Casseroles and one-dish meals are often favorite comfort foods, and with good reason: Not only are they homey and tasty, they are usually easy on the cook. Most one-dish meals can be assembled ahead of time and popped in the oven shortly before sitting down to eat, and, of course, the whole meal is prepared in just one dish!
But the traditional versions of these cozy, easy-to-make meals are sometimes laden with carbs, fat, and sodium, so you may not think casseroles fit in with your modern, more healthful way of eating. Guess again! With a little inspiration and some helpful tips, you may enjoy more healthful versions of your favorite one-dish meals that are as tasty as the ones mom used to make.
Start with lean meats
Because casseroles and one-pot meals usually have a sauce or a broth, they are ideal for using lean cuts of meat that you might find too dry to use in other dishes. If your favorite casserole starts with ground beef, for example, use the leanest ground beef you can find. Switching from 70% lean ground beef to 95% lean ground beef saves about 220 calories and twenty-eight grams of fat in a four-ounce serving. Lean ground turkey breast is also a great choice. Even if you find it too dry for making burgers, it can work well in casseroles. If you and your family love the flavor of beef, another suggestion is to use half 95% lean ground beef and half ground skinless turkey breast – you’ll get the beefy flavor and cut some of the fat.
For recipes that use chicken, use skinless chicken breast (the skin can add fat and calories). When using pork, try pork tenderloin, or, for a more economical choice, use center cut pork loin chops, trim away any visible fat, and remove the bones as necessary for your recipe.
Many types of casseroles include ham, sausage, or bacon. When you make a casserole that calls for ham, look for low-sodium ham to minimize salt intake. When using sausage, choose chicken or turkey sausage to cut some saturated fat and calories. Bacon is usually used in casseroles and one-pot meals to add a smoky flavor to the dish. Usually just one slice of bacon will add the smoky flavor you love, while adding less fat. Even better, try this sneaky tip – add a bit of smoked paprika or smoked black pepper (look for these in the spice section of the supermarket) for lots of flavor and no added fat, calories, or carbs.
If you want to cut back on the meat, try substituting canned beans such as cannellini beans, pinto beans, or black beans for some or part of the meat in casseroles. Dried beans are high in carbs (about 22 grams in 1/4 cup), so take that into account as you prepare the recipe to ensure it fits into your meal plan. Choose canned beans that are low-sodium or with no added salt. In a pinch, rinsing regular canned beans before you add them to a dish will help remove about 40 percent of the sodium.
Make “smart carb” choices
It’s okay to include carbs in your casserole, this is comfort food after all, but making a “smart carb” choice may help make your casserole or one-dish meal both tasty and more healthful. Some of my favorite swaps are using whole-wheat pasta, noodles, and rice instead of the white versions. You’ll boost nutrients, fiber, and even flavor. If the flavors of your dish will marry well with sweet potatoes, use those instead of white potatoes to add more fiber and nutrients.
For dishes that are topped with biscuits, cornbread, or polenta, use half of what the recipe calls for. The dish will still taste authentic, but you’ll curb the carbs and calories.
Many one-pot meals suggest serving the dish over couscous, pasta, noodles, or mashed potatoes. A small serving of any of these is great to enjoy with a one-dish meal – as long as there are not a lot of other high carb ingredients in the dish.
Pump up the veggies
Most casseroles have some vegetables, but I try either to choose recipes that call for lots of veggies or to think about how I can include more. One strategy is to replace half the pasta or rice in a casserole with low-carb veggies such as zucchini, green beans, broccoli, mushrooms, or eggplant.
Many casseroles have a creamy sauce that binds all the ingredients together; while this can be very tasty, it also really adds to the fat, calories, and carbs. My tip is to replace a cream-based sauce with a sauce made with pureed cauliflower (cook cauliflower florets until tender, then puree them in a food processor or blender with a tablespoon or two of water and a pinch of salt and pepper). You can do the same thing with purchased roasted red peppers. Choose the type packed in water, drain them, and puree in the food processor for an instant flavorful, low-carb sauce. This could become a new family favorite!
Since most casseroles already have a lot of carbs from noodles, rice, or potatoes avoid adding other starchy vegetables such as peas, corn, or winter squash.
Lighten the sauce
A creamy cheese sauce or a can of cream soup is a component of many one-dish meals. If you’re making your own sauce for a casserole, simply choosing certain ingredients – such as fat-free or 1% low-fat milk, low-sodium broth, and reduced-fat cheese – can help make a dish fit better into a more healthful lifestyle.
For a tasty, lower-fat cheese sauce, choose sharp or extra-sharp Cheddar so you’ll get great flavor with less cheese. Lean toward casserole recipes that have a tomato-based sauce, which is lower in carbs and calories than creamy sauces. If you used canned soups, choose low-fat, reduced-sodium varieties.
Finish with flavor and crunch
The final touch for many casseroles – especially the kind we get nostalgic for – is a crispy fat- and carb-laden topping made from butter-soaked breadcrumbs, canned French fried onion rings, or even crushed potato chips. Your mouth may be watering already! But my secret is that you can get fantastic flavor – and fewer carbs, less fat, and calories – by using a light sprinkle of panko breadcrumbs, crushed unsweetened whole grain cereal, or crushed whole-grain crackers. Spray the crumbs lightly with cooking spray to help them brown and crisp as they bake.
Enjoy your cozy dinner when temperatures drop this winter! For more tips on making your meals diabetes-friendlier, check out The DX archive.
Jackie Mills is the author of The Big Book of Diabetic Desserts. She is also a food writer and registered dietitian who develops recipes for such national magazines asCooking Light and Family Circle, as well as for books such as the American Medical Association Type 2 Diabetes Cookbook. She was formerly the food editor atRedbook magazine. Mills is a paid contributor for The DX. All opinions contained in this article reflect those of the contributor, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies, or affiliates.
© 2013 The DX: The Diabetes Experience