If you’re trying to lean out, indulging in a plate of hearty pasta isn’t the best idea, right? It depends on the recipe, really. Olive Garden’s Spaghetti with Meatballs, for example, has 740 calories and more carbohydrates than eight Oreo cookies. Not to mention, the dish is seriously lacking in vital nutrients.
Luckily there are healthier options out there, but tricking the taste buds does require some creativity. That’s why we’ve teamed up with some of the nation’s top chefs to bring you vitamin-packed “pasta” recipes with a fraction of the calories and carbs. Check out six dishes that allow you to dig in guilt-free whenever a starchy craving strikes—no restaurant reservation required.
1. Cauliflower 'risotto'
Courtesy of Brandon Boudet, executive chef and owner of Little Dom’s in Los Angeles
Risotto is the epitome of Italian comfort food but it won’t do your waistline any favors. Boudet’s take on the dish will leave your stomach satisfied without sacrificing your physique. Not only is cauliflower rich in vitamin C, it’s also super low-calorie and has just 5 grams of carbohydrates per cup.
- 8 cups grated cauliflower (grated with large holes of a box grater)
- 1 bunch green onions, finely chopped
- 1/2 tsp crushed red pepper
- 1 tsp olive oil
- 1 tbsp butter
- 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- In a large sauté pan add butter and olive oil on medium heat.
- Add green onion and sauté for 3 minutes.
- Add crushed red pepper and salt to taste, sauté 30 seconds; add grated cauliflower and sauté for 8-10 minutes, stirring frequently. You do not want to brown the cauliflower.
- Top with Parmesan cheese and salt to taste.
2. Chicken noodles with winter pesto
Courtesy of Rocco DiSpirito, award-winning chef and No. 1 New York Times bestselling author of The Pound a Day Diet
“Thinly sliced chicken cooks quickly and makes a wonderful stand-in for traditional carb-filled pappardelle pasta,” explains DiSpirito. “Plus, the nutritious escarole and hint of winter spices makes this dish a real belly warmer.” With a total carb count of 8.25 grams and only 176 calories, you can dig into this tasty, low-fat dish, guilt free.
- Olive oil cooking spray
- 2 cloves garlic, sliced very thin
- Dash of cinnamon and paprika
- Crushed red pepper flakes
- ¼ cup basil
- ¼ cup onion, sliced
- 2 cups escarole, finely chopped
- 1 cup unsalted chicken stock
- Salt, to taste
- 3 ounces chicken breast, sliced lengthwise, 1/8 inch thick
- ¼ ounce Parmigiano Reggiano, grated
- Bring two quarts of water to a simmer in a medium saucepot.
- Spray a medium skillet. Place over medium high heat and add garlic. Cook until golden brown, then add the spices, crushed red pepper flakes, basil, and onion. Cook until onions have softened, about two minutes. Add the escarole and cook until wilted and softened, about another two minutes. Add the stock, bring to a simmer, cover and cook until tender, about five minutes.
- Add a pinch of salt to the water, turn off the heat, and add the chicken. Stir so all the strips separate.
- Keep the chicken in the saucepot for about 15-20 minutes or until it turns white and it's cooked through (no pink inside). Remove with a slotted spoon, and place on a plate to cool.
- Cook the escarole mixture until most of the stock has evaporated and it looks like thick soup or sauce. Then turn off the heat. Add half the cheese, stir in and season with salt. Add the chicken and toss it to coat with the mixture and cook through, about 30 seconds. Spoon onto a plate, top with remaining cheese and serve.
3. Pasta-free veggie lasagna with meat sauce (not pictured)
Courtesy of Cheryl Forberg, R.D., nutritionist for NBC's The Biggest Loser and author of A Small Guide to Losing Big
Unlike traditional lasagna, this dish is centered around fiber-filled vegetables, so you’ll feel satisfied, not stuffed. The best part? One serving only has 210 calories and 17 grams of carbs, plus a whopping 18 grams of muscle-building protein. “You'll never miss the pasta in this scrumptious, cheesy Italian favorite,” promises Forberg.
- 1 pound of eggplant, ends trimmed, thinly sliced lengthwise
- 3 links (about 4 ounces each) lean Italian turkey sausage
- 1 roasted red bell pepper, diced
- 1 cup white or yellow onion, chopped
- 1 tsp garlic, minced
- 1 cup low-fat marinara sauce
- 2 egg whites
- 1 (15-ounce) container fat-free ricotta cheese
- 2 tsp Melissa’s Italian herb seasoning
- 1/2 tsp ground black pepper
- 2/3 cup shredded low-fat mozzarella cheese
- 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Lightly coat an 8x8 inch baking pan with olive oil cooking spray. Set aside.
- Lightly spray a baking sheet with olive oil cooking spray. Arrange the eggplant slices in a single layer on the baking sheet. Spray them lightly with olive oil cooking spray. Broil the eggplant for about eight minutes or until tender and very lightly browned. Set aside to cool.
- To prepare the meat sauce, cook the sausage in a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat for about three minutes, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon to break up any clumps. Add the bell pepper, onion, and garlic, and cook for about four minutes longer, until the meat is no longer pink. The juices should be cooked dry. Stir in the marinara sauce and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for about five minutes, stirring frequently. The sauce will be very thick.
- Meanwhile, in a mixing bowl, combine the egg whites, ricotta, Italian seasoning, and black pepper until well combined.
- To assemble the lasagna, spread half of the meat sauce in the bottom of the prepared baking pan. Layer on half of the eggplant slices, followed by half of the ricotta mixture and half of the mozzarella cheese. Repeat with the remaining meat sauce, eggplant slices, ricotta mixture, and mozzarella. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.
- Bake for about 40 minutes or until bubbly and lightly browned. Let stand for 5 minutes before serving.
4. Grain-free spaghetti with meat sauce
This nutrient-packed recipe only tastes sinful. Thanks to its high protein and fiber content this low-carb dish is pleasingly filling. “Spaghetti squash has a mild taste so it works great underneath a pungent tomato-based meat sauce,” adds Walker.
- 1 pound of ground beef
- 1/2 cup onion, minced
- 4 cloves garlic, put through a garlic press
- 20 ounces tomato juice or 2 boxes of Pomi strained tomatoes
- 2 fresh tomatoes, diced
- 1/2 tsp dried thyme
- 1/2 tsp dried oregano
- 1/2 tsp dried rosemary
- 1/2 tsp dried parsley
- 1 large spaghetti squash, roasted
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Brown beef with garlic and onions.
- Add tomato juice and remaining ingredients.
- Let sauce simmer uncovered for 2-3 hours on low (be careful, it will splatter), or until thick.
Spaghetti squash instructions:
- Prick a few holes with a fork on all sides of the squash so the steam can escape.
- Place the squash into a glass baking dish and bake for 1 hour at 350 degrees, or until you can push the squash with your finger and the skin gives a bit..
- Cut the squash in half (be careful it will be really hot), and remove the seeds and stringy pulp.
- Use the tines of a fork to shred and create “spaghetti” strings from the flesh of the squash.
- Serve sauce over cooked squash and enjoy.
5. Zucchini pasta with goat cheese and toasted hazelnuts
Courtesy of Ben Ford (Harrison Ford’s son), executive chef and owner of Ford’s Filling Station in Los Angeles and author of Taming the Feast: Ben Ford’s Field Guide to Adventurous Cooking
This recipe incorporates flavorful spices like chili, thyme, garlic, and ginger and indulgent add-ins like hazelnuts and goat cheese so you won't even miss the pasta noodles. “This is a simple way to cut back on calories and carbs without sacrificing taste,” notes Ford.
- 5 zucchinis, cut into long thin strips
- 2 tbsp unsalted butter
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped (optional)
- 1 inch fresh ginger, grated or finely chopped
- 2 tsp chili flakes
- 2 tsp sugar
- 1/8 tsp nutmeg, ground
- 1 lemon, zest and juice
- 1 tsp fresh thyme, chopped
- Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
- 1 tbsp fresh mint, chopped
- ¼ cup goat cheese, crumbled
- ¼ cup hazelnuts, roasted and crumbled
- Peel the zucchini. Wash, dry, and then, using a mandoline or sharp knife, cut into long thin strands.
- Pour olive oil and 1 tablespoon of butter on a hot pan. Add and sauté the ginger, garlic, and red chili flakes.
- Add the zucchini and toss in sauté pan to coat thoroughly.
- Add sugar, nutmeg, and lemon juice and sauté for 1-2 minutes.
- Add remaining butter and thyme and cook for about 1-2 minutes. Zucchini should be al dente and still have a little bite. Season with kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper.
- Remove from the heat and sprinkle with fresh mint leaves, goat cheese and toasted hazelnuts.
6. Raw carrot pasta with ginger-lime peanut sauce
Courtesy of Julia Mueller, creator of The Roasted Root and author of Delicious Probiotic Drinks and Let Them Eat Kale!
“Carrot noodles are a nutrient-packed, gluten-free way to get your pasta fix,” explains Mueller. “Transform this flavorful, fresh side dish into the main attraction by mixing in chicken, shrimp, or even more hearty vegetables like eggplant." It only takes 15 minutes to whip up, so this dish gets major bonus points—talk about fast-food, reinvented.
- 5 large carrots, peeled and spiraled into noodles
- 1/3 cup roasted cashews
- 2 tbsp fresh cilantro, finely chopped
- 2 tbsp creamy peanut butter
- 4 tbsp coconut milk
- 2 tbsp liquid aminos
- Pinch of cayenne pepper
- 2 large cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 1 tbsp fresh ginger, peeled and grated
- 1 tbsp lime juice
- Kosher salt to taste
- To create the sauce, combine all ingredients except for the carrots in a small bowl and mix together until smooth and creamy. Set aside.
- Wash carrots well, then peel them and pat them dry.
- Using your spiral slicer, make noodles out of all of the carrots. It will be more difficult to make the noodles once there are only a few inches of carrot left, so you can grate the remainder.
- Place all carrot noodles into a large serving bowl, add sauce and gently toss together.
- Top with roasted cashews and freshly chopped cilantro. If creating a main dish, mix in the additional vegetables or proteins of choice.