Spaghetti and Meatballs, Lightened Up

by in Meal Makeovers, October 12, 2009

spaghetti and meatballs
Spaghetti and meatballs are a big deal in my family, and the idea of slimming down this traditional dish doesn’t go over well. But since an average portion can have as much as 970 calories and 30 grams of fat, making it healthier when you can is smart. Just take it one step at a time.

Step 1: Pasta
The biggest problem with pasta is the super-sized portions. I cringe when I see a recipe that calls for an entire pound of pasta for four people — that’s double what you should eat at a meal! One cup of cooked pasta (about two ounces of dry pasta) has about 200 calories — one to one and a half cups of cooked pasta per person is plenty.

Whole-grain pastas have about the same amount of calories as white pasta, but there’s the added benefit of vitamins, protein and fiber. I know many folks aren’t fond of the flavor combo of the whole-wheat pasta, which tastes nuttier, with tomato sauce. If that’s you, stick to regular pasta for your spaghetti and meatballs and use the whole wheat in other dishes. You can also try experimenting with other types of whole-grain past. I’m a huge fan of brown rice pastas like Tinkyada — they have the goodness of whole grain with a milder flavor.

Step 2: Sauce
Sauce can work for you or against you. My grandfather makes the most amazing sauce, but it’s typically flavored with fatty meats such as sausage in addition to the meatballs. For special occasions and family gatherings, I don’t change a thing. For everyday spaghetti, I keep my sauce on the lighter side by making my own with small amounts of olive oil and lots of low-calorie tomatoes, onions, garlic and basil. Cooked tomatoes are also a great source of the antioxidant lycopene. If you’re buying the jarred stuff, look for the plain varieties, not the meat- or cheese-filled ones.

Step 3: Meatballs
Most meatballs feature a combo of ground veal, beef and pork (often called “meatloaf mix”); swap that for 90% lean beef or ground turkey breast. Lean meats have less fat, which means less moisture and flavor, but you can make up for that by adding onions, mushrooms, breadcrumbs, ricotta cheese or a splash of milk to your meat mixture. Diced tofu can also help make lighter meatballs and won’t affect the taste much because tofu takes on the flavors around it. Add even more pizazz with fresh herbs and spices.

Meal Prep Tip; Though tempting, pass on the extra bread sticks and piles of shredded cheese on top of your spaghetti. These easily add hundreds of calories! Try a light sprinkle of Parmesan cheese and pair your past with a large salad instead of bread.

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Order this classic dish at a restaurant and you’re in for a 900-calorie meal (that’s without appetizers or dessert!). Opt for frozen and you won’t do much better at around 700 calories a pop. For both options, fat ranges from 40 to 60 grams and sodium can double the recommended daily amount. Instead, cozy up to a homemade version Healthy Eats style.

Comments (19)

  1. Emanuel says:

    Ground chicken is also a great alternative for meatballs. Usually has less fat than turkey. Smart Chicken makes a great ground chicken breast product that's 99% lean and tastes great.

  2. maebyn says:

    I mix chopped mushrooms into my meatballs – it lightens them up, adds moisture, reduces calories, and adds some minerals. The mushrooms also absorb all the flavors, so no one can even tell if they are chopped finely enough.

  3. Lori says:

    I got so used to a marinara without meat that now it's all I make. The fresh basil plus really good canned tomatoes, or fresh in season ripe tomatoes, really makes a difference! Also, it's a great suggestion about using less cheese whe you're trying to slim down. If the sauce is good enough you usually don't even miss piling on the cheese. Thanks Dana!

  4. This is a great website- great recipes

  5. Susan says:

    Here's a great tip – try adding soaked raisins in your meatballs – my neighbor comes from an old Italian family and this is a family "secret"

  6. Judy Johnson says:

    I too make a traditional sauce for special occasions, but for everyday I enjoy a light version… Rather than meatballs, I lightly brown chicken thighs and throw them into my sauce and let them slowly cook until the meat is ready to fall off. For my husband he likes “chicken sausages” even better than the regular pork ones. I deglaze the pan with a little wine instead of loading up on the olive oil.

  7. Stacey Fields says:

    Oh, I also love Alton Brown's tip: I oven bake turkey meatballs in nonstick mini muffin tins before plopping them into sauce. No frying, hands-off cooking, and easy portioning and clean-up!

  8. Stacey Fields says:

    I love Dreamfields Pasta. It’s white, but with added fiber and protein, so it’s lower on the glycemic index and no one can tell the difference. I bind low-fat turkey meatballs with Parmesan and eggwhites to keep the processed carbs down, and boost flavor with fresh onions, garlic and dried oregano. The mushrooms are a great suggestion, too. Sometimes I grate in zucchini. Most purchsed Italian seasoned breadcrumbs are loaded with salt, sugar, and MSG. For a change, I like to lighten up spaghetti carbonara with nitrate-free turkey bacon, eggs with one yolk, good parm and the high fiber pasta with lots of freshly ground pepper and parsley. Yum.

  9. Reenie says:

    I love using spaghetti squash when it's just for me. Saute garlic, basil, oregano, cayenne and your favorite veggies & toss them with the spaghetti squash. Yummy. I use the same sauce combo for whole wheat and whole grain pasta

  10. ddesmond says:

    I cook whole wheat pasta until just al dente. Right before it's finished, I toss fresh broccoli in the pasta water. Drain it all and serve with sauce! My kids love it. Cuts down on the pasta and boosts the veggies!

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