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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 a web producer and writer for When she's not busy geeking out at the computer, she loves cooking and trying new recipes on her friends. Some of her favorite foods are dark chocolate, coffee, apples, sweet potatoes and cheese.

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