Cooking Techniques: Healthy “Meat”loaf

website meatloaf

“But… it’s just meatloaf!”

I was making dinner for some company when a friend called.  When she learned I was planning on serving meatloaf, she was rather shocked. I both understood and didn’t understand where she was coming from.

On the one hand, meatloaf for all intent and purposes was invented to stretch meat for the humble housewife trying to feed her family with what she had, so I realize it has a certain perception by the outside world. On the other hand, you find meatloaf served at fine restaurants all over the United States, because people LIKE meatloaf. It’s comforting. It’s tasty. It’s very American. It’s also extremely versatile.

One of the reasons I like meatloaf so much is that you can make it out of anything you want – even without meat! I have made salmon loaves, tofu loaves, lentil loaves, turkey loaves, chicken loaves, tuna loaves… the list can probably go on because I’ve even made a mashed sweet potato loaf!

So, I wasn’t very surprised by the email I received, asking about an article which indicated that meatloaf was high in saturated fat and a terrible meal to serve. The person emailing wanted to know if it was true and how she might be able to lighten up her favorite meatloaf recipe.

The true fact is that meatloaf made with traditional high fat beef definitely is not something you want to be eating on a regular basis. The good news, though, is that you don’t have to.

Tips for Making Healthy Meatloaf:

1. The “meat”: You can use anything you want for meatloaf. Low fat ground turkey or chicken, extra lean ground beef or pork, mashed lentils, flaked salmon, mashed tofu, the list is extensive. What’s important to keep in mind is that to get the right texture, your meat or beans or tofu or vegetables really should be either ground or mashed. If it’s too chunky, you won’t be able to mold it properly into a loaf which adheres. On the other hand, you don’t want pureed lentils or meat, either. Then your meatloaf will be too pasty and won’t have enough texture to hold together.

If you’re using actual meat, it should be uncooked as you put your mixture together. If you’re using fish like salmon or tuna, I’ve found that cooked, flaked fish or canned fish is better to use than uncooked fish. Lentils should be softened and not hard. Tofu can be any variety you like but I find that the firm versions work better.

2. The filler: One of the other problems with meatloaf is that traditionally folks use either white bread crumbs or saltine crackers as the filler. If you’re going to use bread crumbs or crackers, opt instead for whole wheat or a whole grain gluten free option instead. The higher the fiber, the better. I personally use whole grain gluten free oatmeal instead. It has a lot of health benefits, and it absorbs the liquid ingredients well to make for a moister meatloaf.

Another thing to consider is the amount of filler to meat. Sometimes people use an awful lot of the filler to stretch the meat. For the best taste and for better health, I wouldn’t recommend using more than 1/2 cup for every pound of meat.

3. The binder: Meatloaf which is made with leaner meats or fish or beans or tofu can end up being a bit dry, so you want to be sure to bind your meatloaf with something moist. Most recipes simply use eggs. If you’re allergic to eggs, though, you can use other things like a type of milk you’re not allergic to or a favorite soup. You can also do a combination of liquid ingredients. If I’m making a salmon or tuna loaf, I find that it needs both a liquid like “milk” and egg whites to keep its shape while also adding moisture.

A tip to keep in mind is that if you mix your filler (bread crumbs, oatmeal, crackers) in with the “milk” or soup and let the filler absorb the binder, it’ll make for a moister meatloaf plus bind your meat better. If you’re using eggs, you should do the same thing with the filler.

If you’re using eggs, usually recipes call for two eggs per pound. If you need to refrain from eating yolks, egg whites work just as well. If you’re using milk, about 1/2 cup mixed with the binder is what you’ll need. I like to use tomato soup, so I mix one can with 1 cup of oatmeal for a meatloaf made with 2 pounds of “meat”.

NOTE: A couple of weeks after giving birth to my third child, I was so exhausted that I poured some homemade split pea soup into the meatloaf instead of the tomato soup. It was one of the most delicious meatloaves we ever had! So, don’t be afraid to experiment.

4. The seasonings: Meatloaf can be rather bland so you should always use something to season it. Aromatics are a great way to go: saute onions, garlic and herbs and add it to the meatloaf when you’re mixing it all together. Another option is to experiment with flavors. My oldest loves to put cumin into everything. In meatloaf it adds a bit of an exotic flavor. My second daughter loves everything salsa, so she likes meatloaf with salsa added to it. If you don’t have dairy allergies, adding small chunks of cheese adds a new dimension to meatloaf. Let your imagination take over and see what you can create.

5. Additions: Traditional meatloaf is just meat and the filler, but you can make your meatloaf healthier by adding more than just those two ingredients. I like to saute spinach or grated zucchini and add it to my meatloaves. If you are using a ground meat, you can substitute half of the ground meat with mashed lentils or tofu. Sauteed multi-colored peppers adds both flavor and pretty colors. As with the seasonings, experiment and see what you like.

6. Shaping and preparing: Meatloaves are supposed to be in a loaf shape. That’s why they’re names as such. But you can do what you want. Sometimes I put the meatloaf mixture into muffin tins and make mini meatcakes. Other times I use little bread tins. Most of the time I use a glass pan which I pat the meat flatly into.

The tip to keep in mind is that you should always use a pan or muffin tin that just fits your meat mixture. Go all the way to the edge of the pan with the meat. If you form a loaf and leave space between the meat and the edge of the pan, the juices from your meatloaf mixture will fill that space and burn.

When you’re shaping your meatloaf, it helps to lightly wet your hands. This keeps the mixture from sticking but also allows you to smooth the meat mixture down as you pat it.

7. Cooking: Meatloaf made with actual uncooked meat should cook slowly at a temperature no higher than 350 degrees if you want it to be moist and tasty. My 2 pound meatloaf usually takes about an hour or so at 350 degrees. If I’m making them in muffin tins, I reduce the heat to 300 degrees and cook for half an hour.

If you’re making the meatloaf with salmon or lentils or tofu, then your ingredients are usually cooked so you can cook the loaf at a higher temperature of 350 to 375 degrees for half an hour or 45 minutes, just until the loaf is warm and cooked through.

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