Traditional comfort foods tend to be heavy on less-healthy ingredients like cream, cheese, sugar and refined carbs and light on healthy ingredients like veggies and whole grains. If you want to indulge your cravings in a nutritious way — or if weight loss is a goal this winter — you’ll need to make smart tweaks to some of your favorite foods.
“I find that the quickest way to make mac and cheese healthier is by stirring veggies into the finished product,” says Amy Gorin, RD, owner of Amy Gorin Nutrition in the New York City area. “Think steamed broccoli, onions sautéed in low-sodium vegetable broth, halved grape tomatoes or all of the above. The veggies are filling ingredients that are also low in calories. If you have a bean-based pasta on hand, try preparing the mac and cheese with that so you get additional filling protein.
Make it healthier: Try this creamy mac and cheese with chicken and baby kale. It’s also got butternut squash, which adds even more fiber and vitamins.
“I love to make pizza more nutritious by using pulses such as beans, lentils and chickpeas as toppings,” says Gorin. “They’re a surprising, but delicious, way to add protein and fiber, the latter [of] which helps keep cholesterol levels in check.”
Make it healthier: For weeknight-friendly DIY pizza, Gorin uses whole-wheat naan as a crust. You could do the same with a whole-wheat pita, baguette or English muffin. Try this vegetarian tandoori naan pizza or this chicken tandoori version.
Canned pumpkin is great for more than just pie. It’s slightly sweet, low-calorie and adds fiber and vitamin C to recipes. Gorin loves French toast, whether it’s baked or made fresh on the stovetop, and suggests stirring pureed butternut squash or pumpkin into the mix before cooking. “Using this as an ingredient allows you to forgo butter in the French toast and also to cut down on added sugar, while adding plenty of vitamins and minerals from the squash,” she says.
Make it healthier: Try it in lieu of banana in this French toast recipe and refrigerate any leftovers so you can reheat them for easy weekday breakfasts.
Deep-fried sweet potatoes are relatively high in calories, but the roasted version calls for far less oil and tastes similar. “Roasted sweet potato fries are one of my go-to winter comfort foods because they have filling fiber, immune-boosting vitamin C and more,” says Chelsey Amer, RD, owner of Chelsey Amer Nutrition.
Make it healthier: These easy sweet potato wedges come with a side of flavorful yogurt sauce, but you can sub whatever condiment you like best.
“Pancakes and waffles are classic breakfast comfort foods, but they can leave you feeling sluggish,” says Amer. “Add nutrients by using whole-wheat flour (which adds fiber and some protein) or grain-free flour alternatives like coconut or almond flour (which both add satiating healthy fats).” She also suggests halving the amount of added sugar called for in traditional recipes and instead adding an extra large pinch of cinnamon, which can make things taste sweeter.
Make it healthier: Healthy whole-grain and seed pancakes can be made with whole-wheat or oat flour, plus flaxseed and chia seeds. If you feel like waffles, these gluten-free banana-oat waffles are made by pureeing an oat-based batter in the blender before pouring it onto a hot waffle iron.
“Chili is one of my go-to winter comfort foods because it’s packed with protein, and is a great way to add extra veggies to your diet,” says Amer. If you eat meat, choosing leaner cuts of ground beef or turkey reduces both calories and saturated fat. Amer also recommends bean-based vegetarian chilis, which have tons of fiber and plenty of plant-based protein. Tomatoes, bell peppers and mushrooms are staples, but Amer adds as many vegetables as possible to every pot.
Make it healthier: If you want a dinner that’ll be waiting for you when you walk in the door, this slow cooker turkey chili is a great pick. If you’re looking for a meatless option, quinoa chili provides all nine essential amino acids.
Mashed potatoes are great, but mashed sweet potatoes or winter squash is just as comforting and packs extra immune-boosting vitamin C. Jackie Newgent, RD, author of “The All-Natural Diabetes Cookbook” ups the nutrient factor even further by mashing them with pomegranate juice instead of milk or maple syrup. “It provides distinctive tart-sweetness without added sugar or preservatives,” she says. If you’d rather a more savory mash, try adding light coconut milk and cumin instead.
Make it healthier: Try this saucy chicken and mashed sweet potatoes, which contains 44 grams of protein per serving.
Pasta is a classic comfort food that can get an added boost of protein thanks to lentil or chickpea-based options. Choosing veggie-based sauces over cream- or cheese-based ones also reduces calories without sacrificing flavor, notes Newgent. Pasta dishes also make a great vehicle for your favorite lean meats or fresh veggies.
Make it healthier: Newgent loves pairing lentil-based pasta with homemade pesto. To make the dish totally plant-based, you can even make a cheese-free pesto with herbs, olive oil and pistachios. Try this lentil bolognese or make this delicious baked ziti casserole and freeze the leftovers.
“I used to hate soups, but this winter I’m all about it,” says Kelli Shallal, RD. “It’s basically a way to make a winter salad — you can pack so many veggies in a warm comforting bowl of soup.”
To make sure your soup has staying power, add some protein. If you eat meat, chicken soup with tons of veggies is an awesome option. If you’re vegetarian, make your soups with a combination of whole grains and legumes.
Make it healthier: This slow cooker chicken noodle soup couldn’t be easier and is perfect whether or not you’re feeling under the weather. Don’t be shy about throwing in extra veggies, or adding leafy greens in the last few minutes of cooking. If you’d prefer a meatless option, this white bean and spinach soup is inexpensive and comes together in less than 45 minutes.
A strategically loaded baked potato can be a fun, nutritious winter meal. Potatoes have fiber and lots of potassium, which helps keep you healthy in cold weather. Shallal recommends adding tons of vegetables, both inside the potato and as a side dish and adding fiber-packed black beans or chickpeas as toppings. You can also add protein and save calories by using Greek yogurt instead of sour cream.
Make it healthier: Bake a big batch of potatoes or sweet potatoes at the start of the week, then reheat them throughout the week for 5-minute meals. Try these egg & potato breakfast boats or these cheddar quiche potato skins.