For most people, the onset of cool weather means it's time to integrate a sixth food group into their diets: comfort foods. Bowls of belly-warming macaroni and cheese, creamy mashed potatoes, and piping-hot chicken pot pie help satisfy your body's instinctual drive to stay toasty and conserve energy for the winter ahead. Obviously, if you're not careful, these annual indulgences can quickly add pounds of extra insulation that are hard to remove come spring.
Fortunately, fat and calories aren't prerequisites for a soothing, satisfying dish. Some smart ingredient swaps can transform hearty favorites into lighter, healthier fare that's still satisfying. These tips from Michelle Dudash, RD, Phoenix-based chef and recipe developer, and Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, author of Comfort Classics, will allow you to enjoy savory, cold-weather foods without adding inches to your waistline.
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Maybe the mother of all comfort foods, this creamy dish can pack close to 900 calories a serving when it's loaded with whole milk and five different cheeses. To shave calories and fat from the sauce, use low-fat milk, tub butter, reduced-fat Cheddar cheese, and Parmesan, which contains 2 g less fat and 3 g more protein than Cheddar per quarter-cup serving, says Dudash. You can also cut back on cheese by adding pureed cauliflower to the sauce. Punch up flavor with garlic powder and spices, recommends Dudash. Also, use whole wheat noodles to deliver twice as much fiber, which slows your body's absorption of sugar and keeps you feeling full.
Despite being chock-full of nutrients, potatoes get a bad rap. A medium-size potato serves up more than 25% of your recommended daily amount of vitamin C, about 18% of your daily potassium intake, as well as 2 g of fiber (if you leave on the skin). So why are mashed potatoes the enemy? Most are drowning in butter and whole milk. Keep your spuds lean by using low-fat milk, plain nonfat Greek yogurt, and chopped chives for flavor. If you can't imagine eating your taters without butter, Magee suggests placing a small pat of butter on top as a garnish. "I find it's comforting to have it melt on the mound of potatoes," she says.
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Frying any food is a surefire way to make it a nutritional no-no, and it's not the only way to give chicken a satisfying crunch. "You can crisp most food in the oven by adding an oil spray or a light brush of oil. You can't control how much oil meat absorbs when you deep fry, but when you bake it, you call the shots," she says. Mix sliced almonds and whole wheat bread crumbs in the food processor and use that as breading, says Dudash. If you can't eat nuts, try panko and ground Cheerios, she says. Add flavor with garlic powder, paprika, spices, salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes.
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A loaf made with 70% lean beef can pack about 14 g of fat. To lighten it up, start with 95% lean ground beef. "It's still really lean and gives you a beefy taste," Dudash says. You can easily plump it up with more nutrients by adding oatmeal instead of bread crumbs and throwing in chopped mushrooms, beans, or other high-flavor vegetables and herbs. "Adding vegetables keeps the meat loaf moist and forms a wonderful au jus without making it greasy," Magee says.
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When it's loaded with beans and vegetables, chili is one of the healthiest comfort foods out there. Top it with heaps of cheese, sour cream, and nacho chips and you're eating a bowl of deconstructed nachos. So lay off the fixings, and lighten up your recipe by replacing most of the meat with vegetables and additional beans, Dudash says. Ground turkey can also be a great substitute for beef, but be careful, warns Dudash. "Some ground turkey isn't any leaner than beef. It might be made with the skin, and it depends on whether it's white or dark meat." Check the label and opt for lean or extra-lean varieties of beef or turkey.
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This hearty Sunday dinner staple is surprisingly low in fat and calories. A chuck shoulder roast has fewer calories and less fat than chicken thighs, Dudash says. A 4-ounce piece packs 210 calories and 13 g of fat, and a chicken thigh clocks in around 220 calories and 16 g of fat. To achieve melt-in-your-mouth flavor, the cut needs to be simmered for several hours--the longer you cook it the more tender it will get, she says. Surround your roast with tons of vegetables, and you'll have a well-balanced and not terribly fattening meal.
With layers of starch, meat, and creamy sauce, some casseroles contain over 400 calories a serving. A smarter bet is to load your dish with vegetables, whole grains, and lean meat. "Even if a recipe doesn't call for beans or vegetables, you can still add them," Magee says. Punch it up with a layer of zucchini, or double the amount of mushrooms the recipe calls for, or put in peas. Even better, include a serving of fish via canned tuna. "It's a convenient and budget savvy choice." It also delivers protein and omega-3 fatty acids with minimal calories. Just make sure you use a low-fat substitute for cream or butter to lighten the dish.
Soup can warm your body from the inside out without filling you up on calories. Choose a broth-based version, which tends to be lower in calories than a soup made with cream. Minestrone's an especially great choice because it's filled with beans and vegetables and has a tomato base, which keeps it light. If you opt for chicken noodle soup, add extra veggies, like frozen peas and carrots. Packed with protein and fiber, bean soups are another nutrient-rich selection. If you prefer a creamy soup, puree caramelized onions and use in place of cream. "They'll give you that buttery, creamy taste without all the fat" Dudash says. Other substitutes include nonfat creamer, pureed potatoes, or a little bit of nonfat yogurt.
The buttery crust is how this recipe racks up calories and fat. Dudash recommends making your own using canola oil instead of butter and whole grain flour. If you're uncomfortable making crust from scratch, a whole wheat biscuit mix can form your crust. Lighten up the filling by using more root vegetables and less chicken than the recipe calls for--carrots, sweet potatoes, and parsnips, Dudash says. "Then for the chicken, use breasts instead of thighs, which will save you fat."
This Italian classic packs on the pounds, partly because of the way we serve it--heaping platefuls of pasta topped with a couple of meatballs. The Olive Garden's spaghetti and meatball platter comes to 920 calories, for example. According to the USDA's recommendation, grains should make up only a quarter of each meal, so cut back on your pasta serving and supplement your plate with veggies. As for the meatballs, make yours using lean beef instead of sausage (just one Italian sausage link can pack nearly 20 g of fat) and replace bread crumbs with oatmeal to add fiber, save calories, and cut down on sodium (Italian bread crumbs have about 450 mg). Serve the juicy spheres over some whole wheat pasta and you'll double the fiber.
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