5 Tips for Healthier Comfort Food
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As the weather turns colder, cravings for warm, gooey concoctions take over. Cheesy quiche for breakfast? Absolutely! Creamy chowder for lunch? You bet! Warm (but heavy) casserole for dinner? But of course!
The good news: Satisfying your comfort food cravings doesn’t have to derail a healthy diet. These 5 strategies can help you modify even the most decadent recipes into diet-friendly indulgences.
- Break out the crockpot . The beauty of the crockpot, or slow cooker, is that you can dump all the ingredients in the pot before work and have dinner served when you return. Perfect for busy schedules and comfort food lovers! But many crockpot faves – like pulled meat dishes —are calorie- and fat-laden. Taking the extra step of browning meat ahead of time (and draining the fat) trims the calories and fat content and boosts flavor.
Bonus: Many people focus on slow cookers for the main event, but they’re equally convenient for cooking up healthy sides. Try winter squash such as acorn, spaghetti and butternut or use it to make soup.
- Whip up some homemade soup . Turns out the idea that chicken soup can relieve cold/flu symptoms has some sound scientific backing. Hot liquids, like tea or broth-based soups, help loosen mucus and keep your body hydrated. Researchers have also found that chicken soup with vegetables may have anti-inflammatory properties. And let’s not forget the positive psychological effect a comforting bowl of soup can have when you’re feeling sick or just a little down.
Bonus: Homemade broth-based soup can be fairly low in calories so it can help you manage your weight. It’s also a good vehicle for getting more vegetables into your diet, and you can customize it to your tastes or whatever veggies you need to use up. Whether you’re making your own stock or using stock from the store, be sure to watch the sodium content.
- Warm up with chili. With meat, beans and cheese, chili is a classic comfort food. Unfortunately, it also tends to pack a hefty hit in the calorie department, particularly when it acts as a dressing for hot dogs or a side dish for burgers! But chili doesn’t have to be a dietary disaster. In fact, the signature ingredients in most chili recipes, including beans, tomatoes, onions and garlic, are surprisingly good for you!
Bonus: Experiment with slimmer chili variations such as white bean chicken chili, or turkey or vegetarian varieties.
- Get creative with casseroles. Rather than resort to the fat-laden, cream-soup based casseroles of yesteryear, lighten up your favorite recipes with smart substitutions. Slash the fat by substituting Greek yogurt for sour cream or mayo, making cream-based soups from scratch (with lower-fat ingredients) and cutting the amount of butter, cheese and other fattening extras in half. It’s also fun to experiment with newer one-pot/pan meals that combine healthy ingredients, like a ginger chicken and brown rice casserole.
Bonus: Whether you’re making Shepherd’s pie or cheesy Chicken Divan, you can easily throw in extra fresh (or frozen) veggies for an added dose of fiber, vitamins and minerals. Spinach, tomatoes, peas, and broccoli make awesome additions.
- Cut back on carbs. Rather than overload on calorie-heavy carbohydrates (mashed potatoes, pasta), use fiber-rich veggies to revamp comfort food classics. Mix whole wheat fettucine with zucchini noodles, use riced cauliflower in lieu of mashed potatoes, and replace starchy potatoes with cannellini beans in soups and winter salads.
Bonus: Making these smart swaps not only helps you cut back on fat and calories, it also gives you a chance to add immune-boosting nutrients to your meals that can help keep you healthy and strong through flu season.
You can modify nearly any comfort food recipe to make it lower in calories and fat and higher in nutrients. Cook foods at a low temperature for a longer period of time to draw out natural flavors. And remember every food fits in a healthy lifestyle — even the unmodified classic recipes. The key, of course, is portion control.
Bethany Thayer, MS, RDN, is director of the Henry Ford Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention. She enjoys communicating with people about healthy living and eating and was a national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics for 9 years. Beth is the president of the Michigan Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, which also named her as the Outstanding Dietitian of the Year in 2012.