Ever wonder what really happens nutritionally when you make a traditional recipe healthier? We know—and it’s all good! To “healthy up” a truly classic favorite dish, spaghetti and meatballs, we enlisted food writer Debby Maugans to work with nutritionist Sharon Palmer, RD. They came up with a healthier recipe for this irresistible comfort food—and the result is delicious and amazingly nutritious. See for yourself!


We started with a standard, familiar recipe. For the meatballs—8 ounces of ground beef, 6 ounces of ground pork, ½ onion, two tablespoons of oil, ⅓ cup ricotta cheese, one large egg, ½ cup Parmesan cheese, ⅓ cup dry bread crumbs. For the sauce—2 ½ cups of store-bought marinara plus two teaspoons of sugar. Plus the pasta—a half pound of dry spaghetti.

Then we set about adding healthfulness.

  • Instead of pasta, we used spiralized sweet potatoes. Spiralizing vegetables to substitute for pasta is a big new food trend—and a good one. It’s a great way to eat more veggies and rely less on processed grains. You can buy a spiralizing machine for about $30 or do what we did—buy bags of refrigerated veggie “noodles” at a store such as Whole Foods.
  • For the meatballs, we started with a smaller amount of leaner beef and enhanced it with oats, which help bind the ingredients together and adds body, plus fresh mushrooms, which add their own “umami” flavor. It’s a slightly different meatball taste but delicious in its own right.
  • For the sauce, we selected a lower-calorie marinara sauce—and then added beets and red peppers for more flavor and nutrition. We skipped the added sugar, as the natural sweetness of the tomato sauce and the beets is plenty.

Tasty result: Sweet Potato Spaghetti and Modern Mini Meatballs (you can find Debby’s recipe at the end of this article). It’s got less meat, leaner meat, less oil, extra veggies—it sure sounds healthier. But is it?

Oh yes.


First—a word about serving sizes and portion sizes. Each of these recipes provides four servings, providing about one cup of “pasta” and one-quarter pound of meatballs per person. Your regular portion may be bigger, in which case the recipes will serve two or three people, not four. If you regularly eat bigger portions, choosing this healthier version would give you even more nutrients and save you more calories!

Here’s how to read these simple charts: Traditional Spaghetti and Meatballs is blue. The new improved Sweet Potato Spaghetti and Modern Meatballs is green. Sharon’s comments are included under each chart.calories_rev2Sharon’s comments: “Calories per serving dropped from 730 to 434! That’s a dramatic shift, mostly due to cutting fat. To be able to enjoy a meal like this for under 500 calories per serving is pretty impressive. You could add a green salad with a drizzle of healthy fat and still be in a healthy per-meal calorie range—even if you’re trying to lose weight.”macro_rev2Sharon’s comments: “Swapping sweet potato “pasta” for refined pasta helped bring down the total carbohydrates a little, and reducing the quantity of meat and improving the quality of the meat had a big impact on fat, saturated fat—and calories. While the protein is a little lower in the new recipe, it’s still a protein-rich dish, providing one-third or more of an adult’s daily protein needs. Adding so many wonderful vegetables—mushrooms, herbs, onions, beets, sweet potatoes, bell peppers—plus the addition of oats helped bring the fiber up dramatically. Fiber is important for satiety and healthy weight, heart health and good digestion.”sodium_rev2Sharon’s comments: “Sodium is reduced from 723 mg to 402 mg, mostly from less salt added to the recipe and low-salt marinara sauce. That’s dramatic and is good for cardiovascular protection.”


Sharon’s comments: “Those extra vegetables increased the level of many essential nutrients, as this chart shows, but also brought a higher level of many phytochemicals—plant compounds with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory action.”


Sweet Potato Spaghetti and Modern Mini Meatballs

For meatballs…

  • ¼ cup rolled oats, uncooked
  • 2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
  • 8 ounces cremini mushrooms, cleaned and stems trimmed
  • ½ medium yellow onion, finely chopped
  • 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • ⅛ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • ½ pound lean ground beef (10% fat)
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten

For sauce:

  • 1 ⅔ cups low-sodium, low-fat, low-sugar marinara sauce
  • 1 medium beet, peeled and grated
  • 1 red bell pepper, very finely chopped
  • 2 Tablespoons fresh thyme leaves, minced
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper

For sweet potato spaghetti…

  • 4 cups spiral-cut sweet potato
  • Additional thyme leaves and freshly ground pepper for garnish

Prepare meatballs: Process oats and thyme leaves in a food processor until finely ground, about 30 to 40 seconds. Transfer to a large bowl.

Place mushrooms in food processor, and pulse until very finely minced, 12 to 15 pulses. Scrape mushrooms onto a plate. Place onion pieces in food processor, and pulse until very finely chopped, about 10 pulses. Add to mushrooms.

Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add olive oil, then onion, and cook, stirring frequently, until evenly browned, about 6 minutes. Add mushrooms, and sprinkle with a pinch of salt. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook, stirring frequently, until mushrooms and onions are dry, about 7 minutes. Scrape into the oat mixture, and let cool completely.

When the oat/mushroom mixture is cool, add the salt and pepper and toss to mix. Add ground beef and egg, and mix well. Roll slightly rounded tablespoons of the meatball mixture into 20 mini meatballs, placing them on a plate. Cover and refrigerate 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare sauce: Combine the marinara sauce, beet, bell pepper and thyme in the skillet, and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer 15 minutes, stirring frequently, until vegetables are tender. Cool and process until smooth in food processor. (If you prefer a chunkier sauce, skip the processor.) Wipe the skillet clean.

Prepare the noodles: You can cook the noodles by placing them in a baking dish and roasting for 10 minutes at 400°F…or place them in a pan of boiling water and blanch for 30 seconds…or combine the noodles with two tablespoons of water in a large glass bowl and microwave at high power for 1 minute or until softened. Drain and arrange sweet potato noodles on platter.

Place the skillet over medium heat, and coat with cooking spray. Add one-third (or one-half, if your skillet is at least 8 inches in diameter) of the meatballs and cook, carefully turning the meatballs frequently with 2 soup spoons to keep their shape, until well browned all over and cooked through, 8 to 9 minutes. Reduce heat as necessary to keep from overbrowning. Transfer to a plate. Cook the remaining meatballs, adding them to the plate. Pour the marinara sauce into the skillet—if the sauce is too thick, add up to 3 to 4 tablespoons of water. Cook, stirring, just until hot, about 1 minute. Add the meatballs to the sauce, turning to coat. Serve over sweet potato noodles.

Makes 4 servings.

Nutrients per serving:

  • Calories: 434
  • Total Fat: 13 g
  • Saturated Fat: 4 g
  • Trans Fat: 0 g
  • Cholesterol: 91 mg
  • Sodium: 402 mg
  • Carbohydrate: 59 g
  • Fiber: 12 g
  • Sugar: 20 g
  • Protein: 21 g
  • Vitamin A: 417%
  • Vitamin C: 79%
  • Calcium: 18%
  • Iron: 53%