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Healthy Comfort Foods

We all know that food can nourish us in more ways than one. In fact, we have a special name for foods that feed our emotional well-being -- comfort foods. Sometimes these foods comfort us by triggering positive memories of childhood favorites (think macaroni and cheese or mashed potatoes), and other times they soothe via indulgence (that big bowl of ice cream or apple pie).

More often than not, these are home-cooked foods (rather than "gourmet" foods) and, well, they're not always wholesome. But that doesn't mean they can't be made more nutritious while still satisfying; in fact, comfort foods lend themselves remarkably well to healthful translations. It comes down to choosing (and adding) healthful, quality ingredients.

Here are some tips for boosting the nutritional value of some popular comfort foods that offer more nourishment for your body as well as your soul:

Macaroni and cheese

A popular favorite, this classic casserole is easily transformed into hearty, healthy fare. Choose whole grain pasta and breadcrumbs and a variety of natural cheeses (how about Jarlsberg or goat cheese and fresh Parmesan?). Boost nutrition even more by adding vegetables, such as butternut squash puree, tomatoes, cauliflower, broccoli, or peas.

Spaghetti and meatballs

Again, choose whole grain pasta. Also choose a sauce that's low in salt and sugar and without artificial ingredients. Or make your own sauce with fresh tomatoes and spices. Choose lean meat or experiment with vegetarian "meatball" recipes, made with bulgur and other grains or soy products. Cubed tempeh or tofu is another great way to add protein and heft to your sauces. For pastas with cream sauce, give nut-based sauces (such as those made with peanut butter or tahini) a try.

Stews and soups

Chicken noodle soup probably tops this comfort food group (and some studies point to its ability to help relieve cold symptoms), but wrapping your hands around any bowl of soup or stew can satisfy even before the first bite. If you make your own, start with a quality, no-salt or low-salt broth (or broth powder). Make sure any meat or poultry is lean, and load it up with vegetables; this is one dish that can easily handle the day's servings! Celery, onions, potatoes, sweet potatoes, bell peppers, chili peppers, cauliflower, broccoli, and squash are just some of the veggies that partner well with soups and stews. Include beans for added fiber and protein. For creamed soups, use low-fat versions of cheese and dairy products.

Grilled cheese

Here's one comfort food that has gone gourmet lately, but it takes no more time or expertise to make a grilled sandwich with hearty whole grain bread and fine Havarti than with white bread and processed cheese. And by adding vegetables—mushrooms, onions, spinach, avocado, tomato -- you'll boost interest along with nutrition. Make it more "adult," if you like, by spreading a grainy mustard or an aioli on the bread. To cut fat and calories, grease your griddle with a little olive oil (or an omega-3-enriched natural margarine) in place of butter on your bread.

Pies

If you're still using lard or butter to make pie crusts, this might be a good time to try a recipe that uses a little vegetable oil instead. Fruits are full of nutrition, of course, so pack 'em in your pie; just don't over-sweeten. You might experiment with various sweeteners (like agave syrup and maple syrup or honey) and thickeners (like agar or arrowroot) in place of refined white sugar. (By the way, savory (pot) pies -- very comforting! -- are another great opportunity to eat your veggies.) Another comforting (and healthful) way to serve cooked fruit dessert is to skip the pie crust and opt for a crisp instead. Add dried fruits and nuts, and top with oats and spices. Again, go easy on the sweetener.

Other baked goodies

Muffins, rolls, and quick breads are easy to spruce up with the addition of vegetables (like carrots and zucchini), fruits (like apples and dates), and nuts (like walnuts and pecans). Add extra fiber, too, by using whole grain flours and adding bran or ground flaxseed. To cut fat and calories, substitute applesauce for some or all of the oil in your baked goods recipes.

Potatoes

No matter how they're served, the economical, humble potato seems to easily please. When making mashed potatoes, leave the skin on, use milk (or almond or soymilk) instead of cream, and keep the salt in check (or try garlic, black pepper, and/or a salt-free spice blend in place of salt). You can also substitute olive oil for half of the butter.Twice-baked potatoes are the perfect venue for a day's worth of vegetables (stuff them into the potato skins with the potato flesh) as well as a serving of cheese.If French fries are your idea of comfort, try baking spears that you've tossed with a little olive oil and seasoning (and/or Parmesan cheese, if you like) in lieu of the deep-fried variety. Do the same with sweet potatoes.

Pizza

Pile on those veggies! Start with a whole grain crust, of course, and a natural sauce (low in salt and sugars and sans artificial ingredients). Add natural cheese (mozzarella, but others, too, such as edam and Gouda). Then top with fresh or grilled veggies, such as mushrooms (try a new variety in addition to the standard button mushroom), an array of colorful peppers, tomatoes, spinach, zucchini, broccoli...

Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches

Here's an easy transformation. Whole grain bread, natural peanut butter and natural jelly or preserves or jam (you'll find an array at your co-op) deliver a nutritious lunch or snack. Try tahini (sesame seed butter) or almond butter in place of the peanut butter now and then. You might also enjoy the occasional addition of fruit (sliced apples or bananas).

Hot cocoa

Make your own using quality dairy products (go skim to minimize fat and calories) and cocoa. (You'll find Fair Trade cocoa at your co-op.) Sprinkle with a little cinnamon and/or plop in a cinnamon stick stirrer. (Spices are more than just flavor enhancers -- studies continue to show that many of them can boost health, too!) Experiment with a variety of sweeteners, like agave and maple syrups in place of refined sugar.

Even if your idea of the ultimate comfort food is more instant than homemade, you can find healthful options at your co-op for everything from boxed macaroni and cheese to natural ice creams to frozen pizzas. Don't forget to check out the deli and bakery departments for ready-to-eat options, too. With minimal effort, indulging in comfort foods can be downright healthy!

What is your favorite "go to" comfort food?