How Dietitians Make Comfort Foods Healthier
Eating Right
December 01, 2022
How Dietitians Make Comfort Foods Healthier

We all love some good comfort food every now and then. Recipes that are passed down through generations can conjure up warm, fuzzy feelings of simpler times just as much as they can make our mouths water.

But unfortunately, they’re not always some of the healthiest dishes that land on our dinner tables. That’s why we spoke with a few dietitians to get their insight on how to lighten up some of those classics we love so much without losing any of the nostalgia.

Turn to Lower Fat Dairy

Chances are some of your favorite comfort foods are rich and creamy. But it’s that creaminess that can be a calorie, fat and carb culprit when it comes to weighing down meals. But by switching over to lower-fat dairy products, or even dairy alternatives, you can quickly cut down the calorie load without sacrificing creaminess.

“Lightening up cooler weather comfort foods is really pretty simple,” says Kaylee Jacks, a sports dietitian at Texas Health Sports Medicine. “First, start by swapping out low-fat dairy in place of full-fat products to make healthier versions of your favorite family meals without sacrificing taste. My favorite is plain nonfat Greek yogurt. This dramatically reduces the overall calorie content and saturated fat (unhealthy fat) and increases protein to support lean body mass, hormone function and satiety so you feel fuller earlier and longer.”

Jacks suggest subbing it in place of mayonnaise, sour cream, heavy cream or even canned creamy soups, such as cream of chicken or cream of mushroom, adding seasoning and vegetables as needed to replicate. However, since yogurt has a tendency to separate under high heat, make sure to add it to your dish off the heat.

For instance, Jacks notes you can introduce Greek yogurt into chicken salad, tuna salad or potato salad by swapping out 1/2 to 2/3 the amount of mayonnaise the recipe calls for and replacing it with plain nonfat Greek yogurt. You can use nonfat Greek yogurt as the base to make your own ranch dressing to top salads or use it for vegetable dips, by mixing nonfat Greek yogurt with a dash of garlic powder, salt and a splash of apple cider vinegar.

Additionally, you use plain nonfat Greek yogurt instead of mayo for deviled eggs, like in the recipe Jacks provides at the end of this post.

Greek yogurt can also be a great substitute in desserts as well.

“Greek yogurt can be a good substitute for ice cream and that’s coming from someone whose comfort is ice cream,” says Linda Wood, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at Texas Health Denton. “My father grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin, so we ate ice cream every evening. However, I now prefer to mix Greek yogurt with frozen fruit and my favorite sweetener, like monk fruit or Stevia. The frozen fruit will harden the yogurt a bit and give it the texture of ice cream.”

You can also stick already portioned containers of Greek yogurt mixed with fruit, such as strawberry Greek yogurt, in the freezer for an hour or two. The yogurt will have frozen up just enough to give the same texture of ice cream.

Swapping out plant-based dairy alternatives in place of milk in dishes can not only be a great way to lighten up a dish, but also cater to those who are lactose intolerant as well.

Find Ways to Sneak in Extra Vegetables

Shopping the produce section for vegetables and fruits to add to favorite dishes can be a smart strategy to add filling fiber, vitamins and minerals to a variety of main or side dishes. An added bonus: extra fruits and veggies also stretch the number of servings in a dish, meaning you can feed more for less. 

Look for family favorites, as well as fruits and veggies that are in season, which can also conjure up some fond memories if you know you associate this time of year with a certain food item.

For instance, squash, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, pumpkin, Swiss chard, and other seasonal foods bring versatility and reasonable costs. Add them to casseroles, soups and side dishes.

Mashed cauliflower is an easy way to sneak in more veggies to your dinner spread with more fiber and less than 1/3 of the carbohydrate load in traditional mashed potatoes. If your family loves green bean casserole, try adding in some frozen chopped-up spinach into the canned soup mix to add some fiber and minerals without sacrificing texture or taste.

You can also serve up lighter alternatives that people can doctor up the way they want, such as baked sweet potatoes over traditional sweet potato casserole. If some of your guests still want marshmallows, butter and brown sugar, have those items available to them to fix up their potato as they’d like. You may also want to put out lighter toppings such as chopped pecans, 100% real maple syrup, or a natural sweetener such as monk fruit or Stevia. Everyone gets their sweet potato fix just the way they’d like it.

To keep things simple, you may also prefer to offer up simple roasted seasonal vegetables as an additional dish to your spread this year. People can choose to swap it out for something else on their plate, or it can just serve as an additional serving of vegetables.

Use Healthier Fats

Swapping out rich fats with healthier alternatives can be one of the simplest ways to lighten up your meals any time of the year without sacrificing on flavor. Swap out butter, lard or peanut oil for olive oil or avocado oil. If you’re still choosing to fry something, avocado oil is a great alternative to peanut oil since it has a high smoke point such as peanut oil but is lower in saturated fats.

If you still want that buttery taste, try swapping half the butter needed with olive oil.

Meats are also traditionally used in dishes to help not only add some fat to the dish but also impart a meaty, salty and/or smokey flavor, such as in collard greens. A simple swap would be substituting ham hocks, neck bones and bacon with turkey, such as a smoked turkey leg or thigh, or turkey bacon instead. The turkey will still flavor the dish similarly with less fat. Don’t have any smoked turkey on hand? Try smoked paprika to help give the dish some smokiness.

Lean on Herbs and Spices in Place of Sodium

Salt is a flavor enhancer, which may be one of the reasons we love comfort food so much, since these foods tend to be high in sodium. Try cutting back on the amount of salt in dishes by opting for low- or no-sodium items, such as broths, soup mixes, seasoning packets or even canned vegetables, and limiting the amount of table salt you add to dishes. Instead, lean on upping the amount of spices and herbs in the dish to help enhance the flavors. Lemon juice can also be a great alternative to salt because the acid helps bring out the flavors in a dish.

Use Whole Wheat

If your favorite comfort food dishes have a noodle involved, an easy way to lighten up the dish is to use whole-grain wheat products in place of white carbohydrates for additional fiber and nutrients — and to keep you feeling fuller longer. This also holds true if you like adding some bread alongside your meals.

Additionally, you can opt for whole-wheat flour in your baked goods versus traditional all-purpose flour.

Recipes

Greek Yogurt Based Deviled Eggs (makes 12)

Ingredients:

  • 6 large, hard-boiled eggs
  • 1/2 cup nonfat plain Greek yogurt
  • 1 tbsp Dijon Mustard
  • 1/8 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 1/4 tsp salt

Instructions:

Cut each egg in half and remove yolk. Add all the egg yolks into a bowl and smash with a fork.  Next, mix in the yogurt, mustard, cayenne pepper and salt with the smashed yolk. Mix until smooth and spoon the mixture back into the egg whites and serve. *Tip: if mixture is too dry, add additional yogurt.

Frozen Peanut Butter Bark

Ingredients:

  • ~ 2 cups nonfat Vanilla Greek Yogurt
  • 1 banana
  • 1/4 cup chopped walnuts
  • 1/4 cup chocolate chips
  • 2-3 tbsp peanut butter, warmed slightly

Instructions:

Spread yogurt out onto a nonstick tray or silicon baking mat. Slice the banana and add slices into yogurt. Sprinkle walnuts and chocolate chips evenly on top. Cut a small corner in a zip lock bag to use to drizzle peanut butter on top. Freeze for 2+ hours then break into smaller pieces.

Butternut Squash Soup

Ingredients:

  • 2 tablespoons avocado oil
  • 1 lb. butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and diced
  • 1/2 large yellow onion, diced
  • 2 celery ribs, diced
  • 1 large carrot, peeled and diced
  • 1 tablespoon garlic, minced
  • 1 small granny smith apple, peeled, cored and diced
  • 2 tablespoons white wine
  • 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
  • pinch of nutmeg
  • 4-5 cups vegetable stock
  • 1/2 cup whole milk
  • Salt to taste

Instructions:

  1. In a large pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion, celery, and carrot, stirring occasionally. Cook until somewhat softened and onion is starting to become translucent, about 15 minutes.
  2. Add garlic, stirring frequently, and cook for 2 more minutes.
  3. Add the white wine and scrape up any browned bits on the bottom of the pot.
  4. Add the butternut squash, apple, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg. Cook for 2 minutes.
  5. Add 4 cups of the chicken stock and whole milk. Bring to a boil, then reduce down to a simmer.
  6. Cover the pot and simmer for 1 hour, until squash and carrots easily fall apart when cut with the side of a spoon.
  7. Use an immersion blender or transfer to a stand blender and blend until completely smooth. Add the last cup of stock, if necessary, to reach desired consistency and salt to taste.
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