How To Make A Healthy Pasta Dish

Pasta with tomato and basil

If you enjoy pasta, learn to make tasty and nutritious dishes at home. Cooking pasta dishes in your own kitchen helps you be mindful about the amount of fat and salt that goes into your dish and helps you pack it full of nutritious ingredients.  

What is pasta?

The word “pasta” traditionally refers to noodles made from semolina, a type of wheat flour. You can also find pasta made from other ingredients like rice and legumes. Pasta can be either dried or fresh. 

  • Dried pasta is inexpensive, comes in many shapes and stores well for long periods of time.

  • Fresh pasta is made with egg and must be kept in the fridge and used within a few days.

Pasta and nutrition

Pasta provides energy from carbohydrates. Pasta contains no saturated or trans fat, is low in sodium (salt) and is often enriched with vitamins and minerals like:

  • Thiamine (vitamin B1)

  • Riboflavin (vitamin B2)

  • Niacin (vitamin B3)

  • Folic acid

  • Iron 

Tip: Not all pasta is enriched. Pasta or noodles that are imported may or may not contain added vitamins and minerals. Read the package to see if nutrients have been added.
You can also find pasta with higher amounts of protein. This type of pasta is often made from ingredients like lentil flour, chickpea flour and pea protein – check the ingredient list to find out. This type of pasta is also a nutritious choice.

Look for fibre-rich pasta 

Pasta made from refined semolina is typically low in fibre. For a fibre boost, read the ingredient list and look for pasta made from:

  • Whole grain durum wheat semolina 

  • Whole grain rye 

  • Brown rice 

  • Buckwheat (soba) 

  • Whole grain kamut 

  • Quinoa

  • Barley

  • Legumes like lentils or chickpeas

Cook it up! Here are four steps for making a healthy pasta dish: 

1. Pick your pasta

Choose enriched pasta made from whole grains or legumes. The shape you choose is up to you!

2. Boil

Bring water to a boil in a large pot. Add pasta and cook according to package directions.

Tip: Cook until “al dente” or slightly firm and chewy. Overcooking pasta raises its Glycemic Index value (GI value) which means it gets digested faster.

3. Top it

Remove pasta from boiling water with tongs or drain in a colander. Put it in a bowl and pick your sauce. 

For a nutritious choice, pick tomato sauce. It is a source of vitamins A and C and the antioxidant lycopene. It is also low in saturated fat.  A drizzle of olive oil with fresh herbs is another good option. 
Some store-bought tomato sauces are high in sodium. Read nutrition labels and choose a sauce with 360 mg of sodium or less per half-cup. Creamy Alfredo or cheddar cheese sauce has more calories and saturated fat than tomato sauce. And store-bought savoury sauces like pesto can be very high in sodium -- about 1100 mg per half-cup.

Making your own tomato sauce is quick and inexpensive using canned tomatoes. Check this simple recipe here to give it a try.

Tip: Use light sauces for delicate pastas like angel hair. Chunky sauces such as ratatouille work best for sturdy pasta like fusilli.

4. Serve 

According to Canada’s Food Guide, grains should make up about ¼ of your meal or plate.  So if you are eating plain pasta as a side dish, aim for a portion of about ¼ of your plate. Adding protein and vegetables turns pasta from a side dish into a balanced meal, but remember to still keep in mind your portion of pasta. Most restaurant portions are much larger!

Make it a meal - Mix and match your pasta noodle, pasta sauce and toppings

Pasta with tomato sauce or herbs and olive oil is a lovely side dish. If you want to turn pasta into a meal, try one of these tasty creations that includes both vegetables and protein:







Spaghetti with spicy tuna


Lower sodium canned tuna

Roasted cherry tomatoes, red onion

Olive oil, chili flakes

Fresh parsley

Hearty ratatouille



Eggplant, zucchini, mushroom, onion

Tomato sauce

Oregano, parmesan cheese

Shrimp and mango pasta salad


Grilled shrimp

Red and green peppers, jalapeno peppers, red onion

Mango salsa: mango, onion, lime, olive oil


Pad Thai

Brown rice noodles


Broccoli, baby corn, red pepper, garlic, bean sprouts, cilantro

Peanut butter, rice vinegar, hot sauce, canola oil, dash of fish sauce

Green onions, peanuts

Pasta primavera

Rye spirals


Snow peas, broccoli, carrots, celery, red peppers

Tomato sauce, fresh basil

Fresh basil, grated Asiago chees

Tip: When using grated cheese as a garnish, a tablespoon is all you need. When using oil, remember that a teaspoon or two is all you need to enhance 1 cup (250 mL) of cooked pasta. 

Pasta recipes to try:

Chicken pasta salad
Lentil and hamburger stroganoff
Mac and squeeze
Vermicelli with broccoli and grilled beef
Spinach and mushroom lasagna

How can a dietitian help?

Dietitians can support you throughout many phases of your life, from pregnancy to eating well when you are older. Counselling sessions with a dietitian can also help you prevent and treat health conditions like diabetes and heart disease. Your dietitian will work with you to give you personalized advice that meets your lifestyle and goals. Connect with a dietitian today!

Bottom line

With unlimited recipe ideas and lots of nutritional value, pasta is a versatile and nutritious choice. Plain pasta is low in saturated and trans fat and low in sodium. Tomato sauce is a nutritious way to top your pasta, but make sure to look for brands with less sodium or make your own from scratch. Adding protein and vegetables turns pasta from a side dish into a meal, but be mindful of your portion size. 

You may also be interested in:

How to Choose the Best Pasta Sauce
Your Grocery Store Checklist
Top 5 Reasons to See a Dietitian
This article was written and reviewed by dietitians from Dietitians of Canada. The advice in this article is intended as general information and should not replace advice given by your dietitian or healthcare provider.

Last Update – February 19, 2023

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