Casseroles are satisfying any time of year. There's just something comforting about o a hot, one-dish meal, and the convenience of being able to prep a casserole ahead of time and then just stick it in the oven is big in my house.
A lot of traditional casseroles tend to be high in unhealthy carbs and fat while lacking in nutrients, but making a few simple ingredient changes can create a healthy one-dish dinner. Check out these three tricks below — along with three of my favorite recipes — that not only cut the bad carbs but also boost vegetable intake, increase fiber and other nutrients, and minimize saturated fat and sodium.
Trick #1: Think Vegetables First
One of the easiest ways to lower carbs and boost nutrients is swap a starch like white pasta or rice for a vegetable. Using cooked spaghetti squash strands or spiralizing or shaving thin strips of vegetables like zucchini, sweet potato or beets offers a shape similar to spaghetti and a sturdy base for sauce, protein or cheese. In place of white rice, consider using cauliflower “rice” or crumbles in the casserole itself or to serve the casserole over.
Not sure how veggie noodles will go over at your house? Then Zucchini Pizza Bake is a perfect dish to try. Zucchini has such a mild flavor and texture so similar to cooked spaghetti that my kids didn’t even realize the pasta was missing. The casserole also allows for customization based on your favorite pizza toppings.
Trick #2: Be Smart About Carbs
Carbohydrates aren’t bad; the body needs some each day to function. But there are two keys for healthy eating. One is not overdoing unhealthy carbs — something that’s hard to do, thanks to the abundance of snack foods and added sugars around us each day. The second key is opting for good-quality carb foods that are composed of fiber and complex carbs, such as beans, vegetables, and whole grains. Lower-quality carbohydrate foods like regular pasta and white bread often lack fiber and nutrients and provide only refined carbs like starch and added sugars due to milling and processing. These carbs tend to trigger spikes in blood glucose, as well as unhealthy insulin responses by the body, which can lead to cravings and hunger later in the day.
Taco night is always popular at my house, and one of my favorite lower-carb casseroles is Cheesy Taco Casserole. A lot of recipes for Southwestern-inspired casseroles are heavy in unhealthy carbs like tortilla chips and white rice, as well as high-fat cheese and sour cream. But in this version, whole-grain corn tortillas take the place of chips or white flour tortillas. This swap provides more fiber, fewer calories and carbs, and less saturated fat and sodium. Adding canned black beans and tomatoes to taco-seasoned meat creates a nutrient-dense filling. Top with a little cheese, and serve over a crisp bed of lettuce.
Trick #3: Reduce, Don’t Eliminate
Low-carb doesn’t mean no carbs. In fact, one of my favorite tricks is to simply halve or slightly reduce the starchy component, whether that’s potatoes, pasta, grains, or beans. Add extra vegetables to make up for some of the missing carbs so that serving sizes are still ample. Many times, you won’t even notice the change.
Breakfast casseroles make a hearty meal any time of the day, but many rely on hash browns or bread cubes to bulk up the egg mixture. In Roasted Sweet Potato and Sausage Breakfast Casserole, white potatoes are swapped for more nutrient-dense sweet potatoes. Roasting caramelizes the natural sugars in the sweet potatoes and ensures that they’re tender. Adding a vegetable like spinach means fewer unhealthy carbs and gets in some leafy greens.
These three tricks lower unhealthy carbs and fat and increase vegetables to make your favorite comfort-food casseroles healthier. Better still, your family may not even notice the small changes — and if they do, it’s probably because they like the new version better!
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CAROLYN WILLIAMS, RD