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 hearty chili 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 favourites into lighter, healthier fare that's still satisfying. These tips from Michelle Dudash, a registered dietitian, chef and recipe developer, and Elaine Magee, registered dietitian and author of Comfort Classics, will allow you to enjoy savoury, cold-weather foods without adding inches to your waistline.
Macaroni and cheese
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, said Dudash. You can also cut back on cheese by adding puréed cauliflower to the sauce. Punch up flavour with garlic powder and spices. Also, use whole wheat noodles to deliver twice as much fibre, 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-sized potato serves up more than 25 per cent of your recommended daily amount of vitamin C, about 18 per cent of your daily potassium intake, as well as 2 g of fibre (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 flavour. 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 said.
With layers of starch, meat and creamy sauce, some casseroles contain more than 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, 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.
A loaf made with 70 per cent lean beef can pack about 14 g of fat. To lighten it up, start with 95 per cent 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-flavour vegetables and herbs. "Adding vegetables keeps the meat loaf moist and forms a wonderful au jus without making it greasy," Magee says.
Oven "fried" chicken
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 said. 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 flavour with garlic powder, paprika, spices, salt, pepper and red pepper flakes.
Spaghetti and meatballs
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 fibre, 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 fibre.
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 fibre, bean soups are another nutrient-rich selection. If you prefer a creamy soup, purée 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, puréed potatoes or a little bit of nonfat yogurt.
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 said. 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.