When it’s cold outside, it’s natural to want something to warm your insides. A hot and hearty bowl of soup is the king of cold-weather meals. Here’s how you can put a healthy spin on soup.
It could be that soup, says Psychology Today, is psychologically satisfying. The hot bowl warms our fingers, the steam warms our faces, and the meal encourages leisurely eating. It could be because of the food’s health benefits; chicken noodle soup, for instance, has been shown to help with hydration and ease the symptoms of upper respiratory infections and the common cold, according to the scientific journal Chest. Or it might just be deeply ingrained within us: The idea that chicken soup is a cure-all for respiratory tract infections dates back to the ancient Greeks.
Whatever the reason, seemingly every caretaker serves up soup at the first sign of sickness. And although these days we have a pill of seemingly every shape and color to help us get better faster, soup continues to be the go-to food when we’re under the weather — which, let’s face it, we all are during winter — because of the comfort it provides.
To help you navigate healthy soup recipes and to make healthier choices when buying canned soups, here’s some expert advice from Katherine Carithers, MHA, RD, CSO, LDN, CNSC, a clinical nutrition manager at Lahey Hospital & Medical Center in Burlington, Massachusetts.
Save the Salt
Canned soups and broths and ready-made soup bases are convenient, but they’re often very high in sodium. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration says about half of the sodium consumed by Americans comes from foods such as prepared or canned soups. The American Heart Association recommends a maximum of 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day; 1,500 milligrams is the ideal daily intake for most adults.
If you’re using a packaged broth or pre-made base, look for a low-sodium option. To be considered low-sodium, a product must contain no more than 140 milligrams of sodium per serving; if it has fewer than 35 milligrams per serving, it’s considered very low-sodium. “Reduced sodium” doesn’t necessarily mean low sodium; it simply means there’s 25 percent less sodium than in the original version. That might still be more sodium than you’d like.
Your best bet to minimize the sodium in your soup is to make your broth. First, cook a whole chicken. Then, strip the carcass, add water, and simmer it on very low heat for a few hours to create a delicious broth.
Finesse the Fat
Even though broth-based soups tend to be higher in sodium, they’re still a lower-fat choice than cream-based soups, Carithers says. For instance, heavy cream has at least 36 percent milk fat, while light cream has about 20 percent milk fat. If you’re set on a cream-based soup, Carithers recommends using 2 percent milk as a healthier alternative.
You can trim the fat from your recipe by using olive oil instead of butter to sauté your vegetables. Or, even better, steam your veggies first and then throw them into your broth to reduce the fat content. The longer they soak in the broth, the softer they’ll be.
Make It a Meal
Chicken is the perennial protein of choice for soups, but certain cuts of beef — chuck is good, and so are brisket and short ribs — also taste great in soups. Swap in ground chicken or turkey for ground beef for a lower-fat alternative.
And what’s a healthy soup without a healthy serving of veggies? Take advantage of seasonal and all-year favorites such as onions, carrots, celery, squash, parsnips, turnips, mushrooms, zucchini and green beans. And don’t forget those nutrition-packed greens such as spinach, kale and chard. Starchy veggies such as peas and corn also make excellent additions. Or be brave and add broccoli. Open your vegetable bin and see what’s been sitting in there for a while and is still fresh, then slice and chop to your heart’s content. There’s no such thing as too many vegetables in a soup.
Lentils make for one of the most economical and satisfying meals around. Channel this in your soup by sautéing your onion and carrots; then, add lentils, water and tomatoes, and cook everything on low for about an hour. Lentils are low-calorie and nearly fat-free, and when you add fiber, protein and other healthy ingredients to them, they become the star of a healthy soup that can act as a main course.
And yes, you can soak black, white and pinto beans to make an equally tempting, fiber-filled soup, but there’s nothing wrong with using canned beans. Just make sure you rinse them before use to wash away some of the added sodium.
Top It Off
A visually appealing soup topping is a perfect way to elevate your cold-weather meals. Use low-fat or finely grated cheese, such as Parmesan or Romano, and remember to use it sparingly. Also, try finely-chopped herbs or scallions; or top your soup off with salsa or vegetable chips, such as kale or carrot.
Healthy Soup Recipes to Try This Winter
Ready to whip up your healthy soup this winter? Try these scrumptious and good-for-you recipes from Lahey’s Nutrition Therapy Department.
Tuscan White Bean Soup With Greens
- 2 tablespoons of olive oil
- 2 or 3 garlic cloves, chopped
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 teaspoon of dried oregano
- 3 cups (or two 15 ½-ounce cans) of drained white beans (cannellini or great northern)
- 4 cups of water or reduced sodium stock
- 2 tablespoons of tomato paste (or use ½ cup of canned or fresh tomato, chopped)
- 4 cups of baby spinach or one bunch of kale, swiss chard or other green of your choice
- Salt and pepper to taste. (If you used a pre-made broth, you will not need to add salt.)
- Heat the oil in a large soup pot and add the garlic, bay leaves and oregano. Cook and stir until the garlic is fragrant and just begins to brown.
- Rinse and drain your beans. Add them to the pot along with everything except the greens. (If you have time to soak and cook dried beans, the soup will be even lower in sodium.)
- Let the soup simmer while you prepare the greens. Rinse and drain the baby spinach. If you’re using other greens, tear them from the stem and roughly chop or cut with scissors. Rinse and drain.
- Add the greens to the soup and mix well. (Baby spinach will only take a few minutes to completely cook; kale and swiss chard can take up to 10 to 15 minutes to really soften.)
- After soup has simmered for at least 20 minutes, taste. And add salt and pepper if needed.
- Cool slightly before serving. (If you serve it piping hot, you won’t be able to taste the flavors.)
Recipe adapted and shared by Cindy Neels, MPH, RD, LDN, clinical nutritionist and Create Your Weight instructor at Lahey Hospital & Medical Center.
Carrot Lemon Ginger Soup
- 2 tablespoons of butter, margarine or olive oil
- 1½ cups of chopped onion
- 1 tablespoon of finely chopped fresh ginger, peeled
- 1½ teaspoons of minced garlic
- ¼ pound (about 3 cups) of medium carrots, peeled, chopped
- 2 tomatoes (about 1⅓ cups), seeded, chopped
- 1½ teaspoons of grated lemon peel
- 3 cups (or more) of chicken stock or canned low-salt broth
- 2 tablespoons of fresh lemon juice
- Melt butter in a heavy large pot over medium-high heat. Add the onion and sauté for four minutes. Add the ginger and garlic and sauté for two minutes. Add the chopped carrots, tomatoes and lemon peel and sauté for one minute. Add 3 cups of stock and bring everything to a boil. Once boiling, reduce the heat, cover partially and simmer until carrots are very tender, for about 20 minutes. Cool slightly.
- Purée soup in batches in a blender. Return the soup to the pot. Mix in lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper.
- Bring the soup to a simmer, thinning with more stock, if desired. Ladle into bowls. (You can make this soup a day ahead and refrigerate until you’re ready to serve it.)
Recipe adapted and shared by Margie Ullmann-Weil, MS, RD, LDN, Clinical Nutrition Services dietitian at Lahey Hospital & Medical Center.
Looking for more ways to cut sodium from your diet? Chat with a Lahey nutritionist today.