On cold days, you may find yourself craving warming foods — and a thick, hearty stew can be the ultimate comfort meal. But popular stew additions such as salt, fatty cuts of meat, and refined carbs like white rice or pasta can quickly fill up your bowl (and your stomach) without offering much extra nutritional value. That doesn’t have to be the case, though.
“More often than not, we can drastically improve the overall nutrition of a stew recipe with a few small-but-strategic adjustments,” says Eve Persak, RDN, a nutrition counselor based in Bali, Indonesia.
Follow these seven expert-backed tips to whip up a winter stew that’s both healthy and filling.
RELATED: 10 Protein-Packed Soups to Keep You Satisfied
1. Start With No- or Low-Sodium Broth
Whether you prefer chicken, beef, or vegetable broth, always choose a broth that’s labeled “unsalted” or “low sodium.”
“Americans consume way too much sodium, so cutting it whenever possible is a smart choice,” says Paula Doebrich, RDN, the New York City-based owner of Happea Nutrition, a private nutrition practice.
For reference, 1 cup of ready-to-serve chicken broth contains 860 milligrams (mg) of sodium, whereas 1 cup of the low-sodium version has only 139 mg, according to estimates from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends no more than 2,300 mg of sodium a day for most adults (and ideally, no more than 1,500 mg) since excessive sodium intake has been linked to high blood pressure and heart disease. You’ll find 2,325 mg of sodium in just one teaspoon of table salt, per the Mayo Clinic.
If you prefer to use vegetable broth or plain water as a base for your stew, Doebrich advises adding in protein-rich ingredients to keep the stew nutritionally balanced. (More on that next!)
RELATED: How to Slash Your Salt Intake
2. Pack in Healthy Protein Sources
No stew would be complete without protein, whether you’re including hearty meats or plant-based proteins.
Also read: Healthy Slow Cooked Beef Stew in Crockpot
When hunting for a meat to add to your stew, look for lean options, which are low in total and saturated fat. Skinless chicken or turkey meat, lean cuts of pork, and venison are all great choices, says Sherry Roberts, RDN, a certified diabetes care and education specialist with CRM Counseling Life Coaching and Wellness in Centerville, Minnesota.
If you prefer to include beef, Roberts suggests you avoid marbled cuts like ribeye, short rib, and flatiron in favor of leaner cuts, and cut off any visible fat. (Top sirloin steak, sirloin tip side steak, top round roast and steak, and bottom round roast and steak are all considered “extra lean” cuts, per the Mayo Clinic — or you can ask your butcher for help.)
Seafood is another great stew addition, Doebrich says. White fish (like cod and hake) offer lean protein, while fatty fish (like salmon and tuna) tend to offer omega-3 fatty acids, per the National Institutes of Health (NIH). As part of a healthy diet, these polyunsaturated fats can help reduce your risk of heart disease, heart failure, and stroke, according to the AHA.
Vegetarians can get in the game with plant-based protein sources. Choose tofu and tempeh — two soy-based foods — instead of meatless products like Impossible Foods or Beyond Meat, which tend to be high in saturated fat, Doebrich says. For example, a 116 g serving of tofu — about 4 ounces (oz) or ¼ block — offers 9 g of protein, along with 88 calories, 8 mg of sodium, and 0.8 g of saturated fat, per the USDA. Meanwhile, a 113 g (4 oz) serving of Beyond Beef offers 20 g of protein, but also has 230 calories, 390 mg of sodium, and 5 g of saturated fat.
Beans are another excellent addition to your stew, because they offer protein along with fiber and healthy minerals, Doebrich says. Black beans, for example, are a good source of protein and an excellent source of fiber (offering 8 g and 6 g of these nutrients respectively per ½-cup, notes the USDA).
Even if you’re not vegan or vegetarian, Doebrich suggests replacing ½ of the meat in any recipe with beans for a more balanced meal.
3. Go for High-Fiber Pasta Options
As a carb- and calorie-dense food, pasta may seem like a “no-no” in a healthy stew. But it is possible to incorporate pasta into your stew without taking away from your bowl’s nutritional value, says Roberts. The key is to choose healthy pasta options.
Swapping white pasta for whole-wheat pasta is one easy way to increase the nutritional value of your stew. “Most traditional pastas are made from refined wheat flours, which have been stripped of fiber and most of their natural vitamins and minerals,” Persak says.
Two oz of uncooked white penne (about 1 cup cooked) provides 200 calories, 42 g of carbs, and 3 g of fiber. Meanwhile, an equal-sized serving of whole-grain penne contains 180 calories, 39 g of carbs, and 7 g of fiber. So while both types of pasta offer fiber, the whole-grain variety packs more than double the amount you’d find in white pasta.
“The fiber content will prolong feelings of satiety or fullness after eating, which curbs between-meal cravings, stabilizes blood sugar levels, and even promotes regular bowel movements,” Persak says.
Also read: Is Beef Stew Good For You?
If you’re feeling adventurous (or you can’t have gluten), search your grocery store for pasta crafted from pulses or legumes. “Pasta made out of chickpeas, lentils, or peas is higher in fiber and protein than regular pasta,” Doebrich says. One dry 2-oz serving of rotini made from chickpeas, for example, contains 190 calories, 14 g of protein, and nearly 8 g of fiber, according to the USDA. (In comparison, a dry 2-oz serving of white rotini contains 210 calories, 7 g of protein, and only 2 g of fiber, per the USDA.)
RELATED: Comforting Pasta Recipes That Are Actually Good for You
4. Pack Your Bowl With Vegetables
Vegetables are the backbone of any healthy stew. They provide volume and fiber to your meal, Persak says, helping you feel fuller for longer while adding relatively few calories — so they’re ideal for people working to achieve or maintain a healthy weight.
Carrots, onions, and potatoes are classic veggies in stews, but don’t feel limited to them. You can widen your palate by experimenting with seasonal ingredients. “Try adding squash, zucchini, bell peppers, radishes, celery, broccoli, and any other vegetable that’s in season,” Roberts says.
(A budget-friendly bonus: Produce that’s in-season tends to cost less than out-of-season produce, per the USDA’s SNAP-Ed Connection.)
If you’re watching carbs and calories, keep in mind that pumpkin and other winter squashes (like acorn and butternut) can act as lighter stand-ins for sweet potatoes, while cauliflower florets can work similarly in place of white potatoes, Persak says. For example, 1 cup of cubed raw pumpkin provides about 30 calories and under 8 g of carbs, whereas an equal amount of raw sweet potato packs 114 calories and nearly 27 g of carbs, according to the USDA.
5. Experiment With Whole Grains
Stews are often served ladled over a bed of rice, which absorbs the delicious flavor. To up your meal’s fiber content for better blood sugar management and digestion, Persak advises swapping white rice for brown rice or wild rice. While 1 cup of cooked white rice provides 242 calories and 0 g of fiber, an equal serving of cooked brown rice has 218 calories and 3.5 g of fiber.
You can also swap white rice with other whole grains that offer additional fiber — quinoa, barley, or farro are great options, Doebrich says.
RELATED: 8 Whole Grains That Can Help Prevent or Manage Type 2 Diabetes
6. Use Herbs and Spices for Flavor — Not Salt
When preparing a healthy stew, try to keep that salt shaker in your cupboard. “Salt is an effective flavor enhancer, but too much can increase blood pressure and cause uncomfortable fluid retention and swelling,” Persak says.
Instead, turn to herbs and spices to add flavor and warmth to your stew.
Also read: Beef Stew Nutrition Facts
“Herbs and spices are all-around winners when it comes to a warm bowl of food,” Persak says. “They become aromatic with heat and work their magic when given ample time to mingle with other ingredients, which makes them perfectly suited for slow-cooking stews.”
Stock your cupboard with herbs like basil, parsley, and rosemary, or spices like cumin, ginger, and curry powder to ensure you always have them on hand.
The best part: Small amounts are all you need to transform the taste of a stew — no salt required.
7. Choose Nutritious, Flavorful Toppings
Once you’ve cooked up a healthy, nutritious stew, make sure you finish it off with healthy toppings.
If you enjoy sour cream, try garnishing your stew with a dollop of Greek yogurt instead. Per the USDA, a 30 g serving of non-fat Greek yogurt (about 2 tablespoons) offers 3 g of protein and less than 18 calories, while the same amount of sour cream offers 0.7 g of protein and 59 calories — so by making that swap, you’ll score extra protein and a mini-dose of food-based probiotics, Persak says. Probiotics are live microorganisms that include healthy bacteria in your gut, and may provide health benefits, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.
If cheese is your topping of choice, Persak recommends mozzarella. “It’s lower in sodium and calories than most varieties [of cheese] and it’s perfect for recipes when you want that gooey or stringy melted cheese experience,” she explains.
Parmesan is another great choice. “With its bold flavor, a little goes a long way — meaning you can use less, save on calories and fat, and still show your taste buds a good time,” Persak says.
No matter which cheese you settle on, stick to a standard serving size of 1 to 1 and ½ oz. “This is about the size of your thumb, or three to four dice,” Persak says.
For a nondairy alternative, top your stew with half of a sliced avocado, which will add 10 g of healthy monounsaturated fats and 7 g of fiber to your bowl, per the USDA.
RELATED: How Wintertime Affects Our Eating Habits
Additional reporting by Brianna Steinhilber.
For more information, please see more information about Is beef stew good for you