With the change in the seasons, and the temperatures turning chilly, I definitely notice a change in my eating patterns and the foods I feel like cooking. Gone is my desire for snacking on summer produce and salads…instead, all I want is fresh breads and pastas and warm, cozy comfort food! If it was up to me, during the fall and winter season I would go into semi-hibernation…spend all day at home with warm beverages, a good book, and a dinner loaded high with extra carbs and calories! While that might be lovely for a short while, in the long term though I would much rather focus on healthy, balanced eating, regardless of the season.
When it comes to my kitchen, I’m all for moderation rather than intense or restrictive eating plans. If there’s a less-than-healthy comfort food I’m really craving, I often will go ahead and make it, and then just make sure I’m getting my daily servings of fruits and veggies to balance it all out! There are definitely ways to improve the nutritional content of some classic comfort food recipes without sacrificing any of that wonderful flavour and comforting goodness though. With that in mind, I thought I would share some of my tips for making those comfort foods just a little healthier!
Slash the Salt
The typical Canadian consumes almost double the recommended amount of sodium every day. Often, our taste buds are so accustomed to highly salty foods that it takes several days or even weeks of re-training before we start noticing and appreciating other, more subtle flavours. In my pre-mom life as a registered nurse, I worked with kidney patients and saw first-hand how damaging too much sodium can be. It seems like sodium is everywhere though! So how do you cut back?
I always start by reading the nutrition labels – if an item contains more than 10% of the daily recommended amount per serving (about 150 mg is my rule of thumb) – I try to avoid it and substitute something else if possible. For a lot of classic pasta dishes or casseroles, that means using low-sodium chicken stock instead of bouillon, boiling things in unsalted water, or even using unsalted butter. Instead of using salt-loaded cream of chicken or mushroom soups in recipes, use low-sodium chicken or vegetable stock, Thrive Life chopped chicken or mushroom slices, and some Thrive Life instant mashed potatoes as a thickener. Never add straight-up salt – if your palate craves more flavour, try adding other spices or herbs or garlic instead! You might not notice any benefits right away (unless you’re 6 months pregnant and your ankles swell!), but trust me, in the long term your health will be vastly better!
Increase the Veggie Content
I’ve been able to tweak many of my family’s favourite recipes, making them much more nutritious, by simply adding in a greater proportion of vegetables.
Take one of our favourite weeknight dinners: spaghetti and meat sauce: if I swap out half of those spaghetti noodles for roasted spaghetti squash, toss in half a cup of kale, some diced onion and a bit of Thrive Life tomato powder to my sauce, and top with a generous sprinkling of freeze-dried basil, I’ve created a whole lot more nutritional value without really doing anything drastic at all. When I make lasagna, I stick with all the cheesy, gooey goodness of my grandma’s classic recipe, but I toss in Thrive Life mushrooms, butternut squash, spinach, and onions to balance things out a bit. We love pepperoni pizza, but instead of ordering it, I make it at home with a generous amount of homemade tomato-kale-garlic pizza sauce and a pile of mushrooms or veggies on top. The same goes for casseroles or crock-pot meals or a stir-fry – just pile on the veggies without altering the amount of rice or pasta.
Full disclosure – there have been times when this hasn’t always worked out well for me (just ask my husband about the time I tried to smuggle cauliflower into his butter chicken! Never again!), but in general with a little tweaking and the goal of eating healthier, just about any recipe can be modified to include more vegetables without ruining the original delicious intent of the recipe.
Use Natural Sweeteners
Just like salt, another big villain in the typical Canadian diet is refined sugar. And just like sodium, it can pop up anywhere when you least expect it! Although there are no specific, quantitative guidelines for how much is too much, I think it’s a pretty safe bet to say that most of us, unless we are really vigilant, consume too much sugar on any given day. With that said, I don’t know that cutting it out altogether is the answer – I have several friends who have done so, and swear by it, but I haven’t been able to convince myself to go totally sugar-free yet.
Again, my principle is to practice moderation and eliminate the really big culprits. What that looks like for us is that we don’t drink sugary sodas – if we’re craving that fizz, we will drink tonic water mixed with 100% fruit juice instead. In baking, I often reduce the sugar or swap it out for honey or maple syrup. I love cookies and baked goods, but as much as possible I try to make them myself and tweak the recipes to be more health-conscious. For our yogurt, I typically buy it plain and add fruit or a little touch of honey to sweeten it up rather than going for the sugary flavoured options. We eat fruit for dessert most nights instead of something more decadent. In many ways, for us, I’ve found it comes down to habit – when we aren’t in the habit of loading up our palates with sugary tastes, there isn’t that same craving for sweet, and our tastebuds are well-trained – and often the really sugary treats that we used to love taste a little gross and not so desirable any more compared to the real goodness of a ripe berry or a slice of bread and honey.
Decide What’s Worth It…
As much as I love to tweak recipes to make them healthier, there are a few things that I hold sacred and will not mess with. For me, one of those is cheesecake. I would far rather relish one slice of honest-to-goodness, full-fat, full-calorie cheesecake than pick away at some low-fat, low-carb, rip-off version that doesn’t come close to the right flavour or texture. For a special occasion, and as long as it isn’t too frequent, I judge that to be worth the sugar and calories! I also grew up with a master baker as a mother, so I love fresh, homemade bread in all its forms. My husband loves fettuccini alfredo – the richer, the better (and don’t even think of putting kale in there!). Sometimes we just need a bit of chocolate, a cookie, or some fish and chips. And again, as part of an overall balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables, I’m ok with that!
In case you’ve started to think I’m some sort of masterful self-disciplined, health-conscious chef and consumer, I do need to confess that that is not the case at all! I’m just a mama trying to feed my family well to the very best of my ability. Some days that goes really well, and other days not so much! But I’ve found that just being more aware, and striving to build good habits goes a long way to helping us stay healthy in the way we typically eat. I hope the tips I’ve shared can help you tweak your own comfort food classics to be just as delicious, but a little bit more nutritious!