Pasta is on a lot of plates these days. A survey for the National Pasta Association found that 77 percent of about 1,000 Americans surveyed said they eat pasta at least once a week while one-third of them have it three or more times a week.
Many pasta dishes - especially some restaurant entrees - aren't very diet-friendly. Even if you go out for pasta at lunchtime, when the servings are typically smaller, there's a good chance that you'll be consuming at least 1,000 calories and more than 50 grams of fat. And that doesn't count any salad, bread, drinks or dessert.
Order spaghetti and meatballs with meat sauce for dinner at a restaurant like Romano's Macaroni Grill, and you'll get a plate filled with 2,430 calories and 128 fat grams.
But don't lose your appetite yet.
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Contrary to what some diets say, pasta can be part of a healthy weight loss plan.
One cup of regular pasta has about 200 calories, 7 grams of protein, 1 fat gram and 1 gram of fiber. But if you use a multigrain pasta like Barilla Plus instead, you get 3 extra grams of fiber and 3 more grams of protein.
That's important because higher levels of protein and fiber help you feel full longer.
Today's pasta salad recipe makes one of my favorite brown-bag meals. It not only tastes great, it's quick to make - and it's really satisfying. When I bring this for lunch, I can walk past the vending machines all afternoon without a second glance.
My pasta salad is adapted from a Shape magazine recipe. Shape's version calls for red peppers and sun-dried tomatoes, but I like using cucumber and grape tomatoes instead.
You can add a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar to the salad if you want, but I prefer it with just a little olive oil and no vinegar.
Tossing the pasta with vegetables and feta cheese instead of meat or cheese sauce saves plenty of calories and fat grams. Feta has a stronger flavor than many other cheeses, so you don't need much. And the cucumber and tomatoes are a tasty way to sneak more vegetables into your day. A serving of this pasta salad contains 430 calories and 11.2 fat grams.
There are also ways to get your pasta fix at a restaurant without going completely overboard on fat and calories. Some good strategies include opting for a tomato-based sauce instead of meat or cheese sauce, choosing whole-wheat or multigrain pasta and eating half of the portion that you're served.
Or you can copy what I sometimes do at restaurants and order off the kids' menu. In many cases, that's a good portion-control trick. Plus, you might save some money, which makes for a happy meal.
KATHY'S PASTA SALAD
12 ounces uncooked Barilla Plus penne
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar (optional)
4 ounces feta cheese
1½ cups grape tomatoes
1 large cucumber, peeled, seeded and diced
Coarsely ground black pepper, to taste
Cook penne according to package directions. Drain and rinse it with cold water. Put the penne in a large bowl and toss it with the olive oil, balsamic vinegar (if desired) and feta cheese.
Gently fold in the tomatoes and diced cucumber. Season to taste with coarsely ground black pepper.
Per serving: 430 calories, 11.2 fat grams, 20 protein grams, 43 carb grams, 364 mg sodium, 7.25 grams of fiber.
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