Gooey. Melty. Creamy. Comfort meals often have these attributes in common. They also often share an unfortunate trait: many are far from healthy. Give your family's favourite comfort meals a healthy upgrade with these simple swaps and tips.
Nothing takes the edge off a chilly autumn or winter evening quite like a rich, creamy or meaty meal such as carbonara, mac ‘n’ cheese or curry. Unfortunately, the foods we tend to crave to warm us up or lift our mood when the weather cools can be health traps. Many family favourite comfort foods - from rich pastas with cream and cheese to meat stews and buttery potato mash - are packed with saturated fat, salt and fast-release carbohydrate that causes blood sugar to spike and drop and may encourage fat storage. Moreover, larger serves and ingredients containing fat may cause us to exceed our daily energy needs, especially since many of us tend to move less in autumn and winter. On the health front, the saturated fat in comfort food staples such as butter, cream and cheese may heighten your risk of conditions such as cardiovascular disease.
While you don’t need to ban your winter favourites altogether, it may pay to prepare for a delicious rotation of family meals minus the main offenders. We collected dietitians’ top tips for clever comfort food tweaks that will keep everyone happy and healthy.
Comfort food traps (watch out)
Trap 1: Saturated fat
Found in: Red meat, cream, butter, cheese, coconut products
Why it matters: Eating too much saturated fat increases blood levels of ‘bad’ cholesterol (LDL) and raises cardiovascular disease risk.
Trap 2. Refined carbohydrates
Found in: White flour, white bread, wraps, pasta and rice, potatoes, sugar (including sugar hidden in savoury items such as bought pasta sauce)
Why it matters: Refined carbs are quickly digested and can cause a spike in blood sugar. The knock-on effects of consuming too much refined carbohydrate can include weight gain and conditions including diabetes.
Trap 3: Salt/sodium
Found in: Salt is often used to add flavour to meals during cooking or after. It is also used generously in commercial sauces (e.g. pasta sauces) and packaged meal bases.
Why it matters: Excess salt intake can cause fluid retention and lead to high blood pressure or hypertension.
Comfort meal hacks and upgrades
These swaps give you the comfort factor without the adverse health effects. As a bonus, they won’t leave you feeling heavy or bloated like many comfort meals can. For other comfort favourites, get creative by substituting ingredients such as light sour cream or Greek yoghurt in creamy dishes.
Swap 1. Mashed potato → Mashed cauliflower
Swap 2. Mashed potato with full-cream milk and butter → Mashed potato with skim milk and a low-fat spread or herbs to taste
Swap 3. Beef lasagne → Lasagne made with minced mushrooms and/or whole wheat pasta with extra lean beef mince (trade regular bechamel sauce for a low-fat white sauce using low-fat or skim milk and cornstarch)
Swap 4. Cheesy cauliflower with full-cream milk and cheese → Oven-roasted cauliflower with herbs or spices (e.g. rubbed with curry powder) or drizzled with olive oil
Swap 5. Mac ‘n’ cheese → Mac ‘n’ cheese made with whole wheat pasta, low-fat milk and low-fat cheese
Swap 6. Quiche with crust and cream custard → Vegetable-packed frittata
Swap 7. Regular pizza crust –> Cauliflower pizza crust
Swap 8. Toasted muesli/granola –> Whole rolled oat porridge made with water or skim or low-fat milk and topped with fresh or frozen berries or other fruit
If you need assistance with planning meals that meet the nutrition needs of everyone in the family or have a personal health goal such as weight loss or reducing fatigue and increasing energy, consider consulting an accredited practising dietitian (APD) for personalised recommendations.