The Best Italian Food for Dieters - Recipes and Tips

Eat diet-friendly Italian food at home or in a restaurant

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Focus on veggies instead of pasta. Morguefile

If you are on a diet, you don't have to avoid Italian food.  Of course, the starchy, creamy pasta dishes won't do much for your waistline, but there are plenty of healthy alternatives. 

How to Eat Diet-Friendly Italian Food

Whether you are cooking at home or eating in a restaurant, you can learn to enjoy Italian food without guilt. The key is to stay away from popular favorites like Fettuccine Alfredo which are not only high in fat and calories, but also very high in starchy carbohydrates.

 

So what's better?  Focus on protein and veggies to make your meal more healthy.  A savory dish like Sicilian-Style Grilled Eggplant is filling and can be split between diners to keep portions in control.  Or  Classic Stewed Lentils will provide plenty of protein to build lean muscle and keep your metabolism healthy. 

Tips to Decrease Calories in Italian Foods

Even if you choose protein-based foods with lots of veggies, your Italian dish may contain some ingredients that are high in fat and calories.  Season 4 MasterChef winner Luca Manfe provided some of his favorite protein and veggie recipes from his book My Italian Kitchen

So what's one of the best ways to keep the calories in control when you cook Italian? Stay active before and after dinner!  Find your local park and do a few laps while your meal is in the oven or after you've dined. In addition, you can use these tips to keep the meal more diet-friendly.

  • Use less marinade, sauce or pesto.  If you make your sauces from scratch, they will be full of flavor anyway. Use less to flavor your food if you want to minimize fat content.
  • Experiment with egg whites. Chef Luca's Egg Fritatta is full of protein and spicy flavor. The recipe also contains ten eggs and a small amount of heavy cream.  Try using fewer yolks and more egg whites to keep the texture and decrease the fat.
  • Double your salad, cut the entree in half.  Whether you are making one of the chef's special recipes or ordering in a restaurant, fill up on salad before you eat your entree.  The fibrous greens will help you to feel full before you begin eating the higher fat foods.
  • Keep portions in control.  Many Italian meals are served family style. That means you can dig into large platters or bowls of food repeatedly during the course of the meal. Don't use this as an excuse to overeat.  Fill your plate once, choosing mostly greens, then eat slowly and enjoy.
     

This recipe from Season 4 MasterChef winner Luca Manfe provides plenty of healthy protein and veggies.  Make it at home for a diet-friendly Italian meal. Need to cut the fat? Cut the yolks and use egg whites instead.

Frittata with Goat Cheese and Asparagus with Arugula Salad

  • ½ bunch (about 200 grams) asparagus, woody ends trimmed
  • 10 large eggs
  • ¼ cup (60 milliliters) heavy cream
  • ½ cup (4 ounces/113 grams) soft fresh goat cheese, crumbled
  • ¼ cup (20 grams) freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 2 teaspoons Sriracha sauce
  • 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 tablespoons (45 grams) unsalted butter

Arugula salad

  • 4 cups (60 grams) arugula leaves
  • 1 cup (125 grams) cherry tomatoes, cut in half
  • ½ red onion, very thinly sliced
  • ½ cup (10 grams) thinly sliced fresh basil leaves
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

First we’ll make the frittata: Fill a large bowl with ice and water to make an ice-water bath and put up a large pot of water to a boil. Add the asparagus and cook for about 3 minutes, until slightly softened and bright green in color. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the asparagus to the ice-water bath. Let cool for a minute, then, using a slotted spoon, remove the asparagus from the ice-water bath. Pat dry with a paper towel and chop the asparagus.

 

Beat the eggs in a large bowl. Add the heavy cream, goat and Parmesan cheeses, mustard, Sriracha, thyme, salt, and a nice amount of pepper and whisk to incorporate the ingredients.

Melt 2 tablespoons (30 grams) of the butter in a large nonstick pan over medium-high heat, swirling it so the butter coats the entire surface of the pan as well as the sides.

Spread the asparagus into an even layer on the bottom of the pan, then pour the egg mixture over the asparagus. Cook for 3 minutes without touching it, then using a spatula, make a few holes in the bottom so the still-raw egg can get to the bottom of the pan. (This must be done upfront, not later, because now is when you need to make a nice even base for your frittata.) Reduce the heat to low, cover the pan, and when the bottom is set, in about 10 minutes, it’s time to turn over your frittata. Take a large serving dish and invert it on top of the pan. Turn off the heat and flip the pan upside down so the plate is on the bottom and the pan is on top.

Return the pan to the stove, add the remaining 1 tablespoon (15 grams) butter, return to low heat, and melt the butter, swirling it to coat the bottom of the pan. Slide the frittata off the plate and back into the pan. Cover and cook until the second side is set, about 5 minutes.

Rinse the serving plate you used to flip the frittata, return the frittata to the plate, and cut into slices.

Then to make the salad: In a large bowl, combine the arugula, cherry tomatoes, onion, and basil. In a small bowl, whisk the oil into the vinegar and season with salt and pepper. Toss the dressing into the salad and serve alongside frittata slices.

Looking for diet-friendly Italian food? Stick to recipes that are full of veggies and protein.  Grilled veggies pair nicely with eggs dishes, fresh fish or lean meat.  Try this recipe from Season 4 MasterChef winner Luca Manfe

Grilled Vegetables with Garlic-Parsley Pesto

  • 4 Italian eggplants (about 1 pound/450 grams each), peeled and cut lengthwise 1/8 inch (3 millimeters) thick
  • Salt
  • 2 cups (480 milliliters) extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for cooking the vegetables
  • 2 medium summer squash, cut lengthwise 1/8 inch (3 millimeters) thick
  • 2 medium zucchinis, cut lengthwise 1/8 inch (3 millimeters) thick
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 7 ounces (about 1 cup; 200 grams) anchovies marinated in olive oil
  • 6 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
  • 2 tablespoons finely grated lemon zest
  • ½ cup (120 milliliters) fresh lemon juice
  • 1 cup (20 grams) chopped fresh parsley

First we’ll salt the eggplant: Line 2 baking sheets with a double layer of paper towels and lay the eggplant slices over them. Lightly sprinkle with salt. This process is called degorging; it helps to bring the moisture out of the eggplant so when it’s cooked it will get crisp rather than soggy.

Then we’ll take care of the squash and zucchini: Drizzle a little olive oil into a large sauté pan or grill pan and wipe the pan with a paper towel. Place over medium-high heat and heat until screaming hot. Lay down enough vegetables to fill the pan and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, until browned and turning translucent.

Drizzle some more olive oil over the vegetables and cook for another 3 to 4 minutes, until browned on the second side. Transfer to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper (if all your baking sheets are being used for the eggplant, use a platter or a few plates). Season very lightly with salt and pepper.

Continue cooking the squash and zucchini in batches in the same fashion until all the slices are cooked. Note that the pan will get hotter as you continue to cook and the vegetables can burn if you don’t keep a watchful eye; you may need to lower the heat a little and cook for a minute or so less on each side. 

Next comes the eggplant: Pat the eggplant slices with paper towels and cook them in the pan the same way you cooked the squash and zucchini, except you’ll need about twice as much oil.

Now let’s prepare our marinade: In a food processor, combine the olive oil, anchovies, garlic, lemon zest and juice, parsley, and 1 teaspoon black pepper. Blend for a minute or so. As you may have noticed, we are not adding any salt to the marinade, as the anchovies are already very salty.

Arrange a layer of assorted vegetables in a glass casserole dish or baking dish. Cover with some of the marinade and repeat with additional layers of vegetables and marinade until all the vegetables have been used.

Cover and refrigerate overnight before serving. 

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