When the leaves drop and the air turns crisp, nothing is more satisfying than a steaming bowl of something delicious. What’s not to love about a tasty one-pot meal that can be created from ingredients commonly held on hand, and that can be ready in minutes – not to mention that it’s also economical, filling, and fit for a crowd? Chili for dinner it is! The only problem? Often, that bowl of chili isn’t as healthy as you might think.
As with many soups and stews where exact measurements aren’t critical, chili is a forgiving meal with which to experiment. Even novice chefs can relax and feel confident taking a few creative liberties in punching up the health factor of their favorite chili. From a rich, meaty chili that’s low in saturated fat, to a fiber-filled vegetarian version even the staunchest carnivore will devour, turning your favorite chili into your favorite healthy chili is easy.
“Meating” a Healthy Chili Challenge
Simply by substituting one pound of 95% lean ground beef for the standard 70% lean ground beef, you’ll cut over 460 calories and 50 grams of fat, as well as 22 grams of saturated fat, per recipe. To further improve your hot pot, try substituting ground turkey breast for the 95% lean ground beef. Making the switch cuts calories per pound by nearly 300, fat by 24 grams, and saturated fat by 10 grams. The good news is that chili’s full range of spices means that ditching the fat will be virtually unnoticed. If you have time, though, a handful of chopped onions and bell pepper or a can of low-sodium seasoned tomatoes can add another layer of mouthwatering flavor to your healthy chili.
Chili con Veggie
If you’re cooking for folks who don’t list vegetables at the top of their list of food faves, you’re in luck. Chili offers an easy, stealthy way to sneak in a little extra veggie nutrition. Try adding a puree of vegetables to the tomato base: just blend up what you have on hand in the freezer or anything fresh that you need to use before it spoils. Adding a cup of mixed, pureed vegetables like butternut squash, mushrooms, carrots, zucchini, or even sweet potatoes adds to the antioxidant power and fiber factor of the chili. As a bonus, it serves to make the chili broth delightfully thick.
To further boost the fiber (and cut the cholesterol) in a recipe that calls for a pound of meat, stash half of the meat in the freezer for later, and instead use a couple cans of drained, rinsed kidney or pinto beans in its place. If you’re not a meat eater, simply substitute an equal quantity of vegetarian protein crumbles for the required amount of ground beef or turkey (or use half crumbles and half beans).
Hearty, Healthy Chili Sides
Before you add the finishing touches to your meal, consider this: the benefits of a healthy chili are muddled if you pair it with high-fat sides. Cornbread, corn chips, cheese, and sour cream are a few of the regular high-fat offenders that often keep company with a big bowl of chili. With all the flavors you have working in your chili, keep your toppings simple with just a couple tablespoons of 2% cheddar cheese (45 calories, 3 grams fat) or two crumbled saltine crackers (a mere 25 calories). A sprinkle of chopped jalapenos and green onions add flavor, but nominal calories and zero fat. And a tablespoon of fat-free sour cream (or fat-free plain yogurt) adds the perfect, cool foil to the spicy stew without spoiling the nutrition.
The Bottom Line
A few simple substitutions and a little creativity can take your chili from a greasy stew to a healthy meal must-do. Just by carefully selecting a low-fat meat, pumping up the vegetables, and keeping the sides and additions light and healthy, you can make chili a meal that your family will enjoy – and that you can feel good about serving.
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.