Real diner food made healthy

When I was a kid, eating out at a diner was a treat. We used to take weekend trips to the tiny town of Wellsboro, Pennsylvania, which was about a four-hour drive from our house just outside of Philadelphia. We went for basically one reason (from my perspective anyway): to eat at the Wellsboro Diner. We loved their patty sausage with tons of sage and their perfect hash browns.

Diner food-with its beautiful pies rotating in glass cases, griddled hamburgers, open-faced hot turkey sandwiches with gravy and chicken-fried steak-has always been comfort food in my family. And we didn't just go out for it.

My mom cooked all the time and had plenty of specialties in her repertoire. Her meatloaf recipe is a family treasure passed down from my grandmother. Her mac-and-cheese is covered in an almost-too-good-to-be-true golden crust of cheese and breadcrumbs. The smell of her coffee cake is ambrosia.

Unfortunately there's only so much of that sort of food I can pack in before I start bursting out of my pants. And that's why we gave the classic favorites that many of us grew up with a healthy makeover. (Now if I could only get my house covered in shiny chrome and some red vinyl booths for my dining room, I'd cook up these recipes and feel like I was right back at the Wellsboro Diner.)
Here are five of my favorite recipes:

1. Mom used to make an amazing breaded and fried eggplant sandwich, but I must say that the Grilled Eggplant Parmesan Sandwich we've recreated gives her version a run for its money. It gets a hint of smoke from the grill and is loaded with tasty tomato sauce and cheese. Since it uses tender grilled eggplant instead of fried, it has a fraction of the fat and calories. To make these sandwiches a cinch to prepare, have all your ingredients ready before you head out to the grill.

Makeover tip: Reduce calories in main-course sandwiches like Eggplant Parmesan by serving them open-face with just one piece of bread.

Grilled Eggplant Parmesan Sandwich

1 large eggplant (1 1/4-1 1/2 pounds), cut into 12 1/4-inch-thick rounds
Canola or olive oil cooking spray
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons finely shredded Parmesan or Asiago cheese
1/2 cup shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese
4 small pieces focaccia or rustic Italian bread
2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
5 ounces baby spinach
1 cup canned crushed tomatoes, preferably fire-roasted
3 tablespoons chopped fresh basil, divided

1. Preheat grill to medium-high.
2. Place eggplant rounds on a baking sheet and sprinkle with salt. Coat both sides lightly with cooking spray. Combine Parmesan (or Asiago) and mozzarella in a small bowl. Brush both sides of focaccia (or bread) with oil.
3. Place spinach in a large microwave-safe bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and punch several holes in the wrap. Microwave on High until wilted, 2 to 3 minutes. Combine tomatoes and 2 tablespoons basil in a small microwave-safe bowl. Cover and microwave until bubbling, about 2 minutes.
4. Place all your ingredients on the baking sheet with the eggplant and take it to the grill. Grill the eggplant slices until brown and soft on both sides, 2 to 3 minutes per side. Grill the bread until toasted, about 1 minute per side. Return the eggplant and bread to the baking sheet. Reduce grill heat to medium.
5. Place 1 eggplant round on top of each slice of bread. Layer 1 tablespoon tomatoes, 1 tablespoon wilted spinach and 1 tablespoon cheese on each slice of eggplant. Repeat with the remaining eggplant, sauce, spinach and cheese. Sprinkle each stack with some of the remaining basil. Place the baking sheet on the grill, close the lid and grill until the sandwiches are hot and the cheese is melted, 5 to 7 minutes.

Makes 4 servings.

Per serving: 291 calories; 8 g fat (2 g sat, 3 g mono); 12 mg cholesterol; 48 g carbohydrate; 12 g protein; 9 g fiber; 756 mg sodium; 526 mg potassium. Nutrition bonus: Vitamin A (38% daily value), Vitamin C (23% dv), Calcium (22% dv), Potassium (15% dv).

2. For Chicken Fried Steak we skip the deep frying, but with rich country gravy as a consolation, you won't miss it. Our pan-fried, crispy steak has less than one-third of the fat and about 80 percent less sodium than a typical version.

3. Our take on meatloaf is lightened up with the whole-grain goodness of bulgur, but still is as moist and delicious like Mom's.

4. Baked Mac & Cheese is true comfort food, but you might not feel so good about all the fat and cholesterol most recipes dish up. Our healthy update uses high-flavor extra-sharp Cheddar, low fat cottage cheese and spinach and whole-wheat pasta for flavor and extra fiber.

5. Our healthier take on pineapple coffee cake, well, just thinking about it makes me sigh. The best part about it is that you would never know it's made with whole-wheat flour and has just a fraction of the saturated fat of a traditional version.

By Jessie Price

EatingWell 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.

Related Links from EatingWell: