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Heart Healthy Comfort Food Recipe Modifications

February is National Heart Health month and what better time than now to modify favorite comfort food recipes to make them healthier. You can still enjoy delicious comforting foods with simple substitutions and add ons that don’t compromise on texture and flavor. Adding pumpkin or butternut squash puree to a Mac ‘n’ cheese recipe increases the amount of dietary fiber, vitamin A (beta-carotene) and potassium content, just to name a few benefits. And it gives the pasta a deep orange-yellow hue. You still use high-quality, all-natural real ingredients.

Mac ‘n’ cheese with a twist

16 oz macaroni or other small pasta
2 TB butter
1 TB arrowroot starch or cornstarch
1 cup evaporated skim milk
1/2 cup either butternut squash puree or pumpkin puree
1 and 1/4 cup sharp cheddar cheese (you can try out reduced fat cheese)
1/4 cup shredded Parmesan or Romano cheese
Pepper, salt and/or a salt free seasoning alternative
Fresh chopped herbs of your choice

Cook pasta according to package directions. Set aside. In a medium saucepan, melt butter and whisk in starch for about 2 minutes. Slowly add evaporated milk, continuing to whisk. Continue cooking and stirring until thickened and lump-free (about 5 minutes). Whisk in squash puree and cheeses. Fold in cooked pasta until well coated. Season and top with herbs.

Baked sweet potato fries

2 medium-large sweet potatoes, cut into 1/4 inch thick lengthwise (French fry style)
2 TB avocado oil
1 TB arrowroot powder or cornstarch
garlic powder, salt and pepper

Line baking sheet with parchment paper and preheat oven to 425 degrees. Toss potatoes with oil and powder/starch. Place the potatoes in rows on the parchment paper, spaced apart (don’t crowd them). Bake for 15 minutes, flip the potatoes, bake for another 15-20 minutes. Take out of oven and season.

Fruity rice pudding

4 cups low-fat milk
1 cup brown rice
2-3 cinnamon sticks
pinch of salt
1/4 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
pinch of nutmeg
1/4 cup non-fat, vanilla Greek-style yogurt
2 apples, peeled and diced
1 pear, peeled and diced
Ground cinnamon (optional)

In a heavy medium-sized saucepan, bring milk, rice, cinnamon sticks and salt to a simmer. Reduce heat to low. Cover and gently simmer until rice is very tender and milk is almost absorbed (stirring occasionally), about 1 hour. Add sugar, vanilla, nutmeg and stir to blend over low heat until mixture is very thick (about 15 minutes). Remove cinnamon sticks. Stir in yogurt and 3/4 cup of the fruit into the pudding. Transfer to a large bowl. Tope with remaining fruit and sprinkle with cinnamon. Serve warm or cold.

Comfort Foods Revisited

Comfort foods are foods that make us feel good eating them, like a warm hug. Classic comfort foods include Mac ‘n’ cheese, pizza, mashed potatoes, creamy pasta dishes, cheesy casseroles, stews and rich desserts, for example. If it is comforting and delicious, it can live in this category. Unfortunately, many classic comfort food dishes are high in fat and calories and typically high in carbohydrates, usually refined, which offer fewer nutrients and dietary fiber. However, you can make a few modifications to decrease the fat and calories so you can still enjoy occasionally, without feeling as though you are compromising on your efforts to maintain a healthful diet.

Adjust your comfort foods for health with these 4 tips:

  1. Make substitutions: Swap out ultra-rich, heavy ingredients for lighter alternatives. Even if you substitute only 1/2 of the original ingredient, such as cream (and leave the other half untouched), that is an improvement. Lower fat milk, olive oil in place of butter (typically 3/4 of the amount), Greek yogurt for sour cream, part-skim cheese, etc.
  2. Add healthful ingredients: Try adding healthful ingredients to make the dish more nutritious, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains or beans. Diced or pureed veggies work well in sauces. Remember, even small changes are worth making. Don’t overdue, you still want to preserve the original mouthfeel and flavor.
  3. Serve smaller portions: Consider serving a comfort food dish as a side versus a main dish. Or cut it down by 1/3 to 2/3 and serve with a healthy pairing, such as a large green salad. You are preserving the integrity of the dish but, by cutting down on the amount eaten, are saving on a significant amount of fat and calories.
  4. Save some dishes for special occasions: Some recipes are very difficult to modify while preserving flavor and texture. If you are craving a cheeseburger with French fries, sure, you could opt for a turkey burger with baked potato fries, but it is definitely a different dish. For these types of comfort dishes, eat smaller portions and reserve them for special occasions or celebrations.