Making Comfort Foods Healthier

Janis Hunter
Home & Garden Information Center

When the weather gets cooler and the leaves start turning beautiful colors, you may look forward to eating warm, rich and hearty comfort foods. Unfortunately, they can wreck your diet and cause you to pack on extra pounds, unless you modify your recipes or limit your portions. Research shows that the average weight gain between November and January is at least a pound, which is usually permanent. You can hide an expanding waistline under layers of winter clothing, but the ugly truth will be revealed when you put on those spring fashions.

What is a Comfort Food?
A comfort food is any food or beverage that gives a comforting, satisfying feeling after you eat them. It provides temporary relief (e.g. stress relief) or a sense of emotional well-being (e.g. happiness, security or a reward). According to a Cornell University study, women find comfort in candy, chocolates and prepared snack foods, such as ice cream or potato chips. Men prefer hearty, home-cooked meals, like pasta, steak or casseroles.

There are no “bad” foods, although some foods are worse for you than others. Many rich, creamy comfort foods are filled with artery-clogging fat, sugar, sodium (salt) and extra ingredients. You can splurge on an occasional small portion of a decadent food, but it’s better to completely avoid the temptation.

To prevent a craving for comfort food that is unhealthy, eat a balanced diet of foods that make you feel full and satisfied longer. This includes protein foods to stabilize blood sugars and high-fiber foods, which send the message “I’m full” to the brain.

The Most Popular Comfort Foods of the Season
Although most spring and summer dishes are light and full of healthy, colorful, leafy vegetables, the most popular fall and winter foods are warm, rich and hearty dishes. The list includes: macaroni and cheese; chili and stews; cream- and cheese-based casseroles; cream-based soups, bisques and chowders; creamy pot pies with pastry on the top and bottom; fried side dishes (e.g. French fries, chili cheese fries and onion rings); mashed potatoes, and a variety of sweet treats (e.g. Halloween candy, chocolate, cookies, and pies topped with whipped cream or ice cream).

Make Your Own Healthier Comfort Foods
You can cut the calories, fat, sodium and/or sugar in comfort foods without cutting the taste. Several of these healthy dishes include fall fruits and vegetables.

  • Macaroni & Cheese: This is the all-time comfort food. Instead of eating regular macaroni and cheese (2 cups = 880 calories and 40 grams fat), try whole-wheat elbow macaroni tossed with a cup of tomato sauce and 2 tablespoons of parmesan cheese (2 cups = 420 calories and 5 grams fat). Or, modify your mac and cheese recipe by using low-fat cheese and low-fat milk. Add vegetables to make it more nutritious and great tasting.
  • Chili & Stews: These dishes can be very hearty and high in protein.  Use small portions of lean meat, lots of vegetables and beans, and then sprinkle a small amount of low-fat cheese on top. Limit high-fat ingredients like ground beef, sausage and cheese. Stews and soups become more delicious when refrigerated overnight to allow flavors to blend.
  • Cream- or Cheese-based Casserole: For a healthier casserole, substitute low-calorie ingredients such as fat-free sour cream, low-fat cheese and reduced-fat soups. Better yet, replace a casserole with oven-roasted vegetables, such as new potatoes. They make a tasty, healthy side dish with only 100 calories and 4.5 grams of fat per 6 ounces.
  • Soups: Choose tomato-based or broth-based soups, like vegetable or minestrone, instead of cream-based soups. Enjoy soup as an appetizer or with a salad or a whole-wheat roll. Eat hearty chicken-vegetable soup made with peas, carrots, onions, squash and beets. Choose low-sodium canned soup, because regular soup usually contains a lot of salt and preservatives.
  • Mashed Potatoes: You can keep the rich, creamy taste of mashed potatoes with a lot less fat by adding buttermilk instead of whole milk or cream.
  • Shepherds’ Pie: Make Shepherds’ pie with peas, turnips, carrots and ground turkey, which is leaner than ground beef. Top with mashed cauliflower instead of mashed potatoes.
  • Sweet Potato Fries: Choose baked sweet potato fries (220 calories and 0 grams fat) instead of a large order of French fries (600 calories and 33 grams fat). To make Sweet Potato Fries, slice a large sweet potato into small sticks and spread the sticks on a baking sheet. Lightly coat with cooking spray, sprinkle with kosher salt and other seasonings, and bake at 375° F for 20-25 minutes.
  • Yams: Skip the traditional candied yams, which are high in sugar and fat. Bake yams with a small amount of brown sugar, and replace the butter with orange juice.
  • Green Bean Casserole: Make your green bean casserole with the lower-fat version of high fat ingredients (e.g. fat-free cream of mushroom soup and light butter). Better yet, skip the casserole and lightly toss green beans with some olive oil and lemon juice instead.
  • Pumpkin Pie: For a lower-fat pumpkin pie, use an egg substitute and evaporated skim milk. To enjoy a traditional pumpkin pie with fewer fat and calories, eat the filling but pass up the crust.
  • Fruit Crumble: To satisfy a sweet tooth, eat one of fall’s fresh fruits, including apples, apricots and cranberries. Make a fruit crumble with sliced fruit (e.g. apples, plum, peaches or nectarines) topped with some brown sugar and fiber-rich oats. Or, try some beets roasted in the oven for extra sweetness.
  • Chocolate: For an occasional treat, enjoy chocolate-dipped strawberries or other fruits, because antioxidant-rich fruit and chocolate make a pleasing combination. When it comes to chocolate, choose dark. The darker the chocolate is, the less fat and sugar it contains and the healthier it is for you. The most beneficial is dark chocolate that is at least 70% cocoa.
  • Hot Chocolate: Mix up some hot chocolate made with chocolate whey protein powder and warm low-fat or fat-free milk.
  • Salty Treat: If you are craving salt, eat some salted almonds, feta with sun-dried tomatoes or vegetables and hummus.
  • Pizza: Replace 2 slices of restaurant pizza (1,300 calories and 50 grams fat) with homemade pita pizza with vegetables (250 calories and 6 grams fat).
  • Pita Chips: Make your own pita chips by cutting whole wheat pita bread into pieces and toasting them in a toaster oven or broiler. Optional: Brush with a small amount of extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt.
  • Alternative for Fried Chicken Wings: Eat baked chicken tenderloins with hot sauce and low-calorie blue cheese dressing (120 calories and 1.5 grams fat) instead of fried chicken wings with blue cheese dressing (720 calories and 59 grams fat).

Note: When you cut back on fat, foods sometimes become bland in taste. Experiment with adding different spices and herbs until you get the correct quantities and combinations.

For other healthy alternatives to favorite cold-weather comfort foods, refer to HGIC 4093, Comfort Foods: Healthier Options.

Ways to Avoid Winter Weight Gain
In addition to limiting the most fattening foods, follow these tips to avoid winter weight gain.

  • Drink plenty of water between meals and at mealtimes.
  • Eat tomato-based and broth-based soups and stews that contain lots of vegetables and are low in sodium. Broth-based soup eaten as an appetizer can fill you up so that you eat fewer calories during the meal.
  • Eat plenty of lean protein to feel full and satisfied.
  • Use only lean meats in soups, casseroles and other dishes, and limit portion sizes.
  • Replace high-fat ingredients with spices and peppers to add pizzazz to your food.
  • Use low-fat milk or fat-free half-and-half instead of cream in recipes.
  • Replace each whole egg in a recipe with 2 egg whites.
  • Simplify your menus and limit food choices so that you aren’t tempted to eat everything.
  • Stick to your routine during the holiday season. If you splurge on comfort foods at a special meal or party, get your diet right back on track the next day.
  • Get at least 30 minutes of physical activity every day to stay fit and to keep your metabolism perking. Exercise is a great non-food way to reduce stress.
  • Get plenty of natural sunlight. Winter’s shorter days and longer nights may bring on fatigue, depression, and cravings for sweets and starches. Take a walk outside to lift your mood and to give your body a chance to produce vitamin D. This may take as little as 15 minutes of sun exposure on arms and face, without sunscreen, twice a week.
  • It is easier to keep your weight stable than to lose weight. You can lose weight, or at least maintain your weight, by eating 100 calories less than your body burns each day. On the other hand, you will gain about 10 pounds in a year by eating 100 extra calories a day.

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