What comes to mind when you think of comfort food? For many people, comfort food looks like fried chicken, mashed potatoes dripping in gravy and boiled greens with huge chunks of ham. But why do so many people ignore healthier options when they want comfort food?
According to registered dietitian Cara Walsh, for many people, “comfort foods are frequently associated with social ties, people and events. Most often than not people crave comfort food when they feel isolated. This brings the memory back and gives them that feeling of 'comfort'.” Surely feeding your body well will help you feel better.
"Comfort food can range from mac and cheese to kimchi," Walsh says. "By making simple swaps, many people can turn their favorite comfort foods into healthy alternatives. Swap out ground meat with turkey or a meat alternative, create a creamy sauce using evaporated skim milk, or add veggies to your favorite pasta dishes."
Vegetarian & vegan comfort food
Luckily, one of the top trends in cuisine this year is vegetarian and vegan comfort food. Restaurants, chefs and recipe creators are turning their attention to creating delicious, soothing foods that leave out animal products and feed the body and soul. As a bonus, carbohydrates like pasta and pizza crust are being recreated with vegetable-based options, providing all the comfort with added nutrition.
While restaurants in New York are leading the trend, it has caught on in chain restaurants across the nation. Look for offerings like cauliflower and cheese bakes (instead of macaroni and cheese), cauliflower rice or mash, baked sweet potato fries, vegetable chips, oil-free sauces and dressings, dairy-free ice cream and vegan desserts on many menus.
DIY for healthier options
The best comfort foods are usually homemade, and there are a lot of easy ways to add nutrition and avoid meat— even if you love gravy. Registered dietitian Jennifer Bowers, PhD, suggests using mashed-up cauliflower or turnips instead of potatoes. Top it with Greek yogurt and mushroom gravy for a creamy “not-mashed-potatoes” comfort food fix.
Registered dietitian Monica Auslander offers these drop-and-swap tips for making healthy, vegetarian comfort food in your very own kitchen:
Drop: Pasta made from white flour
Swap: ‘Zoodles’ (zucchini noodles) or spaghetti squash
For ‘zoodles,’ purchase a spiralizer and get to spiralizing (this technique also works with yellow squash, carrots, cucumbers, etc.). For spaghetti squash, cut it in half, scoop out the seeds, rub with olive oil/salt and pepper, and bake for 35-45 minutes in a 400° F oven. Once tender, scrape a fork along the inside and see spaghetti appear in front of your eyes!
Drop: Ice cream
Dairy-free "nice cream" can be made with frozen bananas blended with cacao powder or peanut butter powder, or frozen strawberries blended with some plain yogurt. You can also make chocolate ice cream or chocolate mousse with avacado, cacao powder and a natural sweetener of your choice (such as agave, maple syrup or honey).
Drop: Potato chips
Swap: Organic popcorn
Whether you fill your bowl with gourmet flavored popcorn or pop kernels yourself in an air popper or healthy oil, popcorn is a pleasing comfort food that can be munched guilt-free whenever snack cravings hit.
Drop: Desserts made with white flour
Swap: Desserts made with coconut, oat, buckwheat or almond flour
Cookies, cakes and muffins instantly can be made healthier by skipping white flour and using better-for-you flours instead. Look for dairy-free or vegan versions of your favorite sweets, as well, as they may be lower in fat and calories and made with more nutritious ingredients.
Drop: Traditional pizza
Swap: Vegan or gluten-free pizza
If your go-to comfort food is pizza, try satisfying your craving with a veggie-topped, cheese-free slice. You can also make a pizza crust from cauliflower for a delicious and nutritious alternative to heavy, bread-dough versions that weigh you down.