A central challenge in evolutionary biology concerns the mechanisms by which complex metabolic innovations requiring multiple mutations arise. Here, we propose that metabolic innovations accessible through the addition of a single reaction serve as stepping stones towards the later establishment of complex metabolic features in another environment. We demonstrate the feasibility of this hypothesis through three complementary analyses. First, using genome-scale metabolic modelling, we show that complex metabolic innovations in Escherichia coli can arise via changing nutrient conditions. Second, using phylogenetic approaches, we demonstrate that the acquisition patterns of complex metabolic pathways during the evolutionary history of bacterial genomes support the hypothesis. Third, we show how adaptation of laboratory populations of E. coli to one carbon source facilitates the later adaptation to another carbon source. Our work demonstrates how complex innovations can evolve through series of adaptive steps without the need to invoke non-adaptive processes.