How to Build a Better Bowl of Chili

Your tastiest — and healthiest — batch ever!
Better bowl of chili

Time to toss on your coziest cardigan and simmer a batch of chili? Before you grab your pot, check out our recommendations for making it your tastiest and healthiest ever.

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Preventive cardiology dietitian Julia Zumpano, RD, LD, explains how to choose the right meat, beans, veggies, spices, hot sauce or chilis and toppings for your health.

How to build a better chili

It’s hard (though not impossible) to screw up chili. Here’s the low-down on how to make your batch — from the meat, beans, veggies, spices, hot sauce or chilis and toppings — a healthy, hearty dinner for the entire family.

1. Pick your protein

  • Beef (protein, niacin, vitamin B12, selenium, zinc).
  • Turkey (protein, niacin, selenium).
  • Chicken (protein, niacin, vitamin B6, phosphorous, potassium).
  • Pork (protein, thiamin, niacin, riboflavin, vitamin B6, phosphorous, zinc, selenium).
  • Venison (protein, niacin, vitamins B6 & B12, thiamin, riboflavin, phosphorous, zinc).
  • Buffalo (protein, niacin, vitamin B12, zinc, selenium).
  • Soy crumbles (thiamin, niacin, iron, vitamins B6 & B12).
  • Tofu (fortified) (calcium, copper, iron, manganese, omega-3 fats, phosphorus, protein, selenium).

Beef chili is king in many circles. But judiciously using beef — and often going with other options — is important for your cardiovascular health and to lower your risk of diabetes. If you do use beef, make sure it’s at least 85 to 90% lean. Other ideas? Mix and match half ground beef, half another lean meat recommended above. Going vegetarian? Add 1 cup of cooked bulgur wheat or barley for a hearty mouth-feel.

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2. Use your bean

  • Kidney beans (fiber, protein, folate, iron, phosphorous, copper, manganese).
  • Black beans (fiber, protein, folate, iron, riboflavin, phosphorous, thiamin, manganese).
  • Chickpeas (fiber, protein, iron, phosphorous, vitamin B6, folate, manganese).
  • Navy or great northern beans (fiber, protein, iron, potassium, folate, magnesium, phosphorous, manganese, thiamin).
  • Pinto beans (fiber, protein, folate, thiamin, iron, phosphorous, manganese, selenium).
  • Soy or edamame (green soy) beans (calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, omega-3 fats, phosphorus, potassium, Vitamin K, folate).

Don’t skip the beans. Chock full of soluble fiber, beans play an important role in controlling “bad” LDL cholesterol levels. Fiber expands in your belly, which can help you feel full and prevent you from returning for a second bowl. The Mediterranean diet recommends at least 3 servings of beans or legumes every week.

3. Pump up the veggies

  • Red or green bell peppers (vitamins C, E, B1, B2 & B6, folate).
  • Onions (vitamin C & K, fiber, folate, potassium, manganese, iron).
  • Diced tomatoes (vitamins C & K, potassium, manganese, iron).
  • Celery (fiber, vitamins A, C & K, folate, potassium and manganese).
  • Diced carrots (fiber, vitamins A, C & K, potassium).
  • Cubed butternut squash (fiber, vitamins A & C, potassium, manganese, magnesium).
  • Diced zucchini (fiber, vitamins C, K & B6, riboflavin, folate, magnesium, potassium, manganese).

One secret to a healthier chili? Take your recipe and double the amount of veggies. Not only does this approach add texture and bulk to your dish without extra fat or a ton of calories — it’s also a budget-friendly way to stretch your batch!

4. Be smart about spices

  • Chili powder (vitamins A, C, E, K & B6, iron and manganese).
  • Cumin (iron, magnesium, copper, manganese, calcium).
  • Oregano (vitamin K, anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, antiviral).
  • Coriander (copper, manganese, iron, magnesium, anti-inflammatory, phytonutrients, antibacterial)
  • Garlic (vitamins C & B6, manganese, immune-boosting, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial).
  • Turmeric (iron, manganese, anti-inflammatory).

There are as many chili powders as there are chili recipes! Craving spicy/smoky? Handcraft your own from dried guajillo, chipotle and ancho chilis — and paprika, cumin, oregano and garlic powder. Going store-bought? Check labels to avoid added fillers (especially if you are gluten- or dairy-free) or chemical anti-caking agents.

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5. Kick up the heat

  • Dried cayenne pepper (vitamins A, C, E, K, B6, manganese).
  • Jalapenos, Mexican dried chiles (vitamins A, C, K & B6, folate, potassium, manganese, iron, magnesium).
  • Hot sauce (vitamins C & A, flavonoids, antioxidants).
  • Canned chipotle chiles in adobo sauce (vitamin A, fiber, iron).

Chili powder’s not the only heat around. Differentiate your chili from the pack with your choice of dried, fresh or pickled peppers.  After all, while it may feel like a fire in your belly, these peppers are actually firefighters — helping extinguish inflammation in your body.

6. Tantalizing toppings

  • Red onion (fiber, folate, vitamins B6 & C, manganese, potassium, phosphorous).
  • Avocado (vitamins C, E, K, B1, B2, B6, folate, potassium, magnesium, fiber, heart-healthy unsaturated fat).
  • Chopped scallions (fiber, vitamins A, C & K, folate, calcium, iron, potassium and manganese).
  • Cilantro (vitamins C & K, choline).
  • 2% shredded cheese (calcium, vitamin D).
  • Nutritional yeast (protein, B vitamins: thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B6 and vitamin B12).
  • Sour cream (low-fat or fat-free) (calcium, vitamin D).
  • Plain Greek yogurt or dairy alternative yogurt (calcium, vitamin D, protein) – can be used to replace sour cream.

Don’t spoil it! A good bowl of chili speaks for itself. Why destroy it — and your waistline — by drowning it in high-fat, high-calorie toppings? Steer clear of processed oyster crackers or saltines and use a light hand when selecting fresh, color-adding finishes.

Gotta have your cornbread? Make yours healthier:

  • Make yours from scratch and sidestep all of the sugar and partially hydrogenated fats in many premade mixes!
  • Use cornmeal, and substitute whole-wheat flour for the usual all-purpose.
  • Keep it moist and low-fat by using either low-fat buttermilk or reduced-fat milk curdled with vinegar. (For those who are dairy-free, almond milk curdled with apple cider vinegar works like a charm!)
  • Skip the butter. Use applesauce to replace the fat (this will also increase the moistness) or choose a good fat like peanut, avocado or canola oil.
  • Go true Southern style. That means skip the sugar entirely. While there’s always some debate, most purists will agree that a true cornbread is savory, not sweet! If you must have sugar, cut it in half or at least one-quarter. Using applesauce to replace the butter will also provide a sweetness that can allow for omitting the sugar or at least cutting in half. 

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