We all want to eat healthy, right? And we all want to eat Italian, right? Can we have the best of both worlds? Yes!
This article focuses on a bunch of helpful tips to incorporate healthy Italian food choices into your cooking on a regular basis. Lots of tips, some recipes in here too and some resources online for more information.
Let’s get started!
Making Healthy Italian Food Choices Starts in the Shopping Cart
This can be a good thing, and a bad thing. It’s great if we’re loading up our shopping carts with veggies and fruit, it’s a bad thing if we’re loading it up with sugary sweets and carbs.
But don’t let that fool you into thinking you can’t have a good Italian meal. Instead, don’t eliminate the pasta and cheese if you don’t have to, but bring in additional healthy ingredients to balance it out.
The Mediterranean diet, of which Italian fits into, includes many fruits and vegetables that have healthy vitamins such as Vitamin C, K, E, and A. Plus Italians always use olive oil and this contains healthy omega 3.
Know Common Vegetables Used in Healthy Italian Recipes
Fortunately, the Italians don’t go too far off the beaten path when it comes to ingredients, so your local grocery store will most likely carry what you need.
Here’s a list of 5 vegetables to buy and I’ll share some recipes for each one.
There’s a reason every Italian restaurant offers Eggplant Parmesan! It’s a classic. It can be a classic in your home too. You can get the recipe here.
To make it a little healthier, use less cheese in the baking and reserve extra grated cheese to be added by the eater on their own. This way you’re not forcing yourself to needlessly eat more cheese than you really need to.
I’ve found that by removing some (not all) the cheese in the ingredient list and instead, adding it on at the end when I’m serve my own plate, I have more control over the quantity of I am eating.
Eggplant, Zucchini, and Tomato with Pasta
This is seriously one of my all-time favorites! Remember my tip about balancing veggies with pasta? The more veggies you add to your pasta, the less pasta you’ll eat.
In this recipe, you sauté the eggplant, zucchini and tomato until tender, add in the herbs like basil, and then mix with some pasta. Sprinkle on the cheese, and you’re in heaven. You can grab the full recipe here.
Zucchini is a funny vegetable. It seems to get a bad rap and I’m not sure exactly why. But in Italian cooking, it’s a wonderfully healthy choice to use in recipes.
You probably love fried zucchini, right? I do too, it’s one of my favorite fried veggies. If I do fry it, it’s at home where I control the quality and quantity of the olive oil. However, in this case, we bake our zucchini, and we bake a lot of it! With some cheese. With olive oil.
You slice the zucchini, dip them in the flour, the egg, and the breadcrumbs (with your herbs), and you bake it until the zucchini is tender, but not mush.
Dump any leftover breadcrumbs in with the zucchini along the sides of the pan so they’ll crisp up as well thanks to the olive oil you drizzle (heavily drizzle) on top before placing in the oven.
This is a wonderful zoodle recipe! It’s very very simple. All you do is substitute the pasta for the zucchini.
It’s best to use a spiralizer as this saves you so much time. I used to slice them manually with a knife and frankly, I stopped b/c it was too time consuming.
TIP: Make sure to find a spiralizer that accommodates the width of the zucchini. We have a KitchenAid attachment and it doesn’t work well for this as it has to be at least 2 in” in width in order for it to work.
Blanch the zucchini strips (or ribbons) in some hot water for a few minutes checking frequently and remove quickly. Have some sauce ready to go in a bowl or pan, and add the zucchini.
Still use cheese and a good flavorful sauce – that’s always key!
Who likes broccoli, right?
Well actually, this makes a great addition to pasta! It’s a very popular recipe and I love it!
You use fresh broccoli and saute the small heads which are cut small until they are a bright green and you can pierce them to get them on a fork. You cook the broccoli with some sliced garlic (not minced as it would be too overpowering) and add some cheese at the end.
It’s a simple recipe but it’s a healthy one!
Broccolini -Italian Style
This is an easy side dish, and I am adding it under Broccoli b/c it’s similar yet different enough in a good way. Broccolini which is actually Japanese, but it has a thinner stalk and is not so tough.
Saute the broccolini with garlic and olive oil, add some red pepper flakes if you like some heat.
Serve warm with cheese sprinkled on top. Easy, quick and a perfect side dish for chicken or pasta!
It would be incredibly wrong if I didn’t include this fruit… (yes it’s technically a fruit!). However, don’t worry about getting confused on that because in 2013 the Supreme Court ruled that while it is a fruit, it is to be categorized as a vegetable. Not kidding!
Whether tomato, tomAHto, or vegetable or fruit, for the healthiest version of the tomato, you need to go fresh, not canned tomatoes which can be high in sodium and void of nutrients.
Fresh tomatoes can be used in salads, like my caprese salad with cherry tomatoes, but also in place of a tomato “sauce”.
Simply chop up a bunch of tomatoes, cook them in olive oil with some garlic, and continue until they cook down a bit and are soft and easy to pierce. You can even speed things up by pressing on them with a fork or spoon to squash them down and get the juices going as they soften.
But what makes a basic tomato and pasta recipe like this taste so good is the fresh basil you add in right at the end before serving. If you cook the basil down too fast, it loses it’s value in a dish like this.
Sprinkle with some cheese and you’re all set!
Here’s a common recipe I use throughout the year for tomatoes and garlic with pasta.
9 Tips to Make Your Italian Food Healthy
I think I’ve given you a few good recipes that are loaded with veggies, helping to balance out those “ugh so many carbs” meals.
Remember the following tips.
Look for Recipes with Vegetables & Don’t Overcook
The more veggies, the less of the other “stuff”! It means more nutrients, less carbs.
Instead of sauteing your fresh vegetables until they are absolute mush, do a slow simmer on low heat and remove when they are still a bit firm. You’ll have more nutrients left.
Use Less Cheese in the Food Mixture
Try using ½ the amount of cheese that bakes call for and add your own quantity of cheese when you serve it. You’ll still have tons of flavor and now YOU’RE in control over how much you eat!
Choose a Healthier Salt
One trick I have used is by reducing the amount of sodium I eat by eliminating additional salt as an ingredient when I’m already using a salty ingredient such as Romano cheese. If you find the dish is lacking in saltiness then add the salt yourself when serving it to control quantity.
Cheese is naturally salty and using good Italian cheese will already provide enough flavor and saltiness for the meal.
However try to get away from white table salt and go for a salt that is healthier like, Pink Himalayan salt. You want to at least use a salt that has minerals that are good for you. Pink Himalayan salt is one of those salts.
You can get pink Himalayan salt at almost any grocery store, but you can also order online like we do through Wal-mart or Amazon.
Bake Instead of Fry
Unless something has to be deep fried, odds are you can bake it in the oven with enough olive oil to crisp it up. I do this all the time with my breaded and baked Italian chicken breasts recipe. While I love my Italian cutlets recipe too, the baked recipe more than satisfies.
Use Olive Oil as Your Oil of Choice
First, using olive oil instead of butter or canola oil is always better. Try using olive oil for baking instead of butter in recipes that would allow for it (like cakes). However if concerned for flavor, just use pure olive oil, not an extra virgin.
I even fry my eggs in olive oil from time to time!
Using extra virgin olive oil first cold pressed will give you the best flavor. It may cost more, but it makes you enjoy your salads much more! Many people say don’t cook with evoo (extra virgin olive oil), to only use it in salads. I personally disagree even if that puts me in the minority here.
The only exception I’d make is if I was frying or deep frying where the evoo isn’t necessary.
Another tip is to keep a container of half butter and half olive oil mixed. We do this on occasion here and instead of buying it premixed we mix it ourselves by allowing the butter to go soft and then adding in the oil and blending it into a smooth mixture.
I’m a huge fan of buying organic, even if it means it costs a little more. I consider myself fairly healthy and I know a big part of it is because of the quality of foods I buy.
By using organic as much as possible you are eliminating the addition of chemicals from pesticides and fertilizers that make their way into our non-organic and genetically modified foods.
For those who experience stomach pain frequently, try switching to an all-organic plan for a few weeks and see if it makes a difference. I know plenty of people who have done so with wonderful results, including those in my immediate family.
However, don’t make the mistake thinking that just because something is organic, that it is therefore healthy.
Sugar, salt and carbs are still just that even with an Organic label!
Eat big salads and lots of fruits and veggies
On the practical side, this food category has fiber and fiber will fill you up, making you feel less hungry. On the other hand, eating more of these means less of the “non-healthy” or “health-neutral foods that are more or less just empty calories.
Eat healthy fats
I strongly recommend buying a powerful and eye-opening book called Smart Fat by Dr. Steven Masley, M.D and Jonny Bowden, PH.D.
It was a huge eye-opener for me as it explains the biological reaction our bodies have when processing proteins, fats (healthy fats called smart fats), and fiber together vs individually.
The author also provides about 50 recipes at the end, but the biggest take-away is the he explains the food principles that we can incorporate whether we are at home cooking, dining out or at the grocery store figuring out what to purchase.
All Things in Moderation
It’s very tempting to think you can eat a ton of something just because it’s on a healthy list. But moderation is key here. Don’t think eating 16 oz of raw cashews or pistachios is healthy just because Italians found a good way to use in some healthy recipes.
Choosing Italian Foods That are Healthy is Possible!
Italians in Italy don’t eat like most Italian-American restaurants would have us think. Learn a few stand by recipes as I mentioned above, keep them handy, and remember…. healthy eating always starts in the shopping aisle!