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Carb-Conscious Side Dish Makeovers

June 22, 2014
Melissa Diane Smith

Since most people who see me for nutrition counseling are overweight, experience intense cravings for carbohydrates, and/or have elevated blood sugar levels, the most common thing I do is teach them to reduce their carbohydrate intake. On the most basic level, this involves cutting out starchy foods and substituting lower-carb vegetables such as broccoli, asparagus, or spinach in their place. This is especially important in the case of side dishes, which tend to be carb-laden, starchy entries.

With a little ingenuity, however, you can use wholesome vegetables or vegetable-based products to make low-carb alternatives to traditional sides. Just pass up the potatoes and refuse the rice and try a few of these delicious low-carb, veggie-rich options instead.

Mashed Cauliflower 

A tasty, low-carb alternative to mashed potatoes, the basic version of this side dish is simple enough to make; all you need is steamed cauliflower, salt, and olive oil or organic butter—then mash 'em all together to desired consistency (for a creamier version, try adding organic milk (or unsweetened almond milk). For "loaded'' mashers, add cheese, different herbs, and/or roasted garlic.

Spaghetti Squash

As the name suggests, this vegetable is a great substitute for pasta, one that's considerably lower in carbs and higher in nutrients. To prepare, bake a whole spaghetti squash in the oven, or cut it in half and microwave (cover half with plastic wrap first). Remove seeds from the center and use two forks to loosen the "strands" of squash, which look like spaghetti. Serve topped with a homemade or gluten-free pasta sauce, homemade or prepared pesto sauce, or organic butter or olive oil and herbs. An average spaghetti squash makes four to six servings and you can freeze leftovers. Its peak season is autumn and winter, so that's when it tastes best.

Vegetable "Spaghetti"

This low-carb, nutrient-rich pasta alternative is perfect during spring and summer: Slice organic zucchini julienne-style either alone or with other vegetables such as carrots, leeks, and red peppers, Sauté in olive oil, and use the vegetables as a base for shrimp sautés or pasta sauce with meat.

Kelp Noodles

Made from only kelp, water, and sodium alginate (sodium salt extracted from brown seaweed), kelp noodles (try Sea Tangle Noodle Company) have a non-fishy, neutral taste and pick up the predominant flavors/foods in a dish. They're rich in iodine, which is essential for thyroid health, and they're almost completely calorie- and carbohydrate-free. They're easy to use: Just open the bag, drain, and then sprinkle over salads or add them at the last minute to soups or stir-fries. Or try tossing kelp noodles and sliced vegetables in pesto or your favorite Asian sauce.

Shirataki Noodles

The key ingredient of this noodle replacement is glucomannan, a soluble fiber derived from the konjac plant that keeps you feeling full. These uniquely textured noodles (try Miracle Noodles and NoOodles) are thin, chewy, translucent, and gelatinous with almost no flavor by themselves. And because they're made entirely of fiber, they're carbohydrate- and calorie-free. Beware: they tend to have an odd or unpleasant smell right out of the bag, but this dissipates when they are rinsed well, simmered for a few minutes, and drained. Shirataki noodles can be topped with sauce or stir-fried in sesame oil with vegetables and a non-GMO, gluten-free soy sauce or soy sauce substitute such as Coconut Secret Coconut Aminos.

Cauliflower "Rice"

To make this quick dish, use a food processor with a shredding blade and pulse until the head of cauliflower starts to look like rice. Then steam it for a few minutes in a bit of broth, or sauté it in organic coconut oil, butter, or olive oil until tender (about 5 minutes). Try topping with a curry sauce, Asian vegetable and meat stir-fry, or even beef stew. One medium head of cauliflower generally yields about 6 cups of cauliflower rice.


Serves 4

This variation of mashed cauliflower makes a perfect low-carb side dish brunch. Omit the chives if you're going to top it with gravy.

  • 1 medium head cauliflower, cut into small florets
  • 1 small celery root (also called celeriac), peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • 3 tbsp organic pasture-raised butter or organic extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp unrefined sea salt
  • 1-2 tbsp chopped fresh chives
  1. Place steamer basket in large pot, and fill with water to just below basket. Bring water to a full boil. Add cauliflower and celery root, cover, and steam until fork-tender, about 12-15 minutes.
  2. Remove cauliflower and celery root from pot, drain water, and return vegetables to pot. Add butter and salt, and combine ingredients with immersion blender* until smooth. Taste, and adjust seasoning if desired. Mix in chives, and serve.

*If you don't have an immersion blender, you can use a potato masher or a food processor. How may occasionally medio add a Ths of water, unsweetened almond milk, or chicken broth to get the right consistency

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