Meatloaf has always been a way to stretch a meager amount of meat into a main dish for many people. Grain-based fillers, such as breadcrumbs or oatmeal, are an inexpensive way of accomplishing this, but they can turn something that has the potential for being a healthy comfort food into something resembling a brick. Maybe this is why meatloaf has always been a "love-it-or-hate-it" dish. Adding shredded or finely chopped vegetables to the meat mixture, in addition to or in place of the other fillers, will still accomplish the goal while producing a dish worthy of love.
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Vegetables lighten up a meatloaf and add flavor, vitamins and fiber. Depending on how much of the meatloaf is comprised of vegetables, you can lower the calorie and fat content of the finished dish. You may already be using a lower-fat meat, such as turkey or super-lean beef, but you can also use finely chopped mushrooms to make up a substantial part of the base. One cup of raw mushrooms, or 1/2 cup cooked, has 18 vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. Plus it has only 19 calories and virtually no fat compared to the same amount of the leanest ground beef, which has 116 calories and 4 grams of fat.
You can add almost any vegetable to meatloaf. Chopped onions and garlic add a lot of flavor. Zucchini or other squash and fresh fennel can be shredded on a grater and incorporated raw. Spinach, chard or kale can be knife-shredded then lightly sauteed. Root vegetables, such as parsnips, golden beets -- red beets would produce an off-putting red color to meatloaf -- sweet potatoes or Russet potatoes, can be used in small amounts in their raw state. Additionally, cooked and shredded or mashed potatoes can completely replace the breadcrumbs or oatmeal due to their starch component, making the meatloaf gluten-free.
Besides vegetables, shredded fresh herbs can be added to amp up flavor. Though they are not often considered for the nutritional value, herbs offer intense amounts of vitamins and phytonutrients even in small quantities. For Italian meatloaf, use shredded fresh basil and oregano; for Greek, use oregano and mint. For a more exotic flair, use finely chopped fresh ginger and green onions along with shredded basil and cilantro. French pate is really a form of meatloaf and incorporates thyme and tarragon, so use these and serve the meatloaf cold with the typical pate accoutrements and you will have an ultra-healthy form of this classically fatty picnic food.
A good formula for substituting vegetables in a meatloaf is for every 1 1/2 pounds of ground meat you use, add 1/2 cup shredded, cooked vegetables or 1 cup raw vegetables and use 1 cup mashed potatoes or sweet potatoes instead of the grains. As for the herbs, use about 1/4 cup shredded herbs in total. Change the types of vegetables you use depending on what's freshest for the season or on sale at the store.