Make smart choices to enjoy seasonal comfort foods in a healthy way

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FEATURE — Let’s be honest, it’s been a rough year. Many of us are in need of a little comfort as we weather the waves of 2020.

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Food often stands as a source of comfort. Who doesn’t love a delicious meal on a rough day? Comfort foods often get a bad rap. Did you know you can enjoy comfort foods in a healthy way? Let me tell you how.

Traditionally, the term “comfort food” refers to dishes that are sentimental to a person and are usually high in calories, high in carbohydrates and high in fat. Exactly which type of recipe falls in the comfort food category is different from person to person and family to family.

Regardless of the recipe, there are steps you can take to use your calories in a smart way, make good nutritional choices when it comes to carbohydrates and use fats in a healthy way.

Smart calories

Calories give us energy, but not all calories are created equal. To use smart calories, use MyPlate as your guide. MyPlate tells us the following:

Focus on whole fruit – 100% fruit juice is a healthy choice, but whole fruit will give you more bang for your buck. You get more dietary fiber from a whole apple versus a cup of apple juice. That dietary fiber will make you feel fuller faster. If you feel fuller faster and listen to your body, you are less likely to over-consume.

  • Comfort food tip: If one of your comfort foods is ice cream, add sliced peaches, fresh or frozen berries or a sliced banana on top.

Vary your veggies – Any veggie is a good veggie. When you vary veggies, you’re maximizing your nutrients. Different colored veggies hold different nutrients; the more colors you can eat, the better.

  • Comfort food tip: Add veggies to your favorite pasta dish, soup, sandwich or pizza. You’ll be able to enjoy comfort foods and get your veggies too.

Make half your grains whole – Whole grains have that fiber we talked about before. When you use whole grains in a recipe, you’ll feel fuller longer on fewer calories.

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  • Comfort food tip: If pasta, bread or rice are part of your favorite comfort food recipes, use whole grains. Whole grain pasta, wheat flour and brown rice can easily be substituted for their refined grain counterparts.

Vary your protein routine – Different protein sources provide different nutrients. Maximize your nutrients by using different types. Also, certain protein sources have less fat than others. To use smart calories, choose lean sources of protein when you can.

  • Comfort food tip: When using a higher-fat protein source, watch your portion sizes. A high-fat protein source in the right portion can still be considered healthy. Is a juicy hamburger on the top of your comfort food list? If so, go ahead and eat it, but watch your portion size. Try eating half of a burger or opt for a smaller patty size. Take it a step further and pair your burger with a big serving of veggies on the side.

Move to low-fat or fat-free milk or yogurt – Lower fat means lower calories. When you use low-fat or non-fat dairy sources, you’re using your calories in a smart way. Choose skim, fat-free or low-fat milk, yogurt and cheese.

  • Comfort food tip: Cheese is the perfect topping to many different types of recipes. Used in moderation, it can help you reach the recommended servings of dairy each day. When you use part-skim or low-fat cheese, you can help keep your calorie consumption under control.

Smart carb choices

Not all carbs are created equal. You can learn about complete carbs versus simple carbs here. Although there are healthy and not-so-healthy options in both categories, choosing complex carbs more often will help you stay fuller longer.

  • Comfort food tip: If simple carbs make you happy, it’s okay to enjoy them in moderation. Eating a whole box of donuts isn’t considered a healthy choice, but eating a donut a week is okay. If you really love orange juice, drink it. Drink just one cup a day, not an entire carton.

Healthy fats

Fat is necessary for our bodies to function. Click here for a post explaining good fats versus bad fats. When you use good fats in moderation, you are using your calories in a smart way.

  • Comfort food tip: Do you love French fries? I do. Those cooked in unhealthy fats should be limited. Try baking your own fries at home in the oven instead.

Bringing it all together, one of my favorite comfort foods is lasagna. You just can’t beat warm, cheesy pasta! There are five things I like to do to make it more healthy:

  1. Use whole wheat noodles for a serving of whole grains.
  2. Use cheeses that are lower in fat. I chose part-skim mozzarella and low-fat cottage cheese.
  3. Add zucchini or other veggies. I like to add sliced zucchini as a layer in the lasagna. If you have shredded zucchini in your freezer from your fall harvest, you can use that too. Add it as a layer or mix it in with the pasta sauce. You can do the same thing with shredded carrots. Spinach leaves are another great veggie to layer in a lasagna.
  4. Serve it with a large salad. A fresh, crisp, crunchy salad pairs perfectly with lasagna. It helps balance out the heaviness of a pasta and cheese dish. Plus, it helps you reach your recommended servings of veggies each day.
  5. Use lean protein. The recipe here calls for lean ground beef. If you’re using ground beef, rinse the fat off before you add it to the recipe. Ground beef becomes more lean with the fat rinsed off. Ground turkey or shredded chicken are other lean choices you can substitute for beef.

Written by CANDI MERRITT, Certified Nutrition Education Ambassador.

This article originally appeared Nov. 4, 2020, on the USU Extension Create Better Health blog.

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