When you’ve got your mind set on healthy eating, cheese doesn’t usually top your thoughts. Unless perhaps you’re dreaming about its oozy-sinful goodness spreading over a hot pizza, that is. And while it does the job of adding luscious decadence to food, it does also add a good dose of flavor as well as a healthy shot of calcium, too. So why not play up cheese’s healthy side, while minimizing the diet damage? True, an easy way to “have your cheese and eat it too” is to use reduced-fat or 2 percent milk cheese to slash fat. But even though reduced-fat cheese has come a long way since its debut, there’s no denying that it’s simply not as tasty or as satisfying as the full-fat version. Besides, it’s easy to get bored with reduced-fat cheeses, since they don’t exactly come in a dizzying array of flavor choices. Even worse, sometimes it’s all too easy to do more damage than good, since you may find that you’re using a lot of reduced-fat cheese to satisfy your taste buds. The solution to reduced-fat cheese boredom and overdose? Try your hand at learning to garnish (read: enjoy, but use sparingly) meals with a few new strong-flavored, full-fat cheeses.
Keeping Food Healthy with Cheese?
Strong, full-fat cheeses are perfect when you’re paying careful attention to what you eat since they usually have more flavor than packaged, reduced-fat cheeses – and that means you don’t need to use much to add punch to your food. Sometimes, thinking of cheese as a condiment, and using just a half, or even quarter, ounce is enough to lend tang to a salad or zip to pasta. Even so, bear in mind that full-fat cheese is high in calories and saturated fat, so make sure you limit the amount you eat to no more than 1 ounce per day.
The great news is that many grocery stores now have a separate section of gourmet or imported cheeses (often located near the deli) in an array of options. So if you’re ready to try new ways to jazz up your meals with cheese, read on for five tasty swaps to try.
Like pre-shredded Parmesan?
Try Pecorino Romano. Pass up the canned, unrefrigerated sprinkles with the mysterious shelf life or the waxy, pre-shredded cheese from a tub. Just one freshly grated tablespoon of super-tangy aged Pecorino Romano adds a rush of flavor to perfectly top anything Italian – or not. Even roasted potatoes or grilled zucchini benefits from the flavor.
Like generic-brand Cheddar?
Try sharp or extra sharp Vermont or English Cheddar. Many cheddars lack the assertive flavor that their color implies – so why waste the calories and fat? Skip the bagged, shredded stuff and choose something that matches your preferred level of sharpness with cheddar from top producers like Vermont or England. Even if sharp cheddar is too much for your tastesbuds, a sliver of any mild variety straight from the wedge makes a more satisfying taco topper as opposed to a whole serving of a bagged version.
Like crumbled Feta?
Try blue. If you’re a fan of pungent cheese, but you’re tired of Feta, try blue crumbled from a wedge for a change. Any maker’s variety of blue cheese can add serious flavor depth to a burger (mmm! caramelized onions and a smidge of blue). And vice versa – if you’re already into blue, try Feta. But be sure to go for the blocks of Feta, rather than the crumbles, for richer flavor. For something different and healthy to top your pizza, try a whole wheat crust bathed with tomato sauce, then covered in sautéed spinach and onions, finished with a sprinkle of kalmata olives and Feta.
Like American-style Swiss?
Try Emmentaler or Emmental. Not all “hole-y” cheeses are created equal! The familiar Swiss that you pick up at the deli counter or in the mainstream dairy section has little bite, and a waxy aftertaste. But compare it to a slice of Emmantaler, which has big flavor since it has been aged longer than its generic American deli counterpart, and you may never go back to your old Swiss standby. For a healthy lunch, use a thin slice on your turkey, avocado, and Dijon sandwich or, since it’s perfect for melting, double up on sweet and savory by smearing a teaspoon of raspberry preserves on whole grain bread, and melt a slice of Emmentaler on top.
The Bottom Line
If you’re feeling cheesy, it’s okay to indulge a bit. Go ahead and pick something interesting to take home to try. With intensely flavored cheese, it doesn’t take much to take a healthy dish from good to great!
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Beth Sumrell Ehrensberger is a Registered Dietitian and holds a Master Degree in Public Health. An experienced nutrition counselor, writer and public speaker, Beth specializes in translating complex nutrition information into practical concepts. Beth was awarded a Nutrition Communications Fellowship to the National Cancer Institute, and has worked on the internationally recognized Nutrition Action Healthletter of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.