Yes, There's Such a Thing As Healthy Comfort Food

CR’s test-kitchen experts share tips that boost the nutrition in five classic comfort food recipes

close up of vegetarian chili with beans, peppers, cheese, and corn in white bowl with napkin and spoon Photo: iStock

Many people turn to comfort food when it’s grey and gloomy outside, they’re feeling down, or they’ve had a tough day. While what’s comforting is in the eye of the beholder—for you, it might be a chocolate bar or mac and cheese; for someone else, it could be oatmeal or congee—the foods we put into that category are usually warm, gooey, rich, sweet, or crunchy.  

There’s nothing wrong with using food to help you feel better, as long as you aren’t relying on it as a coping strategy every time something’s amiss. And there are several ways to make your favorite feel-good dish a little bit healthier.

One path to healthy comfort food is to make it yourself. “A shift toward cooking with real whole-food ingredients is a great step toward less reliance on packaged processed foods,” says Amy Keating, RD, a nutritionist at CR.

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And when you do, bump up the nutrition. “Comfort foods that are made healthier and served with a salad and a side of vegetables can still make us feel just as good,” Keating says.

In fact, research shows that a few healthy tweaks can make comfort-food recipes even more comforting. Studies have found a link between improved mood and higher intakes of produce, whole grains, and nuts.

So we canvassed CR’s chefs and nutrition experts to gather tips for making five common comfort food faves healthy. You can use these suggestions for any recipe, and perhaps best of all, these changes won’t make your dish one bit less delicious.

Charge Up Your Chili

Pick poultry. Replace the beef or pork your recipe calls for with ground turkey or chicken breast. The poultry options are lower in saturated fat, and because chili has a mix of flavors that meld as they simmer together, the substitution won’t make the dish noticeably drier or less rich-tasting.

Swap out some meat. Try replacing half (or all) of the meat your chili recipe calls for with cooked beans or bulgur. It won’t affect the texture or flavor of the dish, but it will significantly pump up the nutrition. These foods provide healthy fiber and increase the volume of the meal, both of which help keep you fuller longer. Plus, it will cut calories and saturated fat. For example, if a recipe calls for 2 pounds of ground beef (4 cups) and you replace half of it with 2 cups of beans, you’ll cut the calories by about 164 and the saturated fat by about 16 grams in your chili, or about 27 calories and about 3 grams of saturated fat per serving.

Add all kinds of beans. If you’re making vegetarian chili, double the amount of beans. Or if you’re using a recipe that doesn’t call for beans at all, add some to increase the dish’s plant protein and filling fiber. (There’s about 14 grams of protein in 1 cup of beans.) And mix it up. Red kidney beans, black beans, and pinto beans may be some of the most commonly used, but anything you have on hand is fine—they’re all nutritious and tasty. Using a variety can keep things colorful and maximize your intake of nutrients because each type offers a slightly different mix. 

Mix in more veggies. Try including a cup or two of cubed sweet potatoes, pumpkin, or butternut squash to add fiber and the antioxidant beta carotene, which your body converts to vitamin A. These vegetables have a sweet, rich taste that softens the sharp chili pepper. You can also mix in some frozen or canned corn. (It cooks quickly, so add it during the last few minutes.) The kernels contain a fair amount of healthy fiber, plus they have a fresh flavor and chewy texture that can provide a delicious contrast to the beans and rich spices. 

Go green. Serve your chili over sautéed kale or spinach. It’s a great way to get more dark leafy greens—some of the most nutritious foods around—into your diet, and it’s lower in calories than rice or cornbread. 

Use substitutes for sour cream. It’s tasty but high in calories and saturated fat. Instead, try topping your chili with mashed avocado or nonfat Greek yogurt mixed with a dash of chili powder and a little chopped onion.

Lighten Your Lasagna

Reduce the ricotta. It’s delicious but so rich that you can swap in a lower-calorie substitute for some of it and still have a luscious dish. Replace some (or even all) of the ricotta cheese with cottage cheese puréed in a blender. That will save you 220 calories and 15 grams of saturated fat per cup when you compare full-fat ricotta with low-fat (2 percent) cottage cheese. 

Go lower-fat. Use part-skim ricotta or mozzarella rather than dairy made with whole milk. You’ll still have a little fat to add flavor (and help you absorb vitamins from the dish’s vegetables) but not nearly as much saturated fat.

Zucchini lasagna

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Minimize the meat. If your recipe calls for sausage or another meat in the sauce, consider using less or skipping the meat altogether. Even slimmed down, lasagna is a rich dish and doesn’t need more than a taste of meat at most. 

Watch the sauce. Use a low-sodium jarred tomato sauce or reduce the salt in your homemade recipe. There’s already a lot of flavor (and some salt) in the cheese and other ingredients, plus you can add more herbs like oregano and basil for still more flavor.

Nix the noodles. Try zucchini slices instead of pasta sheets. Slice zucchini lengthwise into quarter-inch slices, salt it, spread it out, and let it sit for at least 15 minutes. Then blot it dry and roast or grill it in a single layer on a baking sheet for 15 minutes. Or try substituting one pasta layer with a layer of sautéed vegetables instead. Good ones to try: chopped asparagus, chopped broccoli florets, sliced mushrooms, and/or chunks of zucchini. You can also add chopped spinach, either fresh or frozen (thawed and squeezed dry). It’ll keep your lasagna moist and add some vitamins and minerals.

Give Mac and Cheese a Makeover

Pick the right pasta. Macaroni made with refined wheat doesn’t have all the fiber you could be getting. Try using whole-grain pasta instead and increase the fiber count by 3 grams per cup of pasta. Or if you’re not used to whole-grain pasta’s stronger flavor, try a combination of whole-grain and traditional pasta.

Add eggs. To lower the calories and (potentially refined) carbs, you can swap in scrambled egg whites for some of the noodles, suggests Perry Santanachote, a multimedia content creator at CR who is also a recipe developer. “Replace half the noodles with scrambled egg whites,” she recommends. “For a recipe that calls for a pound of macaroni, you’d use a half-pound of the pasta plus 3 cups of cooked egg whites. The firm eggs feel and taste just like al dente pasta when they’re coated in cheese sauce. And you’ll cut calories and increase protein.”

Lower dairy fat. You can cut fat but retain flavor by using cottage cheese puréed in a blender in place of some of the recipe’s cream or cheddar cheese. Also consider replacing some of the whole-milk and full-fat cheese in a recipe with low-fat versions.

Add vegetables strategically. To make a healthier but still creamy cheese sauce, add some cooked, puréed cauliflower or butternut squash. These vegetables mix well with the cheese sauce to boost its creamy thickness with few calories and no fat. And for more flavor and a wider range of vitamins, try stirring in steamed broccoli florets, peas, or chopped fresh tomatoes.

Build a Better Meatloaf

Pick your protein. This classic comfort food can be high in saturated fat, so instead of veal or beef, sub in lower-fat ground turkey or chicken breast for least some of the meat.

Make it with less meat. Replacing half the meat with chopped, sautéed mushrooms—especially meaty ones, such as portobellos or baby bellas—can help stretch your meat and add fiber, vitamins, and minerals while reducing the dish’s overall fat content.  

Find a healthier filler. Work in whole grains by swapping out the traditional white breadcrumbs for whole-wheat ones or oats (¾ cup per 1½ pounds of meat).

Dress it up with vegetables. Adding finely chopped sautéed veggies such as carrots, beets, or even dark greens can add richer flavor as well as phytonutrients to your meatloaf.

Make a Healthier Soup

Reduce the salt. When making soup, start with a lower-sodium canned broth or stock. You might be better off with a stock. In CR’s tests of chicken broths and stocks, we found that regular broths can contain up to 350 mg more sodium per cup than stocks of the same brand. If you’re making your own stock, flavor it with herbs and vegetables. Once it’s cooked, taste it. If you think it needs salt, you can add it. 

Think vegetable-forward. Add sautéed or frozen veggies to soups for flavor and nutrition. Chopped carrots, celery, and/or peas work well in many broth- and tomato-based soups. Thicker cream soups, bean- and lentil-based soups, and chowders can stand up to chunks of sweet potatoes and root vegetables, bell peppers, and greens. Onions, garlic, and herbs can work in almost anything.

Go with the grain. In place of egg noodles or pasta, drop in some fiber-rich cooked whole grains like farro, brown rice, and barley to make a heartier soup.

Add in some healthy fats. “Stir in a spoonful or two of ground flaxseed per serving at the end,” Santanachote says. It’s rich in plant-based protein and omega 3 fatty acids, which are good for heart health. Plus, it can add a little extra thickness to the soup’s texture. You can also flavor the soup just before serving with a swirl of olive oil to add flavor and healthy monounsaturated fats.