How to Simplify a Healthy But Complicated Recipe


As a doctor and a mom of three children, I don’t have time for complicated recipes. But I believe deeply in the importance of making family dinner. My solution: I modify recipes that I like, simplifying them along the way and substituting in healthier foods. Below are my five favorite shortcuts, using this beef stew recipe that I make often as an example:

Basic Beef Stew

Yield: 6 servings

Prep Time: about 20 minutes

Cook Time: 2 hours


2 packages of beef stew meat

1 onion, chopped finely

3 garlic cloves, minced

2 bay leaves

salt and pepper

1 small can of tomato paste

2 cups (or possibly a bit more) of low-sodium vegetable broth

1/2 to 1 cup of red wine (I use a good cabernet)

Olive oil


  • Using an oven-proof pot, salt and pepper the meat and then brown it in olive oil and set aside.
  • Add garlic and onions to pot and saute until onions just start to soften.
  • Add wine and let it reduce by half; then add tomato paste.
  • Add meat back to pot, cover with vegetable broth, add bay leaves and cover.
  • Place in oven at 325 degrees for at least 90 minutes (I usually cook for two hours or longer).
  • Season with salt and pepper and serve over pasta or rice.

1. Make One Meal Only

I'm not a short-order cook. I don’t have the time, energy or inclination to make multiple meals, and I like for us to eat together as a family. I make one meal only — in this case a large pot of my beef stew served with rice or pasta, roasted veggies and a salad.

Of course, with that said, we all end up eating different variations. I usually go light on the pasta and add more greens. One of my children usually ditches the vegetables except for the salad. And my husband will usually have a different protein entirely. (He gets pan-roasted chickpeas, which takes five minutes to make!)

2. Use a Recipe as a Starting Point

When I first made this beef stew recipe, I used three different cookbooks’ recipes as a starting point. They were all slightly different, and all were more complicated than I had the time or energy for. So instead I just went with the common theme of browning really good meat (I prefer grass-fed, organic beef whenever I can find it), adding lots of garlic, onions, good red wine (don’t cook with wine you wouldn’t drink), some tomato paste and broth. That’s it.

3. Swap Starches With Vegetables

Most of the beef stew recipes that I used called for lots of potatoes, with less of the deeply colored vegetables. I change the ratio completely and stock up on those veggies as a roasted side dish (think carrots and other root vegetables). In addition, I swap out the beef or chicken broth with an organic, low-sodium vegetable broth to ramp up the vegetable quotient. I also make sure to serve plenty of vegetable-heavy side dishes. Stay away from potatoes, unless they are yams or sweet potatoes.

4. Mind the Cooking Oil

I've switched almost exclusively to olive oil because of all the health benefits. The fats in olive oil, monounsaturated fatty acids, are good for us and part of the science-backed, heart-healthy Mediterranean diet.

5. Switch Up the Protein

In this case, I also like this recipe because I can modify it for a vegan crowd by substituting the meat for mushrooms and pearl onions. Incidentally, this is also a less expensive option. Or, as mentioned earlier, I serve fabulous chickpeas on the side for the vegetarian and/or vegan crowd!

Beth Ricanati, M.D. built her career bringing wellness into everyday life, especially for busy moms juggling life and children. Dr. Ricanati worked at Columbia Presbyterian's Center for Women's Health, and then at the Women's Health Center at the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio. In 2008, she joined the Cleveland Clinic's Wellness Institute to serve as the founding medical director of Lifestyle180, a groundbreaking lifestyle modification program to treat chronic diseases with nutrition, exercise and stress management. Now based in Southern California, recently she has written wellness content for and served as a consultant for medical projects and start-ups. Follow her on Instagram and on her website,