The fall and winter seasons, combined with the upcoming holidays, mean the re-emergence of those comforting classic dishes: Mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, and a plethora of pastries.
Many of the typical comfort foods are filled with calories and fat, plus the potential to overeat these dishes during the colder seasons is always tempting; but if you’re smart about it, you don’t have to deprive yourself, said Karen Bright, adult and youth nutrition outreach instructor for the WVU Extension Service.
“The biggest thing people have problems with that I’ve noticed is portion size,” she said. “During the holidays and colder weather, moderation is the key.”
Think about portion size before piling your plate full of mashed potatoes, Bright said.
“Comfort foods are great, and if we watch our portion sizes, we can still enjoy these foods,” she said. “Serving sizes for most of these dishes is a half cup or 4 ounces.”
For meat, 3 ounces is a serving size, or about the size of a deck of cards. For turkey, think about the size of a checkbook.
When you are eating hors d’oeuvres, 4 dices of cheese is the portion, and if you plan to have salsa — which Bright recommended — take only a handful of chips.
When it comes to dessert, a slice of pie should be no larger than two fingers wide, she said. And, if you just want a taste of pie, use one finger as the measurement.
“That way you can still indulge,” she said.
Bill Reger-Nash, professor emeritus of the School of Public Health at WVU, echoed Bright’s thoughts. He suggested cutting back on the meats and cheeses especially.
“Use the cheese and meat as the flavoring for your meal and not the center of your meal,” he said.
“You can do a fair amount of training at the dinner table,” Reger-Nash said.
That means making a habit out of things like getting a doggy bag immediately when you’re dining out, he said, and stop eating when you’re 80 percent full. Plus, make it a must to add more fruits and vegetables into your diet, he said.
Bright agreed, saying eating more vegetables, fruits and lean meats is a great way to save calories.
Steer clear of the heavy sauces, she said, and if you’re going to eat a dessert, make it something like a berry crisp or cobbler, which tend to have lower fat and calories than cakes and pies.
“The best comfort foods are vegetable soups or chilis,” Bright said. “These provide healthier options than cream-based soups. Consuming 1 cup of vegetable soup before your meal may reduce your calories consumption by 20 percent.”
In your stuffing recipes, consider using wild rice or brown rice in place of the bread; that will save some calories, she said.
Instead of using pork sausage in a stuffing, use lean ground beef instead, and you can’t tell a difference, Bright said.
You can even make a carbohydrate-heavy dinner of spaghetti and meatballs healthier by making it with whole-wheat pasta, she said. And for children who don’t enjoy the texture difference in the whole-wheat pasta, she suggested doing a half-and-half mix of regular pasta and whole wheat.
Also, “using healthier oils like canola, olive oil or sunflower is always better than butter,” Bright said.
Another concern is sodium levels, Reger-Nash said.
“The new recommendation for salt is no more than 1500 milligrams,” he said, adding that more salt will actually stimulate your appetite.
Instead of cooking with salt, use more pepper, basil, garlic and other spices, he said. You can also purchase salt-free seasonings in most grocery stores these days, he said, “and they’re wonderful seasonings.”
Now, let’s break down some individual dishes and what can be done to make them healthier.
Macaroni and cheese: Use a sharp cheddar to flavor your macaroni so that you can use less cheese overall, Bright said. The sharpness will make it seem like there’s more cheese than there really is. To fill the rest out, she said to try fat-free or low-fat cottage cheese in your recipe.
Use whole-wheat pasta, or if you’re kids are picky, use the half-and-half method mentioned above. Use a lower-fat milk or skim, and instead of a fattening topping, use panko bread crumbs that have just been spritzed with non-stick spray.
Take the macaroni to the next level by throwing in some veggies. “Adding vegetables to your mac and cheese, like broccoli, spinach, tomatoes, peppers, adds essential vitamins and minerals, without adding calories,” Bright said.
Much of this is similar to healthier macaroni and cheese: Use lower-fat or skim milk and low-fat or fat-free cheese, Bright said. You can also substitute yogurt, particularly Greek, for the butter and milk.
“Reserve some of the potato water while mashing the potatoes to keep them smooth,” Bright said. “Infuse the potato water with garlic or other herbs to flavor the potatoes without adding salt.”
If you want to get some veggies in there, try cooked cabbage or kale. And if you really want to try something besides potatoes, mash up some cauliflower or turnips, “which cuts calories at least 50 percent than regular mashed potatoes, and these both have a creamy texture without the butter,” she said.
Stuffing: As mentioned before, to save some calories and fat, in place of the pork sausage, use lean ground beef or lean ground turkey, Bright said. If you’re going to use bread, wheat bread or corn bread are good choices because they have extra fiber and a fuller taste, but if you really want to try something different, use wild rice or brown rice. And, “fruits, nuts and extra vegetables add flavor and bulk,” Bright said.