A favorite vegetable and cheese combo from childhood is renovated for a growing Ohio family.
Credit: Photography: Randy Mayor/Styling: Jan Gautro

THE READER: Trisha Prenger, 30, stay-at-home mother and homemaker, Columbus, Ohio

THE STORY: Prenger has enjoyed this cheesy, simple casserole since childhood, when her mother prepared it for family meals. "My mother has had this recipe for at least 20 years. As children, my brother and I always liked the crunch of the chestnuts in the casserole," she says. Since the recipe is easily assembled using ingredients found in most kitchens, Prenger says the casserole is now one of her family's favorites as a side dish for weeknight dinners. But as the mother of a two-year-old daughter, and with another baby on the way, she knows how important it is to make healthful food choices. "My husband, Eric, and I are trying to eat better overall and watch our fat intake," she notes. It's also important for her to cook dishes that are quick, easy, and tasty.

THE DILEMMA: "I knew my mom's version of the casserole was fattening because of the cream and mayonnaise," she says. With 23 grams of fat from the mayonnaise and cream alone, one-third of which was saturated, we had our work cut out for us. Furthermore, the original version contained about 20 percent of the American Heart Association's recommended daily dietary cholesterol intake (less than 300 milligrams) per serving.

THE SOLUTION: The mayonnaise, Miracle Whip, cream, and cheese added the bulk of the fat and calories to the original recipe. To match the sweet "tang" the Miracle Whip provided, we substituted fat-free mayonnaise, which also imparts a slightly sweet flavor, and shaved 118 calories and nearly 14 grams of fat per serving. Instead of using the cream, we cooked fat-free milk with flour and seasoned the mixture with a bit of salt and pepper to make a thick, rich-tasting sauce. A little fat-free cream cheese stirred into the milk sauce added more body and flavor. Swapping a homemade sauce for the cream cut another 11 grams of fat and 77 calories per portion. These changes also lowered the cholesterol to a manageable 15 milligrams per serving. Creative tweaking--like substituting flavorful sharp cheddar cheese for the original's milder Colby and adding a bit more chopped onion--allowed us to use several fat-free dairy products to cut calories, fat, and cholesterol without compromising taste. One final update: We used crispy panko (Japanese breadcrumbs) tossed with a little butter for a nice golden, crunchy topping.

THE FEEDBACK: Prenger prepared the heavy and light casseroles for a side-by-side family taste-testing. "My husband, mother, and I were very impressed and actually liked the lightened version better than the original recipe," Prenger says. They preferred the cheddar flavor of the lightened casserole over the "tangy-zesty" taste of the original. One other bonus, according to Prenger, was that there was more sauce in the lighter version, so the healthier version seemed creamier. This cheesier but lighter casserole, which is still quick to assemble, will remain a weeknight favorite for the Prenger family.

BEFORE | AFTER (serving size 3/4 cup)

Calories per serving
351 | 141

30.9g | 4.9g

Percent of total calories
79 percent| 31 percent