How Nutritionists Make Nostalgic Recipes Healthier

Dietitians love comfort food, too. Here’s how they reimagine their favorites into healthier recipes.

August 26, 2022

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Get the Recipe: Tuna Casserole

Photo by: Stephen Johnson

Stephen Johnson

Get the Recipe: Tuna Casserole

Old recipes and dishes passed down for generations can be the best kind of comfort food, but many of the ingredients aren’t the healthiest. This doesn’t mean you should never make those memorable dishes, though. Simply swapping a few ingredients or changing a cooking technique can make those tasty favorites better for you without sacrificing flavor. Below you’ll find vintage recipes that registered dietitians love, and how they turn them into a deliciously, healthy dish.

Choose Lower Fat Ingredients

Tuna noodle casserole (pictured above) is the quintessential vintage recipe traditionally made with canned cream of mushroom soup, egg noodles, and melted cheese. Lisa Andrews, MEd, RD, LD, owner, Sound Bites Nutrition explains that the cream of mushrooms soup adds fat and sodium, while the egg noodles are low in fiber. Cheese can add even more fat and calories to the mix. Andrews makes three key changes by using low fat cream of mushroom soup, whole wheat elbow noodles for more fiber, and adding chopped spinach for color, flavor, texture, and nutrition including vitamin C, potassium, and folate.

Use an Air Fryer

Deep frying mushrooms — or most any food, for that matter — was a favorite in the home of Amanda Sauceda, RDN when she was growing up. “Frying can produce trans fats which can have a negative impact on our cholesterol and in turn our heart health,” says Sauceda. To reduce (and even eliminate) trans fats from these recipes, Sauceda recommends using an air fryer as an alternative to deep frying food. Air frying can cut down the amount of oil you need, while maintaining the crunch you love from fried foods. She also recommends using avocado oil for frying because it’s a heart-healthy oil that works well at high temperatures.

American Macaroni Salad: Food Network Kitchens

Get the Recipe: American Macaroni Salad

Photo by: Tara Donne

Tara Donne

Get the Recipe: American Macaroni Salad

Cut Back on Mayo

Cheryl Mussatto MS, RD, LD , clinical dietitian and author of The Nourished Brain calls out her favorite creamy macaroni salad, which is made with lots of sugar, mayo, and typically white elbow macaroni. The dish is high in calories and carbs, which can work against those who are diabetic or trying to manage their weight. Mussatto recommends a few swaps to make this dish healthier including opting for whole wheat macaroni and adding in more veggies like thinly sliced celery, petite green peas, diced pimientos, and chopped red onions. Using reduced fat sour cream or plain Greek yogurt to replace some of the mayo also helps with calorie and fat control.

Add More Healthy Ingredients

Scottsdale-based Anne Danahy MS RDN, owner of Craving Something Healthy makes her mom’s three-bean salad as a summer staple. The original recipe called for kidney beans, wax beans, and green beans plus a whopping 1 cup of sugar and lots of corn oil in the dressing. Danahy’s healthier version is actually a five-bean salad by adding black and navy beans. She also uses olive oil, a heart healthy oil, instead of corn oil and opts for less oil overall. Lastly, she cuts the sugar back to 1/4 cup. If she wants even more sweetness, she’ll add 1 to 2 tablespoons of erythritol or Monk fruit sweetener. Danahy says that even her mother makes this healthier version now!

Choose Different Meats

This dish is traditionally made with slow cooked collard greens with ham hocks, neck bones and bacon – sometimes, all thrown together! Collard greens can be a great way to add a vegetable to your diet, but recipes made with pork contain higher level of saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium. “Too much of any of those three nutrients is not good for high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes where all three conditions are very prevalent in Black communities,” says KeyVion Miller RDN, LDN, recipe developer, photographer and brand consultant.

Miller recommends replacing the pork with turkey (such as turkey bacon) to help flavor the greens, and using a flavorful low-sodium broth like chicken or vegetable stock, which would still add flavor without the saturated fat and cholesterol. Lastly, Miller uses smoked paprika to add the smokiness that you would traditionally get from smoked meat.

Food Stylist: Karen Evans 
Prop Stystli: Karin Olsen

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Get the Recipe: Lentil Sloppy Joes

Photo by: Lisa Shin ©Lisa Shin Photography, Inc.

Lisa Shin , Lisa Shin Photography, Inc.

Get the Recipe: Lentil Sloppy Joes

Make It Vegetarian

Christina Iaboni, RD grew up with Sloppy Joe’s made with ground beef, a seasoning packet, and loads of ketchup and brown sugar all piled onto a white hamburger bun. “This recipe is high in fat from the ground beef and has lots of sugar from the ketchup and brown sugar,” Iaboni says. Instead, Iaboni uses lean ground beef (at least 90% lean), ground turkey (93% lean or higher), or lentils, which add fiber. Iaboni recommends swapping pre-made seasoning mix and ketchup and sugar a homemade sauce of pureed tomatoes or tomato sauce with spices. For an extra fiber boost, swap the white bun for a whole grain bun.

Use a Healthier Fat

Rhyan Geiger, RDN, owner of Phoenix Vegan Dietitian says her Midwest-based grandma makes the best potato soup, but the original recipe calls for nearly one stick of butter, heavy cream, and quite a lot of salt. To make the recipe healthier, Geiger swaps out the butter for a smidge of olive oil. Instead of heavy cream she uses non-dairy milk such as oat milk to reduce the fat content. She also uses herbs and spices for seasoning lost when cutting back on the salt. Lastly, she leaves the potato skins on for added fiber.

Swap in Whole Wheat Flour

We all have a family member who just whips up the best baked goods. Kathy Levin, RDN, CDCES, DipACLM, owner of Nutritiously Simple says her Great Aunt Bessie had a family-favorite pumpkin bread recipe. “Every year, she would make individual loaves, wrap them meticulously in foil, and pass them out to everybody. When I took over the duties, I noticed that the fat and sugar content was off the charts,” says Levin. Over the years, Levin has tweaked the recipe gradually cutting back on the fat and sugar and kicking up the fiber. The best part? Nobody is the wiser. Her simple swaps include using applesauce for some of the oil, using egg whites and flax eggs for whole eggs, and incorporating whole wheat pastry flour instead of all-purpose flour.

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.

*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.

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