THE QUESTION: “How can I modify my family’s [favorite meal, spaghetti and garlic bread,] to be more nutritious &/or have less sugar? The jar of sauce alone has a lot of sugar & sodium! Do you have a quick & easy way to hack this and/or an easy recipe for homemade marinara sauce? [...] How about the bread? My kids love that white bread in the freezer section but I know it’s not good for them!”
So I could tell you to simmer/roast some boxed/canned/fresh/heirloom tomatoes with, or never with, some additional veggies and a sprig of rosemary/thyme/basil/parsley until, blah blah blah. Your eyes are probably already spinning at all the options and the ghosts of previous tomato splatter appear. Then you reach for the jarred stuff from sheer anticipated exhaustion. But on the other hand reading the ingredient list of a packaged pasta sauce can make parents feel guilty about the amount of sodium and sugar they are feeding their kids (not to mention ingesting themselves). Running an internet search is no help; entering “healthy hacks for store bought sauce” into Google resulted in 196 million items in less than half a minute. Ironically this blog post will now add to one to that overwhelming total. Below for "part 1" I have tips and ideas for making choices in the grocery store. What to look for in a store bought tomato sauce and what you can buy to add more nutritious elements to any pasta dish then look out for "part 2" coming soon where I will tackle the problem of a great tomato sauce from scratch that even the most cooking-averse parent will come to love.
I have two tips to help you have more control over the healthfulness of this family favorite without making a sauce from scratch.
Tip #1: Get in the habit of reading ingredient lists. Remember, the mediterranean diet is one of the most healthful in the world, but if you are buying a pasta sauce with artificial preservatives and flavors you are not eating something that would qualify as the mediterranean diet, even if it is, loosely, Italian food. So if you are buying a premade sauce, choose the sauce with the fewest ingredients, no high fructose corn syrup, and that appears to have actual tomatoes first on the list. It took me about two minutes to find this jar and compare it to the other more recognizable brands. You could simply look for one with “no salt added” emblazoned on the front if you are in a rush (pro tip: If they haven’t added any salt, there’s no need to add sugar). You can see the nutritional label for the jar pictured here.
Tip #2: Add in more veggies. Roasted red pepper and cauliflower florets; these are two of the most under-the-radar nutritonal powerhouses in the produce section, not to mention great texture additions for pasta. Other great options are diced summer squash, grated butternut squash, wilted spinach and arugala - all packed with healthy goodness. Then top with fresh herbs for an extra flavor + vitamin boost. You can also add whole or pureed beans to the sauce itself for extra protein. If you are making a meat sauce brown sausage in the bottom of a pan, remove the meat to a plate and then sautee veggies/greens in the rendered fat. This way you don’t need to add extra butter or oil, and the veggies take on that meatiness that will keep kids coming back for more once they get a taste.
As for the garlic bread...there’s really no such thing as ‘healthy garlic bread’. I would recommend going all in and making it an occasional indulgence instead of a weekly buy; or switch to bruschetta. If you want to make your own garlic bread so you know exactly what is in the heavenly goodness, Alex Guarnaschelli’s garlic bread recipe is unique yet familiar. It definitely does not qualify as a health food, but you have more control over the quality of ingredients than you do in the frozen aisle. Assuming they are old enough to use knives/the oven, you could also get the kids to assume some responsibility for dinner by telling them that if they want to have garlic bread when you make spaghetti, they have to make it themselves.
On to bruschetta. Basically, this is just thin slices of baguette with yummy topping. Often diced tomato, onion and basil but you can get olive tapenade, pesto or other spreads like baba ganoush or roasted red pepper cream cheese at most grocery stores. Or make them yourself! Top with a bit of cheese and broil for a couple of minutes to get that gooey cheese and crispy crunch that makes garlic bread such a great addition to spaghetti suppers. A great way to inject vegetables into a carb-heavy meal.