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Healthy Comfort Food Ideas

When people think of comfort foods, many indulgent, heavy dishes come to mind. Contrary to popular belief, some typical comfort foods can actually be nutritious. Listed below are some foods that will fill you up and help you stick to your goals.

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1. Crock-Pot Meals

When it comes to cooking healthy comfort foods, your Crock-Pot is your secret weapon. Crock-Pots (and all slow-cookers) lock in moisture, a key component of comfort foods. Using your slow-cooker couldn't be easier. Throw everything in and hours later you've got a delicious, home-cooked meal. Go-to ingredients include lean meats, beans, vegetables, herbs, and spices. Try making veggie-packed soups, slow-roasted chicken or lean beef, turkey sloppy joes, or turkey meatballs.

2. Oatmeal

Oatmeal is an especially comforting food, particularly during the frigid winter months. Oatmeal is incredibly easy to make and packs a nutrition punch. Oatmeal is chock-full of fiber, both soluble and insoluble. Research has shown that the soluble fiber in oats lowers your LDL (or "bad") cholesterol. Oatmeal is a whole-grain and eating whole-grain foods can lower your risk of several chronic diseases, including heart disease. Oatmeal is also an excellent source of vitamins A and B6, iron, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and folic acid. According to the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, oatmeal ranks the third highest on the satiety index (satiety is the feeling of fullness), outranking foods like beef, eggs, cheese, pasta, and bread. Oats are naturally low in calories. Try adding dried fruit, nuts, flaxseeds, spices, and milk to make it a well-rounded meal.

3. Macaroni & Cheese

The devil is in the details here, meaning macaroni and cheese can be very healthy or very high in calories and fat, depending on what ingredients you use. First, use whole-wheat pasta instead of regular pasta, which is stripped of many key nutrients (fiber, zinc, folic acid, and vitamins E and B6) during the refining process. Fiber is vital to health as it promotes healthy bowel function, regulates blood glucose levels, and provides satiety. Making ingredient substitutions will make this classic comfort food nutritious while providing amazing flavor. Use skim milk instead of whole milk. Use reduced-fat shredded cheese instead of full-fat cheese, or replace half of the shredded cheese the recipe calls for with fat-free cottage cheese or cream cheese.

4. Mashed Potatoes

Mashed potatoes are generally made with lots of butter, whole milk, cream, sour cream, and cheese. This makes the classic comfort dish high in fat and calories, which isn't too comforting when it causes your waistline to expand. Actually, potatoes are quite nutritious--they are low in calories and packed with fiber, potassium, and vitamins C and B6. However, most of these health-promoting nutrients are housed in the skin of the potato, so always include the skin in your mashed potato recipe. Also try replacing half of the potatoes with cooked cauliflower. Substitute lower-calorie ingredients, such as skim milk, fat-free sour cream, and reduced-fat cheese and you'll slash fat and calories.

Comfort foods don't have to be off-limits if you're watching your weight. Making substitutions and practicing portion control will help you stay slim while still enjoying your favorite foods.

Kari Hartel, RD, LD is a Registered Dietitian and freelance writer based out of St. Louis, MO. Kari is passionate about nutrition education and the prevention of chronic disease through a healthy diet and active lifestyle. Kari holds a Bachelor of Science in Dietetics from Southeast Missouri State University and is committed to helping people lead healthy lives. She completed a yearlong dietetic internship at OSF St. Francis Medical Center in Peoria, IL, where she worked with a multitude of clients and patients with complicated diagnoses. She planned, marketed, and implemented nutrition education programs and cooking demonstrations for the general public as well as for special populations, including patients with cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, obesity, and school-aged children. Contact Kari at KariHartelRD@gmail.com.

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