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A great way to help keep your food budget in check in this time of soaring prices at the grocery store is to shop your pantry and use what you already have on hand. This series of articles will help you do exactly that by providing tasty, nutritious serving suggestions for some inexpensive shelf-stable staples in your pantry that you may have overlooked. This month’s focus: pasta.
Is Pasta Healthy?
Good news, carb lovers, pasta is not the nutritional villain that many people believe it to be. In fact, research published in 2020 in Frontiers in Nutrition revealed that pasta consumption is associated with better diet quality and higher intake of a few key nutrients — folate, iron, magnesium, and fiber — compared with diets lacking noodles. Interestingly, pasta consumption in adult females was associated with reduced waist circumference and body weight (no such results were found in adult males or children).
Those benefits are easy to enjoy because pasta is one of the most versatile pantry staples. It comes in dozens of different shapes, from bow ties to linguine, can be served hot or cold, and pairs well with just about anything. Plus, it’s as easy to make as boiling water. While traditionalists may prefer fresh pasta, research has found no significant nutritional differences between fresh and dried, and the latter will last much longer — up to two years, according to FoodSafety.gov.
Traditional pasta is what’s known as white or refined pasta. Similar to white bread, it is made from flour that has had much of the grain’s original nutrition stripped away. In the United States, white pasta is fortified with B vitamins (niacin, thiamine, folic acid, and riboflavin), and iron, but it still tends to be digested more quickly than whole-grain options. So, if you prefer the texture and milder flavor of white pasta, be sure to elevate it with more filling ingredients like vegetables, legumes, or lean protein.
Whole-grain pasta can be an easy way to give your meals a nutritional boost. A study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that whole grains improved A1C (a measure of average blood sugar levels over the past three months) and C-reactive protein levels (a marker of inflammation), suggesting that long-term heart health may benefit from replacing refined grains in the diet with whole grains, including whole-wheat pasta. Whole-grain pastas can also be made with brown rice or quinoa (both gluten-free), and ancient varieties of wheat like einkorn.
You can find a growing number of pasta products made from other ingredients, such as legumes and cassava flour, but while those tend to have more nutrients like protein and fiber, they can be significantly more expensive than wheat-based noodles. And if you plan your meals right, you won’t need to worry about that. Here are five healthy and filling pasta recipes to get started when you need dinner in a hurry.
1. Two-Bean Chili Pasta
This veggie-packed pasta dish has plenty of filling fiber — and a dose of protein from the beans to make it extra satisfying.
Heat 2 teaspoons (tsp) of oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add 1 chopped onion and ½ tsp of salt to the pan and heat until softened, about 5 minutes. Add 1 chopped red bell pepper, 2 cups of sliced cremini mushrooms, and 2 chopped garlic cloves; heat 3 minutes. Stir in 2 tablespoons (tbsp) of tomato paste, 1 tsp of chili powder, 1 tsp of cumin, 1 tsp of dried oregano, and ½ tsp of black pepper; heat 1 minute. Put one 28-ounce (oz) can of diced tomatoes, 1 cup of vegetable broth, and 8 oz of penne, rotini, or fusilli pasta in the pan, bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer covered until pasta is cooked to al dente, about 12 minutes. Stir in a 14 oz can of drained kidney beans and a 14 oz can of drained black beans; heat 3 minutes. Stir in 4 cups of spinach and heat until wilted. Divide among serving bowls and top with grated cheddar cheese. Makes 4 servings.
2. Chicken Avo-fredo Pasta
Avocado makes for a sauce as smooth and creamy as Alfredo, but full of healthy fats and fiber.
In a pot of salted boiling water, prepare 12 oz of linguine or spaghetti according to package directions. Reserve ⅔ cup of the pasta cooking water and drain the pasta well. Return pasta to pot and set aside. Add reserved cooking water, 1 avocado, juice of half a lemon, 1 tbsp of harissa paste or canned chipotle peppers, ½ tsp of garlic powder, and ¼ tsp of salt to a blender container and blend until smooth. Add avocado sauce to pasta and toss until noodles are coated. Stir in 1 cup of jarred roasted red pepper slices. Divide noodles among serving bowls and top with sliced cooked chicken and pumpkin seeds (pepitas). Makes 4 servings.
3. Tuna Caprese Pasta Salad
When you get tired of tuna sandwiches, this pasta salad is a terrific way to get your dose of omega-3 fats — and some other veggies besides.
Prepare 10 oz of penne, fusilli, or rotini pasta according to package directions. Drain well. Return pasta to pan and toss with 2 cans of drained and flaked white tuna, 2 cups of halved cherry tomatoes, 2 cups of chopped cucumber, 3 oz of torn fresh mozzarella, ⅓ cup of sliced kalamata olives, and 1 cup of fresh basil. In a small bowl, whisk together 3 tbsp of olive oil, 2 tbsp of balsamic vinegar, 2 tsp of lemon zest, 1 chopped garlic clove, and ½ tsp of salt. Toss dressing with pasta salad. Makes 4 servings.
4. Spaghetti With Lentil Bolognese
Lentils take the place of beef in this Bolognese sauce, and their plant-based protein just may lengthen your lifespan, according to research published in PLOS Medicine in February 2022.
In a pot of salted boiling water, prepare 12 oz of spaghetti or linguini according to package directions. Add 2 tsp of oil to a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add 1 chopped onion, 2 cups of chopped carrot, and ¼ tsp of salt; heat until it begins to soften, about 5 minutes. Add 2 sliced celery stalks and 2 chopped garlic cloves; heat 3 minutes. Stir in 1 tsp of Italian seasoning, ½ tsp of cumin, ½ tsp of chili flakes, and ¼ tsp of black pepper; heat 30 seconds. Place 1 cup of red wine or low-sodium vegetable stock in pan and simmer for 3 minutes, scraping up any brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Stir in 1 jar of marinara sauce and simmer for 15 minutes. Stir in 2 cups of cooked lentils and 2 tbsp of balsamic vinegar; simmer 5 minutes. Divide noodles among serving plates and top with lentil Bolognese and grated Parmesan, if desired. Makes 4 servings.
5. One-Pot Pasta Minestrone
Pasta is a great addition to soups, which can be an easy way to get a serving or two of vegetables in your day, and it won’t leave you with a lot of cleanup.
Heat 2 tsp of oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add 1 chopped onion and ¾ tsp of salt to a pan and heat for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add 2 chopped large carrots, 2 sliced celery stalks, and 2 chopped garlic cloves to pan; heat 3 minutes. Add 2 tbsp of tomato paste, 1 tsp of Italian seasoning, ½ tsp of black pepper, and ½ tsp of chili flakes; heat 1 minute. Add 5 cups of vegetable broth, 10 oz penne or other shaped pasta, a 14 oz can of cannellini beans and a 14 oz can of diced tomatoes to pan. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer covered until pasta is tender, about 15 minutes. Stir in 4 cups of chopped kale and 2 tbsp of balsamic vinegar; heat until kale has wilted. Divide soup among serving bowls and garnish with chopped parsley. Makes 4 servings.