Pasta Is Fast and Cheap. Here’s How to Make It Healthy.

updated May 1, 2019
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When I was in Italy, living alone and on a student budget, pasta for dinner was basically my go-to. To be honest, now that I think back, I can’t really remember what I made for myself in the evening other than pasta. Given the great crusade against carbs, you’d think this splurge of sorts caused me to gain weight, feel sluggish, or confirm once and for all that pasta is basically evil.

But guess what? I felt as healthy as ever on my strict pasta diet — and my wallet felt pretty healthy too. Before you get too excited, I wasn’t feasting on fettuccine Alfredo. My pasta dinners were balanced meals that gave me the energy I needed as a busy student. It wasn’t hard — I promise.

6 Tips for Making Pasta Fast, Cheap, and Healthy

If you stick to a few general guidelines, pasta doesn’t have to feel like a decadent splurge — which, of course, isn’t to say that you shouldn’t dig into something extra creamy or cheesy every once in a while. You should! It’s good for the soul.

But for the everyday, weeknight meal, you can make pasta a wholesome main dish that you can feel good about serving. Here’s how.

Our favorite healthy pasta recipes: 10 Fast and Cheap Ways to Make a Healthy Pasta Dinner

1. Load it with veggies.

Make it more about the vegetables than the pasta and you’re already off to a great start. Try to add enough vegetables to the dish that they’re in the majority, whether that means sautéing a few additional handfuls of spinach or roasting extra cauliflower. Basically, you’re flipping the proportions so that you’re eating a vegetable dish with some pasta, rather than a pasta dish with some vegetables.

2. Opt for lean proteins.

There’s no denying how good a classic Bolognese sauce is, but the ground beef or pork that’s called for in traditional recipes is high in fats that aren’t always the best choice. Instead, opt for ground turkey or chicken, which is lower in fat and still super economical.

The same goes for sausage: Swap out pork sausage for chicken or turkey sausage for a nutritionally balanced pasta dinner. Plus, a pasta that’s filled with leaner protein allows for a final drizzle of heart-healthy olive oil, which will not only boost the dish’s overall flavor, but also add a touch of good fat into the mix.

3. Swap out the heavy cream.

A heavy cream-spiked pasta sauce is a beautiful thing, but it’s not the most wholesome choice for everyday pasta eating. Luckily, there are a slew of creamy swap-ins that achieve similar results. Good-quality ricotta and plain Greek yogurt can be tossed with pasta to make an instant, creamy sauce so you can forgo the cream.

But don’t be tempted by the nonfat, skim stuff, as it really won’t give you the creaminess you desire. Even the full-fat versions are lower in fat and calories than heavy cream.

4. Give whole-wheat pasta a try.

If you tried swapping all your regular pasta for whole-wheat pasta a handful of years ago when it started to become popular, you may have quickly realized that while healthful (it’s rich in fiber and other nutrients), it really doesn’t taste the same as regular pasta.

But before you decide it’s not for you, consider that this different taste is actually a good thing for certain sauces! Sure, a classic marinara tastes best with a classic spaghetti, but the nutty, earthy flavor of whole-wheat pasta works really well with stronger-flavored sauces like pesto, roasted root vegetables like cauliflower and squash, and hearty casseroles.

One-Pot Pasta Puttanesca (Image credit: Lauren Volo)

5. Cook the pasta al dente.

Most recipes tell you to cook the pasta until it’s al dente, which means it still has some bite to it. Italian grandmothers have been doing it this way for centuries not only because it tastes best, but also because al dente pasta is better for you. The firmer pasta actually takes longer for the body to digest. That means your blood sugar (and energy level) remains steady until your next meal. You’ll be full for longer so you won’t be reaching for a snack soon after your pasta dinner.

6. Watch the portion size.

This may seems like an obvious one, but if you’ve had the good fortune to visit Italy, one of the first things you may notice is that a serving of pasta is a bit smaller, yet no less satisfying. Pile a little less pasta on your plate for a more healthful dinner. My general rule of thumb is that one pound of pasta can feed six people as a main course — and can even stretch to eight servings if it’s loaded with lots of veggies.

How do you make a wholesome balanced pasta dinner?