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Your Tasty Comfort Foods Get Healthier with 9 Smart Strategies

Grilled cheese with a side of piping hot tomato soup. Gooey macaroni and cheese. Another slice of warm apple pie, topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Winter calls out for the delicious comfort foods we crave. We love them because they are typically high in some combination of salt, sugar, and fat. “These nutrients can activate the pleasure centers of the brain,” said Nicole Hahn, a clinical nutrition specialist at Banner—University Medical Center Phoenix.

Comfort foods can also be tied to happy memories of people or events. “Grandma may have made you cookies or grilled cheese every time you visited, and she always made you happy,” Hahn said. “We try to recreate those happy feelings.”

Here’s a smart way to enjoy comfort foods

Your favorite comfort foods might bring out an “oh-I-shouldn’t” reaction. But there’s a place in your eating plan for foods you don’t necessarily consider healthy. If there’s a food you love, have a small piece, and combine your comfort foods with other filling or fibrous foods.

At a big holiday meal, survey the options and pick the foods you really want to eat. After all, how often do you have the chance to enjoy homemade apple pie? “Portion control is always key. You can still partake in those comforting foods without completely derailing your healthy habits,” Hahn said.

For some comfort foods, make healthier swaps

For foods you might want to enjoy more often, Hahn and Lydia Moraca, a Banner Health dietetic intern, share these nine tips:

  1. Cook with healthier fat. Swap liquid oils for butter or shortening when possible.
  2. Cook with less fat. Sometimes you can use applesauce or black beans in place of some of the fat.
  3. Cut back on sugar and salt in your recipes.
  4. Add more vegetables. Blend them into cream-based soups or tomato sauce, or layer them into a grilled cheese sandwich.
  5. Use an air fryer to make fried chicken, French fries, and other fried foods. If you don’t have an air fryer, you can try the convection setting on your oven or toaster oven.
  6. Substitute whole-grain flour or oats for some of the white flour in cookies or brownies for more fiber.
  7. Use olive oil and broth instead of heavy cream and butter in mashed potatoes.
  8. Replace some or all of your mashed potatoes with mashed cauliflower.
  9. Add flavorless protein powder to comfort foods to up the protein content.

Some comfort foods score high for health

Keep in mind that some comfort foods are naturally healthier choices:

  • Fruit cobbler that’s loaded with fruit and oats
  • Low-salt, broth-based vegetable soup
  • Roasted root veggies
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Lentils
  • Curry
  • Black bean soup
  • Cauliflower tacos

Winter holiday celebrations are a time to enjoy the traditions that go along with your favorite comfort foods. “It is ok to partake,” Hahn said. “Don’t overly stress about calories. Instead, listen to your body and identify your hunger and fullness cues.”

If you are trying to make it through the holidays at the same weight you started at, you may enjoy this article on healthy holiday eating habits. Managing sugar intake can be a challenge during this season. Overcome sugar overload with tips from this article.

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