How to Make a Guilt-Free Grilled Cheese
Whether it’s the buttery exterior, the crunchy bread, or the gooey center, there’s a lot to love about a great grilled cheese sandwich. And when you’re feeling down and out, there’s a reason you reach for it: In one 2011 study, researchers in Buffalo found that so-called “comfort foods” helped ease feelings like loneliness.
But other studies say the opposite: A 2014 study found that whether people indulged in high-calorie, high-fat comfort foods or not, eventually their moods improved—suggesting that all you need to beat a bad mood is time.
Here’s the good news: You don’t have to choose between indulging your craving for comfort and staying on a healthy eating plan. Replacing the bread in a grilled cheese with English muffins can save you upwards of 100 calories (depending upon which bread you choose) without sacrificing flavor, crunch, or cheesiness. Swapping butter for low-calorie cooking spray and changing out full-fat cheese for a low-fat version can also keep your craving-crushing sandwich on-plan. But if you’re ready to take your grilled cheese to the next level and enjoy a gourmet version without the guilt, try these five twists on the cheesy sandwich staple that add nutrition, reduce calories and might just be your new comfort food craving.
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Get a meatier texture and cut way back on bread with portabellas. At burger chains including Shake Shack, the “veggie burger” isn’t a mish-mash patty of black beans, rice and fillers—it’s portabella mushrooms stuffed with cheese. Do it yourself and make an incredible grilled cheese by skipping the bread. The mushrooms are firm enough to hold like a bun, and the meaty, juicy texture accentuates the flavor of the cheese.
You’ll need: 2 large Portabella mushroom caps 1 slice low-fat cheese, like mozzarella, torn into shreds Low-calorie cooking spray Small handful of arugula (optional)
To make it: 1. Remove the stem of each mushroom cap, and use a spoon to scrape out some of the ribs, creating two “bowls.” 2. Fill one mushroom with some arugula, and top with the cheese. Put the other mushroom on top. 3. Heat a nonstick pan or grill pan to medium heat. Spray with cooking spray. 4. Add the mushroom sandwich to the pan, cooking for about 5 minutes. 5. Spray the top mushroom with more cooking spray, and flip the sandwich. Allow to cook for another 5 minutes, or until the mushrooms get juicy. 6. Allow to stand for 2 minutes before eating.
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Use magic to create cauliflower bread. If mushrooms don’t satisfy your bread fix, it’s time for a magic trick: Cauliflower can be turned into gluten-free, guilt-free slices of bread. You’ll get the crunch of normal bread, the gooey cheese melting through like your favorite grilled cheese, plus a bonus: Cauliflower provides more heart-helping potassium per calorie than a banana.
You’ll need: 1 large head of cauliflower 2 large eggs, beaten 1 teaspoon sea salt 1 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper Low-calorie cooking spray 4 slices low-fat cheese
To make it: 1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. 2. Use a food processer or cheese grater to turn the cauliflower into “cauliflower rice”—small, rice-sized pieces. You’ll get about 5 cups’ worth from a large head of cauliflower. 3. Microwave the cauliflower bits for 7-9 minutes in a bowl. 4. Place the cauliflower rice on a folded paper towel. Place another paper towel on top and press down to remove moisture. 5. Once it’s relatively dry, put the cauliflower in a large bowl and add the egg, salt and pepper. Mix well. 6. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and spray with cooking spray. Add the cauliflower mixture to the sheet in circles or squares about the thickness of bread slices. You should have 8 slices of “bread” from this amount of mixture. 7. Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until golden brown. 8. Remove from the oven and slide the parchment paper off the baking sheet. Let the bread slices cool on the paper. 9. Once cool, heat a nonstick skillet to medium and spray with cooking spray. 10. Add a slice of “bread,” one slice of cheese, and top with another slice of “bread.” 11. Cook for 3-4 minutes. 12. Spray the top slice with cooking spray, reduce heat to medium-low, and flip the sandwich. 13. Cook for 3-4 more minutes, or until golden. 14. Repeat this process for all four sandwiches.
Servings: Makes 4 servings.
Make the sandwich bigger and more filling with some veggie mix-ins. Swap one slice of bread for two slices of tomatoes on top of a small bunch of spinach, and you’ll add cancer- and inflammation-fighting antioxidants and filling fiber. Plus, you’ll save almost 100 calories.
You’ll need: Zero-calorie cooking spray 2 slices plum or beefsteak tomato 1/2 cup fresh spinach leaves 1 slice whole wheat sandwich bread 1 slice low-fat cheese
To make it: 1. Spray a pan with cooking spray then bring to medium-low heat. 2. Put the tomato slices on one half of the pan, and the spinach leaves on the other half. Cook for 30 seconds. 3. Remove the spinach to a plate, and flip the tomato. Cook tomato for another 30 seconds. 4. Remove the tomato and re-spray the pan. Add the bread. Cook for 2 minutes. 5. Spray the top of the bread with cooking spray, and flip. Top with cheese, then spinach, then tomato. 6. Cook for 3-4 minutes, or until the cheese gets melty. 7. Enjoy as an open-faced sandwich, or cut it in half and have a super-thick half-sized sandwich.
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Add filling protein with an “Egg in the hole.” Eggs got a bad rap for too long: They’ve got incredible (sorry) nutrients, including choline, which is tough to get in other places, and heart disease-fighting carotenoids that are more bioavailable than the Vitamin A found in carrots—so even though there’s less A in eggs, your body can absorb more of them.
Oh, and they may help you lose weight, too: In a study from the International Journal of Obesity, guys who ate eggs at breakfast lost 65 percent more weight than dieters who went egg-less. It could be from the protein: A large egg offers six grams of the muscle-building nutrient, which digests more slowly and can keep you feeling full.
So swap one slice of bread for a whole egg and try this “egg in a hole” grilled cheese—perfect for breakfast.
You’ll need: 1 slice whole wheat sandwich bread 1 large egg 1 slice low-fat cheese Low-calorie cooking spray
To make it: 1. Spray a nonstick pan with the cooking spray, and heat to medium-high. 2. Use the top of a drinking glass to cut a round hole in the center of the bread. 3. Put the bread in the pan, and crack the egg into the bread’s hole. Allow them to cook for 2 minutes. 4. Spray the top of the egg and bread with cooking spray, then use a spatula to flip both over. 5. Top the flipped egg-and-bread with the cheese. Let it cook (and melt) for 2 more minutes.
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Turn salad into grilled cheese. Caprese salad is incredible—who doesn’t love a salad that is 30 percent cheese? You can make this summer staple perfect for winter and spring by turning up the heat—adding warmth and melty texture that will make it a new favorite, easy lunch that’s perfect for a lazy Sunday.
You’ll need: 8 slices of a big, beefsteak tomato (or other large, round variety) 2 pieces of low-fat mozzarella string cheese (or equivalent amount of low-fat mozzarella) 6-12 basil leaves, cut into strips Balsamic vinegar for drizzling Low-calorie cooking spray
To make it: 1. Top a tomato slice with 1/3 of a string cheese piece and one or two basil leaves. Repeat two more times, finishing with a piece of tomato on top. (This stack will then be: Tomato-cheese-basil-tomato-cheese-basil-tomato-cheese-basil-tomato.) Repeat for a second stack, creating two stacks that each contain 4 tomato layers, three cheese layers, and three basil layers. 2. Heat a nonstick pan to medium-high and spray with the cooking spray. 3. Add the two stacks. Cook for 2-3 minutes, until you can see the bottom tomato blistering and the cheese is melting. 4. Use a spatula to carefully flip the stacks. Cook for an additional 2-3 minutes. 5. Remove from the heat, top with balsamic vinegar, and enjoy with a fork and knife.
Servings: Makes 2 servings.