The Ultimate 4-Step Formula for a Quick and Healthy Pasta Dinner

The key to making pasta healthy is adding as many veggies as you do noodles (or more!).
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Many people see pasta and think they have to run in the other direction. But if you follow a simple formula to make your pasta balanced and nutritious, there's no need to be scared.

"People should never be afraid of any food, including carbs," says Maya Feller, RD, CDN, owner of Brooklyn-based Maya Feller Nutrition.

The key to learning how to make healthy pasta is watching your portion sizes: Stick to 2 ounces of dry pasta, which results in about 1 cup of cooked longer noodles (like spaghetti and fettuccine) or 1 1/4 cups of shorter shapes (like penne and rigatoni). If that serving size sounds skimpy, don't worry — once you add in other ingredients, such as vegetables and lean protein, you'll feel plenty satisfied.

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Step 1: Start With Vegetables

Yep, you're going to ​start​ your pasta dish with vegetables. They're full of dietary fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants — and pretty much any veggies you like go well with pasta, from sautéed broccoli to roasted tomatoes to fresh baby spinach.

"Many times I'll toss in things that wilt really quickly like arugula or spinach because it cooks up really quickly and adds a nice, leafy green," Feller says. Fresh, frozen or canned vegetables all work. If you're cooking your veggies, start there first, using a separate pot or pan — especially if you experiment with a method like roasting or grilling that take some extra time.

The goal is to make the amount of vegetables equal to or greater than the amount of pasta. For example, if you have 1 cup of spaghetti, you could pair it with 1 cup of spiralized zucchini and some sautéed peppers. Choose from any of the following:

  • Bell peppers
  • Zucchini
  • Squash
  • Spinach
  • Onion
  • Eggplant
  • Mushrooms
  • Asparagus
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Peas
  • Green beans
  • Tomatoes
  • Corn

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Step 2: Choose a Lean Protein

Traditional pasta recipes often rely on proteins that are high in saturated fat. If you plan on using animal protein, such as ground meat or poultry, look for something at least 93 percent lean. Seafood is often a lower-fat choice, plus it adds heart-health omega-3 fatty acids. Experiment with plant-based proteins, too, such as beans, lentils and tofu.

And while pasta is barely recognizable without cheese, dairy is another source of saturated fat. Remember that a little goes a long way; opt for hard cheeses like Parmesan and Asiago, which have a stronger taste, meaning you'll get plenty of flavor in a small amount.

  • Ground beef
  • Ground chicken
  • Ground turkey
  • Shrimp
  • Scallops
  • Mussels
  • Clams
  • Beans
  • Lentils
  • Tofu
  • Tempeh

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Step 3: Pick Your Pasta

Everyone has their all-time favorite pasta shape, and no one's going to suggest you give up your beloved farfalle. The ingredients in your noodles make a much bigger difference nutritionally than the shape.

Specifically, look out for additives — like artificial and natural flavors, preservatives and salt — on pasta packaging, Feller says. "If it's a refined pasta, is it just the wheat in there? Or have other things been added?"

She suggests giving high-protein, high-fiber options made with chickpeas and lentils a try, both to vary the texture and change up the nutrient profile of your go-to noodle dishes.

Choose a 2-ounce serving of any of these dry pastas or a 1-cup serving of cooked veggie alternatives:

  • Spaghetti
  • Penne
  • Farfalle
  • Rotini
  • Rigatoni
  • Fettuccini
  • Linguini
  • Angel hair
  • Tortellini
  • Ravioli
  • Whole-wheat pasta
  • Zucchini noodles
  • Squash noodles
  • Spaghetti squash
  • Quinoa pasta
  • Chickpea pasta
  • Black bean pasta
  • Red lentil pasta
  • Shirataki noodles

Tip

Whichever you choose, make sure to cook your noodles al dente. This culinary term refers to food — in this case, pasta — cooked so it's still firm when bitten. Al dente pasta delivers better taste and texture — and it may even digest more slowly, helping to keep blood sugar levels stable (because it has a lower glycemic index than overcooked pasta, according to a May 2016 article in ​Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular Disease​.)

Step 4: Stir in a Simple Sauce

Sauces don't have to be heavy, creamy or fancy. Try this trick: Save some of the water you used to cook your pasta when you drain it. As you're sautéing veggies, pour in some of the pasta water, let it heat up, then add the noodles. The pasta water contains starch from the noodles, which will help to thicken into a sauce for your final dish.

If you're using roasted vegetables, you can toss the pasta with a nice olive oil, salt and pepper, then mix in the veggies, protein and some ricotta cheese. Certain vegetables, such as tomatoes, will create their own sauce any way you cook them.

Here are some other basic sauce options:

  • Pesto
  • Spinach pesto
  • Marinara (look for jars without added sugar)
  • Canned, diced or crushed tomatoes sautéed with onion, garlic, salt, pepper and dried Italian seasonings
  • Cauliflower Alfredo

Tip

Sauté garlic in olive oil, add cooked spaghetti to the pan and some pasta water and toss till coated. Mix in fresh herbs, a pinch of chili flakes and grated cheese. Top with vegetables and protein.

Put It All Together in These Recipes

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