It’s a staple in most Australian households and it’s the one dish that most people know how to make. Recipes can range from a simple 3 ingredient (bottle of sauce + mince + pasta) rendition or include over 20 ingredients (fresh tomatoes, different proteins and heaps of top secret herbs). It’s the go-to weeknight family meal and for many people it would also be a food of comfort but is it good for you? Well yes and no. You can make this dish as healthy or as unhealthy as you like. A giant bowl of pasta with a meaty sauce made using budget mince and topped with cheese is not going to be a very balanced meal (unless you’re carbing up for a sports event!) and will likely make you feel a bit bloated and sluggish after. While a small bowl of whole meal pasta with sauce containing heaps of veg plus a good portion of salad will give you all you need to keep your body working well.
Here I give 7 ways to make everyone’s favourite go-to dish better for you
- Look at your proportions
Looking at your plate, at least half of it should be filled with vegetables, a quarter should be filled with a protein source and a quarter should come from some kind of carbohydrate source (preferably high fibre). This can be applied to our spaghetti dish. Fill your plate/bowl half up with a simple green or toss salad or some cooked veggies. Next add your pasta (that’s your carbohydrate source) so that it takes up a quarter of your plate then add your sauce (if you’re using mince or lentils in your sauce then that’s your source of protein). – Done! Takeaway message: pile on the veg/salad.
- Make it high fibre
Let me be the first to admit, whole meal pasta is not everyone’s cup of tea. Personally I like the slightly denser texture and nutty flavor so it’s worth a try if you have never had it before. If whole meal pasta is not your thing then you could try out mung-bean or black bean noodles (rather interesting texture!) or whole meal spelt pasta. If you don’t like fancy alternatives, you can also buy regular pasta with added fibre these days too.
- Get on the Zoodle bandwagon
I’m in love with zoodles (zucchini noodles), they are so easy to make and use one of my favourite vegetables. If the thought of having less pasta makes you sad then these could be a good option for you, try mixing up your regular spaghetti with zoodles (50:50 ratio) or if you have had enough grain based food for the day and don’t feel like having a carb based meal at night time then you could use zoodles in place of spaghetti. To make zoodles you can either buy a cheap julienne tool (can get from most supermarkets or Asian supermarkets for about $10) or if you want to make a good investment you can also buy a vegetable spiraliser. These can be picked up from homeware shops or on Ebay and will set you back about $50. Once you have julienned or spiralised your zucchini (using bigger ones work the best) you can either eat the noodles raw or gently heat in a fry pan with your chosen sauce, just be careful not to overcook. You don’t even have to stop at zucchini, carrot and cucumber also work well as does sweet potato (note, sweet potato has a higher carbohydrate content and needs cooking, just cover in boiling water and boil or microwave for 1-2 minutes until tender, don’t overcook or they turn to mush).
- Veggify your sauce
This is probably something most parents have tried already in an attempt to hide vegetables from their vegetable-hating children but its something everyone should be doing. You can lighten up your sauce and increase your vegetable intake at the same time by adding some finely chopped or grated veg into your pasta sauce. Try adding grated or finely chopped carrot or zucchini, mushroom, finely diced capsicum or celery, shredded kale or spinach – anything you like or have on hand really will work.
- Go lean
If you’re using meat, buy the best mince you can afford, the higher the grade, the leaner the mince generally is. Anyone who has made the mistake and bought budget mince and seen how greasy it cooks up will attest to this. You can try mixing it up a bit by using kangaroo mince (the leanest meat you can buy and has a really high iron content too) or any other type of mince you love. Personally I love making mine using lentils, which leads me onto the next tip…
- Love your legumes (and pulses)
Western societies (eg Australia) tends to over consume meat, you don’t actually need to eat very much each day to meet your protein requirements. Other good sources of protein include legumes (eg kidney beans, borlotti beans, chickpeas) and pulses (lentils and spilt peas). These food have the added benefit of being packed full of soluble fibre to help you stay fuller and keep your gut healthy and are a souce of iron as well. They have also been proven to aid weight loss and improve heart health. You can add the goodness of these foods to your favourite spaghetti sauce. You can try adding in a tin of drained red kidney beans into your usual sauce or cooking in a handful of red lentils (allow 20 minutes simmer time) with a little extra water. This will increase the amount of fibre in the sauce and extend it a little too, making it cheaper! Also, try halving the amount of mince you would usually use in your sauce and adding a tin of (drained) lentils instead. No one will know. In my own version, recipe below I like to make my sauce completely vegetarian by removing the mince altogether in favour of lentils, its still tasty and is super cheap to make (great student food) plus suitable for meat eaters, vegans and vegetarians alike.
7. Go low salt
Pre-made bottled pasta sauces and tomato pastes can be quite high in salt. When choosing tomato paste or tinned tomatoes, try find the no added salt varieties. It’s better to make your own sauce rather than buy the bottled kind as that way you have control over what goes in, all you need is onion, tomato (fresh or tinned) a spoonful of garlic and some mixed herbs then you can season it how you like. If you run out of time and go down the bottled sauce avenue try find varieties that are lower in salt, look for less than 120mg sodium per 100g on the nutrition information panel (or failing that less than 400mg/100g is ok too).
My favourite bolognese sauce uses lentils and heaps of veggies in place of the typical heavy meat based sauce, feel free to add some chilli if you like a bit of spice or if you can’t bear to give the meat up all together replace one tin of lentils with 250g lean mince and fry up with the onion.
- 1 large brown or red onion, diced
- 2-3 cloves garlic, finely crushed/chopped
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1 large carrot, finely diced
- 1 zucchini, finely diced
- 1 stick celery, finely diced
- 3-4 yellow squash, finely diced (optional, if not in season use mushroom or capsicum)
- 2 x 400g tins lentils, drained and rinsed (or cook from dried if you wish)
- 2 x 400g tins tomatoes (or 800g ripe tomatoes, chopped)
- 2-3 tbsp tomato paste (no added salt)
- 1.5 tsp dried mixed herbs
- salt, pepper,
- pinch of sugar or stevia
- ½ bunch basil, chopped
- Heat oil on med-high in a large fry pan and add onion, cook, stirring often for a few minutes until just softened, add garlic, zucchini, carrot, celery and squash and cook for 5 minutes or until vegetables are just starting to soften.
- Add drained lentils, tomatoes, tomato paste, mixed herbs and 2-3 tbsp water. Bring to the boil then turn down to a simmer and cook for 15-20 mins or until the vegetables are soft and the mixture is thick and rich.
- Season with salt, pepper and stevia (to taste) and add the basil
- Serve over noodles, zoodles or anything you like.