Make the most of your favorite winter stew with these nutrition-packed tips.
By Olivia DeLong
Cold winter months by the fire are even better with a warm bowl of chili, don’t you think? We do. The hearty stew is a favorite among foodies because it’s savory and warm, but chili is good for you, too. The meat and bean combination creates staying power in the stomach, holding you over to the next meal, while certain ingredients, like garlic and onions, offer nutritional benefits. A dish that’s good enough to get its own holiday—the fourth Thursday of February, to be exact—is certainly worth celebrating. We talked with Alyssa Anderson, RD, a dietitian at St. Mark’s Hospital, to learn why chili is good for you, and what you can do to boost the benefits even more.
Meat and beans are what give chili plenty of protein, but choosing fatty meat can quickly turn a bowl of chili into an artery-hardening calorie bomb. The easiest way to ensure your chili remains heart healthy is to select meats with less fat. “Always trim the fat off your meats before you use them,” says Anderson. “I like stew meat or a nice lean beef, turkey or chicken. You can even use a rotisserie chicken,” says Anderson. Remember, vegetarian chili is just as good—it’s got protein-rich beans.
Since cooked tomatoes, a basic ingredient in most chili recipes, are low in calories and high in carotenoids, the bulk of your chili is filled with wrinkle-fighting vitamins. Other vegetables, like chili peppers and onions, have a lot of antioxidants that may help reduce your risk of chronic diseases. Chili’s a great dish for adding vegetables to, and you’ve got a lot of flexibility when it comes to the types of veggies and how much of them you put in. “I try to make sure about half of my chili is vegetables, so canned tomatoes are great, and onions and garlic are, too,” says Anderson. Bell peppers, corn and hominy, especially for white chicken chili, are also good additions.
Whichever bean is your favorite, they’re all rich in fiber, protein, complex carbohydrates and B vitamins. Since you have the ability to add in any type, go for the flavors you like the most. “You may have more carotenoids in dark red kidney beans versus the light red ones, like chili beans, but it’s not a huge difference,” says Anderson. It’s better to remember that the healthiest choice is dried beans that you soak and cook from scratch because it gives you control over the amount of sodium in your meal, she adds. If you’re using canned beans, look for options with little or no salt to keep the sodium in check.
For extra flavor, texture, and nutrients, diced avocadoes and extra veggies (like diced onions, chiles, or tomatoes) make great toppings. You don’t have to steer clear of sour cream and cheese, but be mindful of how much you’re using. Opting for a low-fat sour cream will cut out some of the calories, and choosing a sharper cheddar will ramp up the taste. “You’re not necessarily looking for the cheesiness in your chili, you’re looking for that flavor. A strong flavored cheese will help you use less,” says Anderson. She recommends no more than a dollop of sour cream and two tablespoons of cheese for every one cup of chili.
Spices ramp up the flavor—and also your chili’s health benefits. “For me, a basic chili always needs to have chili powder, cumin and garlic. Those are critical for the flavor profile we are looking for,” says Anderson. Hot peppers are a great source of a flavonoid called flavones, an antioxidant which may help reduce your risk of cancer, she says. Some studies show garlic may help lower your cholesterol and blood pressure. To make the most of those benefits, Anderson recommends chopping it and letting it sit for at least 10 minutes before sautéing to let those healthy compounds release.
Certain chili pairings will pack fiber and complex carbohydrates to your meal, keeping you full longer. Depending on your taste preference, you may choose to spoon your chili over rice (whole grain is even better), quinoa (packed with fiber and protein), cornbread or even potatoes to get those extra health benefits. If you’re using something like rice or quinoa, your portion size should be no more than one cup cooked, says Anderson. “I like cornbread muffins instead of a big pan of cornbread. You get the flavor from the edges, but it’s portion controlled for you,” she adds. Another option? Try russet or Yukon gold potatoes with the skin for more potassium, vitamin C and fiber.
Healthy chili doesn’t have to take all day to prepare. Anderson says a good chili can be ready to serve in 30 minutes, and you can use convenience products to save time. “I usually tell people to buy canned tomatoes that have flavor added to them. You can even use spicy salsas,” says Anderson. Head to the frozen foods aisle and stock up on pre-chopped veggies like onions and bell peppers, and opt for chopped tomatoes, too. If you want to prep fresh ingredients ahead of time, she recommends cutting up veggies and freezing them in a single layer on a cookie sheet to prevent big lumps.
After your insides are warm and your belly is full, it’s important to pack up your chili properly. Anderson suggests storing your chili in multiple containers rather than a big pot. “If you put the whole pot in the refrigerator, it’s going to take several hours to cool down and bacteria can reproduce as it’s cooling down,” she says. To cool it down quickly, put the chili pot in an ice bath, (filling a clean kitchen sink with ice works), and then portion it out into containers.
See more from Alyssa Anderson, RD
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