Transforming your favorite cold weather comfort foods

I don’t know about you, but as the weather turns colder I crave comfort foods.  Those foods that warm your whole body from the inside out and the outside in.  The foods that make you think of warmth, that smell warm, and that are warm.  Unfortunately, I struggle with making sure I am adopting healthy comfort foods.  I think about crock pot spaghetti sauce, holiday cookies warm from the oven, hot chocolate (usually in combination with those warm cookies from the oven), homemade soups, calzones, and the list could go on.  These foods, the way I traditionally make them, are not very healthy.  They often lead to overeating and a general feeling of “ugh!” afterward.

I would like to share with you a couple of the strategies that I use to prevent that “ugh!” feeling while still getting the comfort food effect I crave in the colder months.

  1. Swap a high fat meat for a leaner source of protein.  I make spaghetti sauce in the crock pot using my mother-in-law’s recipe.  It calls for ground beef, canned tomatoes, onion, green pepper, bay leaf, tomato paste, garlic, and oregano.  I typically make a double batch and we freeze half for another week.  This is my husband’s favorite meal and we always overeat.  Recently I have started switching out the ground beef for ground white turkey.  The result is just as filling, just as comforting, but uses a leaner meat.
  2. Opt for “No salt added” products.  When we are adding products such as canned tomatoes, tomato paste, and stock to our meals we always make sure to use the “no salt added” version to control the sodium.  While the Sahara Desert is often quite warm, if your mouth and body feel like the Sahara Desert you will not be feeling very comforted after your meal.  Too much sodium, particularly right before bed will lead to a lot of water consumption during the night and probably multiple trips to the restroom (which means getting out of your nice warm bed) as a result.  I feel like this rule is more important in the winter months since so many more of our typical meals include some sort of stock or canned tomatoes.  By using “no salt added” products you can control the sodium content of your food and salt to taste if you choose to do so.  Obviously one of the best options is to can in the summer when fresh produce is abundant and make your own stock.  I wish I were that ambitious.  I have never tackled canning and only occasionally make my own stock.
  3. Portion Control.  Comfort foods are comfort foods for a reason – they make us feel good.  As humans we tend to engage in activities that feel good.  This means that all too often we overeat those comfort foods.  Thanksgiving dinner is a prime example.  I’m sure that you or someone you know has eaten WAY too much at Thanksgiving dinner and ends up moaning and groaning on the couch because they are uncomfortable.  The easy way to avoid that feeling is to start with a smaller plate or bowl.  Remember that your stomach is about the size of your fist, and keep that in mind as you put your food on the plate or bowl.  It is ok to indulge once in awhile, just don’t make it a habit.  A smaller plate/bowl simply has less surface area to hold food which means less food readily available for you to consume.  I can attest to the fact that you still get that comfort feeling from the meal that was served on a smaller plate.
  4. Start with a Salad.  Number 3 is easier if you start with a salad.  Serve a salad as an appetizer.  This take the edge off of your hunger, gives you great nutrients, and makes portion control easier to accomplish.  It is also a great way to get children to eat their veggies.  Children are more likely to eat veggies when they are really hungry and there aren’t other options available.  You can also add a salad to a meal that you know is not as healthy.  This ensures that you are still getting some terrific nutrients if you indulge in a meat lovers pizza for dinner one night.
  5. Freeze raw cookie dough.  Here is our trick for indulging in warm cookies (a weakness of mine).  I make a batch of whatever cookie we want.  Then I put the cookie dough on a sheet pan, but instead of baking them I pop them in the freezer.  After a couple of hours I put the frozen cookies in a Ziploc bag or container.  Now I can have a warm cookie without feeling the need to eat an entire sheet of cookies “before they go bad”.  We just take out one for each of us (or sometimes two).  It satisfies the craving for a warm cookie or dessert without overdoing it.  If you choose to buy break and bake cookies just throw the package in the freezer when you get home from the store and cut off a cookie when you are ready to bake.
  6. Substitute with a lower fat/calorie/sugar option.  I LOVE hot chocolate.  I love it in the hot and cold months alike.  I could really drink it any time.  Instead of making it with whole milk I use unsweetened almond milk and dark chocolate.  It is just as satisfying, but the almond milk has less fat and sugar and has plenty of calcium.  The dark chocolate also has the added benefits of antioxidants.
  7. Don’t cut out all indulgences.  So many diets exist and so many diets fail because they are about deprivation.  Don’t deprive yourself of your favorites.  Just be smart about when and how you indulge.  For example, I love the whole milk hot chocolate from Starbucks and I like the chicken nuggets from Chick-fil-A.  These are our “traveling” treats.  When we are traveling, which just happens a couple of times a year we get Chick-fil-A once and Starbucks once during each trip.  We don’t worry about the fat, the calories, the sodium, the chemicals, the GMOs, or anything else.  We just let ourselves enjoy.  When I was a kid I wasn’t allowed to have gum or sugary cereals except when we went on vacation each summer.  Then I was allowed to have one pack of gum for the week and I got to buy those multi-packs of cereal that included all of the sugary ones like Lucky Charms.  I didn’t feel deprived, it was a treat and something to look forward to.  The same is true of my Starbucks and Chick-fil-A treats.

Food is meant to be comforting.  It nourishes our body, mind, and soul.  Don’t deprive your body, simply be mindful and make adjustments. Be kind to yourself, curl up with loved ones and enjoy the fire with some hot chocolate (or your favorite comfort food).

“but the cat by the fire where it’s cozy and drier has the best winter home of them all! (Where is the Bear)”