Winter invites us to burrow under blankets, linger by the fire and enjoy warm, wonderful comfort food at every opportunity. Casseroles and soups spring to mind — the bigger the flavor, the better. However, these homey dishes can call for ingredients that — while meant to boost flavor and save prep time — might not be the best choices for your health.
You can have it all, though, with dishes like the tasty One-Pan Taco Casserole, made healthier with a few tweaks. Read on to see how we've removed the nutritional pitfalls in this recipe and substituted healthier ingredients, and learn why making these changes (in this recipe and others) will create instant improvements in your wintertime nutrition.
A recipe for success: Scrutinize ingredients
Whenever you try out a new (or reinstate an old) casserole recipe, assessing its key ingredients can reveal the true measure of the dish’s impact on your health. One of those ingredients is sodium.
“A lot of casserole recipes are very high in sodium because they call for canned goods,” says Tricia Foley, a registered dietitian and board member of the Southwest Virginia Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “For example, a cup of tomato sauce has 1,284 milligrams of sodium, and Americans only need about 1,500 milligrams a day according to the American Heart Association, so that's almost the full amount in that one cup." To lower sodium content, opt for fresh or frozen alternatives to canned ingredients whenever possible, such as dicing your own fresh tomatoes or using frozen instead of canned green beans.
Another sodium trap can be premade spice packets, such as taco seasoning, used here in our pretweaked, original recipe. Instead, Foley suggests investing in individual spices as alternative seasonings in your recipes. "People can decrease their sodium and still have lots of flavor by using herbs and spices. And unlike baking, cooking isn't a scientific thing. You can play around, and it probably won't be a disaster."
Next on the offender list is saturated fat. Meats — ground beef in our recipe — and cheeses can be big culprits, so study nutritional labels for these ingredients to make sure they’re not taking your dish into the danger zone. For ground beef, Foley suggests going as lean as possible. “Even 85-percent lean is very fatty. You want to limit your saturated fat to about 5 to 6 percent of your daily caloric intake. Buying 95-percent-lean ground beef and draining it after browning helps to reduce saturated fat.”
Cheese is often over-loaded in casserole recipes, according to Foley. She suggests cutting back on the amount of cheese called for and using 2-percent fat instead of full-fat cheese, which will cut saturated fat and allow other flavors to shine through. Sour cream is another common high-fat ingredient. Swapping it for plain or Greek yogurt lowers saturated fat while adding protein, she says.
The third big nutritional downfall of many casserole recipes, which may be surprising, is sugar. One frequently used ingredient category to analyze is premade tomato-based products like ketchup and tomato sauce. “Look for tomato sauce with less than 3 grams of added sugar per serving,” Foley suggests, and buy reduced-sugar versions when possible. Also look at the ingredient list on the product to make sure it does not contain high fructose corn syrup. Premixed seasoning packets can also contain high amounts of sugar.
One last healthy swap that’s beneficial to any recipe, especially casseroles, is bringing in a higher-fiber alternative to pasta. In the updated One-Pan Taco Casserole, we’ve replaced white rotini pasta with black beans, which, according to Foley, will add more fiber as well as vitamin B, magnesium and folate. Substituting whole-wheat pasta for white pasta is also a good move if it’s accompanied by an overall reduction in the amount of pasta called for (example, reduce 1 cup of regular, white pasta to 1/3 cup whole-wheat pasta).
Even with all the information currently available on food packaging, making sense of it is still an issue for most of us. In order to successfully make healthy changes in your cooking and food shopping habits, being able to understand food labels will serve you well, says Foley. “Take the time to check the ingredients list, not just the nutrition label,” she says.
Ingredients are listed by weight, most to least, so pay close attention to the first five ingredients, while also looking for those ending with “-ose,” which are what Foley calls “sugar words,” such as sucrose, fructose and dextrose.
On the label portion, it can be tough to conceptualize the amount of each nutritional component listed. Foley’s trick: think visually. “Everything is in grams, and our brains don't think in grams,” she says, citing sugar as an example. “Four grams of sugar is equal to 1 teaspoon of sugar. That's an easy way to convert it in your mind and give yourself a visual.”
Taking time to analyze each recipe in your current casserole repertoire as well as any new recipe you consider trying takes practice and attention to detail. “It’s multifactorial,” says Foley, “you have to look at the whole recipe and each ingredient in it.”
Start incorporating these healthy swaps into your comfort mainstays now, and by next winter, you’ll be making the healthiest, most delicious casseroles at any potluck — not to mention at your own table.
Watch for it: In our next issue, celebrate spring with healthier salads (yes, there are unhealthy versions!) in part 2 of New Kitchen, New Nutrition, New You.