This guest post was written by Carolyn Williams, PhD, RD. She is an award-winning health and nutrition expert with over 15 years of experience in food and nutrition media.
One perk of my job as a dietitian and food writer is getting asked to preview early copies of new cookbooks and try recipes in them. So, when the American Heart Association asked if I’d try some recipes in their new cookbook, I jumped on the opportunity. I’m game for cooking most anything, particularly if it’s got an emphasis on flavor and health. And while I can’t say my kids are always as eager as me, they’re pretty good sports and are slowly turning into expert taste-testers.
Most Sunday afternoons you’ll find a pot of soup cooking in my kitchen in the winter, so this made Mexican Chicken Soup an easy recipe choice, since I’m always looking for new soups to keep on hand. Aside from being comforting and an easy-to-pack lunch for the office, soups are a great way to sneak several foods (like beans and extra veggies) into my kids’ meals without them really noticing.
The challenge that I run into though with soup and stew recipes is that they often call for lots of regular canned ingredients and packets of seasoning mixes - two things that are great for convenience and flavor but not so much for keeping sodium in check. If you combine regular canned broth, canned beans, canned veggies and seasoning packets, and it’s easy for sodium levels to shoot way up to 1500 mg or more per serving, an amount that’s more than we need in a day for ideal heart health.
To stay heart-healthy, this recipe called for low-sodium broth and no-salt-added canned products and no seasoning packets. And while I love trying new recipes with a healthy spin, I have to admit that I was a little worried that the finished product might not have the bold Mexican-inspired flavors that I wanted. The verdict at the dinner table? I’m excited to report my taste-tasting panel gave Mexican Chicken Soup a definite thumbs up, and I agreed with them. In fact, my daughter even asked if we could have leftovers again the next night.
So how does Mexican Chicken Soup manage to keep sodium in check while still being full of flavor? I think that there are two key things responsible. First, choosing low-sodium broth and no-salt-added canned vegetables is always a smart move. If a bit of additional salt is needed for flavor, it can always be added later, but the sodium in regular canned goods can’t be taken away once it’s put in there. The other key is amping up flavor with ripe tomatoes, minced garlic, and a spice-herb combo of cumin and cilantro.
There are lots of ways to add flavor to soups without salt as well as in other dishes. Using fresh herbs, fragrant spices and dashes of something acidic like vinegar or lime juice are some of my favorite ways. Bottom-line though is that Mexican Chicken Soup is a great example for how low-sodium doesn’t have to mean bland, low-flavor food.
Want a few other ways to not only boost flavor but also make sure there’s a healthy meal on hand? Try some of these tricks too:
- Simmer and Chill - The flavors in most soups get better after they sit a day or two, so make a pot and then refrigerate. Reheat and serve within the next few days.
- Portion Lunch - I love taking a warm bowl of soup to the office for lunch, but don’t wait until the morning of to pack it. Pre-portion servings in individual containers so you can grab, go and reheat later at office or school.
- Freeze Extra - Sometimes soups make a lot more than you’re expecting, so I often freeze half of a batch. Two weeks later, a quick defrost and you’ve got homemade soup again.
- Add Variety - Don’t be afraid to change things up by substituting no-salt-added black beans for the kidney beans and substituting or adding vegetables like zucchini, carrot, or extra peppers.
- Customize - Since not everyone is a cilantro fan, offer other toppings (without extra salt) like low-fat sour cream or plain low-fat Greek yogurt, lime wedges, diced avocado, or unsalted corn tortilla strips.
Check Carolyn out on her Facebook page Real Food. Real Life. - Carolyn Williams, PhD, RD and on Instagram @RealFoodRealLife_RD for recipes, nutrition tips, and science based health info. Read her full bio.
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