5 Best Practices for Keeping Pasta Meals Healthy

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As a lead-in to its annual Never Ending Pasta Bowl promotion, Olive Garden created a stir online a few weeks ago with its Never Ending Pasta Pass. For a mere $100, the pass lets you eat ALL the pasta you want for seven whole weeks. Fans rejoiced. Not only did 1,000 passes sell out in under an hour, they quickly spawned a black market and sold for up to $500 each.

Around the same time, paleos and other pasta renunciates enjoyed a little social media gloating over a recent study concerning low-fat versus low-carbohydrate diets. Some reports hailed it as proof that low-carb diets are “the best”, despite some curious flaws, big questions, tricky interpretations, and even a caveat from the study’s authors that not everyone should make dramatic diet changes based on this research alone. A low-carb diet, in this study, was defined as a measly 40 grams of carbohydrates or less per day — which doesn’t leave much room for pasta dinners, let alone never-ending bowlfuls.

So must we eschew pasta? Or may we devour it?

Neither. But practicing moderation isn’t a strong point in today’s food culture, even as its benefits are preached. I don’t buy the all-or-nothing approach to nutrition — you can have your pasta and eat it, too. Following are five suggestions for enjoying pasta healthfully. Unlimited breadsticks not included.

1. Love your vegetables.

Half a cup of spaghetti all alone on a plate looks small and sad. Transform your pasta meal by adding vegetables and herbs. Half a cup of spaghetti with a half cup each of steamed arugula, cauliflower and butternut squash makes a grand dish. Steam or sauté vegetables in advance and add them in when the pasta is finished, or blanch them right before you drain the pasta. Try “hot raw” tomatoes with cavatappi: After draining the pasta, put it right back in the saucepan, with fresh chopped tomatoes, olive oil, salt and red pepper flakes. Toss it for barely a minute over medium heat and serve immediately. No fresh vegetables available? Try frozen broccoli, peas and carrots, or canned beans.

2. Choose sauces wisely.

In the summer, my mama makes a pesto sauce with walnuts, almonds and heaps of fresh parsley. It’s delicious and a smart choice, chock full of healthy fats and flavor — I love it over fettuccine and zucchini ribbons. As for grocery store-bought sauces, creamy Alfredo or four-cheese with sausage? Probably not. A jar of simple tomato basil sauce? Read the ingredients, of course, but it’s likely a win.

3. Don’t rule out whole wheat …

I’ve heard people say, “There’s NO WAY my kid will eat whole wheat pasta” — before they’ve even tried it. But then they make some whole wheat penne with broccoli, add a pat of butter and a spoonful of grated Parmesan and … surprise, the kids love it! Many people find they love the full, nutty taste. Unless you have celiac disease or gluten intolerance, don’t bother with gluten-free pastas. They’re often made with rice flour or other ingredients that don’t offer a real nutritional benefit.

4. But don’t overload on it, either.

Whole wheat pasta is great. But it’s not low-calorie. Don’t fall into the trap of “it’s healthy, so I can eat more of it.” Watch your portions.

5. Share.

One of my favorite pasta dishes ever is the pappardelle cacio e pepe at a local Italian wine bar. It’s rich. It does not have any vegetables in it. And it is utterly delicious. The best way to eat it? Mindfully, with a good friend and two forks.

Cara Anselmo on Twitter
Cara Anselmo
Cara Anselmo, MS, RDN, is a nutritionist and certified yoga instructor in New York City. Follow Cara on Twitter.