Casseroles are not usually considered healthy food.
However, a one-dish meal that can easily be prepared ahead of time is perfect for busy nights and especially great for these cold months, when it feels nice just to have the stove on with delicious smells wafting throughout the house.
If you and your family rely on casseroles, it makes sense to give them a little makeover so your meals will be nutritious.
Most casseroles have a grain or potato base. To add fiber to your casserole, consider switching the grain to a whole grain. Whole grain pastas or brown and wild rice varieties can be easily substituted into your recipe. Both take a little longer to cook; however, this makes them ideal for casseroles, since often the grain is overcooked and mushy.
If you are using potatoes, try leaving on the skins or using sweet potatoes. Leaving the skin on white potatoes adds fiber and nutrients. Sweet potatoes are loaded with vitamin A.
If you are using mashed potatoes, in a shepherd’s pie for example, try mashing one sweet potato into your other potatoes. The mixed mashed potatoes are a beautiful color and still have a mild flavor.
If you are using meat in a casserole, look for leaner varieties. Keep in mind that 70 percent lean ground beef is actually 30 percent fat.
Since it is cheaper, you may still want to use fattier meat, but remove as much fat as you can before you add the meat to the casserole. Straining and even rinsing cooked ground beef will remove quite a bit of fat. An even better idea is to substitute beans for meat.
Ground beef and chicken do not add a lot of flavor to a casserole, so this is an ideal place to substitute beans. Try chick peas for chicken or black beans or lentils for ground beef. The beans will provide protein (especially when eaten along with whole grains) and they are really high in fiber.
Cheese and dairy also have quite a bit of protein, but consider using low fat versions in your casserole to keep the saturated fat and calories down.
Usually what people consider healthy about casseroles is that they contain vegetables.
Envision USDAs recommended plate; half of it is filled with vegetables (or fruit). When you are making a one-dish meal, you should try to add enough vegetables to actually be half of the dish. This can be a great way to enjoy vegetables.
Who doesn’t love broccoli and cauliflower with cheese sauce? Try adding a bag or two (depending on the size of your pan) of frozen florets the next time you make a baked macaroni and cheese. Lasagnas are delicious with added layers of eggplant or zucchini, and spinach can be mixed into almost any casserole.
If you feel you are changing the dish too much by adding that many vegetables, serve a vegetable or fruit alongside the casserole with dinner. A green salad goes with nearly any meal, but you can serve whatever your family enjoys and you have on hand.
Some casseroles have a lot a fat and sodium. A common culprit for these unhealthy additives is canned soup.
One way to get rid of the soup is to make a simple roux, or white sauce with flour, butter or oil, and milk or broth. By making this yourself, you can control how much and what type of fat you use, and by using a no-salt-added broth or skim milk you will be adding little sodium. To make a lower fat white sauce creamier, mix in a little fat free cream cheese.
You can make your roux flavored by adding other ingredients. Adding some chopped mushrooms, you can make a cream of mushroom soup substitute. Let’s be realistic though, canned soup is simple and quick, so if you are keeping it in the casserole, compare varieties to find a version that is low in fat and sodium.
Even if you adopt just one of these makeovers your casserole will be a little healthier. Once you are used to the switch, you may even find you like the healthier casserole better.
Jordy Kivett is a nutrition educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension in Clinton County. For more information, contact her at 561-7450.