Meatloaf is classic comfort food, and like many comfort foods was born of a need to stretch a little bit of food to feed a lot of people. You take a pound of ground meat, add extenders like vegetables and breadcrumbs and bind it all together with an egg, and boom: a pound of meat feeds a family of four, maybe even with leftovers for sandwiches the next day.
The downside is, while meatloaf is delicious, it is not always healthy. Classic recipes use fatty ground pork and hamburger, along with salt-laden add-ins like crushed crackers or seasoning packets. Some even incorporate little pockets of cheese (okay, THAT would probably be good enough to make it worth the saturated fat and calories!).
But it's not hard at all to healthy up this classic family recipe and make it as good for you as it is good tasting. Once you have the basic formula nailed down, you can vary the ingredients so that they are better for you and customize them so they are just the way you like.
The easiest substitution is to swap out fatty meats for leaner ones like ground sirloin or ground turkey. These are great places to start; the downside is that ground sirloin can be dry, while turkey can be both dry and flavorless. That's where your add-ins come in, the most necessary of which is vegetables.
Vegetables are essential because they add flavor, bulk and moisture. You want quite a lot, about a third of the volume of your meat, maybe even more depending on your taste. Some recipes call for cooking them first, others call for chopping them very small. I whir mine in the food processor until they are very finely minced, then add them into the meat raw; I've never had an unpleasantly crunchy-raw veggie surprise yet. You can pretty much play around with whatever you like; the only thing I would say not to omit is onion, because their deep flavor plays so well with meat and is part of that classic "meatloaf" taste we all love. You can try carrots, celery, bell peppers, mushrooms, even spinach (which goes really well with turkey meatloaf). Bonus: this can be a way to sneak vegetables past picky eaters because they just sort of disappear into the mix.
Next up is your starch, which is generally breadcrumbs or crackers, although when my husband did the South Beach Diet we had a grain-free meatloaf using white beans which was really good. You can use whole grain bread to make your breadcrumbs, or lower-sodium crackers for your cracker crumbs. Or you can make a panade, a paste of bread and milk that adds moisture and helps tenderize meat.
Then comes the fun part....spices and sauces to add flavor. Be judicious with sugary sauces like barbecue sauce and ketchup; try thinning them with water to make more of a glaze instead of brushing them on full-strength. And just don't bother with those awful salty seasoning packets; instead, try spices and herbs you already know you like. Oregano is yummy in meatloaf; so is thyme, or try salt-free seasoning blends.
What's your favorite trick to make meatloaf healthy and yummy?