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How to Make Healthy Comfort Foods

How to Make Healthy Comfort Foods

We all crave comfort foods from our childhood and the urge to binge increases as the weather gets colder. Indulging in hot chocolate with plenty of marshmallows, oatmeal with spoonfuls of sugar, fried chicken, pizza oozing with cheese, meatballs and pepperoni brings back pleasant memories and makes us feel better. Unfortunately, once we get on the scale or visit the doctor those comfy feelings may disappear. The extra calories, sugar, salt and preservatives in comfort foods add unwanted pounds and may contribute to diabetes, high blood pressure and other ailments as we age.

You don't need to give up comfort food to stay healthy and slim. You will need to change some of the ingredients in the comfort food you eat if you want to stay healthy. Replace excess sugar and salt, whipped cream, preservatives and creamy sauces with more nutritious, low-cal ingredients. Yes, it's possible to do without sacrificing flavor. Depending on the food, you can either duplicate the original taste with substitute ingredients or create a new flavor that's just as tasty.

Craving fried chicken? Roast or bake organic chicken instead and serve with garlic sauce. If you miss the crunch of fried chicken, you can mix crushed cornflakes or saltine crackers with seasonings for a grease and fat-free simulation. Other healthy chicken recipes call for marinating chicken in yogurt and Dijon mustard. Order thin-crust, veggie-topped pizza from your local pizza place or buy low-carb pizza or whole-wheat crust from your supermarket.

Meat loaf, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, popcorn and mashed potatoes are just a few more comfort foods you can enjoy guilt-free by using ingredient substitutions.  

Why Do You Think They Call it Comfort Food?

Comfort also means quick. Most comfort food is easy to prepare. You can slip a frozen apple pie into the oven, make mac ‘n' cheese from a box or eat ice cream out of the carton. You're more likely to eat microwavable French bread pizza, pastries, cinnamon buns and other comfort food when you're bored or upset. This is different from a long-term eating disorder. It's a temporary measure many people use to assuage negative feelings. Be aware of your emotional state when you binge on comfort food or junk food. Find other ways to eliminate negative feelings. Meditate, exercise, watch a funny movie or text a friend.

Macaroni and Cheese

Run, don't walk away from cheap boxed macaroni ‘n' cheese dinner mixes. Even though Kraft recently pulled artificial food coloring from its mac ‘n' cheese mix, powdered cheese may still contain whey, vegetable oil or other ingredients. Making your own version at home with real cheese will add more calcium, protein, zinc, Vitamin B12 and Vitamin A to your meal. And you can add the cheese (or cheeses) you like to make this comfort food even more appealing. Most

Choose whole grain or high-fiber pasta brands. Instead of the usual durum wheat, these brands are made with quinoa, spelt, brown rice or whole wheat.   

Macaroni ‘n' cheese will never take the place of salad on the list of good-for-you foods, even with ingredient substitutions, but using cheese and whole grains will substantially increase nutrients while satisfying your need for down-home comfort.

Avoid the Dreaded Line for Pumpkin Spice Latte

Pumpkin pie is one of fall's favorite comfort foods, and you may not want to wait til Thanksgiving to sample it. In its raw, unprocessed form, pumpkin puree (the substance inside the pumpkin shell, along with seeds), has 30 calories per cup. It's a good source of Vitamin C, folate, Vitamin B6, Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), thiamine (Vitamin B1), and has a whooping 171% of your RDV of Vitamin A.  

Every autumn, pumpkin-flavored coffee is all the rage at your local coffeeshop. Experience all the flavor and comfort of pumpkin latte without the calories or the wait by making your own version at home. A pumpkin spice latte grande at Starbucks is 380 calories and loaded with sugar. Make your own version with espresso or strong coffee, coconut milk, pumpkin puree, maple syrup and pumpkin pie spice (nutmeg, cinnamon, clove, cardamom).  You'll save 200 calories!

A quarter cup of pumpkin seeds contain 74% of your DRV of manganese and 48% of the DRV for magnesium. They're also a good source of zinc, which assists in wound healing. Roast pumpkin seeds at home and combine with sesame seeds, flaxseeds, raisins, dried fruit and unsalted nuts to make your own sugar-free trail mix.

Instead of buying a frozen pumpkin pie filled with additives and sugar, bake your own. Skip the refined sugar and use only low-fat or fat-free milk and brown sugar. Top with creamy, nonfat yogurt sprinkled with cinnamon.

Eat Air-Popped Popcorn with Healthy Toppings

Instead of snacking on cheese or microwave popcorn, splurge in a much healthier way with air-popped popcorn topped with healthy seasonings. Don't mind a little spice? Sprinkle Sriracha hot sauce over popcorn. (Sriracha's made with garlic, chili pepper paste, vinegar and small amounts of sugar and salt.) Combine rosemary, black pepper and Parmesan cheese to give your popcorn a fresh herb taste. Rosemary contains antioxidants, Vitamin B6, calcium and iron, and it's been used as a holistic remedy for muscle pains and better circulation. Parmesan cheese has a nutty taste, and contains Vitamin A and calcium. (Use in moderation, though – it's high in sodium.) Black pepper does a lot more than make you sneeze. Its antioxidants and antibacterial properties fight infections and free radicals.

Other popcorn toppings:

  • Curry powder
  • Garlic powder with olive oil
  • Paprika and olive oil
  • Coriander and Cayenne Pepper
  • Coconut oil

Substitute popcorn with cauliflower for an after-school snack or side dish, and use your choice of toppings. Cut cauliflower into small florets, cover with olive oil and sea or kosher salt. Add turmeric, paprika and garlic powder. Bake in the oven for 30 minutes. Cauliflower popcorn satisfies your need for something crunchy and spicy, without all the butter and chemicals from microwave popcorn.  Tip – Use a combination of cauliflower and broccoli for more nutrients.

Meat Loaf

Use the leanest ground beef you can, and add chopped up carrots, zucchini, onions, garlic, bell peppers and/or mushrooms for flavor and more Vitamin C and phytonutrients. Top with tomato sauce instead of creamy gravy.

If you're a vegetarian, double up on veggies and use a veggie burger mix, bread crumbs and Parmesan cheese for a meat-free meal. Vegans can substitute nuts, chickpeas and even more veggies and still get that dinner at Mom's taste. The nuts and chickpeas when baked together), give the vegan meatloaf the same consistency and a taste similar to carnivore meatloaf.  

Peanut Butter and Jelly

With a few simple substitutions, the traditional peanut butter and jelly sandwich becomes more nutrient dense. Use organic peanut butter brand, whole-what or whole-grain bread and low-sugar or sugar-free jam or jelly.  (Jelly is clear and made with sweetened fruit juice; jam contains fruit juice and bits of fruit.) Visit your local farmer's market for fresh, homemade jam. It will be pricier than store-bought jam, but it will be worth it!

Mashed Potatoes

Resist the urge to buy mashed potato mix in a box or packet. Boil whole, fresh potatoes with a pinch of salt. Heat low-fat milk and butter. Mash the potatoes with an electric beater or manual utensil, and then blend potatoes with milk and butter. Add a small amount of fresh garlic, cayenne pepper or turmeric to the potatoes to spice it up and add antioxidants and vitamins.

Healthy Ingredients for Comfort Food Substitutions

Once you become familiar with healthy foods and spices, experiment with recipe substitutions or create your own snacks and comfort foods.

Olive Oil


Buckwheat Flour

Brown Rice

Steel Cut Oats/Groats

Low Fat Milk/Skim Milk

Chopped Fresh Vegetables

Chopped Fresh Fruits

Sesame Seeds, Flaxseeds, Pumpkin Seeds

Plain Walnuts, Peanuts, Brazil Nuts, Pistachio Nuts


Maple Syrup

Coconut Milk

Soy Milk

Almond Milk

Rice Milk

Organic Eggs

Lean Organic Grassfed Beef

Organic Chicken

Organic Peanut Butter

Wild Caught Salmon

Fruit or Vegetable Juice

A Few Basic Rules for Ingredient Substitutions

Replace high-sugar, high-sodium ingredients with spices, heavy creams with low-fat or vegan milk, processed meat and poultry with organic choices, and use unsalted seeds, crushed-up crackers or nuts for texture. Ingredient substitutions will change the structure of the recipe, so it's important to be careful when replacing fats, sugars or starches. Honey and maple syrup alone can't be used as a substitution for the creaming method (combining several ingredients to form batter or cookie dough) when baking; you'll need to add baking soda to make the batter rise.

By substituting low-cal, high-nutrient ingredients for sugar and other problematic elements, you can make healthy comfort food at home without sacrificing taste. Get creative in the kitchen to duplicate meals from your childhood without excess fat, salt or sugar.

What are some of the healthy substitute ingredients you use when preparing your favorite comfort food?