Lighten Up! | EatSmarter! Exclusive

Healthier Comfort Foods

Updated on 27. Dec. 2018
Pizza made healthier: spelt crust, fresh tomatoes and part-skim cheese
Pizza made healthier: spelt crust, fresh tomatoes and part-skim cheese

'Tis the season for warming foods that comfort body and soul. Unfortunately, those creamy (usually) dishes are often loaded with calories and unhealthy fats. Good news! You can still have your mac and cheese and eat it, too. Here are some tips and tricks for updating long-time favorites to fit within today's healthier lifestyles.

share Share
bookmark_border Copy URL

Instead of avoiding all your favorite comfort foods, why not just give them a makeover? It's as simple as swapping out the main culprits with better-for-you options and using cooking methods that get the job done with far less fat but with all the flavor intact. 

First, Make Smart Substitutions...

swap this with that
whole milk skim or low-fat milk or unsweetened non-dairy milk such as almond, coconut or flax seed milk
heavy cream reduced-fat milk or non-dairy creamers
full-fat cheese low-fat varieties such as part-skim mozzarella and ricotta, or use fresh goat cheese (naturally lower in saturated fat)
butter extra-virgin olive oil (for drizzling); coconut oil, grapeseed oil or safflower oil (for cooking)
sour cream plain low-fat yogurt
white flour whole-grain flours, including whole-wheat flour, spelt flour, rye flour or buckwheat flour, or nut meals (almond and hazelnut)
ground chuck ground sirloin or ground turkey
white rice  brown rice or quinoa
semolina pasta whole-grain pasta or gluten-free options such as quinoa pasta or lentil pasta (or spaghetti squash or zucchini "noodles")
white potatoes red- or purple-fleshed potatoes, sweet potatoes or winter squash
mayonnaise mashed avocado (for a sandwich topping or in dips and spreads)

...Then, Tweak the Techniques

When it comes to eating healthy, it's not just what you eat but also how you cook it. Think grilling or roasting instead of frying, steaming instead of sauteeing. See the recipes below for more ideas and examples.

EatSmarter! Top Ten Comfort Food Updates

1. Burger and Fries

Ground turkey is much leaner than ground beef and has just as much protein, while fresh tomato salsa, mashed avocado, crisp lettuce, and fresh herbs all make healthy toppings (hold the mayo!). Another bonus of using turkey instead of beef: you can flavor the patties with a wide range of seasonings for burgers with Asian or Middle-Eastern accents. Not a meat eater? Make salmon or veggie burgers, including the one below which has a zucchini patty and a portabello mushroom for a double decker. Fries, the essential accompaniment, can be crisped in the oven; sweet potatoes are a more nutritional (and some say more delicious) option. 

Turkey Burgers with Fresh Tomato Salsa

Salmon Burger

Veggie Burger 

Baked Sweet Potato Fries

2. Pizza 

Use whole-wheat or spelt in the crust, cut back on the cheese (or omit it entirely), skip the pepperoni and use lots of fresh vegetables and leaner proteins, like tuna or turkey sausage, for the toppings. Small pizzas are good for smaller appetites. 

Mini Pepper Pizzas

Pizza with Anchovies and Basil

Pizza with Spinach, Pine Nuts and Gorgonzola

3. Macaroni and Cheese

The all-time kids' favorite can be tweaked in many ways, starting with using whole-grain pasta and a lightened bechamel sauce or simply milk and cheese (and no butter or cream) as in the quick version below. Rounding out the dish with vegetables such as tomatoes, cauliflower and broccoli make it even healthier.

Macaroni and Cheese

Quick Macaroni and Cheese

Macaroni Cheese and Cauliflower Bake

4. Meatloaf 

Although classically made with a trio of pork, beef, and veal, meatloaf can also be made with just veal (the leanest of the three) or ground turkey. In fact, you can pretty much swap in one of these in most any recipe for meatloaf. You can also stuff the meatloaf with ample vegetables to make it more nutritious. There's even a meat-free recipe for vegetarians. 

Smarter Veal Meatloaf

Turkey Meatloaf 

Vegetarian Meatloaf

5. Mashed Potatoes

What's rich and creamy and loaded with butter? Yep, good old-fashioned mashed potatoes, everyone's favorite sidekick to meatloaf and fried chicken, to name just the most popular combos. But it's easy enough to scale back on the amount of butter and cream or to replace them entirely. Low-fat milk, buttermilk, and yogurt lend creaminess, while heart-healthy oil is a smart swap for butter. Other liquids like broth can also be used to moisten the potatoes, and herbs and vegetables to add extra flavor. 

Smarter Mashed Potatoes

Smarter Herb Mashed Potatoes

Mediterranean-Style Mashed Potatoes

6. Spaghetti and Meatballs 

The biggest problem with spaghetti and meatballs is in the generous portions, so start by serving it on smaller dishes and rounding out the meal with a green salad. In addition, rather than using the usual mixture of ground meat, make the meatballs with ground turkey instead (similar to making a lighter meatloaf); you can basically substitute turkey meatballs in any recipe calling for those made with beef. Or use a combination of ground chicken and pork, as in a recipe below, which also calls for whole-grain pasta (which you can always use instead of regular pasta in any recipe). Incorporating vegetables into the dish will stretch each serving, too. 

Spaghetti with Meatballs and Arugula

Pappardelle with Turkey Meatballs, Zucchini and Fresh Tomato Sauce

Pasta with Meatballs in Tomato Sauce

7. Chicken Pot Pie

Replace the pie dough topping with store-bought puff pastry and omit the cream from the filling (or simply substitute non-dairy creamer in recipes) to make lighter pot pies. Using only chicken breast meat also goes a long way to cutting back on fat. Making single-serving sized pot pies helps with portion control.

Chicken Pot Pie

Individual Chicken Pot Pies

8. Asian Fried Rice

It's just as quick and easy to make this popular take-out dish yourself as it is to order in, and you can use healthier ingredients and control the fat and sodium content. Brown rice can be used in place of white and you can use a higher vegetable-to-rice ratio. Shrimp, chicken breast, and pork tenderloin all add lean protein to the dish, while tofu is a good option for vegetarians. 

Shrimp Fried Rice

Vegetable Fried Rice

Thai Fried Rice with Chicken

9. Lasagna Bolognese

Classic lasagna is the ultimate crowd pleaser, thanks to a winning combination of hearty meat ragu, tender noodles, and melted cheese topping. Replacing the ground beef with turkey in the sauce helps cut back on the fat and calories, as does replacing the bechamel sauce in the filling with part-skim ricotta or cottage cheese (a time-honored trick). Incorporating vegetables into the layers means using less of both meat and cheese. Of course, meatless versions abound, and there are even unbaked ("deconstructed") versions for dinner party fare that won't weigh anyone down.  

Turkey Lasagna

Kale Lasagna

Mushroom Lasagna with Ricotta

10. Risotto

There's a reason why risotto is usually so utterly delicious: lots of butter. But you can produce similar results by using much less butter (as little as 2 teaspoons for 4 servings) or replacing all or some of the butter with extra-virgin olive oil. A little bit of grated cheese at the end goes a long way, too. Risotto is also traditionally made with other whole grains in place of rice, such as farro and barley, and with vegetables or seafood added, for fewer starchy carbs per serving. 

Smarter Risotto with Mushrooms

Pearl Barley Risotto with Mushrooms

Risotto with Snow Peas and Pine Nuts



Add comment