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5 tricks for healthier pasta dinners at home

By Emily McKenna, February 22, 2012 - 11:48am

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5 tricks for healthier pasta dinners at home

I am one of many grandkids in a large family of first-generation Italian-Americans. This means that I grew up eating lots of pasta—Sunday rigatoni and meatballs at my aunt’s house, Friday-night linguine and clam sauce from my mother and, on almost any day of the week, a big bowl of spaghetti or ravioli from my grandmother.

I rely on pasta when I need a cheap and easy-to-fix dinner in a pinch. (Try one of these 30-minute easy pasta recipes.) The challenge now is making sure that I make a complete, balanced meal that fills me up. Here are a few of my pasta-night strategies:

1. Choose Whole-Wheat Pasta: Almost every major brand of pasta at the supermarket offers a whole-wheat or whole-grain option. This is great news: whole-wheat and whole-grain pasta have up to twice the fiber of white-flour pasta, and retain some of the trace minerals not added back to white-flour pasta during the enrichment process. Plus, whole-wheat and whole-grain pasta have a nice nutty flavor and a pleasant chewy texture that I have grown to love. I think of them as pasta with a backbone.

If you prefer to ease into the world of whole-wheat pasta, try a blend. Blends have a varying percentage of whole grain to refined flour. You’ll sacrifice some fiber, but you still get an average of 2 grams more per serving compared to white pasta.

Related: Whole-Wheat Pasta Taste-Test Winners
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2. Pay Attention to Portions: The USDA recommends that an adult consume 6 ounces of grains a day, with a focus on whole grains. We recommend 2 ounces of dry pasta per person, which works out to about 1 cup of cooked pasta per person. This delivers two servings of healthy whole grains at once.

3. Balance with Veggie Side Dishes: Every bowl of pasta I eat begins with, or is accompanied by, a big green salad—my delicious trick for sneaking in some folate and vitamins A and C. Other great sides to go with pasta include roasted broccoli or asparagus, sautéed greens like spinach or kale or steamed string beans or peas. These can help fill you up faster without eating too much pasta.

Related: How to Make a Healthy Side Salad

4. Choose Lean Proteins: I add a protein boost to my bowl of pasta by adding one can of drained and rinsed beans, such as cannellini beans or chickpeas, along with the sauce. Other healthy protein options include ground turkey and chicken or turkey sausage.

Don't Miss: How We Made Classic Spaghetti and Meatballs Healthier

5. Save the Cheese for Garnishing: Some pasta recipes direct you to mix grated and fresh cheeses, like Parmesan, pecorino and ricotta, into the pasta with the sauce. I prefer to save saturated fat and calories by sprinkling or spooning my cheese on top only. This way, I get a fresh, sharp bite of cheese with every bite.

What’s your best tip for keeping pasta dinners healthy? Tell us what you think below.

TAGS: Emily McKenna, Healthy Cooking Blog, Dinner, Family meals, Quick meals, Recipe Makeover

Emily McKenna
Emily McKenna has been a recipe tester and developer in the EatingWell Test Kitchen and has worked at Food & Wine Magazine, food52.com and Real Simple Magazine. She is a recent convert to the glories of kale and has a weakness for doughnuts, strawberry licorice and anything her Italian-American grandmother makes, especially pizza.

Emily asks: What’s your best tip for keeping pasta dinners healthy?

Tell us what you think:

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