Potluck winners! Healthy, delicious and cheap casseroles to bring to your next party

Macaroni & Cheese-
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Thu, Oct 6, 2011 4:08 PM EDT

The weather's warm, the shorts are out and school's almost over. That means it's party season. Here in Vermont, we love to throw potlucks, where everyone comes and brings a dish. I've been attending an annual potluck here in Charlotte for about 30 of my last 35 summers that usually gets about 200 people. It's a blast and everyone shares in the cooking. The funny thing is there are certain things that always appear on these potluck spreads. (Check out this collection of potluck recipes for a sampling.) They're things like potato salad or pasta salad, carrot cake and Waldorf salad. And then there are the casseroles. This happens to be my personal favorite category. I love them because they're homey and comforting and so often topped with cheese. What's not to love?

So last summer I was at a smaller potluck, only about 35 people were there, and on the table I saw two different rice and zucchini casseroles and three mac and cheeses. And by the end of the party they were completely demolished! I knew I'd found perfect candidates for our EatingWell makeover treatment. So we have created healthier versions of those two recipes.

To update the mac and cheese (recipe below) we used whole-grain macaroni and breadcrumbs. Low-fat cottage cheese replaces some of the Cheddar, reducing saturated fat and contributing a rich dairy flavor.

To fix up the cheesy baked zucchini rice casserole (recipe below) we pack in extra vegetables. Plus we substitute brown rice for white, reduce the cheese by half and swap turkey sausage for pork sausage. The results are delicious. Try it for yourself.

Here are recipes for four more of my favorite healthier casseroles:

Macaroni & Cheese
Active time: 25 minutes | Total: 1 hour | To make ahead: Prepare through Step 5. Cover and refrigerate for up to 2 days or freeze for up to 3 months. Thaw in the refrigerator before baking.

With its irresistibly creamy interior and crusty topping, old-fashioned macaroni and cheese is always a winner.

8 ounces whole-wheat elbow macaroni (2 cups)
4 slices whole-wheat sandwich bread
2 teaspoons butter, melted
3 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
3 cups low-fat milk, divided
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
1 medium white onion, grated, liquid drained
2 cups shredded extra-sharp Cheddar cheese
1 cup low-fat cottage cheese
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Coat a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with cooking spray. Put a large pot of lightly salted water on to boil.
2. Cook macaroni until just tender, 8 to 10 minutes or according to package directions. Drain and rinse under cold water. Set aside.
3. Pulse bread into fine crumbs in a food processor. Add butter and 2 teaspoons oil; pulse to moisten. Place in a small bowl and set aside.
4. Combine 1/2 cup milk, flour and dry mustard in a small bowl; whisk until smooth. Heat the remaining 1 teaspoon oil in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-low heat. Add onion; cook, stirring occasionally, until softened but not browned, 6 to 8 minutes. Add the remaining 2 1/2 cups milk, increase heat to medium and bring to a bare simmer. Whisk in the milk-flour mixture and cook, whisking constantly, until the sauce is thickened, 5 to 7 minutes.
5. Remove from heat and whisk in Cheddar, cottage cheese, salt and pepper. Stir in reserved pasta and transfer to the prepared baking dish. Sprinkle with the reserved breadcrumbs.
6. Bake the casserole, uncovered, until bubbly and lightly browned, 30 to 35 minutes.

Makes 8 servings

Per serving: 353 calories; 14 g fat (8 g sat, 2 g mono); 36 mg cholesterol; 39 g carbohydrate; 19 g protein; 3 g fiber; 699 mg sodium. Nutrition bonus: Calcium (35% daily value).

Zucchini Rice Casserole
Active time: 40 minutes | Total: 2 hours | To make ahead: Prepare through Step 5; cool, cover and refrigerate for up to 1 day. To finish, bake at 375°F until the casserole is hot and the cheese is melted, about 45 minutes.

If you're bringing it to a potluck, plan to reheat it before serving.

1 1/2 cups long-grain brown rice
3 cups reduced-sodium chicken broth
4 cups diced zucchini and/or summer squash (about 1 pound)
2 red or green bell peppers, chopped
1 large onion, diced
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups low-fat milk
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups shredded pepper Jack cheese, divided
1 cup fresh or frozen (thawed) corn kernels
2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
8 ounces turkey sausage, casings removed
4 ounces reduced-fat cream cheese (Neufchâtel)
1/4 cup chopped pickled jalapeños

1. Preheat oven to 375°F.
2. Pour rice into a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Bring broth to a simmer in a small saucepan. Stir hot broth into the rice along with zucchini (and/or squash), bell peppers, onion and salt. Cover with foil. Bake for 45 minutes. Remove foil and continue baking until the rice is tender and most of the liquid is absorbed, 35 to 45 minutes more.
3. Meanwhile, whisk milk and flour in a small saucepan. Cook over medium heat until bubbling and thickened, 3 to 4 minutes. Reduce heat to low. Add 1 1/2 cups Jack cheese and corn and cook, stirring, until the cheese is melted. Set aside.
4. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat and add sausage. Cook, stirring and breaking the sausage into small pieces with a spoon, until lightly browned and no longer pink, about 4 minutes.
5. When the rice is done, stir in the sausage and cheese sauce. Sprinkle the remaining 1/2 cup Jack cheese on top and dollop cream cheese by the teaspoonful over the casserole. Top with jalapeños.
6. Return the casserole to the oven and bake until the cheese is melted, about 10 minutes. Let stand for about 10 minutes before serving.

Makes 12 servings, about 1 cup each.

Per serving: 248 calories; 9 g fat (5 g sat, 1 g mono); 34 mg cholesterol; 29 g carbohydrate; 13 g protein; 2 g fiber; 491 mg sodium; 273 mg potassium. Nutrition bonus: Vitamin C (56% daily value), Vitamin A (20% dv), Calcium (16% dv).

By Jessie Price

EatingWell deputy food editor Jessie Price's professional background in food started when she worked in restaurant kitchens in the summers during college. She started out testing recipes for EatingWell and then joined the staff here full-time in 2004 when she moved to Vermont from San Francisco.

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