Comfort Food Made Healthier With These Simple Swaps
We know how it goes. You vow to yourself on January 1 that you will make this year the best yet. No more sweets (at least not every night), no more booze (during the week), and no more skipping workouts (when it’s above 32 degrees). But the third week of January rolls around and you’re getting sick and tired of this life that’s supposed to be making you feel like a “new” person. Truth is, you’re already pretty great, so don’t feel like you need to deprive yourself of things that make you happy.
If you miss cozy comfort food meals in the winter, you should have cozy comfort food meals in the winter. And we aren’t talking about ones that make you feel worse than the cold wind blowing on your face. You can easily incorporate healthy swaps that help to keep your favorite comfort foods (yes, even mac and cheese) in line with your healthy eating goals.
1. Mac and Cheese
Yes, you can indulge in mac and cheese without feeling like you just finished off the second plate of Thanksgiving dinner. Keep it cheesy but lighten things up slightly by using low-fat or nondairy (unsweetened) milk instead of whole milk or cream.
To make up for any lacking creaminess, add in puréed cauliflower. It adds a nice texture and “bulks up the dish without adding extra calories,” says Claudia Sidoti, head chef and recipe developer at HelloFresh. To make puréed cauliflower, chop the florets from a medium head, steam them, and then add to a blender or food processor and mix until smooth. Add in a 1/2 cup of the cauliflower to the cheese combo at a time until you think you’ve reached your desired consistency.
You can also save a cup of the pasta water after boiling the macaroni to add to the noodles with the sauce. Start by cutting back on the recommended milk and add a little pasta water to see how creamy it gets, and add more as needed. The pasta water allows you to use less milk or cream as you’re making the cheese sauce. Oh, and Sidoti promises you won’t notice the difference if you swap regular macaroni for whole-wheat or even chickpea pasta, like Banza (our favorite!) if you want to add a little more nutrients to the meal and go lighter on the white flour.
Want to experiment even more? Try this healthyish butternut squash macaroni that’s going to change how you feel about the OG mac recipe (a.k.a. you might like this better).
2. Shepherd’s Pie
Who doesn’t love shepherd’s pie? OK, maybe a few people, especially when you have resolutions on the brain. But with a few small swaps you can make it part of a healthy dinner rotation.
For the filling, use ground turkey instead of the traditional lamb, and double your veggie intake by adding extra peas, celery, and carrots. You’ll be able to use less meat by using more veggies (bonus point: It’s also cheaper because you can save half of the turkey to make a turkey bolognese like this one from Inspiralized).
And that creamy mashed potato topping? Replace the potatoes with mashed cauliflower or parsnips, Langan suggests. Just steam the veg of choice and then purée it. Add any ghee, butter, or oils and seasonings to flavor it up to your liking. Your guests (or your partner/roommate/in-laws/Tinder date) will never know the difference.
Nothing screams comfort like a potful of steamy, homemade chili, but who says you need all of that meat to feel satisfied? For our vegetarian friends or anyone who has gone a little HAM on bacon lately and needs a break, substitute the meat completely with finely chopped mushrooms. “They have a similar meaty texture and add a nice hint of umami flavor to the chili,” Langan says.
Don’t be shy with the veggies when it comes to chili either. Add as many you’d like and definitely go off of the recipe if the usual pepper-celery-carrot combo sounds too boring. Think: sweet potatoes, zucchini, butternut squash, purple potatoes, and parsnips.
Is there anything better than a quiche fresh out of the oven? Cookies, yes, but we’re talking about brunch here, and when you have cheesy goodness baked in a golden, flaky crust, it’s a party for the taste buds.
If you already ate a bagel and want to lighten up the egg-based meal (and spend less time pulling it together), Sidoti suggests skipping the crust altogether and instead “lightly sprinkling whole-wheat bread crumbs at the bottom of the pan” to give a crust-like base. If you’re looking to go even lighter, some might say to use low-fat milk and egg whites (although we say the whole egg is better).
Let’s simplify things: Just take your favorite quiche recipes and make a frittata instead. You can get the same pretty round mold of a quiche but you don’t have to worry about the crust at all (not even a sprinkling of bread crumbs).
If you’re worried you’re going to eat the entire pan in one sitting and ruin your plan to have leftovers, make these egg muffins that help with portion control, but even better, they can even be enjoyed on the run since they really are just like little muffins.
Gone are the days when you save lasagna for your biggest meal of the month. You can make it healthy without making it taste bland according to Chef Ahki, CEO of Delicious Indigenous Foods and author of Electric! A Modern Guide to Non-Hybrid and Wild Foods.
Instead of ground beef in between the noodles, Chef Ahki’s recipe uses 1 cup of sun-dried tomatoes and 1/2 cup of walnuts (after soaking them both for at least an hour) as a meat layer substitute. Then add oregano, dried sage, coconut aminos, cayenne pepper, and olive oil to give the vegan mixture the classic Italian taste.
Want to take it a step or two further? Use thinly sliced zucchini or butternut squash instead of starchy noodles and mix in puréed vegetables into the tomato sauce. Want to give it a go? Here’s more healthy lasagna recipe inspo.
6. Banana Bread
A slice (or two) of banana bread is good for you, right? Well, it can be, but usually, the flour and sugar overpower the benefits of the bananas. Try to go for a Paleo version instead (even if you aren’t hardcore Paleo) that uses coconut oil, almond and coconut flours, and pure maple syrup as a sweetener.
Want to go big? Toss in some chia seeds to “give it that nutty flavor and texture,” Sidoti says. There are tons of Paleo-friendly bread recipes out there that can make you feel a tad bit better about your bread addiction (we all have it).
7. Potato Pancakes (Latkes)
Here’s a radical thought: What if potato pancakes consisted of carrots, parsnip, and zucchini? That’s right. Potato pancakes sans the potatoes. “Keep the onion for flavor,” Langan says, “but fry the pancakes using grape-seed oil.” Do an even swap of a mixture of the veggies for the potatoes and you’ll be good to go.
Sensitive to gluten? Make your own flour by tossing dried chickpeas in a food processor—grinding, sifting, grinding, and then sifting again until the chickpeas morph into a fine, powdery texture. If that sounds too complicated, just choose one of these potato pancake recipes the next time a latke craving hits hard.
8. Hot Cocoa
As far as we’re concerned, no one’s ever too old to enjoy a cup of hot chocolate. The only difference? We suggest using a dairy-free milk instead and whisking in “some rich, dark chocolate with at least 70 percent of cocoa,” says Julie Harrington, registered dietitian, chef, and food blogger at the RDelicious Kitchen.
And do yourself a favor and avoid instant mixes as those tend to be packed with artificial sweeteners and other crap that takes away from the au natural chocolate flavor. You can easily make your own with 1/2 cup cacao powder, 1 cup maple syrup, 1 tablespoon coconut butter, and 4 cups almond milk. Stir together in a small saucepan and you’ll never buy it from a cafe (or grocery store) again.
You can have your comfort foods and eat them too. Whether you’re on a health kick, trying a new diet for 2018, or just trying to say no to mac and cheese every Friday night, let these recipes remind you that you don’t need to deprive yourself. Make small swaps that end up having a big impact on how you feel. Life is too short to eat lettuce for every meal, so live a little and give these lighter comfort food variations a go.