Pasta Cheat Sheet

Nervous of noodles? Scared of sauce? Use our interactive cheat sheet build your perfect plate of pasta.
Cheat Sheets

Restaurant Pasta No-Nos

Fink tells us her top five PointsPlus values pasta pitfalls when at a restaurant.
  • Gorging on garlic bread with your meal
  • Eating the entire portion typically served
  • Ordering a cream sauce
  • Choosing a dish with pasta, meat or sausage and cheese
  • Neglecting to order a side of vegetables or a salad with dressing on the side
When it comes to weight loss, pasta gets a bad rap. Sure, it’s heavy on the carbohydrates and regular varieties don’t pack a huge protein punch, but that’s no reason to remove it entirely from your diet. Like many perceived culinary villains, it’s not usually the pasta itself that poses the greatest danger to your weight loss efforts — it’s the stuff you pile on top. Oily sauces and fatty meats and cheeses can rack up a pile of PointsPlus™ values in a hurry.

As recipes editor and nutritionist Leslie Fink reminds us, “There is no such thing as a bad food, including pasta; just too much of a good thing.”

And that’s why we’ve created the Pasta Cheat Sheet. By playing around with noodles, toppings and sauces, you’ll see that there are many lighter options that will still give you the pasta fix without going overboard. You’ll also see where the biggest pitfalls are. (Sausage, meatballs and vodka sauce anyone?)

Pasta primer
A 1-cup serving of cooked, regular pasta has 5 PointsPlus values, and the same amount of whole wheat pasta comes in at 4 PointsPlus values. That’s not a tremendous difference per cup, but do bear in mind that research has shown that a balanced diet rich in whole grains can help with weight loss and maintaining a healthy body weight. (Check out our Science Center for more information on whole grains.) The difference in PointsPlus values obviously becomes more pronounced if you’re doubling up on portions, which is all too easy to do when it comes to serving pasta. And indeed, many restaurant portions can be three or four cups — even more. Tack on oil (at 1 PointsPlus value per teaspoon) or shredded Parmesan cheese (1 PointsPlus value per tablespoon), not to mention sauces and other toppings, and you could be consuming more PointsPlus values in one meal than you’re allotted in a given day.

Home cooks looking for a serious substitute that will save you between 4 and 5 PointsPlus values per pasta dish, consider giving spaghetti squash a try. You roast the squash and rake out the flesh so it forms spaghetti-like strands. It doesn’t taste like spaghetti but mimics its shape so it makes (depending on whom you ask) a decent, awful or wonderful substitute for pasta. “People either love it or hate it,” says Fink, “but for zero PointsPlus values per cup, if you’re really craving pasta, it might just do the trick topped with some sauce and cheese. I really like it.”

Whether you’re going for good old-fashioned pasta or its veggie substitute, Fink says there’s one thing you should be wary of, no matter how tempting it may be: Garlic bread. Made with refined-flour white bread and lashings of butter, a generic piece of garlic bread comes in at 6 PointsPlus values — more than 1 cup of pasta. And do you really eat just one slice? If you want something from the bread basket, try a small breadstick for a PointsPlus value of 3.

Little changes make a big difference
Try some of these tricks for lightening up your pasta.
  • Switch from regular pasta to whole wheat pasta. The difference in PointsPlus values per cup might not seem like a lot but, for the 1 PointsPlus value you save, you could have 1 1/2 cups of plain air-popped popcorn or a handful of carrots and 1 Tbsp of hummus. Or, considering you’re enjoying a nice bowl of pasta, you could put it toward a small glass of wine, which has 4 PointsPlus values
  • Toss in lots of steamed broccoli or roasted peppers (not the kind marinated in oil, though) and onions so you can cut back on the amount of pasta and still have a nice volume of food
  • Make meatballs with lean ground beef, chicken or turkey instead of regular beef. “Pan-fry” them in a nonstick pan coated with cooking spray — or just a touch of oil — instead of a lot of oil
Also, make sure you carefully choose your sauces. While there are good options out there, some of the most popular sauces pose a major PointsPlus value threat:
  • Alfredo sauce, which uses heavy cream as its base, runs roughly 10 extra PointsPlus values per half cup
  • Bolognese is essentially a meat and red wine combo (which occasionally contains milk or heavy cream) and comes to about 6 PointsPlus values per half cup
  • Pesto, while it does include basil and garlic, is olive oil-based and will cost you 4 PointsPlus values for just an ounce
  • Carbonara sauce is rich with eggs, cheese and Italian bacon (cured, fatty pork) — you can just imagine what a PointsPlus value hog that can be
  • Marinara, vodka sauce, spicy red sauce, red clam sauce or primavera sauce are usually much better options, each one around 3 PointsPlus values per half cup
Bump up the volume
Fink is a big fan of boosting volume with veggies rather than supersize pasta portions. “I love to roast vegetables with cooking spray and Kosher salt and then cut them into bite-size pieces to toss into pasta recipes,” she says. “Peppers and onions are especially wonderful because they feel very rich, and are a fabulous way to increase your portion size for zero PointsPlus values.”

Most seafood, when boiled or steamed, is naturally low in PointsPlus values yet contains protein and healthy vitamins and minerals, making it a great add-on to your dish.

Also consider strongly flavored items that, ounce for ounce, may be quite heavy on PointsPlus values, but their flavors help a little go a long way, such as a teaspoon of good-quality extra virgin olive oil, or fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano. Grating the cheese helps it distribute its flavor farther in a dish, and gives it much more flavor than the grated parm you shake from a jar.

Mix-ins that don’t add any extra PointsPlus values include crushed red pepper flakes, fresh torn basil or roasted whole garlic cloves (roast a whole bulb by slicing off the very top, spraying it with olive oil-flavor cooking spray, wrapping it in foil and putting in a 400-degree oven for about 30 minutes, or until the cloves feel soft).

As for sauces, there are many jarred tomato-based sauces that have few PointsPlus values that you can use. You need to read the labels though — some have lots of cheese and oil added. To be on the safe side, you can make your own sauce by simmering seasoned crushed tomatoes, plain canned tomato sauce, salt, pepper and herbs. Toss that with roasted veggies, some whole wheat spirals (a shape that holds sauce well) and some shrimp, sprinkle with freshly grated parm, and buon appetito!

Free Newsletter Get it now