A healthy twist on winter comfort foods

By Stacey Stein

Few things can match a rich and hearty meal in offering relief from the biting cold of winter. Comfort foods like piping hot stews, gooey grilled cheese sandwiches and thick, creamy pasta dishes not only keep us warm and satisfied, they trigger a feel-good response, too. “A lot of comfort foods tend to have a bit of nostalgia attached to them,” says registered dietitian Shannon Crocker. “Maybe they’re things we ate during our childhood or meals that our grandmother or parents made, so there’s that emotional connection in terms of comfort food.”

Traditional winter comfort foods tend to be high in carbohydrates and fats. While this may help make them filling and palatable, they can also wreak havoc on our waistlines.

But there’s some good news: by making small changes, you can still enjoy all your favourite winter comfort foods as part of a healthy, well-balanced diet. Here’s a look at some comforting dishes to warm you up at each meal of the day:

Breakfast

  • A creamy egg dish makes for a great warming breakfast on a cold Sunday morning ̶ this broccoli and red pepper frittata fits the bill. The recipe calls for a cup of cream, which is high in fat, but this can easily be swapped for a cup of evaporated milk (either 2% or whole). Not only will this cut the fat content but the milk will also provide a hit of calcium and vitamin D while still keeping the frittata’s creaminess intact, according to Crocker. She adds that she would pair this dish with whole grain toast and a spinach salad.
  • French toast is another perfect breakfast comfort food to tuck into on a chilly winter weekend morning. These French toast canapés are livened up by blueberry butter; for a nutritional boost, simply add in extra blueberries. You can also try mixing in other berries like strawberries, raspberries or blueberries.
  • A batch of freshly baked muffins is a surefire way to warm up any winter morning. These zucchini muffins will also help you sneak some veggies into your first meal of the day. Crocker recommends cutting the sugar by 1/4 of a cup (so, using ½ cup of sugar instead of ¾ of a cup) and replacing at least half of the all-purpose flour with either whole wheat flour or whole grain spelt flour.

Lunch

  • This loaded baked potato soup will fill you up while keeping you toasty at lunchtime. You can curb the fat content by using light sour cream and boost the nutritional value by tossing in a couple of cups of cauliflower (at the very end), which adds fibre to the soup. Crocker recommends serving the soup with veggies paired with a blue cheese dip.
  • For a twist on a quintessential lunchtime favourite, try an Italian grilled cheese, but with a few substitutions that will make it healthier. Crocker suggests using whole grain bread and swapping thinly sliced roasted chicken breast for the salami.
  • A bowl of noodles can help brighten a dreary winter day. This pasta toss has it all, including a hit of protein and calcium from cottage cheese, and lots of veggies. You can make this satiating lunchtime meal even healthier by using whole grain pasta and adding even more veggies – try tossing in some peas, red peppers or spinach.

Dinner

  • You can’t go wrong with this flavour some bistro beef and mushroom stew. Want to make it healthier? Simply add more mushrooms and carrots and serve it over a bed of whole grain barley. Crocker advises also opting for a lower sodium chicken broth.
  • Indian dishes aren’t only bursting with rich flavours, they’re also perfect for tucking into when you’re in search of a comforting meal. This Bombay butter chicken makes for a great winter dish, but some modifications will make it healthier while keeping all the great flavours intact. Crocker recommends opting for chicken legs or thighs rather than the breast. “This will be higher in zinc and iron,” she says. Try pairing the dish with brown basmati rice or whole grain naan bread and serving a green salad on the side.
  • Mac n’ cheese is a classic comfort food that’s popular with both kids and adults. This macaroni and cottage cheese skillet is a fun twist on this popular dish. Incorporating a lot of broccoli, cottage cheese and whole wheat breadcrumbs means this meal is chock full of protein, calcium and fibre. Crocker says you can make this dish even healthier by using whole grain macaroni in place of white pasta.

There are many comfort foods to help get you through the long, cold winter months, and there are countless ways to lighten up heavier dishes. With that in mind, if there’s a meal you truly look forward to, that’s rich in calories and fat, Crocker suggests leaving the ingredients intact but instead watching the portion size.

“Don’t change it if you love it the way it is and can’t imagine tweaking it,” she says. “Just make sure you’re not overeating.”

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