This vegan version replaces the bread with brown and wild rice, and quinoa. It’s a great alternative that still gives you the comforting, broth-soaked taste without the fat and simple carbs. By cooking the grains and other ingredients in vegetable broth, then mixing in pecans and hazelnuts after baking, you end up with a sticky, meaty dish that’s high in protein, but with less of the fat and none of the meat.
Especially on a hot summer day, ice cream is the guilty pleasure you can’t go without. But dairy—which can be hard to digest—combined with large amounts of sugar and fat, is not something you’ll feel good about if you have it every day.
Instead, freeze very ripe bananas, then toss them in the food processor to make a banana sorbet. The result is a natural frozen dessert, with a surprisingly creamy texture and a banana flavor so subtle, you’d swear you were eating vanilla. There are dozens of variations on this basic recipe; my favorites are maple-walnut and mango. Top it off with coconut whipped cream and toasted coconut.
Christina is a beach kid living in Brooklyn and a world traveler on a budget. She writes about food, style, travel—and the occasional short story.