The Casserole Makes a Healthy Comeback

A few easy changes bring outdated recipes into the 21st century

From the WebMD Archives

Having kissed its crumbled-corn-chip top and canned-soup innards goodbye, the humble casserole is enjoying a resurgence in popularity. And for good reason.

Not only are casseroles fast and easy to make, but new casserole recipes call for vegetables and whole grains, and that means they can be healthy as well, according to Melanie Polk, director of nutrition education at the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR).

"A casserole gives you an opportunity to mix a whole bunch of cancer-protective foods in a single dish," says Polk. "It's a way to combine beans, whole grains, and vegetables."

Polk adds that a low-fat diet that contains at least 5 servings a day of a wide range of plant-based foods -- fruits, vegetables and whole grains -- can provide anti-cancer benefits. She also says that it doesn't matter whether the foods are raw or cooked.

"It's important to eat a variety of foods that have been prepared with a variety of cooking methods, except for frying, which adds unneeded fats," says Polk. "Certain foods, when cooked, release more of their cancer-protecting substances, so cooking isn't a bad thing. We know that some of the phytochemicals in broccoli, for example, become more available when the broccoli is lightly steamed. But it is less important whether they are raw or cooked. What's important is that you get them any way you can."

Here's an example of a recipe from the AICR:

Spanish Chicken and Rice Casserole

1 1/4 cup rice
1 small onion, chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 14.5-ounce can stewed tomatoes
1 1/4 cup canned chicken broth
1 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 7-ounce jar roasted red peppers drained and chopped
2 medium chicken breasts, skinless and boneless, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 bay leaf
1/2 cup frozen green peas

  • Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In a 2-quart casserole dish, combine rice, onion, and oil. Add tomatoes, one cup of broth, paprika, oregano, peppers, roasted peppers, chicken, and bay leaf. Stir to combine well. Cover and bake for 30 minutes.
  • Stir in peas and add an additional 1/4 cup broth if needed to keep rice from sticking. Bake until chicken and rice are cooked through, 15-20 minutes. Remove bay leaf and serve.

Makes 6 servings

Per serving: 311 calories and 5 grams of fat.

Modify old recipes

"One of the great things about casseroles is that people can take their own home recipe books and modify old recipes to be more healthy," says Nancy Reed, RD, LD, director of clinical nutrition at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, Md.

"Look for ways you can substitute lower-fat foods for high-fat foods," says Reed. "Use no-fat sour cream instead of regular sour cream, or try non-fat yogurt instead of mayonnaise."

Meat substitution is also good. Reed recommends using lean ground turkey instead of ground beef. Another trick is to use half the amount of meat called for in older recipes.

"That way, you get all the flavor and feel of the meat, but a lot less of the bad parts of meat," she says, adding that cooking times generally stay the same even when you make substitutions.

Reed also points out that casseroles are a great place to add vegetables to your family's diet. "Throw in cooked broccoli, brown rice, or add beans," she says. "You can add all kinds of vegetables in there without changing the cooking times."

East-Meets-West Casserole

8 ounces bow-tie whole-wheat pasta
2 tablespoons reduced-sodium soy sauce
1/2 tablespoon sesame oil
1/2 cup orange juice
2 teaspoons grated orange peel or to taste
1 teaspoon corn starch
non-stick cooking spray
1-2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, grated
1 cup green onion, chopped
11/2 cup mushrooms, sliced
1 cup asparagus cut in 1-inch pieces
1 orange, peeled, seeded, and diced
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
1 cup cooked chicken, chopped
(canned black beans, drained and rinsed, may be substituted for chicken)

  • Cook pasta according to package directions, quickly rinse with cold water, and drain well.
  • In the meantime, make the sauce by mixing together soy sauce, sesame oil, juice, orange peel, and cornstarch.
  • Coat a large non-stick skillet with cooking spray and place over medium heat. Sauté garlic and ginger until it turns pale gold, about 1 minute, stirring constantly to prevent burning. Add onion and mushrooms and sauté, stirring constantly, about 2 minutes. Add asparagus and sauté for 2 minutes more.
  • Re-stir the sauce and add to skillet. Cook, stirring constantly, until vegetables are tender and the sauce thickens, about 1-2 minutes. Add pasta, orange pieces and chicken (or beans), stirring lightly until all ingredients are well mixed.
  • Sprinkle some sesame seeds and serve.

Makes 4 servings

Per serving: 340 calories and 8 grams of fat.

"Apart from casseroles, you should try to get at least one serving of fruits or vegetables with every meal," says Reed. "Add a fruit to breakfast by putting blueberries or strawberries on your morning cereal. Put lettuce and tomatoes on a sandwich at lunch, and snack on fruits and vegetables through the day."

Reed adds that carrots are a good way to start. "Carrots have lots less sugar than candy, and they are loaded with fiber. They make a great snack food."