How to Build a Healthier Pasta Salad

Turn your pasta salad into a healthy summer side dish by following these simple steps.

One of the most-popular sides during barbecue season is pasta salad. Gobs of mayo or glugs of oils, however, can turn those options into about 400 calories and 500 calories per one-quarter cup, respectively, easily sabotaging any pasta salad. Here are five simple steps you can follow to make a perfectly healthy pasta salad.

Step 1: Start with Whole-Grain Pasta

In the latest Dietary Guidelines Committee Report, research revealed that Americans underconsume the recommended 25 to 38 grams of fiber per day. A whole-wheat pasta salad is a great way to up your whole grains, and there are many brands on the market to choose from.

Traditional pasta salads call for about two cups of pasta per person, without any dressing or add-ins. On its own, that’s 400 calories. And portions still matter, even when you're using whole-grain pasta. Aim for about three-quarter-cup to one-cup servings of cooked pasta.

Step 2: Add Veggies

Since portions of pasta can quickly rack up the calories, it’s important to bulk up your dish by adding vegetables. Olives, bell peppers, carrots, broccoli, scallions, cauliflower, grape tomatoes and cucumbers are great options, but there’s no limit to the amount of vegetables you can add. Most Americans don’t meet their daily recommended amount of vegetables as well — so this is just another way to get them in.

Step 3: Herb It Up

Get a ton of flavor without adding calories by mixing in seasonal fresh herbs. Basil, mint and parsley all work well in pasta salad. Herbs also contain small amounts of vitamins and minerals, which helps make your pasta salad even healthier.

Step 4: Watch for High-Calorie Ingredients

Cheese, corn and beans are several high-calorie ingredients typically found in pasta salads. If you do add cheese, sprinkle about one tablespoon per serving to add flavor. For corn or beans, two tablespoons per serving should do the trick without going overboard.

Step 5: Use Just Enough Dressing

Many dressings drown your pasta in tons of calories. You want just enough dressing to cover your ingredients, without totally saturating them. This also allows the flavors of the vegetables and fresh herbs to shine though.

There are many ways to make a healthier dressing: Combine light mayonnaise with nonfat Greek yogurt to cut overall calories, or use a vinaigrette dressing to cut the mayonnaise completely. Whichever you choose, a good rule of thumb is to use two tablespoons of dressing per serving.

Recipes to Try:

Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian and consultant who specializes in food safety and culinary nutrition. She is the author of The Greek Yogurt Kitchen: More Than 130 Delicious, Healthy Recipes for Every Meal of the Day.

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