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7 Healthy Weeknight Pasta Tricks That R.D.s Love

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Through all the ups and downs in my life, one thing has remained constant: my love for pasta. In my opinion, no meal comes closer to perfection. It’s great for every mood, whether you’re sad and in need of a pick-me-up or happy and ready to celebrate. Aside from complicated dishes like lasagna, it’s almost always super easy to make (a number of recipes can even be made in one pot!). And there are hundreds of different ways to prepare it, meaning it’s practically impossible to get bored of.

For a while, though, I was under the impression that pasta wasn’t healthy. This was sometime around the advent of cauliflower rice and zucchini noodles, when I was a broke college student who didn’t know much about healthy eating aside from the fact that “carbs were bad.” I still ate spaghetti all the time (often out of necessity) and I couldn’t help but feel guilty when I did. What good was I doing myself by throwing back bowl after bowl of carbohydrates, especially if they weren’t good for me?

I’ve since come to learn that carbs really aren’t bad for you (in fact, they’re one of our main sources of energy) and that real-deal pasta (not zoodles) can absolutely be a healthy meal, provided you know how to prepare it. Registered dietitians love the comfort food classic as much as I do, and they know exactly how to turn it into a well-rounded meal. Read on for all their tips, from piling up on veggies to making your own sauce. They’ll help you make a weeknight pasta dinner that’s both good and good for you.

1. Make your own sauce.

Many store-bought sauces are packed with sodium and added sugar, Cara Harbstreet, M.S., R.D., L.D. of Street Smart Nutrition tell SELF. The obvious solution? Make your own sauce! Even if your cooking skills are limited, it’s easy to whip up a makeshift marinara with just a can of tomatoes, some herbs, olive oil, garlic, and wine. If you’re in a pinch, there are better-for-you jars out there. Amy Gorin, M.S., R.D.N., owner of Amy Gorin Nutrition recommends Rao’s Homemade Marinara and Mario Batali Tomato Sauce—they’re both low-sodium and have no added sugar. But, they’re a little pricey, so your best bet is still to make your own.

2. Smaller pasta shapes will make your portions seem bigger without actually making them bigger.

Gorin’s latest pasta-making trick is using smaller pasta shapes like elbows or cavatappi, because you get more bang for your buck. “In a serving, you get more pieces of pasta, versus a larger pasta like a rigatoni,” she says. This trick can also work with varieties like ditalini, orecchiette, and more.

3. When it comes to veggies, the limit does not exist.

“My rule of thumb at home is to always include a minimum of three servings of vegetables every time I cook pasta,” Harbstreet explains. To get to three, one thing she’ll often do is blend extra veggies into her sauces. Try carrot and onions in marinara, or even try tossing a bunch of chopped mushrooms into bolognese—you’ll be shocked at how meaty they end up tasting. If you’re really not sure which veggies to add, or just don’t want to run the risk of accidentally making something strange, try out one of these recipes—they all contain at least two servings of vegetables.

Andrew Purcell, Carrie Purcell

4. Don’t forget about protein!

A bowl of noodles and butter is kiddie food—you need a pasta packed with protein to really keep you satisfied. The protein sources you include all come down to your preference. Meat sauce is a classic choice, but you can also add lentils to marinara for a meatless sauce that’s still got some protein. Soft-boiled and fried eggs are another option Gorin loves (breakfast pasta, anyone?). And don’t forget, “cheese counts as a protein,” she says. So, by all means, finish that bowl of penne with a sprinkle of Parm.

5. Give alternative pastas a try.

Once upon a time, it seemed like the only alternative to white pasta was whole-grain pasta. If you like whole-grain pasta, great, but the flavor and texture is polarizing to many. Thankfully, the market is now far more saturated. These days, you can pick up anything from higher-protein lentil pasta to gluten-free noodles at almost any supermarket. Cooking with these different varieties of pasta is an easy way to add protein, fiber, and more nutrients to your meal. And get this: Because their flavors and textures are vastly different from your typical whole-grain pastas, they’re fun to try even if you’re technically not trying to eat healthier. My recommendation: Test a different variety every week until you find one you love.

For example, Harbstreet’s favorite healthier pasta is Barilla White Fiber. “It’s a good compromise for those who want additional fiber but don’t like the texture or taste of whole-grain pasta,” she says. Gorin is a big fan of the pastas produced by Banza, Modern Table, and Tolerant Foods. And SELF editors can’t get enough of Ancient Harvest Pow Mac and Cheese.

Of course, you don’t have to use one of these varieties to make a healthier pasta. If you’d rather stick with classic white-flour pasta, there are still plenty of ways to make your meal healthy, and you can get lots of fiber from added veggies.

6. Keep an eye on the olive oil.

As tempting as it is to pour straight from the bottle, that glug-glug you hear is probably way more than the tablespoon you might have been aiming for. A single tablespoon of olive oil is about 119 calories—if you accidentally triple or quadruple that, you’re adding on that many more calories for hardly any difference in flavor. Portion control is key here, says Harbstreet, who recommends using no more than 2 tablespoons per pasta serving.

Andrew Purcell, Carrie Purcell

7. Lighten up rich, decadent classics like Alfredo and bolognese with a few simple hacks.

Gorin’s favorite way to lighten up a cream sauce like Alfredo is to sub in Greek yogurt or blended cottage cheese for heavy cream. As for bolognese, subbing in lentils or mushrooms for half the meat will cut the calories, increase the volume, and boost your fiber and veggie intake.

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