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By J. Swindell

Making a healthy casserole

Casseroles are some of the most inexpensive – yet awesome – dishes on the planet. The only thing that comes to mind when making a casserole is topping it with heavy layers of cheese. While this can be a fun, filling addition, it’s also high in calories and fat. A single 4-ounce cup of shredded cheddar cheese has 455 calories, 702 milligrams of sodium and 37 grams of saturated fat.

Fill up with flavorful grains and vegetables

Most casserole dishes call for pasta, but brown rice may be substituted if whole wheat pasta is not available. Both have fewer carbohydrates than white flour pasta and more fiber content.

Quinoa is more than a trendy superfood. It’s low in fat and sodium while high in calcium, fiber and potassium. Barley also has essential nutrients and lends itself well to vegetables and savory seasonings used to make a healthy casserole.

Vegetables like broccoli, fresh peppers, red onions and spinach make nice casserole fillers or can be used in place of starch. Zucchini can be sliced into small spirals resembling spaghetti or sliced lengthwise and layered in a casserole dish. Sliced white mushrooms added to a tuna casserole can give it a new twist. Red, Huckleberry and purple potatoes are richer in antioxidants and nutrients than russet or white potatoes. They also make a great base for meatless casserole dishes and make them more filling.

Watch the fat before proceeding

Lasagna and other Italian-inspired casserole dishes may call for ground beef, pork or both. If it’s possible to substitute all or half the meat content with ground turkey, the fat is cut by at least 50 percent. Turkey versions of Italian sausage and pepperoni have the same spicy zest as pork versions. Also, some come pre-cooked, so it will save time in the kitchen.

Many products on the market, like canned goods, dairy and processed meat, claim to have reduced fat or sodium. While some make a difference in eating healthy, one has to watch for high sugar content or preservatives that can prevent normal digestion.

Greek yogurt may be used as a substitute for sour cream in casserole dishes like Swedish meatballs or pasta Alfredo. Instead of using whole milk with condensed cream soups, try skim milk or water.

Hard cheeses like cheddar are popular in many casserole dishes, but also the most fattening. Softer cheeses like ricotta and cottage are healthier and make a good filling substitute in dishes like lasagna or macaroni and cheese. By using the hard cheese on top only, it can make a difference in calorie counts.

Swiss and mozzarella cheeses are lower in calories, fat and sodium, while high in calcium and protein. Feta and parmesan are also low in calories, but have high sodium contents. Additionally, the saturated fat content can be reduced by using canola or olive oil instead of butter. By using cheese as a topper only, or using half of the hard cheese a recipe calls for, calories and fat can be reduced.

Making a casserole is not only easy, but there are also no solid rules about how to make it better. Minor changes allow the opportunity to experiment with new seasonings and foods that are healthier. This makes your comfort food much more comforting!

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