Recipe Makeovers for All-American Food

Cook up lighter versions of American cuisine classics.

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

Reviewed by Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD

I love all the cuisines that make up our American food culture. Where else can you find almost every type of food under the sun, from Indian to Thai, Chinese and Japanese; Italian, Greek, French, Mexican, Cuban, Vietnamese, Indonesian, and more? Yet there are still foods that seem unmistakably American.

There are foods that may have been invented elsewhere, but have morphed into American phenomena, like French fries, fruit pies, cupcakes, popcorn, bagels, pizza, and the entire category of "salads." There are foods we've put our own spin on, like pancakes and waffles, grilled cheese sandwiches, and muffins. And then there is truly American food, invented on U.S. ground by Americans, like Toll House cookies, corn dogs, cornbread, doughnuts, potato chips, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Another great American food contribution: almost all things ice cream, like ice cream sandwiches, hot fudge sundaes, and root beer floats.

All these all-American foods are fantastic and part of our culinary heritage. The problem is that most of them provide few nutrients and little fiber -- but a load of calories. Some classic American foods are admittedly impossible to make over while retaining their desirable characteristics - doughnuts, for example. But many others can be "doctored" to be lower in calories and fat and still stay true to the yummy food Americans have come to know and love.

Here are 12 all-American foods that lend themselves to taking the calories down a notch, followed by some lightened-up American recipes.

American Food Makeover No. 1: Apple Pie

According to The Food Encyclopedia, apples were introduced to North America in the 17th century from Europe and West Asia. Apple dishes have been woven into American cuisine ever since, from apple crisp and caramel apples to apple pie.

Makeover Tips: Make a lighter apple pie by using a lower-fat, part whole-wheat piecrust, and by using less sugar in the filling. No butter needs to "dot" the filling or the top crust, either.

American Food Makeover No. 2: Chocolate Chip Cookies

By most standards, the chocolate chip cookie is the quintessential American cookie. And one of the most recognized chocolate chip cookies is the Toll House Cookie. Using small pieces of semisweet chocolate, Ruth Graves Wakefield created America's original chocolate chip cookie in 1939 at her Toll House Inn near Whitman, Mass., according to The New Food Lover's Companion.

Makeover Tips: Use a lower-fat margarine with plant sterols in place of stick butter or margarine in your chocolate chip cookie recipe. You can decrease the sugar by a fourth, and replace half the white flour with whole-wheat flour. Using a bit fewer chocolate chips will also shave some calories and fat grams.

American Food Makeover No. 3: Cornbread

This is an All-American quick bread that's made in all different styles (Southern, skillet, sweet) with all sorts of possible accoutrements (green pepper, cheese, bacon, onion, etc.). There have been all sorts of names for cornbread, and it has many variations that are part of American culinary history, such as johnnycakes, hushpuppies, and spoon bread.

Makeover Tips: Lighten cornbread recipes by using less fat in the batter (substitute a less-fat margarine with plant sterols for bacon grease, lard, or shortening) and replacing that fat with low-fat buttermilk or fat-free sour cream. For some recipes, you can make a fat substitute blend using canola oil and fat-free sour cream. Use fewer eggs (substitute two egg whites or 1/4 cup egg substitute). If your recipe calls for "stir-in" ingredients like bacon or cheese, you can use a reduced-fat option and add less of it. Up the fiber in your cornbread by substituting whole-wheat flour for half of the white flour called for.

American Food Makeover No. 4: Corn Dogs

This favorite carnival and state fair treat, in which a hot dog on a stick is dunked into thick cornbread batter and deep-fried, was created in 1942 by Texan Neil Fletcher for the State Fair, according to The New Food Lover's Companion.

Makeover Tips: Use leaner dogs (there are several "light" brands available), and bake your corn dog until the cornbread batter is firm instead of deep-frying it. If deep-frying is a must, at least use a cooking fat that's higher in monounsaturated fat, preferably one that also contributes plant omega-3s too (like canola oil).

American Food Makeover No. 5: Grilled Cheese Sandwiches

Most of us grew up on Mom's grilled cheese sandwiches. They're also standard fare at diners across the country.

Makeover Tips: Make a healthier grilled cheese sandwich by using whole-wheat or multigrain bread (multigrain sourdough is yummy), reduced-fat cheese or a little less of the regular cheese. Instead of spreading them with butter, spray the outer sides of the bread quickly with canola oil before placing on your nonstick griddle or skillet.

American Food Makeover No. 6: Muffins

Muffins are very popular at the American breakfast and dinner bread table. American muffins are usually leavened with baking powder or baking soda instead of yeast. They feature a variety of ingredients and flavors, from savory to sweet.

Makeover Tips: You can reduce the fat in your muffin batter - you really only need about 2 tablespoons of oil per 12 small muffins. You can also replace half the white flour with whole-wheat. And you can reduce the sugar and add ingredients like fresh or dried fruits, ground cinnamon, and toasted nuts to give the flavor a boost.

American Food Makeover No. 7: Pancakes

Many countries have their own version of pancakes: thin or thick; small or large; filled or topped with tasty ingredients. American pancakes are often made with buttermilk, tend to be thicker than other pancakes around the world, and are generally about 4 inches wide.

Makeover Tips: Make lighter pancakes by adding less fat to the batter, using low-fat milk or buttermilk, and adding very little fat (if any) to the skillet. But that's just half the health battle with pancakes -- it's what people do to the pancakes after they're cooked that can really pile on the calories. Keep added butter, whipped cream, and syrup to a minimum, and switch to reduced-calorie pancake syrup if you can. If you really need to add butter, use the whipped variety.

American Food Makeover No. 8: Pizza

Pizza may have had its start in Italy, but America made it the popular food it is today. American pizza chains try to come up with new and exciting toppings all the time, along with crust variations like stuffed, deep dish, or crispy.

Makeover Tips: Avoid greasy pizza restaurants and look for the more authentic pizza parlors with bread-like crust, lots of nutrient-rich pizza sauce, and a moderate amount of cheese. Choose vegetables as toppings instead of high-fat meat. If you're making pizza at home, substitute whole-wheat flour for half the white flour. You can choose a part-skim or reduced-fat cheese as well.

American Food Makeover No. 9: Popcorn

Most people can't go to the movies without buying popcorn. For many, it's the standard snack at the end of a long day at work or school. One common equation for popcorn is that a tablespoon of oil plus 1/2 cup corn kernels pops up to about 4 cups. And that doesn't even include the butter that is usually drizzled on top.

Makeover Tips: Use less oil when popping the corn, and add less butter after it's popped. Basically, this is what popcorn manufacturers are doing with their light microwave popcorn options.

American Food Makeover No. 10: Potato Chips

These crunchy snack time favorites were reportedly invented in 1853 by a chef at the Moon's Lake Lodge in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. A guest insisted on extra-thin French fries, so Chef George Crumb sliced the potatoes paper-thin, and they crisped up quite nicely when fried.

Makeover Tips: You need some oil when making potato chips (without it they would simply taste like plain dried potatoes), but the trick is using less of it. Accomplish this by baking thinly sliced potatoes with a light coat of canola cooking spray or a light brush of canola oil instead of deep-frying them.

American Food Makeover No. 11: Potato Salad

The American rendition of creamy potato salad -- a standard at delis, picnics, and barbeques -- is dressed in mayonnaise. The German style potato salad uses a warm vinaigrette traditionally made with bacon fat.

Makeover Tips: Instead of using regular mayonnaise, make a light mayo dressing by using half light mayonnaise and half fat-free sour cream. Punch up the flavor in the dressing with honey mustard or relish, freshly ground black pepper, or herbs and spices.

American Food Makeover No. 12: Root Beer Float

These are on the menu at ice cream shops and old-fashioned soda fountains in many American towns. The original root beer was a low-alcohol fizzy drink created by a druggist in Philadelphia, according to The Food Encyclopedia. Modern-day root beer, of course is a soda pop with flavors reminiscent of this earlier beverage.

Makeover Tips: Make a low-calorie root beer float by using diet root beer and by lightening the "float." There are some great-tasting light vanilla ice cream and frozen yogurt options at most supermarkets.

All-American Recipe Makeovers

Here are my lightened-up versions of potato salad, potato chips, cornbread, and an apple dish (Waldorf salad).

All-American Light Potato Salad

The great thing about this recipe is you don't have to boil the potatoes!

4 russet potatoes with skin (large pink or white potatoes can be substituted)
1/4 cup light mayonnaise
1/4 cup fat-free sour cream
1 tablespoon honey mustard (add 1 more tablespoon, if desired)
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt (optional)
1/2 cup diced or chopped celery
1/3 cup diced or chopped red bell pepper
1/3 cup chopped green onions
1 tablespoon fresh chopped parsley (regular or Italian)
1/2 teaspoon paprika (optional)

  • Wash the outside of potatoes well, then cut into 1-inch cubes. Add potato pieces to a large, microwave-safe vegetable-cooker container. Cover and cook on HIGH for about 6 minutes. Stir potatoes, cover cooker, and cook on HIGH until potatoes are just tender (about 4-6 minutes more).
  • While potatoes are cooling, add mayonnaise, sour cream, honey mustard, pepper and salt (if desired) to large bowl. Whisk to combine.
  • Stir in cooled potatoes, celery, bell pepper, green onions, and parsley. Cover and chill until ready to serve (at least an hour). Sprinkle a dash or two of paprika over the top before serving, if desired.

Yield: About 6 cups of salad (eight 3/4-cup servings)

Per serving: 148 calories, 3 g protein, 29 g carbohydrate, 2.3 g fat, 0.3 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 3 g fiber, 89 mg sodium (216 mg if the salt is added). Calories from fat: 14%.

Baked Seasoned Potato Chips

2 teaspoons canola oil
1 large russet potato (or 2 medium size), about 10 ounces
Canola cooking spray
1/2 teaspoon seasoned salt

  • Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Brush canola oil over the bottom of a nonstick jellyroll pan.
  • Using a large, sharp, non-serrated knife, cut the potato into very thin slices (about 1/16 inch thick).
  • Immediately lay the potato slices flat onto the prepared pan (they should completely cover the bottom of the pan). Spray the tops with canola cooking spray and sprinkle with the seasoned salt.
  • Bake for about 22-25 minutes, watching carefully. Remove the chips that have browned and crisped and continue to cook the remaining chips until they become nice and crisp, too -- about 5 minutes more.


Which is one of the few drinks to be considered a superfood? See Answer

Yield: 3 servings

Per serving: 137 calories, 3 g protein, 25 g carbohydrate, 3 g fat, 0.2 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 2.5 g fiber, 239 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 20%.

Mexican Cornbread

This is one variation of cornbread -- a savory, rather than sweet, cornbread.

1 cup yellow corn meal
1 cup unbleached white flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 large egg
1 cup low-fat milk
1/4 cup fat-free sour cream
1 cup corn, fresh or frozen, thawed
1 tablespoon canola oil
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 or 2 jalapeno chilies, seeded then finely chopped
2 Roma tomatoes, chopped
1/2 cup shredded reduced-fat cheddar cheese

  • Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Combine corn meal, flour, baking powder and salt together in a medium bowl.
  • Add egg, milk, and sour cream to large mixing bowl and beat on medium speed until blended. Stir in corn.
  • In nonstick skillet over medium-high heat, add canola oil. When oil is hot, saute onions, chilies, and tomato until onion is tender. Let cool a few minutes.
  • Add onion mixture and dry ingredients to mixing bowl with egg mixture and beat on low speed just until blended, scraping sides of bowl halfway. Stir in cheese, then pour mixture in an 8- or 9-inch square baking pan coated with canola cooking spray.
  • Bake 30 to 35 minutes or until cornbread is cooked throughout and lightly golden on top.

Yield: 9 servings

Per serving: 189 calories, 7.5 g protein, 31 g carbohydrate, 4 g fat, 1.2 g saturated fat, 28 mg cholesterol, 3 g fiber, 500 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 20%.

Waldorf Salad

1/4 cup light mayonnaise
1/4 cup light or regular plain yogurt or fat-free sour cream
2 teaspoons sugar
3/4 teaspoon lemon juice
3 apples, peeled, cored, and chopped (about 3 cups)
1 cup thinly sliced celery
1/3 cup walnut pieces (or coarsely chopped walnuts)
1/3 cup dried fruit like raisins, cherries, or cranberries (optional)

  • Add mayonnaise, yogurt or sour cream, sugar and lemon juice to serving bowl and whisk well to blend.
  • Add apple pieces, celery, walnuts and dried fruit if desired and toss everything together. Cover and chill in refrigerator until ready to serve.

Yield: About 4 1/2 cups (9, 1/2-cup servings)

Per serving: 90 calories, 2 g protein, 11 g carbohydrate, 4.5 g fat, .6 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 1.3 g fiber, 66 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 45%.

Published June 29, 2007

SOURCES: Rolland, J. and Sherman, C. The Food Encyclopedia, 2004, Robert Rose Publishing. Herbst, S.T. The New Food Lover's Companion, 2001, Barron's Publishing.

©2007 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.

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