Now that fall has arrived in North America and the holidays are on the horizon, our eating habits tend to change. I know this is the season when I crave gooey casseroles, steaming drinks and (unfortunately) lots of carbs.
This is a natural process. After all, our primitive ancestors had to prepare for short, cold days by bulking up. Much as bears and other mammals do prior to hibernation, our human bodies signal the need for additional calories – even though most of us have a warm and toasty place to get in out of the cold.
The challenge, then, is not to fight the urge for comfort food, but to rethink how we prepare dishes and what ingredients we use in them. Go ahead and indulge yourself, but use these tips to be smarter about it.
Forgo the Pasta
Pasta and noodles made with white flour don’t do much for us other than pack on the pounds since they are carbohydrate-intense. But if you are craving a tuna noodle casserole and nothing else will do, there are healthier substitutions for the pasta, such as these.
Cooked quinoa – Make it fluffy, not crunchy, for best results.
Hash browns – Potatoes get a bad rap, but if you are going to eat carbs, they are much more nutritious than white pasta or rice.
Spaghetti squash – Separate the strands from the peel with a fork and blot out the moisture on paper towels for best results.
Zoodles (zucchini “noodles”) – These are easy to make with a spiralizer, which is a kitchen tool I highly recommend having on hand.
Shirataki noodles – These are zero calorie noodles made from glucomannan starch. I’ve seen them at Wal-Mart, as well as health food stores, so they are fairly easy to find.
Cooked white or pink beans or chickpeas – Their bland taste and creamy texture goes well with just about any protein, especially ground beef, turkey or chicken.
Cooked Bulgur wheat – Want an easy way to prepare it? Add a cup of bulgur wheat to a bowl and cover with hot water. Cover the bowl and let it sit while you prepare the rest of your meal.
Don’t be afraid to experiment with new ingredients. What makes a casserole so comforting is its combination of protein, soft carbs and creamy sauce. By substituting another soft food of similar size for the pasta, you can save calories as well as carbs.
Skip the Heavy Sauces
Speaking of that creamy sauce… To remake that tuna casserole (or lasagna or gravy or any saucy calorie bomb you crave), ditch the canned cream of chicken soup or heavy cheese sauce. Sauces provide a wonderful mouth feel. They are the glue that holds together all the lovely ingredients in your dish. But sauces that are made from animal fats, cheese and white flour aren’t the healthiest choice. Instead, try some of these substitutions:
Cashew sauce – I use this on almost everything! Yes, it has fat, but it’s the healthy kind of fat, from nuts.
Coconut milk – Use the full fat version. Again, this is a healthy fat. It’s fairly thick and blends well with nearly any type of herbs or spices. Try this Burst Tomato Cream Sauce for a bit of inspiration.
Tofu and mayonnaise – I use equal parts, blended with a stick blender, as a substitute for sour cream. Sour cream is the base of many sauces, such as Beef Stroganoff.
Creamy cauliflower sauce – This is made much the same way as cashew sauce, only with cooked cauliflower and a bit of milk to thin it out.
Squash is Your Friend
This is the season when squash of all varieties is abundant – from acorn to pumpkin, butternut to spaghetti. All types of squash are nutrient-rich and high in vitamins. Squash with orange flesh are even better; they are great sources of carotenoids and Vitamin A. While they tend to be quite starchy, they provide good carbs which can actually help regulate insulin.
Here are some ways to use squash as an ingredient in your favorite comfort dishes:
Hollow out a round squash and stuff it (meat, brown rice, beans) – or fill it with a hot, creamy soup. Small pumpkins, acorn, Hubbard and kabocha squash work particularly well.
Slice a zucchini squash in strips and use it in place of the pasta in lasagna. Here’s a recipe for a low carb, gluten-free lasagna recipe with zucchini.
Serve mashed squash, such as butternut, in place of mashed potatoes as a nutritious side dish. Even with a pat of butter on top, this is still a very healthy dish.
Take a long squash (such as yellow or zucchini), slice it lengthwise and hollow out the seeds to make a “boat.” It can now be used much like a hot dog bun. Try filling it with chili and topping with a sprinkle of cheese.
Squash makes a delicious, creamy soup that needs no dairy. A drizzle of coconut milk and sprinkle of nutmeg on top finishes it off with a touch of elegance.
Some Final Tips for Healthy Comfort Foods
Finally, here are a few additional ways to cut the fat, carbs and calories in your favorite comfort foods.
Add extra veggies to every dish. It’s easy to incorporate a bit of shredded zucchini, riced cauliflower, minced bell peppers and other vegetables in things like spaghetti sauce, chili, stews, meatloaf and more. This cuts down on fat and calories while adding nutrients.
If you simply must have cheese, opt for the harder varieties, such as Parmesan. They are less likely to cause stomach upset and are usually lower in fat than softer cheeses.
Opt for the whole grain version of your favorite carbs, such as bread, rice and cereal.
Try a vegetarian version of your favorite dish. Tacos made with roasted veggies are very yummy. You could also make an entire casserole without meat. A crustless quiche with mushrooms and asparagus is another idea. More veggies = better nutrition.
Need a sweet fix? Reach for dark chocolate instead of indulging in a piece of cake or pie.
I hope you’ve found these ideas for creating healthy comfort foods helpful. The holidays are coming soon and I want you to be in the best health of your life so you can enjoy them! What are your favorite comfort foods? Please join the conversation and share your secrets for enjoying comfort food.