Guest Post: Healthiest Spaghetti and Meatball Dinner Ever

I've had the opportunity to meet some amazing bloggers through Taste As You Go. In an attempt to introduce you to some bloggers you may not know about, I'll be featuring Guest Posts on my blog from time to time.

Today's Guest Post comes to you from Melissa Schenker. Melissa knows how important nutrition is to me lately, especially since I've been training for the Philadelphia Half Marathon in November. She's been giving me advice and support in response to my tweets about my running. 

When you're finished reading Melissa's Guest Post, you should check out her blog, Nutrition By The Numbers.

Thanks for writing, Melissa!

I'm so honored to be guest-blogging on Taste As You Go. Michelle's blog is one of those feel-good warm and fuzzy coffee breaks for me. I love to read about her adventures in NYC. It takes me back to 1996, a year I spent living and working in the Big Apple. Fast forward to 2009 and you now find me married, living in a great suburb south of Boston, being a mom to two funny and smart kids, and working for NuVal, the nutritional scoring system that rates foods from 1-100 (100 is best). I have several roles with NuVal (mostly I work with grocery stores that are putting our fabulous system on their shelves), including playing the part of the Mommy Blogger. That's right - I get to blog at Nutrition By The Numbers about food, recipes, parenting, and grocery shopping, all with cool NuVal scores mixed in. I am so lucky.

Photo Courtesy of Melissa Schenker

Michelle and I became Twitter friends when she commented on my "Mama Melissa's Meatballs -- and Spaghetti" post. I guess I made her hungry! So, for my guest post, I decided to continue in that direction. I grew up in Rhode Island (where 'most everyone is at least part Italian), so I love, love, love Italian food. When my husband and I get a sitter, we often head to Federal Hill, which is in Providence, RI, and, fortunately, only 30 minutes away from our Massachusetts home.

Federal Hill in Providence, RI - Photo Courtesy of Melissa Schenker

In the nice weather, we head to DePasquale Square and eat at Salvatore's Cafe at Venda Ravioli. Venda is a Rhode Island Institution, known for their retail store offering their fresh pasta, homemade ravioli, olive oil, and other Italian specialties. A few years back, we were excited to discover that Venda had opened Salvatore's as a way of sharing their incredible food. We find we can always get a seat at the cafe, they usually have live music, and the people-watching is great.

DePasquale Square - Photo Courtesy of Melissa Schenker

Now that the weather has gotten cooler, I'm more apt to make a big pot of sauce and meatballs. As a busy, working mom, it is time in the kitchen well spent. The meatballs can simmer all day in the slow cooker, I can always get more than one dinner out of it, and my four-year-old daughter would eat this meal three times a day if I would let her. However, now that I work for NuVal and have begun to approach my family's diet with much more scrutiny, I found that I really wasn't making this favorite dish as often. It just didn't seem "healthy" to me. So, on a weekend when the weather was cold and rainy, I began my quest to make the Healthiest Spaghetti and Meatball Dinner Ever!

First, I picked up this TuttoRosso Tomato Puree from Price Chopper. You can see the great NuVal score of 81 right there on the shelf tag - it's in the blue hexagon. That's a very high score for canned tomatoes. It's a good thing I did not buy Red Pack Tomato Puree... it gets a score of 21.

Tuttorosso Canned Tomatoes - Photo Courtesy of Melissa Schenker

Using those super high-scoring tomatoes (you can thank the lycopene for that), I made my sauce. I keep it simple:

  • Two turns of extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3 cloves crushed garlic (I love my Pampered Chef garlic press and it would be one of my three items to bring if I were left on a desert island)
  • 4 cans tomato puree
  • 2 cans tomato paste
  • Basil (lots of it)
  • Parmesan cheese (about 1/2 cup)
  • 1 or 2 tablespoons sugar

Tomato Sauce - Photo Courtesy of Melissa Schenker

Okay, if I had left out the olive oil, cheese, and sugar, it would have been healthier. But I have my limits. Next, I decided to try replacing the ground beef in my time-honored meatball recipe, handed down from my mother, with ground turkey. In fact, I decided that we would have a taste test. So I made two batches of Mama Melissa's meatballs: one with 80% lean ground beef (NuVal score of 26) and the other with 93% lean ground turkey (NuVal score of 33).

To two pounds of the meat/poultry, I added:
  • Italian-style bread crumbs (about 1 1/2 cups)
  • 2 eggs
  • Parsley (really shake it in there)
  • Oregano (really shake that in there, too)
  • Parmesan cheese
  • Garlic powder (the more garlicky, the better)

Sorry... no exact measurement. That's the recipe I have in my recipe box from my mom. You just have to play around with it until you get the consistency and aroma that you like. The key to good meatballs is to mix them really, really well. 

 So, you have to take off your rings and get your hands dirty. When you roll the balls, take time to make them smooth, so as to blend the ingredients. So, for The Great Meatball Experiment, my husband and I mixed and rolled together (there were a LOT of meatballs). Here's what the Beef Meatball Mix looked like:

Beef Meatball Mixture - Photo Courtesy of Melissa Schenker

And, here is the Turkey Meatball Mix:

Turkey Meatball Mixture - Photo Courtesy of Melissa Schenker

They look similar, don't they. The consistency was very different, though. The real difference came out after baking them in the oven at 350°F until they turned light brown.

Turkey Meatballs Versus Beef Meatballs - Photo Courtesy of Melissa Schenker

If you guessed that the meatballs sitting in a layer of grease on the right were the ones made with the 80% ground beef, then you guessed correctly! The other key to great meatballs is to cook them in the pot of sauce for a long, long time. At least 5 hours. That's why I mentioned the slow cooker (the working mom's - or really any cook's - best friend).

And, finally, there was the pasta to cook. Since coming to work for NuVal, I've switched to Barilla Plus Spaghetti. It gets a 91 on the NuVal scale. I had tried whole wheat pastas in the past and they just didn't do it for me. But Barilla Plus tastes just like the traditional spaghetti I grew up with and it sure is better than Prince Spaghetti, which scores a 49. See - it looks just like regular pasta!

Barilla Plus Spaghetti - Photo Courtesy of Melissa Schenker

And here is the lovely finished dinner on my daughter's wipe-clean "Map of the World" placemat. (Oh, how my decorative tastes have changed since my NYC days!)

Spaghetti and Meatballs - Photo Courtesy of Melissa Schenker

So, how did our taste test go? Here's what my Taste Test Crew had to say:

Dear Husband: The Turkey is lighter. I like it.

Six-Year-Old Son: Moooooommmmmm! I don't like meatballs! Can I have a hot dog? (Really, I don't know how we can be related.)

Four-Year-Old Daughter (with a very full mouth): I like 'em bof! Can I have more? Can I have these for lunch tomorrow? And the next day? No, Mom, I don't need a bib. I'm not getting sauce on my clothes. I'm not!

Photo Courtesy of Melissa Schenker

So, will I switch my recipe for good and use ground turkey from now on? When I saw that there was only a 7-point difference between the Ground Beef and Ground Turkey, I thought, "What's the point? I'll just make my meatballs the way I've always made them." But when I saw all that grease in the pan compared with the much less messy Ground Turkey Meatballs, I did change my mind. The Ground Turkey Meatballs were light, moist, and flavorful. What not trade up for better nutrition?

In the meantime, it's time to get Grandma and Papa to take the kids to see a movie so my husband and I can head to Federal Hill. I have just the movie in mind: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs!


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