Maybe you’re cautious when it comes to enjoying comforting classics in your own kitchen—after all, the most indulgent dishes can be the most harmful to our diets. But Jamie Vespa, Cooking Light’s assistant nutrition editor, is here to change your perspective on classic recipes that have become a cornerstone of many American kitchens. Every month, Vespa debuts a new recipe makeover in our print issue, where she tackles classic dishes that might have a bad rep for being too rich for weekly rotation. We’re sharing the best of them right here. Don’t seize up when someone asks for a full bowl of spaghetti and meatballs, or a whole piece of pecan pie—there’s a way to enjoy these sinfully delicious meals without having to feel guilty whatsoever.
2 of 12Caitlin Bensel
Smoked Salmon Breakfast Casserole
When you're looking for a breakfast that is both elegant and easy this holiday season, our crowd-pleasing casserole is just the ticket. This multilayered marvel is loaded with crispy potatoes, hot-smoked salmon, and a smattering of fresh herbs. Cottage cheese naturally melds into the eggs, creating pillowy lightness throughout the mixture, while goat cheese creates dense pockets of creaminess. Hot-smoked salmon, unlike cured, is fully cooked—look for it in the fish case or packaged in the meat aisle of your grocery store. Our recipe hits all the marks for a hearty one-dish meal, with 25% fewer calories, 7g less saturated fat, and over 600mg less sodium than traditional meat-and-cheese breakfast casseroles. Use a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet for best results.
Our unexpected recipe makeover harnesses the power of comfort food in a nutrient-dense, slurp-worthy bowl of beer cheese bliss. Butternut squash complements the rich, savory notes of beer and two types of mustard, while ribbons of melty cheddar add a silky finish. All of these components fuse together to create a hearty yet delightfully dulcet soup guaranteed to warm you up from the inside out. A pale ale–style beer, such as Bass, is ideal in this dish. Avoid using dark beer, which could make the soup too bitter. Nutritional yeast is commonly sold powdered or in flakes. Find it in most health food stores and well-stocked markets.
When it comes to meat sauces, Bolognese is the heavyweight champion of the pasta world, clocking in at over 800 calories with almost 1,800mg sodium. The traditional dish has a rich cast of characters—up to three kinds of meat, cream, cheese, pasta—and packs half a day’s worth of sat fat into just one serving. Here, tempeh and two types of mushrooms mimic the texture of ground meat while adding plenty of savory depth. By upping the veggies and nixing the cream, we leave plenty of room for the good stuff—Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
Our 100% whole-grain pie shaves more than one-third of the sugar and calories off the classic, and it cuts saturated fat in half. Toasting the pecans intensifies their flavor and adds notes of caramel.
Our virtuous makeover of everyone’s favorite family-night dinner will send you racing to the dinner table. A hearty bowl of spaghetti and meatballs is as ubiquitous as it is timeless, though this Sunday supper can pack over 2,000mg sodium and 12g sat fat into a single serving. Our veggie-loaded version saves 450 calories, 8g sat fat, and 1,400mg sodium over the traditional recipe. Shiitake mushrooms amp up the meaty texture and umami flavor of meatballs, stretching 1 pound of beef across 8 servings. For a punch of fiber and a boost of nutrients, mix zucchini noodles with whole-wheat spaghetti. Bonus: One serving of our comfort food classic contains 11⁄2 cups of vegetables.
A classic bowl of New England clam chowder—in all of its starchy, creamy, comforting glory—can add up to over half a day's sodium allowance and almost half a day's saturated fat. To build all the great flavor with less sodium than store-bought clam juice, we make a quick homemade clam stock. It draws lots of clam flavor from the shells, while helping slash more than half the salt. Your brain will also benefit from every bit of the clams' vitamin B12 goodness (low levels are associated with increased risk for Alzheimer's and dementia), with one serving delivering 100 percent of your daily goal. Seek the freshest claims from your local fishmonger; their shells should be closed or just slightly open before cooking. Potatoes are both the thickening agent and creamy base here, boosting fiber and negating the need for heavy cream. Just 1/2 cup of half-and-half enhances the richness of this East Coast classic, leaving plenty of room for sprinkling oyster crackers on top.
To build a better breakfast cake that won’t send you into midmorning nap mode, we start by building a whole-grain base bolstered with warm spices and brightened up with citrus juice and zest. The savory notes of olive oil lend complexity, while the oil’s characteristic fruitiness is accentuated by the citrus zest. The finished product: a bakery-quality coffee cake with a fraction of the sat fat and only 333 calories.
A sandwich-shop classic, the French dip—a beef-loaded baguette-and-jus combo—delivers a whopping 1,400mg sodium (more than 60% of your daily recommended limit) plus almost 9g sat fat. To create a healthier handheld without forfeiting its meaty character, we use toothsome mushrooms to mimic meat’s heft and enrich the sandwich with noteworthy umami. Caramelized onions get layered on for the perfect alchemy of sweetness and added complexity. And to further infuse each bite with robust flavor, we boost the homemade jus with sherry, thyme, Worcestershire, and soy sauce. Delightfully hearty and a little bit messy, our slimmed-down sandwich provides classic satisfaction (and a full serving of veggies) for one-third fewer calories and 690mg less sodium.