How to Enjoy Healthier Italian Dishes

Famous for heavy sauces, cheese and cured meats – Italian food in the United States gets a bad rap for being unhealthy. However, it is possible to order healthier and lighter dishes at your favorite Italian joint, and to make your own at home. This year’s National Nutrition Month honors celebrating a world of flavors, let’s do so by highlighting the healthier side of Italian food.

While pasta isn’t inherently bad, it’s the portion sizes at many restaurants that quickly make it so. Moreover, many of the sauces are full of saturated fat from butter and cheese. That’s why splitting a dish with a friend or boxing up half of the meal for later makes it easier to practice moderation.

If you’re looking to choose something healthier, consider skipping that extra sprinkle of cheese and salt and ordering one of these dishes:

  • Bruschetta is traditionally full of fresh tomatoes and herbs that offer plenty of nutrients. The dish features a drizzle of olive oil, which is a healthy fat that’s full of flavor.
  • Mussels in white wine sauce. The mussels are often steamed or cooked directly in the white wine-based sauce, making it a lighter option.
  • Tomato-based sauces and pesto. Though often high in salt, these sauces are lower in saturated fat and overall calories than creamy sauces such as alfredo.
  • Shrimp Pomodoro. This dish features a lean protein combined with a lighter, tomato-based sauce.
  • This Tuscan seafood stew is full of flavor and lean protein, often skipping heavy ingredients bursting with saturated fat.
  • Grilled calamari. Grilled calamari is a lean protein option that can be accompanied by vegetables.

Italian cooking takes advantage of many simple flavors from the plant world to help healthy food taste delicious. Keep these tips in mind to get the most of your Italian home cooking and keep things healthy:

  • Roast vegetables before adding to sauces for more intense flavors.
  • Rub spices like oregano and thyme between your hands when adding to recipes to bring out the flavors.
  • Let garlic and onions cook at low temperatures in oil as a base for sauces to allow sweet and nutty flavors to develop.
  • Use a combination of fresh and dried herbs for cooking, adding some of the fresh herbs as final touches
  • Choose unsalted canned tomato products.
  • Limit pasta servings to no more than 1 cup.
  • Watch the added cheeses and try to limit cheese to an ounce per serving.
  • Combine pasta noodles with spiralized vegetables.
  • Use high-quality olive oils for finishing touches.

While it’s tempting to choose the convenience of premade pasta sauces, making your own doesn’t require much effort. Making a sauce from scratch eliminates many of the unnecessary additional ingredients introduced during processing, such as excess added sugar, sodium and preservatives. Follow along for a healthier take on chicken parmesan that features a combination of spiralized zucchini and spaghetti, a simple tomato sauce and baked parmesan-breaded chicken sans the egg and flour.

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Ingredients

  • 1 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 shallot, finely diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 28-ounce can San Marzano tomatoes, with liquid
  • 1 Tbsp. dried oregano
  • 1 tsp. thyme
  • 1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes (or to taste)
  • ¼ cup fresh basil
  • 2 cups spaghetti, cooked
  • 2 zucchinis, spiralized
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 4 Tbsp. shaved parmesan cheese

Italian meal

Simple Tomato Sauce with Zoodles and Spaghetti – Serves 4

Instructions
1. Add olive oil to a large skillet over medium-low heat. Add diced shallot and garlic, stirring frequently until fragrant. Add tomatoes and liquid from the can, crushing tomatoes with a spatula or potato masher.

2. Add dried oregano and thyme, breaking it up by rubbing it between your hands. Add red pepper flakes and half of the fresh basil. Bring sauce to a simmer by turning the heat to medium. Allow it to simmer for 20-30 minutes or until reduced to desired thickness.

3. While the sauce is cooking, make the noodles. Make enough pasta for ½ cup per serving, cooking to package instructions. In a non-stick, non-greased skillet over medium-high heat, add spiralized zucchini, stirring frequently to allow the noodles to become al dente. When finished, combine with pasta noodles.

4. When the sauce has reduced down, season with salt and pepper to taste.

5. For a smoother sauce, pulse it in a blender.

6. Serve over pasta-zucchini noodle mixture. Top with 1 tablespoon parmesan and the rest of the fresh basil.

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Ingredients

  • ½ cup panko breadcrumbs
  • 2 Tbsp. parmesan cheese, grated
  • 1 tsp. thyme
  • 1 Tbsp. oregano
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 chicken breasts
  • 1 Tbsp. olive oil
  • Spray oil

Italian meal

Healthier Baked Chicken Parmesan – Serves 4

Instructions
1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Line a baking sheet.

2. In a bowl, combine panko breadcrumbs, parmesan cheese, thyme, oregano and salt and pepper.

3. Butterfly the chicken breasts then rub with olive oil until they are evenly coated. Dip each breast in the breadcrumb mixture, ensuring all areas are covered, pressing the breading onto the chicken.

4. Place chicken on the prepared baking sheet, spray with oil then bake for 15-20 minutes, or until internal temperature reaches 165 degrees.

5. Serve with tomato sauce and zucchini noodle/spaghetti mixture. Enjoy!

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