We all have particular foods and snacks we turn to in times of need: that late-night pizza after a fight with a friend, or a stack of nachos after a rough day at the office. They certainly provide the comfort we need but rarely the nutrients, packed as they usually are with saturated fats, refined sugars, and empty carbohydrates. Of course, celery sticks will never fill us with the same sense of wellbeing as a bowl of macaroni and cheese, so what to do the next time the comfort crave hits?
"The trick," says Mollie Katzen, author of the classic The New Moosewood Cookbook (Ten Speed Press, 2000), "is to turn healthier ingredients into a sensual experience- that way, they become comfort foods." With a little expert advice, it's easy to put a healthy twist on old favorites.
What do you crave?
Think about the foods that push your buttons: What are you most likely to grab, order, or pop in the microwave when the comfort craving strikes? For many, it's food that's easy to prepare or ready to eat. Potato chips, for example, topped the list in a recent Cornell University study of Americans' food habits. For others, it's gooey favorites like mac 'n' cheese. "The truth is, most of us can't imagine life without chocolate, ice cream, pasta, bread, and potatoes," says Barbara Rolls, the Guthrie Chair of Nutrition at Penn State University and author of The Volumetrics Eating Plan (Harper, 2007), a weight-loss program that focuses on satisfying hunger with filling, nutritious foods. Rather than eliminating certain items from your diet, Rolls's research suggests you identify the foods you can't give up and find imaginative ways to raise their nutritional content and lower their caloric density.
The first step is to replace empty carbs with complex ones, refined sugars with natural sugars, and bad fats with good fats. "Having quality ingredients and condiments in the house is 90 percent of the challenge," Katzen says. These tips can help you create healthier comfort foods:
- Substitute lean protein like turkey and tempeh for fatty meats.
Replace beef, pork, and processed cold cuts to reduce saturated fat.
- Make homemade dressings and condiments with heart-healthy olive oil. They're leaner than trans fat-laden commercial varieties.
- Choose fingerling and Yukon Gold potatoes. They are a better source of complex carbs than starchy white potatoes.
- Use whole wheat flour, brown rice, and whole grain bread. Toss out the white flour, bread, and rice. Whole wheat versions increase dietary fiber and prevent spikes in blood sugar.
- Add fresh produce to salad dressings, meat loaf, and sandwiches. Versatile choices include peppers, asparagus, shiitakes, and avocado.
Discover new flavors
The traditional grilled cheese sandwich-a classic comfort food-was processed American cheese on white bread. For Alice Waters, founder of the renowned Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., it is far more sophisticated now: "It's on crusty bread with sharp, organic Swiss. I fry it in olive oil, rub the bread with garlic, and stick some fresh basil in there, too." Instead of French fries, Katzen roasts vegetables at 450°F with olive oil and a little salt—one taste and you'll never feel the same way about fatty fast food fries again. Other strategies in Katzen's arsenal include:
- Add a teaspoon of butter to a tablespoon of olive oil when you're sautéing. The butter won't add significant saturated fat, but it will lend its deep dairy note to the oil.
- Spoon creamy Greek yogurt into dishes in place of mayonnaise or sour cream. You'll not only save yourself fat and calories, but you'll also enjoy a tangy new taste.
- Craft your own healthy bread crumbs. Toast a slice of whole grain bread, pulse the toasted bread in a food processor, then lightly season with fresh herbs and a small amount of oil in a skillet.
- Make a super-easy balsamic glaze. Simmer a cup of balsamic vinegar over low heat for 30 minutes. You can store the reduction in a covered container at room temperature indefinitely and spoon it over meats, grains, and veggies.
Let our seven guilt-free comfort food updates inspire you to create flavorful, healthful favorites of your own: Pick a cherished dish that isn't doing you any nutritional favors and turn it into a fresh, wholesome treat that loves you back.