When I’m feeling down, I want mashed potatoes. When I’m feeling really, really down, I want mashed potatoes with gravy and some type of breaded and fried cutlet. When I’m feeling homesick for The Bronx and my favorite restaurants, I try to recreate their dishes myself and feel like I’m back there for a little while. We all have a dish or two that we consider comfort food. Comfort food is usually a food that elicits an emotional response from us, whether it is nostalgia, sentimentality, safety, or calm. Certain foods can comfort us when we are feeling bad or stressed and they can be a way we celebrate feeling happy. These foods just make us feel better. The dishes that comfort us vary from person to person. When I am sick, I want Matzoh Ball Soup, but when my husband is sick he wants mac and cheese. One thing most comfort foods have in common, however, is that they aren’t the healthiest foods. Whether you crave something salty, sweet or fried, or something covered in gravy, most comfort food dishes are heavy, have a lot of calories, and are filled with sodium, sugar and/or fat. Well, guess what? It’s entirely possible to make our favorite comfort foods lighter. By making just a few strategic changes, we can satisfy our cravings and feel extra comforted knowing we did it in a healthier way.

1. Understand the Craving

Certain foods become comfort foods to us when we make associations between them, events and experiences, and emotions. Perhaps when we were children, we got ice cream when we were sad, hurt and crying. It made us feel better and now whenever we feel sad or hurt, we crave ice cream. The problem is that, unlike when we were kids, eating lots of ice cream as an adult doesn’t magically solve our problems. In fact, indulging in a lot of fattening or unhealthy foods may make us feel worse. First of all, we probably aren’t eating a child’s portion like we did when we were kids. Secondly, we may feel shame and guilt at having indulged and ruined our diets.

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That doesn’t mean we can’t have ice cream when we crave it. But if we understand why we are craving it, and how it might hurt as well as help us, we may be able to better control our actions. We can choose to have a smaller serving so our craving is satisfied but we don’t overdo it and regret it later. We might decide the food isn’t worth the consequences, especially since it’s only a temporary Band-Aid. The point is to be aware and mindful of what we crave and why. Check out Can You Train Your Brain to Crave Healthy Food to learn how.

2. Bake, Don’t Fry

One of my biggest comfort food categories is fried food. While it’s certainly okay to pan-fry food in a small amount of oil, we are better off avoiding deep-fried foods. When I’m craving my favorite fried foods, I make them, but I bake them instead of frying them. For instance, I love jalapeño poppers. My original recipe involved stuffing, breading and then deep-frying the peppers. Then I lightened it up by skipping the breading and the frying. To my surprise, I ended up liking them even better because I could actually taste the pepper rather than just breading and oil. To make my Baked Jalapeno Poppers: cut the stems off 12 jalapeno peppers and slice them in half. Remove the seeds and ribs to make little boats. In a bowl, combine 6 oz. vegan cream cheese, 1 cup vegan cheese shreds, 4 finely chopped scallions, 2 tsp. Mexican chile powder, 2 tsp. garlic powder and ½ tsp. kosher salt. Mix it well to make sure the spices are evenly distributed. Line a baking sheet with foil or parchment paper and spray with the cooking oil spray. Add about 1 Tbs. of the cheese mixture to each pepper half. Lay the filled peppers onto the baking sheet. Spray the tops of the peppers with the cooking oil spray. Bake at 400 degrees for about 15 minutes. When the cheese is melted and the peppers are softened but still have their structure and some crunch, they are ready to eat. Serve while hot. For more baked-instead-of-fried dishes, try these Baked Eggplant Fries, Chickpea Fries, The World’s Healthiest Onion Rings, Oven-Baked Green Tomatoes, and Baked Blueberry Doughnuts.

3. Skip the Breading

There was a time when I thought the best part of any fried food was the breading, whether it was made from bread crumbs, corn flake crumbs or flour. But when I cut back on frying food, I also cut back on breading my food. Again, I found I liked the food better because there was no layer of bread or flour masking the taste of the ingredients. This is especially true when I make anything Buffalo-style; the breading just isn’t necessary. To prove this, just make my Roasted Buffalo Cauliflower Bites: core a head of cauliflower and cut it into bite-sized florets. Put the florets on a large baking sheet. Toss with 1 tsp. garlic powder, 1 tsp. onion powder, 1 tsp. salt, ½ tsp. black pepper, a dash of cayenne and 1 Tbs. oil. Arrange the florets in a single layer on the baking sheet and bake at 450 degrees for 30-35 minutes until crispy. I find that it’s better to make them extra crispy if you are adding a heated sauce on top. While the cauliflower is baking, melt 2 Tbs. vegan butter in a small saucepan. Add ¾ cup hot sauce, mix well and heat through. When the cauliflower is ready, transfer it to a large bowl, add the Buffalo sauce and toss to coat. Return the cauliflower to the baking sheet and bake for 5 more minutes. This will “seal” the hot sauce onto the cauliflower. Cut up a bunch of celery and carrots into sticks.  Serve the Buffalo cauliflower bites with the celery and carrot sticks and your favorite dipping sauce.

4. Strategic Swaps

Sometimes all it takes to make a meal lighter is just swapping out an ingredient or two for something healthier and less fattening. If you love mashed potatoes, you can have them. But, instead of using all potatoes, try swapping half of them for another vegetable. There are lots of veggies that can be boiled and mashed or pureed just like potatoes – parsnips, turnips, celeriac, rutabaga and even cauliflower. Read Make Better Choices: Healthy Alternatives to Mashed Potatoes. Rice is one of those foods I have trouble controlling my portions of but if I make my own “rice” out of cauliflower, I can eat as much as I want and not feel guilty. Try this Spicy Curry Cauliflower (Rice) with Kale and this Spicy Orange Cauliflower Couscous. Oatmeal works too as in this Mushroom Steel Cut Oatmeal Risotto. Cauliflower is a magical vegetable; you can also make pizza crust out of it! Make this Cauliflower Crust Pizza with Mung Bean Curry.

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5. Use Your Noodle

If your idea of comfort food is pasta, satisfying your craving in a healthy way can be challenging. Did you know that a serving of pasta is only 2 ounces and that a 1-pound bag of pasta is supposed to feed 8 people? That’s crazy! But if you make the pasta out of vegetables and skip the flour, you can eat a big bowl-full and feel good afterwards. Use a spiralizer to make long noodles out of carrots, zucchini, eggplant or almost any long veggie. If you don’t have a spiralizer, don’t worry. Do what I do and just use a vegetable peeler. Find comfort in this Zucchini Pasta with Creamy Cheese Sauce, Roasted Pepper Zucchini Pasta, Carrot Beet Angel Hair Pasta with Spicy Pine Nut and Pistachio Pesto, Spaghetti Squash with Alfredo Sauce, Miso Roasted Tomatoes with Spiralized Carrot Noodles, Tomato Basil Broccoli Noodles with White Bean Salad, and Vegan Eggplant Noodles. You can also make noodles out of beans for a healthier dish. Check out this article to learn How to Make Bean Pastas.

6. Smarter Sauces

Nothing is more comforting than a bowl of mac and cheese, or anything swimming in a creamy, cheesy sauce. Whether you use actual pasta or any of the smart veggie swaps, you can still make the sauce lighter and healthier but still creamy and delicious. A raw cashew blend with added flavors is cheesy and indulgent as in this Very Vegan Mac and CheezePumpkin, butternut squash , and cauliflower purees make creamy, flavorful sauces that are super-healthy and low in calories. Try this Mac ‘N Squash to see how delicious it can be. Cauliflower can come to the rescue again by helping us make creamy, amazing sauces like this Vegetable Rigatoni with Creamy Cauliflower Sauce, Spaghetti Squash with Basil and Cauliflower Alfredo Sauce, and this Zucchini Alfredo with Zucchini Pasta and Cauliflower Sauce. Other smart sauces include this Creamy Avocado-Cucumber Sauce, Ramp and Spinach Pesto, and Lentil Bolognese Sauce.

7. Less Sinful Sweets

Some people’s idea of comfort food means something sweet and decadent. You can satisfy your sweet tooth and still not do damage by opting for smarter choices. Add veggies to your desserts like in these Clean Eating Pumpkin Truffles, Chocolate Beet Cupcakes , Sweet Potato Maple Mousse Pie, and Pumpkin Bean Bars. Put whole grains in your treats like these Quinoa Chocolate Chip Cookies and these Hemp Seed, Oat, Cacao Nib, and Dried Cherry Cookies. Cut the sugar down or out completely and use alternate ways of adding sweetness to your goodies. Read Sweet! The Healthiest Alternative to White Sugar and then go make Vegan Mocha Fudge – Guilt Free, Raw Mini Vegan Pumpkin Cheesecakes and The World’s Healthiest Vanilla Milkshake. If comfort food means screaming for ice cream, dig in to this Raw Banana Ice Cream Sundae, Healthy Chocolate Fudgesicles, and this Blackberry Ice Cream: No Fat and Low Sugar.

With just a few swap-outs, we can comfort ourselves with our favorite foods and feel good about it afterwards. Sometimes we all need to indulge a bit and eat something that makes us feel better. By making healthier choices, we can feel better inside and out.

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Image Source: Vegetable Rigatoni with Creamy Cauliflower Sauce

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