5 Easy Ways to Make Your Favorite Comfort Foods Healthier

healthier comfort foods
Photo Credit: Ghazalle Badiozamani / The Kitchn

December 28, 2020

By Sheela Prakash

This time of year, with its dark nights and dropping temperatures, my craving for my comfort food is near-endless. I want to ease the constant chill in my bones with gooey grilled cheese sandwiches, steaming bowls of soup, and thick slabs of lasagna. There’s just something about these cozy dishes. They don’t just have the ability to warm you up, they also bring a little joy to your day — no matter how it happens to be going. The only problem? Many of our favorite comfort foods aren’t particularly good for us. Luckily, there a few smart substitutions and swaps that will make these dishes a little healthier, without sacrificing any of the comfort. 

1. Use whole grains.

There are lots of opportunities to give your favorite comfort foods a whole-grain boost and get the fiber and nutrition that comes with it. Try whole-grain pasta in your favorite lasagna recipe, opt for brown rice instead of white rice when making fried rice, or try another whole grain like farro, quinoa, or barley.

mac and cheese
Photo Credit: Joy Food Sunshine

2. Tuck in extra veggies.

One of the easiest ways to make comfort food healthier isn’t to replace anything, but to add something: vegetables. Stir steamed broccoli florets, frozen peas, or baby spinach into macaroni and cheese; add extra bell peppers and mushrooms to stir fries; and stir butternut squash puree into meat sauce. By bulking up the vegetables in a dish, you’ll end up with a more balanced meal. Plus, you’ll end up stretching the recipe to feed more mouths or to leave you with yummy leftovers. 

Get a recipe: Vegetable Mac and Cheese from Joy Food Sunshine

3. Think outside the yogurt bowl.

I always keep a large tub of Greek yogurt in my refrigerator — and it’s not just because I like to enjoy it with fresh fruit and homemade granola most mornings. It’s a rich and creamy ingredient that makes a healthy substitution for heavy cream, sour cream, and mayonnaise in a lot of comfort food recipes. You’ll get plenty of protein and calcium, plus fewer calories and fat.

Use it as a replacement for sour cream and mayonnaise in your favorite dips and creamy dressings. Or try it in place of heavy cream in soup or a creamy pasta sauce. You’ll be shocked how closely it mimics the real thing! Just be sure to reach for full-fat or 2% plain Greek yogurt for the best results — and organic, if possible. Fat-free Greek yogurt lacks the right texture and mouthfeel. 

Get a recipe: Creamy Greek Yogurt Pasta from The Kitchn

Different oils

4. Reach for a heart-healthy oil.

If you usually swipe your grilled cheese sandwich with softened butter, try brushing it with olive or avocado oil instead. These heart-healthy oils can also replace butter when you’re topping a baked potato or scrambling eggs. They’ll give you just as rich and comforting results, but with the added bonus of being nutritious. I especially love baking with olive oil instead of butter. The nutty, delicately-savory flavor of olive oil is surprisingly delicious in muffins, cakes, and more.

5. Cut (or swap) the sugar.

Sweets like brownies, cake, and chocolate chip cookies don’t need to be avoided completely if you’re striving to eat healthier. Try using less white sugar or opting for an alternative sweetener. If a brownie recipe calls for a cup of regular granulated sugar, you’ll be fine reducing it to 2/3 or 3/4 cup. The end result will be a little less sweet, but just as satisfying. If possible, replace the regular granulated sugar with organic cane sugar for a healthier choice. Better yet, try a recipe that uses an alternative sweetener like honey, maple syrup, or date syrup, such as these cookies or this snack cake.