Pizza night — without the guilt

Who doesn’t love pizza night? Moms love taking a break while serving a meal that everyone agrees on. Many dads consider pizza a favorite food. Children seemingly never tire of it. Plus, it’s budget friendly. But there’s often that nagging worry that pizza is a “junk food.” Is it?

“With the right choices, a weekly pizza night can certainly fit into a healthy family meal plan,” reassures Janice Newell Bissex, a Boston-area dietician and co-author of “No Whine with Dinner: 150 Healthy, Kid-Tested Recipes from The Meal Makeover Moms.”

Consider these tips for ordering up a healthful pizza:

• Go for thin. A thin crust has fewer carbs and calories than a deep dish or stuffed crust. A few pizza parlors are even starting to offer a whole wheat crust.

• Eat less (or eliminate) meat. Pepperoni is consistently the number one favorite meat topping. Unfortunately, it’s loaded with grease and salt. If it isn’t “pizza” without pepperoni, ask for half of the usual amount to be placed on the pie. Ditto for sausage. Instead, opt for grilled poultry, shrimp, Canadian bacon, or ham. Or, replace the meat with meaty mushrooms, like portobellos. You’ll hardly notice the difference.

• Order vegetable toppings with abandon. Here, the sky’s the limit. Load up on black or green olives, red or green pepper, onion, artichoke hearts, spinach, sliced or sun-dried tomatoes, fresh basil or broccoli. Aim for at least three veggies on a pie. They add bulk, flavor, and nutrients, making a small portion more satisfying.

• Get saucy. Most pizzas contain sauce, while some contain chunks of tomatoes. Either way, enjoy them guilt free. The lycopene in whole tomatoes is more available in tomato chunks and sauce. Herbs and garlic add antioxidants along with their flavor.

• Lighten up the cheese. While a good source of protein, calcium, and potassium, pizza’s cheese also contains saturated fat. Since many pizza preparers layer it on thick, it’s easy to overdo it.

“If the cheese completely covers the top of the pizza, consider asking your pizza guy to go light on the cheese next time,” suggests Bissex. At the table, sprinkle on grated Parmesan or Romano cheese. It’s flavorful in small amounts and even provides that fifth taste of “umami,” or deliciousness.

• Fill up on salad. Bissex’s family often starts with a salad or vegetable-based soup to take the edge off everyone’s hunger. Studies show that people who eat a high-volume, low-calorie food like salad — or a broth-based soup — as an appetizer, eat fewer calories overall.

Your own pizza parlor

How hard is it to make a pizza at home? Not very. You can pick up a pre-baked crust or fresh or frozen dough, and with a little planning, you can bake your own pizzas. Invest in a pizza stone and peel for best results.

“[My] pizza may be made from dough I make in my breadmaker. But on days when there’s time constraints, I’ll add toppings — diced tomatoes, sauteed spinach, onions, and mushrooms — to a frozen cheese pizza,” explains Camille Prindle, a suburban Chicago-based mother of four, who prefers baking her own pizza.

Bissex concurs. “My girls love pesto pizza topped with sauteed onions, red bell pepper, and spinach. My husband and I like to also add artichoke hearts and mushrooms. To get your kids excited about all those veggies, set up a make-your-own-pizza bar, and then let the kids add whichever toppings whet their appetite.”

Pizza can be an indulgent meal with an overload of calories, saturated fat, and sodium — or it can be a healthful meal that’s “just right.”

Christine M. Palumbo, RD is an award-winning Naperville-based dietitian and mother of three who loves a good quality restaurant pizza. She also enjoys whipping up a totally from-scratch pizza from time to time. Follow her on Facebook at Christine Palumbo Nutrition.

Sausage, Mushroom and Cannellini Pesto Pizza

Makes 10 servings


1 15-ounce can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed

2 tablespoons prepared basil pesto

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 tablespoon water

Kosher salt and freshly-ground black pepper

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

8 ounces mushrooms, coarsely chopped

1 12-ounce package chicken sausage (use your favorite flavor), casings removed and the meat crumbled

2 12-inch pre-made pizza crusts

2 cups shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese

Directions: Place the beans, pesto, lemon juice, and water in the bowl of a food processor and process until smooth and creamy. Season with salt and pepper to taste and set aside. Preheat the oven to 450°F (or the temperature indicated on your prepared pizza crust package). Heat the oil in a large, nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring frequently, until softened, about 7 minutes. Add the crumbled sausage and saute until fully cooked, about five minutes. (The time will vary depending on whether the sausage was precooked or not.) Spread the bean puree evenly over the two pizza crusts. Top each with the mushroom and sausage mixture. Top evenly with the cheese (1 cup per pizza crust). Bake according to pizza crust package directions and until the cheese melts. Cut each pizza into five slices and serve.

Tip: The bean puree and mushroom-sausage mixture can be refrigerated or frozen for later use, if you only want to make one pizza at a time.

Nutrition information: (1 slice): 320 calories, 12 g fat (4.5 g saturated), 600 mg sodium, 33 g carbohydrate, 3 g fiber, 20 g protein, 25 percent calcium, 15 percent iron

Used with permission by “No Whine with Dinner: 150 Healthy, Kid-Tested Recipes from The Meal Makeover Moms” (M3 Press, 2011).