Warm chili and cold days go hand in hand, but this comfort food favorite isn’t always the healthiest choice, especially the store-bought canned variety, which is often loaded with excessive salt, sugar, and preservatives. Even your homemade version might be high in fat and missing some key nutrients. But there are easy ways to crank up the healthy meter on your next batch while improving on taste. Try one or all of these easy suggestions:
- Chose a lean meat. Try turkey or chicken, or if you want to stick to beef, make sure it is as lean as possible and use a little less. If you want to omit the meat all together, you can add Portobello mushrooms, zucchini, or squash to get a nice texture and flavor.
- Up the beans. Instead of adding the standard 1 can of beans, increase the number and types of beans you use per pot, including white and red kidney, pinto, chickpeas (garbanzo beans), black beans, navy beans, and/or lentils. Beans and other legumes are one of the best sources of protein and fiber around. They’re inexpensive (they can really stretch a batch of chili into many meals) and contain antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals such as copper, folate, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorous, potassium, and zinc.
- Add veggies. The more variety, the better. Add bell peppers in all colors, onions, mushrooms, carrots, squash, corn, sweet potatoes, eggplant — any of your favorites. Think bright colors like orange, red, or yellow when choosing veggies as they are full of powerful antioxidants that protect and regenerate your cells from disease. They’re also high in vitamins like vitamins A, C, and E and other nutrients such as lutein (for eye health), lycopene (for heart health and anti-cancer), and beta-carotene (for eye and immune health), just to name a few.
- Spice it up. Add health-promoting spices such as chili powder, cumin, turmeric, fenugreek, or even sumac. Be sure your spices are fresh (the ones that came with the spice rack don’t count) for the best flavor and health benefits. And don’t forget the fresh garlic! Garlic has long been used to not only add zest to food, but for its remarkable preventive and healing properties.
- Turn up the heat. Make your chili as hot as you can stand. According to a study done by the University of Vermont’s Larner College of Medicine, hot red chili peppers are linked to a 13 percent decrease in overall mortality typically caused by heart disease or stroke. Use fresh jalepeños, habaneros, or other hot peppers such as ancho chilis or chipotles — the possibilities are endless. Read here how the heat in hot peppers is good for your health.
- Add whole grains. While this may not seem like the obvious choice for chili, by simply adding a few whole grains like wheat berries or brown rice, you can significantly increase the heart-healthy power of this favorite comfort food. Cook the grains ahead of time, then add to the batch or serve the chili on top.
- Add apple cider vinegar. Apple cider vinegar is known for its unbeatable health properties, from improving your digestion and regulating blood sugar levels, to boosting your immune system and overall energy. By adding a few tablespoons of cider vinegar to your chili, you can not only ramp up the flavor, but also its health-promoting benefits.
- Cut back on the salt. This is a good tip for any dish, but chili can have a lot of extra salt, especially if you use packaged spice mixes and canned beans. While canned beans may be more convenient, they actually have 758 mg of sodium, or 32 percent of the RDI compared to dried red kidney beans that have only 20 mg, or 1 percent of the RDI of salt.
- Top with fresh herbs. Adding fresh herbs like parsley or cilantro to your bowl of chili brings a punch of flavor and a burst of health benefits, including valuable antioxidants, vitamins and important dietary fiber, all of which studies show can improve health.
- Try Some Cocoa. Cocoa … in chili!? Yes! Unsweetened cocoa is often used in Mexican cooking (think mole sauces), and is an easy way to add antioxidants and robust flavor without the calories. All you’ll need is 1-2 ounces of unsweetened chocolate per pot.
Some other notes: Go easy on the toppings. Your healthy chili can be undone quickly when it’s loaded with cheese, full-fat sour cream, and unlimited tortilla chips. Try topping each bowl with any of these healthier options: heart-healthy avocado cubes, fresh chopped cilantro, a tablespoon of low-fat cheese, a dollop of fat free Greek yogurt, chopped fresh scallions, lime wedges. Limit yourself to 1 ounce of chips.