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Casserole Tips for Healthier Home Cooking

Results in the gym are improved when you eat a healthy diet. Working out gets you part of the way; how you refuel your body can carry you the rest. To help with ideas, I've been taste testing and posting healthier recipes on my website WeCookFit.com for almost 20 years now.

If you're interested in cooking more meals from scratch, I'd like to help. One of the easier options is casseroles. They taste good. You can get a lot of healthy things in a single meal. Plus, you get several servings to package up and freeze for later.

Here are some of the most valuable tips I've learned to help you make a better casserole.

Start with an ovenproof dish. It seems a little obvious, but I got a fancy set of ceramic dishes for my birthday one year. I didn't read the label. They were designed as serving dishes, and they were stamped on the bottom: NOT SAFE FOR USE IN THE OVEN. I put together a casserole and put it in the oven. About 20 minutes later, I smelled smoke. The dish had cracked through the middle, and the contents of that casserole spilled out everywhere.

Make sure your dish is the right size and shape. When you cook a casserole, it expands and bubbles up from the heat. Don't fill the dish more than three-quarters full so it doesn't overflow. You can reduce the splatter in your oven by putting your casserole dishes on a sheet pan.

Also, don't substitute round pans for square. A 10-inch round dish holds less volume than a 10-inch square dish.

You can use small single-serve ceramic dishes or ramekins and divide the casserole mixture between them. Those mini casseroles are great for serving up at parties. Remember, smaller containers will cook more quickly, so adjust the baking time.

Cut the meats and vegetables into uniform-sized pieces. You don't eat a casserole with a knife; you want to make sure every spoonful is bite-sized.

Before adding them to the casserole, saute meats and vegetables in a skillet. The browning adds flavor and removes some of the excess water from vegetables. Too much moisture can ruin a casserole. For that reason, consider fresh vegetables over frozen ones because the fresh ones will have less water in them.

You also want to make sure meat has reached a safe temperature before adding it to the casserole. There are exceptions. If a casserole has a lot of liquid, you might not need to brown the meat first. Pay attention to the recipe.

Be careful with the binders that hold everything together. Many recipes use eggs, pasta sauces or cream of mushroom soup. Look for options that are lower in sodium or sugars. If you're using the recipes on WeEatFit.com, specific brand names are listed for some items. Those tend to be lower in fat, sodium or sugar while still providing flavor.

Use dried herbs instead of fresh ones. The intensity can vary significantly in fresh herbs; you'll get a more consistent flavor with dried because they can withstand the heat. Feel free to sprinkle fresh herbs across the top for a garnish when the cooking is done.

Pay attention to how long a dish should cook covered and uncovered. It's common to cook things covered while it's all getting hot, then remove the cover so the top browns or some moisture evaporates. Consider waiting until the casserole is cooked through for a cheesy or crunchy top. Then remove the cover, add the topping and turn the oven to broil to finish it off for a couple of minutes.

Some casserole recipes allow you to make and store them in the refrigerator before baking. Remember to take them out about 20-30 minutes before putting them in the oven. You might need to add a few minutes to the final baking time.

Allow your casserole to rest after it's cooked. Don't time dinner when you take it out of the oven; add 5 to 20 minutes before cutting and dividing it up, depending on what the recipe says. If there is no recommendation, give it a minimum of 5-10 minutes. Some dishes like lasagna will fall apart if they aren't given a few minutes to cool and settle.

Bonus tip for the holidays. Use a disposable foil pan if you're taking your casserole to a friend's home or a potluck. Then you don't have to wait until it's empty or worry about getting it back.

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5/11/2022