Pasta is one of those fast, inexpensive and easy meals to prepare, especially if you don’t have the time or desire to make your own special sauce. Traditionally, pasta is made from durum wheat and whole wheat, but we can find a much larger selection of pastas using vegetable or herb flours and legume blends. Grocery stores offer a good selection of these, so don’t be shy about trying something new.
If you’re looking for better health benefits in your spaghetti, lasagna, macaroni, fettuccine or other pasta meal, go with the whole-wheat varieties. Whole-wheat pasta is higher in fiber, also known as complex carbohydrates. In fact, whole-wheat pasta contains almost three times as much fiber as white flour pasta. So, for example, a half cup of whole-wheat pasta has about 3 grams of fiber compared with 1 gram of fiber in traditional pasta.
But, I often hear that the texture of whole-wheat pasta is unappealing. Some manufacturers are battling that by now blending whole-wheat with white flour to create the more-familiar texture. If you choose a blended flour pasta, you are still ahead of the game.
One more thing: to save on fat, skip the oil when cooking your pasta. If you don’t want your pasta to stick together, toss it with some sauce immediately after you drain it.
So, where else can you boost the amount of nutrients in your pasta meals? Whether you are creating your own sauce or opening a jar of sauce, try adding ingredients like chopped onions, fresh garlic, sliced mushrooms, chopped fresh spinach, peppers, carrots and/or some fresh herbs. All of these ingredients will contribute to the nutrient content of your sauce, and they’ll enhance the flavor.
Let’s move down the aisle a bit to where we can find rice. Here again, we’re looking for healthier options. On that front, brown rice will contain the most nutrients, followed by polished white rice, then instant rice.
But, don’t limit yourself to just plain rice. Try a specialty rice such as basmati or jasmine rice. Each has a fragrant flavor and wonderful aroma. Or, try arborio rice, a short-grain variety which lends a creamy texture to risotto, rice pudding, and other dishes. I use short-grain rice whenever I prepare stuffed peppers, tomatoes or stuffed zucchini for my family.
Here is a tip for cooking rice, one I always use: add about a teaspoon of olive oil into the cooking liquid. In most cases, I also use low-salted broth as my cooking liquid. And, once I pour the rice into the saucepan, I turn the heat as low as it can go and leave the lid on while cooking. No peeking!
Another tip with rice is to consider adding your own seasonings when preparing, rather than using packages with seasoning packets. Not only will you save money but you also can flavor the rice to your liking while controlling the amount of salt in your dishes. Rice box mixes are tasty, but generally pack in added salt. If you want to use a pre-seasoned package, for taste or convenience or whatever reason, you still save a little money and control the salt levels simply by using just half of the seasoning packet (saving the rest for another day or dish).
Finally, if you want to try some new or unique grains in your meals, browse the store shelves for other products like barley, bulgur wheat, couscous, quinoa, kasha or many others. These grains add a lot of nutrients, flavor and a variety of texture to a dish. Many go well in soups, stews, salads and casseroles, and you can find a wealth of recipes online to follow.
Remember, adding a favored grain or pasta to your favorite dish helps stretch your food dollar, and you can do this with flavor and nutrition. Plus, you can save the extras as lunch the next day or the next evening meal.
NEXT: We tour the breakfast cereals aisle.