Guide to Comfort Food

Satisfy comfort-food cravings with healthy makeovers

By Anne Palumbo

Grilled CheeseComfort food is food that soothes the soul and satisfies the appetite. Often, it’s food that’s associated with the security of childhood, like Mom’s grilled cheese, Grandma’s chicken potpies or Dad’s mashed potatoes — food that brings back a good memory, a warm feeling or a special relationship.

Stress sometimes triggers our hankering for certain comfort foods. Bad day at the office? Only pizza will do! A fight with your significant other? Bring on the ice cream! A stretch of dreary weather? More mac and cheese, please!

And while there’s no requirement that these foods be rich, heavy or unhealthy, research shows that our go-to comfort foods tend to be.

Perhaps we lean in this direction because our physical response to comfort foods is grounded in food science: many common comfort foods have a higher fat or sugar content, which in turn provides a short-term physiological boost. Comfort foods may help raise our body temperature, provide a burst of energy and even improve our moods.

We all crave different comfort foods. When I’m feeling out of sorts, all I want is grilled cheese and Campbell’s tomato soup. My husband, on the other hand, longs for his mom’s beef stew. My sister pines for chocolate chip cookies. Plus, we seem to crave these foods more during the cold winter months.

Why does winter affect our cravings?

Some researchers suspect fewer daylight hours may play a significant role in why we crave for comfort food during the winter. Since sunlight is one of the factors that triggers the release of the hormone serotonin, a known mood booster, and we’re getting less of it during winter months, we’re more inclined to reach for foods that also prompt the release of serotonin: carbohydrates. People who suffer from seasonal affective disorder, a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons, are particularly vulnerable.

Boredom, inactivity and being cooped up inside can all have a pronounced affect on what and how much we eat. When “cabin fever” strikes our house, we eat a lot more cheese-blanketed nachos — my kids’ favorite comfort food — than at any other time of year. Same goes for pizza, mashed potatoes and hot chocolate: They all just taste so darn good and comforting during the dark days of winter.

Of course, there are consequences to an uptick in winter munchies, especially if your munchies involve comfort foods that run higher in calories, fats and carbs.

According to studies at Johns Hopkins University, people tend to gain five to seven pounds on average during winter months. Weight gain aside, many comfort foods are simply not all that healthy to consume on a regular basis — from super-salty French fries to high-fat ice cream to empty-calorie candy.

What to do during the long winter months when our comfort-food cravings are besting our better judgment? Read on for some nutritious makeovers that may satisfy your longings without compromising your health.

Grilled Cheese 

Ah, grilled cheese…nothing says “mom” quite like a grilled sandwich of white bread, slathered with butter on the outside and loaded with bland American cheese on the inside. But must you stick with those exact ingredients to conjure images of mom? Of course not! Try fiber-rich whole-grain bread instead of white; use a mix of cheeses that includes low-fat mozzarella and full-flavored cheddar, and substitute some of the cheese with sliced tomatoes, salsa or whatever healthy ingredient your heart desires. To create a nice golden outer crust — without all the butter — try this: Heat one teaspoon canola oil in a medium nonstick skillet over medium heat. Roll it around to coat the pan and then cook your sandwich until golden, about two minutes per side, slightly depressing each side with a spatula.

Pizza

Unless you make it yourself, it’s tough to eat pizza you feel good about. On average, one slice of pepperoni pizza serves up around 300 calories, 12 grams of fat, 30 grams of cholesterol and more sodium than four small bags of potato chips. Yikes! Fortunately, you can turn takeout pizza into a healthier pizza with just a few tweaks: Order a smaller size for fewer calories per slice; choose a thinner crust over a deep-dish or regular crust (and don’t get it stuffed!), request whole-wheat if it’s offered; ask for reduced cheese; skip the dipping sauce; and pile on the veggies.

Mashed Potatoes

Even though plain potatoes are low in calories, mashed potatoes — especially those made in restaurants — aren’t always healthy. Typically made with whole milk and butter, mashed potatoes run about 250 calories per serving; add gravy and your total intake could exceed 400 calories. Here are just a few tricks to make your mashed potatoes healthier: Mash your potatoes with Greek yogurt, low-fat sour cream, 1 percent milk or chicken stock; bump up the flavor with garlic, chives or spice of choice; and use olive oil (full of healthy monounsaturated fat) instead of butter (full of unhealthy saturated fat). Eating out? Order a plain baked potato and mash it with salt, pepper and a drizzle of olive oil.

Mac and Cheese

When prepared traditionally, mac and cheese is not so comforting. Low in nutrients and high in fat, mac and cheese dishes up about 400 calories per cup. And who eats just a cup? It’s easy, however, to turn this popular dish around. Use whole-wheat pasta for added fiber and lots of B vitamins; tuck in some roasted veggies; skip the buttery crumb topping or simply replace it with crunchy whole-wheat breadcrumbs; add flavor to the cheese sauce with fresh or dried herbs; use reduced-fat milk and cheese; and replace some of the cheese with plain Greek yogurt.

Chocolate Chip Cookies

While it seems sacrilege to even think about tampering with this classic cookie, it doesn’t take much to make it a tad healthier. Consider the following easy-to-implement changes: Replace some (or all) of the refined white flour with white whole-wheat flour; add oats and nuts; reduce the sugar and chocolate chips by half; and replace some (not all) of the butter with tahini — a sesame seed paste.

More nutritious makeovers of favorite comfort foods abound on the internet. If, however, you must have the “real deal,” then do what the French do and practice portion control, limiting yourself to smaller servings and just one cookie not three.

Anne Palumbo is a lifestyle columnist, food guru, and seasoned cook, who has perfected the art of preparing nutritious, calorie-conscious dishes. She is hungry for your questions and comments about SmartBites, so be in touch with Anne at avpalumbo@aol.com.

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