Sunday, February 17, 2008

Healthier Casseroles

I grew up eating casseroles, with four kids in the family it was easier and cheaper to make them. When TF and I got married, he asked me not to go casserole crazy. I wanted to make healthy meals that would not put pounds on this body. Kids came along and the casseroles resurfaced, not a lot but a few here and there. A couple of weeks ago, I read an article in the Houston Chronicle “Flavor” section about healthy casseroles and thought it worthy to write about. Here goes:

Casserole is a broad term that applies to any food baked and served in the same dish. In America, casseroles got a big push when women started working outside the home. Manufacturers of canned foods published recipes that emphasized the convenience of one pot cooking and can openers. How many of you remember the tuna casserole with potato chips on top? My mom was not a good cook, dad did most of the cooking in our house. When mom did cook, it was dishes with tuna and potato chips. Yek! Casseroles were easy to put together and they were economical, stretching meat with the addition of pasta or rice. They can be prepared in advance and they freeze nicely. Depending on the size of your family, a typical 9” x 13” pan in enough for two meals and left-overs are easily reheated in the microwave.

One rap against casseroles over the years has been artery-clogging combinations of ground beef, sour cream, eggs and cheese, lots of cheese. But with a few tweeks, casseroles can be part of a healthy diet.

Reducing is the first line of defense. For example, the amount of butter in a recipe can be cut by one-fourth with no discernible difference in taste, says nutrition and health specialist Susan Mill-Grey of Missouri. And if a casserole recipe calls for salt, it can always be omitted.

Second, learn to substitute for the high-fat, high-sodium offenders. Most of the time, when low-fat or low-sodium substitutes are mixed in among the other ingredients, “No one can tell the difference unless you tell them ahead of time and put it in their mind,” says Shelly Summar, weight management program coordinator at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo.

Among the suitable substitutes are:

Meats: Summer recommends using meat that is at least 90 percent lean. When cooking with turkey, look for packages labeled “breast”. Ground turkey that isn’t breast meat may contain skin and dark meat with more fat and calories, she says.

Starches: You can triple the fiber in a casserole by using whole-wheat pasta in place of egg noodles. “They’re great – non sticky, gummy pasta like they used to be,” Summar says. Use more fibrous brown rice in place of white rice. If family members, particularly children, have issues with the darker-hued whole-grain noodles or rice, start by substituting whole-grain for one-fourth of the regular noodles. Then increase the proportion each time you make the casserole, Summer says.

Vegetables: Colorful vegetables not only boost the nutrition of casseroles but also add visual interest to the typically beige dishes. Cooks can usually get away with including 50 percent more vegetables than a recipe calls for. If a recipe doesn’t call for vegetables, add some. Tough veggies like broccoli and carrots may need to be precooked (cut them in uniform chunks), while corn and peas can be folded into the casserole right before baking, says registered dietitian Suzanne Havala Hobbs.

Sauces: Mainstays include cheese and other dairy products, as well as canned cream soups. Light or reduced- fat sour cream, mayonnaise, milk, cheese and canned soup can be substituted for full-fat products with little difference in taste or texture. Be careful using fat-free products, however. Fat free cheese does not melt well, and fat-free sour cream or skim milk might turn a casserole watery, Havala Hobbs says. One option is to use a full-fat product with a more assertive flavor, but less of it. For example, instead of 2 cups of Cheddar cheese, substitute 1 ½ cups sharp cheddar.

Healthier Tater Tot Casserole:
(Recipe from More casserole recipes at

1 medium onion, chopped
1 TBL. Olive oil
2 to 3 garlic cloves, minced
1 large red bell pepper, seeded and chopped
3 medium carrots, peeled and chopped
¾ cup sliced mushrooms
1 pound extra-lean ground turkey
¼ cup flat-leaf parsley, chopped
1 ½ TBL. Onion powder
1 TBL. Paprika
1 (2 pound) bag frozen Tater Tots
2 (10.5 ounce) cans low-sodium cream of mushroom soup

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a large skillet over medium heat, cook the onion in olive oil until translucent. Add the garlic, red pepper, carrots and mushrooms and cook until soft. Add the turkey, parsley, onion powder and paprika, and cook until turkey is browned and fully cooked. Evenly distribute meat mixture in a 9”x13” baking dish. In a large bowl, combine frozen tater tots and soup. Top casserole with the potato mixture. If desired, sprinkle with extra parsley and paprika. Bake 55 to 60 minutes.

Makes 8 servings, each 283 calories (36 percent calories from fat), 11 grams fat (3 grams saturated), 28 milligrams cholesterol, 33 gram carbohydrates, 13 grams protein, 471 milligrams sodium and 4 grams fiber.

Note from Lucy: I love tinkering with casserole recipes, to see if I can make it healthier. One of my favorites is the green bean casserole with onion rings on top. What are some of your favorite casseroles? Diane, I know you have some. What about you Jamie Dawn or Rachel. Anyone else?

I've been babysitting the grandkids this weekend. I've got my hands full. Have a great week everyone.


At 11:22 AM, Blogger Big Dave T said...

Wow, this is something I'd never thought I'd see. You mentioned a dish I can prepare myself. I actually make that tuna casserole with the potato chips on top. It's one of the few (actually the only one I can think of) dishes that my wife says I can prepare better than she can.

At 12:23 PM, Blogger Nankin said...

I love casseroles as well as making big pots of soup. It's just a matter of trying lots of different combinations.

At 9:00 PM, Blogger Jim said...

Hi Lucy -- Those people who invented ground turkey should be burned at the stake. Regular witches.
Mrs. Jim is going to make some eggplant casserole. I said that would be fine for me too if she could substitute ground, cooked, and drained sausage for the eggplant in mine.
BTW, I see my cardiologist Wednesday. He has me doing a blood workup, a stress EKG, and an abdominal CT Scan (that one is by St. Lukes, the rest in his office and clinic).
In the afternoon we will go over my tests, except for the blood testing.

At 9:02 PM, Blogger Jim said...

I meant to say good with the grandkids. I know you guys are having fun!

At 10:05 AM, Blogger Granny said...

So how do you cut down with the green bean casserole. I usually make it just for Holidays so I'm not too worried but I do think about all those sodium laden, artery hardening onions. I can't eliminate it; people would cry. Of course without the onions, it's just another green bean and mushroom soup dish.

(Already using fat free milk).

At 4:26 PM, Blogger Oh great One said...

I try to keep casseroles to a minimum. CCB says he's not a big fan. He'll eat them when I give them to him but it's not his fave! He's so picky.

At 5:13 PM, Blogger Jamie Dawn said...

Lasagna is about the only casserole-type meal I make.
I use my crock pot a LOT. I love doing crock pot meals, and I have several good ones. I have soup cooking right now made of chicken breasts, carrots, potatoes, corn, chicken broth, & seasonings. I have a higher fat chicken soup that I make sometimes that includes cream cheese and cream of chicken soup in the recipe. It's really good, but it is more calories.
I love cooking chili in the crock pot and making corn bread to go with it.
I also use the crock pot to make soy chicken as well as pork tenderloin.
I'm sorry I didn't have any good casseroles to share. I am sorely lacking in the casserole making department.
I am going to bookmark the links you put in the post. Maybe I will find a few good recipes that I think my family will like. Thanks.
I hope you enjoyed your grandkids over the weekend. I'm sure they loved spending time with you!

At 12:36 PM, Anonymous ethne said...

Happy Belated Birthday!!! :D

At 7:10 PM, Blogger OldOldLady Of The Hills said...

I don't cook a lot of Cassaroles at all...And never did...Though I am a Crockpot user, and there are lots of great things you can do in the CrockPot that are Healthy!!!

Hope you are having a grand time with your 'grand'kids!

And the stones I have had about 12 or 15 years....I got them at a little "specialty" shop here in L.A. Back then, I gave a lot of people gifts of these stones....especially if someone was ill....It seemed to be a very meaningful gift, especially becacsue of the words....!

At 7:14 PM, Blogger OldOldLady Of The Hills said...

Oh, and I forgot to say....I absolutely LOVE that little book and there is no question the enjoyment I already have gotten freom it, and will continue to get....There are no words! And I believe I said it was one of the nicest gifts I have ever recieved in my life! So, yes, indeed, I am truly TRULY enjoying it...!

At 6:48 AM, Blogger LZ Blogger said...

Lucy ~ I too grew up on a lot of casserole recipes, but even today one of my favorites is one called "Hungry Jack" casserole. Because it is made with a topping of Hungry Jack Biscuits and is made up of lots of good stuff like BBQ Baked Beans. Makes me hungry just thinking about it! ~ jb///

At 12:41 PM, Blogger icanseeclearlynow said...

hi lucy. i know recipes. this looks delish. i will give it a whirl and let you know what my family thought.

btw, thanks for stopping by my blog.



also, re: your hall of fame post below, i'd like to be in the "touched many lives" hall of fame.

At 2:57 PM, Blogger LZ Blogger said...

Lucy ~ At your request!

It's not my recipe. But it's GOOD. I use KC Masterpiece or Gates BBQ Sauce, but it really doesn't matter. It's also even good re-heated as left overs. (Providing there is any of it LEFT!) Also if you are doing it as a vegetarian dish, you can use "Boca" instead of ground beef. I hope you like it! ~ jb///

At 3:10 PM, Blogger Jamie Dawn said...

I remembered a Taco Casserole that my MIL sent me.
I've made it twice in the past couple of months, and it is really tasty. You put broken up taco shells on the bottom, then cook the hamburger with taco seasoning, diced chilis, and taco sauce. I use lean hamburger. Put half of the meat on top of the shells, followed by some shredded sharp cheddar. Then another layer of shells, hamburger, and cheese.
Bake, then dig in.
It's very yummy!!

At 5:31 PM, Blogger A Red Mind in a Blue State said...

Happy Birthday!!

At 6:57 PM, Blogger Rachel said...

Actually I don't make a lot of casseroles either, but I do love them!

When I make the green bean casserole I have never used the onions in them. I just don't like onion rings on it.

I think for making them healthier you covered the basics, like using low fat or no fat items in them.

At 6:57 PM, Blogger Rachel said...

Have fun with the little ones!!!

At 8:36 PM, Blogger Cliff said...

Since this was about healthy casserole's I guess I won't mention my famous corn chip casserole with alternating layers of chili, cheese, and corn chips.

At 9:40 AM, Blogger CA said...

Thanks for your comment on my blog. I was 13 at the time. This was one of several times I hitched or rode the freight train to Texas and back. Mom was always worried but I was always a very old, independent kid.
I had an interesting dish once but can't remember if it was a casserole. It was based on spinach and eggs. It was delicious!


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