Chili is a meal I grew up with. My grandma always made it slow over the stovetop with beans, veggies, and local ground beef. She was no stranger to umami taste left behind by oils and fats. Since it's so easy to throw together (you can use whatever you have, just about), it's often the saving grace of families who need a make-and-forget-it meal in the crock pot or the younger crowd who loves home cooked meals, but needs something that can be meal-prepped for their week.
While the chili my grandma made when I was young may not be the healthiest option, it was delicious. Many people now are seeking healthier options for this comfort food. A good thing to remember is that just eating chili -- and by extension its namesake chili peppers (whether as a pepper or a powder) -- is reported by researchers to be anti-inflammatory and reduce the risk of heart or cancer-related deaths.
Since chili is a one-pot wonder, you need to consider your ingredients when determining if chili is healthy. Using high fat or oily foods, overloading on salt (or sugar), and adding favorite mix-ins, like sour cream, cheddar cheese, or even saltine crackers, can make a big difference in if we could consider a chili to be healthy or not.
Healthy Swaps for Chili
Can you swap or add something new in your family recipe? Certified nutritionist and Coach & Creator of Build Yhorlife Coaching Adylia-Rhenee Gutierrez recommends including pinto beans as a main ingredient in your next chili.
"The nutritional value of pinto beans is exceptional," she said. "Protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals are abundant in them. Several benefits may be provided by these nutrients, including better control of blood sugar and improved heart health."
White beans are another great bean to include in your chili.
"White beans contain a wide range of nutrients. The nutritional powerhouse that is white beans is their high fiber and protein content, as well as their good sources of micronutrients like folate, magnesium, and vitamin B6," said Gutierrez.
You may also want to consider the stock you're using as a base. Many store bought stocks are very heavy on the salt content. Check the ingredients so you can select one with lower sodium or try your hand at making your own broth for chili. One of my favorite salt swaps, especially in chilis and soups is to use sea beans, which have a naturally salty flavor.
Healthy chili never has to compromise taste -- so keep that in mind. Lean into the seasonings, especially if you are making a vegan or vegetarian chili without a meat substitute. You can get that same comforting chili flavor by using a pre-mixed chili seasoning or making your own with paprika, cumin, garlic power, onion power, cayenne pepper, and chili powder.
Another consideration for your healthy chili is to get creative with vegetables. Typical chili recipes often include corn, bell pepper, onions, garlic, and of course tomatoes. Consider incorporating vegetables like okra for a Louisiana style chili-gumbo fusion or cauliflower.
"There are a number of nutrients contained in cauliflower, which makes it one of the healthiest vegetables," said Gutierrez. "Additionally, it contains plant compounds that may reduce the risk of several diseases, including cancer and heart disease...and is weight loss friendly."
Chicken or Ground Turkey
If you're a meat eater and need meat in your chili, try swapping the ground beef for a healthier alternative, like chicken or ground turkey. While chicken is often used in white chicken chili, it's also good in the classic tomato-based style. Ground turkey, unlike ground beef, is lean and will provide a similar beefy flavor.
Since chili is so versatile, it's easy to make it fit your dietary or health needs. The key is to be adventurous and know that just because something is healthy does not mean it won't be good.
If you're still having trouble building the perfect healthy chili, take a look at Gutierrez's ingredient lists for an easy chili:
Vegan Pinto Chili
- 1 pound of pinto beans
- 3 or four cups of water
- chopped yellow onions
- 3 cloves of garlic
- Gardein plant-based ground beef
- The last touch is the seasonings - (cumin, turmeric, garlic, pepper, chili powder, parsley) or you can use Trader Joes Taco Seasoning Mix - It has all the essential seasonings for chili with less than 1g of sugar.
Cauliflower Turkey Chili
- 1 pound ground turkey
- 2 cans of chopped tomatoes
- 1 red onion
- 2 cans diced medium chiles
- 2 bags frozen or fresh cauliflower rice
- 32 oz brother
- cumin, turmeric, garlic, pepper, chili powder, parsley
White Chicken Chili
- 2 cans corn
- 2 cans northern white beans
- 4 chicken breasts
- 2 cans of diced chilis
- 1 white onion
- 1 bunch of chopped cilantro
- 32 oz chicken broth
- salt to taste, garlic, pepper, chili powder, parsley
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