9 Easy Ways to Lighten Up Your Favorite Italian Recipes

She's traveled, she's taught—and now cookbook author Elana Horwich is showing us how to make healthy Italian recipes (without giving up the good stuff).

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Chicken Sorrento
Courtesy of Elana Horwich, Meal and a Spiel

We sat down with Elana Horwich, a self-described “adventurous Jewish girl who lived in Italy and returned to California,” to learn about her approach to healthy Italian cooking.

Her cookbook, Meal and a Spiel: How to Be a Badass in the Kitchen, features not only her recipes, but life lessons she’s learned through food and “classroom corners” to help you learn to trust your instincts in the kitchen.

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Caprese Salad
Courtesy of Elana Horwich, Meal and a Spiel

Be authentic

You may be approaching Italian cooking from the wrong angle. “Italian food in Italy versus Italian-American food are very different,” Elana explains. “Italian food is actually really light—the portions are smaller, not everything has bread and cheese and it’s very vegetable-forward.”

When you’re searching for Italian recipes, consider your source. Find authentic recipes that call for Italian staples like fresh ingredients and quality olive oil.

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Sliced bread Ciabatta and rosemary on wooden background
Lisovskaya Natalia/Shutterstock

Cool it on the carbs

Eating bread with pasta? Turns out that’s not how Italians do it. “Bread and pasta are not eaten together in Italy, EVER!” Elana says. “There’s a time and a place for carbs, and it’s called pasta.”

Carbs on top of carbs are an easy way to eat yourself uncomfortable. Next time you make your favorite pasta, focus on loading the sauce with love and flavor. Go ahead and skip the bread.

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No-Noodle Lasagna
Courtesy of Elana Horwich, Meal and a Spiel

Load up on veggies

Want pasta without the carb-guilt? Elana swears by her No-Noodle Lasagna, which replaces lasagna noodles with eggplant. Vegetables make great pasta substitutes—an entire section of Elana’s book, “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Pasta!” features zucchini, squash and even sweet potato.

The trick? Don’t skimp on other ingredients! Load on Italian seasonings and savory sauce, just as you would with pasta.

Check out these vegetables you didn’t know you could spiralize for inspiration.

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Un-Red Roasted Tomato Soup
Courtesy of Elana Horwich, Meal and a Spiel

Get the good stuff

“Italians don’t cook with a whole lot of ingredients in one dish,” Elana says. “It’s simple food, but it’s the best.” It’s important those few star ingredients are of good quality. Make the trek to your local Italian grocer and splurge on imported olives or the fancy can of San Marzano tomatoes for your sauce.

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Blue cheese Gorgonzola on a rustic wooden background.
Natali Zakharova/Shutterstock

Opt for Italian cheese

Put down the cheese shaker. Italian chefs love authentic, high-quality cheeses—like fontina, Parmigiano Reggiano and Gorgonzola, while processed cheeses are best saved for a gooey homemade mac and cheese. Try using mascarpone in your next lasagna instead of ricotta. Elana notes this cheese is slightly sweet and creamy, and can make cheesy dishes feel lighter.

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Classic tiramisu in a glass on a gray background.

Reduce the sugar

Italian desserts don’t need too much sugar to be tasty. Elana says she always cuts sugar from recipes—sometimes by a sixth. Other times she’ll use honey instead, which provides sweetness without as much guilt. You don’t need to cut sugar entirely, but try reducing it a bit and see if it makes the trademark ingredient—such as espresso, citrus or cream—the real star of the dish.

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Turkey "Bolognese"
Courtesy of Elana Horwich, Meal and a Spiel

Pay attention to portions

In Italy, eating is just as much about the experience as it is about the food. “The purpose of the meal is to enhance your senses, not to leave you overstuffed and like you’ve eaten enough to fall into a coma,” says Elana. Embrace smaller portions with your favorite Italian dish and see if you feel the difference after.

Scaling back your servings? Check out our tips for easily dividing those cups and teaspoons.

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Spices and herbs


Italian cookbooks are hard to read, even if you speak Italian. “They don’t even have measurements,” Elana says. Recipes are less focused on measurements and more “what looks and feels right?”—especially in Elana’s kitchen.

Have a sauce that calls for 6 tablespoons of butter? Try using olive oil instead. Not feeling the cream sauce? Use mascarpone. Don’t be afraid to try substituting lighter ingredients—and don’t be afraid of failing. We all do it!

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Pizza with salad for a balanced meal, overhead perspective
Daxiao Productions/Shutterstock

Embrace balance

“I learned early on that I’m not capable of dieting,” Elana says. She emphasizes balance in her healthy Italian recipes and her overall cooking philosophy. “I think of eating as a way to nourish my body and my soul and my taste buds.”

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Kate Ellsworth
Kate has been writing about her favorite brands and products for more than 10 years. She's started a few well-intentioned yet short-lived blogs and loves to spend her time perusing the Internet for the best deals. She currently works as an executive editor for a product-testing website, where she oversees lifestyle topics including sleep, pets, health and fitness and crafts.
In her spare time, you can find Kate baking, quilting and hanging out with her husband, Matt, and newborn, Vivienne.