Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow! It’s officially holiday music time! And did you see flurries outside this week? We did here in Pittsburgh, and thankfully for the time being, it has been pretty manageable. As we’re inching closer and closer to the end of the year, are you hoping to see a White Christmas? I think the snow adds such a magical feeling to the holidays, as long as it does not last too long, and does not make dangerous conditions for anyone that has to be out and about.
This end-of-the-year time period is traditionally a challenge for maintaining healthy eating habits and curbing weight gain. As the temperatures are dropping, we’re starting to hunker down inside, and we’re looking for comforting foods to warm our bodies and our spirits. In order to embrace this mentality, but combat some of the side effects that come along with it, let’s challenge ourselves to be set up for success for the new year. If we are able to focus on sticking to our healthy eating habits, we won’t experience the dreaded holiday weight gain, grogginess, bloat, etc, and may not feel the need to make a resolution to lose weight or eat more healthy. We can indulge in all the winter comfort foods we love, all our favorite dishes that fill us up and warm us up, and with a few simple tweaks, we can do so completely guilt-free. Learning a few hacks to have in the back of our minds can help us look at a recipe and make it work in our favor. With a little mental preparation prior to cooking, we can tackle any favorite comfort food and twist it into healthy food. Here are our 6 Easy Comfort Food Hacks.
Hack #1: Add vegetables!
When you look at a recipe, the first thought should be to try to find a way to throw in some extra in-season vegetables. This usually is not too hard in comfort foods, because there are lots of other flavors and textures going on, so added veggies will just be in the background, and you’ll get to enjoy all of the nutritious benefits they provide without too big of a change in expectations.
o If your recipe already includes vegetables, for example a soup or stew, start by doubling the amount of vegetables that are called for in the recipe, or challenge yourself to try adding 1 more vegetable to the dish. Have a minestrone soup you love? Add some green beans!
o To any soup or stew, stir in a big bunch of leafy greens as the final step. Spinach or kale will wilt and soften and add beautiful, fresh color to your meal, as well as fill you up with fiber.
o If you are making a dish that requires boiling pasta or potatoes, add some broccoli or cauliflower to the pot with your starch. This will save time on prep and will help the flavors mesh together. Try this out with your favorite macaroni and cheese recipe!
Hack #2: Avoid “Damaged Fats”
While it is important to remember that not all fats are bad for us, we also have to be alert to fried foods when thinking about our favorite comfort foods. Fried foods contribute to inflammation and should be avoided. Luckily there are ways to do so and still enjoy those flavors!
o Instead of deep frying chicken, try breading and baking chicken breasts.
o If you love chicken wings (it is football season after all), try them broiled with a dry seasoning rub.
Hack #3: Reduce salt and sugar
These updates take little effort but make a big difference in the nutrition content of your recipes. Reducing the salt content means more than just decreasing the actual salt that the recipe calls for, but that’s a great place to start. Try cutting the salt in the recipe in half. There are other places salt is hidden that should also be considered.
o Canned beans. Look for the “low sodium” or “no added salt” versions. If there are none available, the organic versions of canned beans usually contain much less sodium. Check the label before buying or consider purchasing dry beans and cooking yourself.
o Deli meats and bacon contain very high amounts of sodium. For your sandwich fix, consider sliced turkey meat or chicken salad, and for BLTs, consider using turkey bacon.
o In order to make the shift away from salt in your cooking, try including more fresh herbs to add flavor. Use cilantro for Mexican dishes, basil and sage for Italian dishes, and if you’re roasting lean meats or vegetables, use thyme or rosemary!
When we’re discussing main meals, it might not be obvious to consider sugar content, but check the labels of your salad dressings, BBQ sauces, even ketchup, and you may be surprised at just how much sugar is in one serving!
o If you’re craving a pulled pork BBQ sandwich, trying making the BBQ sauce by hand so you can control the ingredients that you put in.
Hack #4: Focus on Protein!
If your body is craving that full feeling that comfort food provides, protein is the sure-fire way to ensure you feel, and stay, full. It also will do so while providing nutrition benefits that carbohydrates and fats inherently do not provide.
o Swap red meat for leaner meats. Ground turkey or pork are such simple substitutions for your favorite meatball or meatloaf recipes. Ground chicken is great for tacos or other Mexican dishes. If you still love the flavor of red meat, try reducing to use only half the amount of ground beef that the recipe calls for, and using half of another leaner meat.
o Consider plant based sources of protein.
o Cooked and pureed lentils result in the same consistency as ground meat, and with seasonings and sauces, the difference is very minimal. They work perfectly in a sloppy joes recipe.
o Beans are excellent ingredients for comfort foods. Try a black bean burger instead of a traditional hamburger. White beans are a perfect add to any winter soup or stew. Chili can be made with any kind of beans! What is your favorite way to incorporate beans into your cooking?
Hack #5: Reduce Cream
Now this one might be the most challenging one so far when it comes to comfort food cooking. What casserole doesn’t have a creamy base? Of all of our suggested hacks, reducing the amount of cream in the recipe might result in the biggest change to the original dish, but it will really lighten it up and be a treat in a whole new way.
o If you’re assembling a hearty sandwich, instead of mayonnaise, consider using avocado or hummus for a spread.
o Make your cheese sauces from scratch by starting with a rue, adding reduced fat milk, and melting in your favorite cheese. This way you can control the amount of cheese that is added, as well as the fat content of the milk. Give this a try with macaroni and cheese or make a cheesy spinach filling for stuffed shells.
o Alter the base of cream soups by using broth (vegetable, chicken, beef, you name it- and try to find the low sodium version) and adding in cream at the end until you reach the desired consistency. You can try this with any creamy soup, like clam chowder or even baked potato soup.
o Avoid condensed soups. Use a combination of the previous two suggestions to make a white sauce, cheese sauce, or broth/ cream combo, to substitute for cream of mushroom or cream of chicken soups in your favorite casserole recipes.
Hack #6: Reduce Simple Starches
Simple starches might be the base for most comfort foods, but the swaps to make them healthier alternatives are not too hard to make, and should not drastically change the flavor or texture of the dishes.
o White rice is very low in nutrients, so to increase the nutrient content of rice based dishes and casseroles, try making the simple switch to brown rice, which includes more fiber, vitamins, and minerals, or quinoa, which contains more protein. Try making a chicken, broccoli, cheddar casserole with either brown rice or quinoa!
o White potatoes also contain high amounts of carbohydrates while having very low nutrition content. Try swapping for sweet potatoes when serving baked potatoes, or in stews. Try using mashed cauliflower instead of mashed potatoes. If you’re not ready to swap entirely, using half mashed potatoes and half mashed cauliflower makes a great shepherd’s pie.
o White bread lacks many nutrients and is also quite flavorless.
o Try swapping multigrain bread when you are craving a grilled cheese, or consider a side of a whole grain baguette with your bowl of soup.
o Another hidden spot for plain white bread is in the form of breadcrumbs. In place of traditional breadcrumbs, you can grind your own using whatever bread you like. Try using ground oats in meatloaves or meatballs, and try using ground almond meal as breading when making chicken or eggplant parmesan.
o Let’s be honest, we all love a good pasta. Instead of traditional boxed noodles, be open minded to some other options.
o Consider spaghetti squash or spiralized zucchini, squash, or sweet potatoes for your baked spaghetti dish. For ease, both Whole Foods and Trader Joes sell these spiralized vegetables ready to use!
o When making lasagna, leave the noodles out altogether, and layer thin strips of zucchini or squash with sauce and cheese!
o If you want to stick with boxed pasta, check out the aisle to see what is available while shopping. There are whole wheat options, as well as quinoa and even lentil pastas that are made up of good proteins that would be easy substitutions for your recipes.
Have you tried any of these healthy comfort food hacks? Do you have any other favorite tips or tricks that are not mentioned here? Let us know in the comments!