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5 secrets to healthier spaghetti & meatballs

By Penelope Wall, September 22, 2011 - 11:28am

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I’m a sucker for those makeover shows on TV. Dramatic results in seconds (or at least right after the commercial break)? Yes, I could use that kind of inspiration! After all, most of us strive to be the best, healthiest version of ourselves. Sometimes we just need a friendly expert to show us the light.

Enter EatingWell nutrition advisor Sylvia Geiger, M.S., R.D. (Registered Dietitian). She does a lot of the behind-the-scenes magic here at EatingWell, analyzing recipe nutrition and developing the healthy meal plans that our readers love so much. (See her latest 7-Day Meal Plan for Weight Loss here.)

I imagine Sylvia feels the same way about unhealthy food that I feel about the participants on What Not to Wear. “This meal needs a healthy makeover, people!”

Sylvia helped us give the old dinner standby spaghetti & meatballs a face-lift, with 48 percent fewer calories, 65 percent less saturated fat and two-thirds less sodium, while bumping up fiber, minerals and vitamins. Here's what she did:

Must-Read: Our Top 10 Secrets to Making Your Favorite Meals Healthier

Before: White spaghetti (2 cups) with 8 meatballs (6 ounces), sauce (3/4 cup) and Parmesan cheese (2 tablespoons), garlic bread, iceberg-lettuce salad. This high-carbohydrate meal has—on average—a whopping number of calories (1,495) and fat grams (70) and more than a day’s worth of sodium, yet it’s shy in vitamins, minerals and other good things, such as antioxidants.

What you’re eating:  The average restaurant serving of spaghetti & meatballs heaped with grated cheese is enough food for two people. While red sauce and meatballs are a much better choice than creamy pasta carbonara or alfredo, too much of a good thing can still be fraught with nutritional pitfalls, most notably excess calories, sodium and saturated fat. Add a slab of garlic bread made with margarine and you’ve loaded up on trans fats as well.

Iceberg lettuce adds great crunch to salad but few nutrients. Token tomatoes and a smattering of carrots barely help. Coated with 3 tablespoons Italian dressing and dotted with seasoned croutons, a salad like this tops out at about 1,300 mg sodium, 20 grams fat and 265 calories.

Store-bought garlic bread, typically made with margarine and flavored salt, adds 320 calories, 20 grams fat and 500 mg of sodium to an already burdened meal.


  • 1,495 calories
  • 12 grams fiber
  • 211 grams cholesterol
  • 70 grams fat
  • 20 grams saturated fat
  • 3,233 milligrams sodium
blog post photo

After: Whole-wheat spaghetti (1 cup) with 4 meatballs (3 ounces), sauce (1/2 cup) and Parmesan cheese (1 tablespoon), crusty bread, broccoli, salad of mixed greens. While the overall amount of food on this plate is similar, the makeup has changed dramatically.

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How We Made It Healthier: Start with a smaller portion of whole-wheat pasta and meatballs, simplify the garlic bread, add a few stalks of broccoli and use dark green leafy lettuce in the salad. These modest changes result in huge improvements:

  • Mesclun greens and more carrots, tomatoes and red peppers now make the salad rich in folate and vitamins A and C. Chopped nuts add back the crunch along with iron and magnesium, all for 145 calories.
  • Two tablespoons of vinaigrette dressing provides plenty of flavor without drowning the salad. Homemade salad dressings have much less sodium and often more flavor than commercial versions.
  • Broil a slice of crusty whole-wheat bread with 1 teaspoon olive oil and 1 teaspoon Parmesan cheese: great flavor for a fraction of the fat, sodium and calories of the original.
  • A serving of broccoli (1/2 cup) adds fiber, folate and vitamins A and C.
  • Whole-wheat pasta has twice the fiber of white-flour pasta. It also retains trace minerals not added back during the enrichment process.


  • 779 calories
  • 14 grams fiber
  • 77 grams cholesterol
  • 34 grams fat
  • 7 grams saturated fat
  • 1,023 milligrams sodium

What classic comfort-food meal would you nominate for a healthy makeover?

More Recipe Makeovers from the EatingWell Test Kitchen:

TAGS: Penelope Wall, Healthy Cooking Blog, Dinner, Family meals, Nutrition, Recipe Makeover

Penelope Wall
Penelope is Senior Digital Editor for EatingWell.

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