• carlymcooley

Healthy Versions of Comfort Foods

We recently polled our social media audience (primarily on Instagram, but also on our Facebook page) to find out what your favorite comfort foods are. We offered to share tips and ideas to make those foods healthier. In this post we'll recapture what foods we covered thus far and wrap up our series with more "healthy versions of," including burgers w/ fries, hamburger helper and breakfast!



Fried chicken, cheesy pizza, crispy fries… All these mouthwatering treats typically fall into the category of comfort food. Foods that are so rich & so delicious that most people feel guilty eating them!


In this mini series, we're diving deep into the topic of calorie-dense comfort foods - breaking down what makes a meal “unhealthy” and how, with a little intentionality and a few easy swaps, you can start enjoying your favorite meals without the guilt!


So what makes a meal unhealthy?


We throw that word around a lot, and it’s typically synonymous with BAD. But I wonder if we’re giving food a little too much power. In my opinion, I don’t think there’s any food that should make you feel guilty because eating a decadent meal (and enjoying it) isn’t a bad/immoral thing.


Instead of labeling food as good or bad, I prefer to categorize it by what it does / how it makes me feel. Some foods give me energy and some lead to a midday nap. Some give me a stomachache, while others leave me feeling light. And certain foods are great for satisfying my mind/emotions, while others do a better job at satisfying my cells.


At the end of the day, it’s up to YOU how you want your food to make you feel. And there’s room for it all. If you’re interested in cleaning up your diet and focusing on eating better, I highly recommend taking 1-2 weeks to just pay attention to how your current way of eating makes you feel.


How’s your energy level after a meal? Do you generally feel satisfied or overly stuffed? Are you aware of your hunger signals (do you feel physically hungry at all or just find yourself eating at certain times of day)? Take note of headaches, stomach pains, and even emotions just before and just after meal time.


What you notice during this period can be so much more motivating long-term then the guilt you feel for eating “bad” foods. Make your fitness change about what you’re moving toward, and how you want to feel on a day-to-day basis, and less about shoulds/shouldn’ts. This is about creating the life you want! You deserve a beautiful one.


I like to emphasize how foods make me feel and focus on the kind of fuel I need for the life I want to live!



So, if certain foods aren’t just straight up BAD, what is it about some of our favorite comfort meals that make us feel heavy, groggy, achy and tired? And is there anything we can do to change that?


The answer to these questions is going to be different for every meal (and we’re going to break down some more specifically in the coming weeks), but here’s some general things to keep in mind:


👉🏼 Method of Preparation: Is the food fried? Baked? Steamed? Grilled? How the food is prepared is a great indicator of how you might feel after you eat it. Generally speaking, something steamed is going to leave you feeling lighter than something deep fried

👉🏼 Type of Ingredients: This one is relevant in several different ways, but you can start by focusing on the “freshness“ of your ingredients. Using fresh, whole foods over highly processed ingredients is a great way to beef up the quantity, variety and quality of the nutrients in your food, as well as help you avoid added sugars, oils and refined carbs, which can be big culprits behind that afternoon energy slump and the intense cravings for MORE.

👉🏼 Portion: Honestly, the benefits of this one can’t be overstated. Keeping an eye on portion size is going to allow you to happily enjoy your favorite foods without over eating, which is another possible contributor to that long list of post-meal symptoms.

Just start with less food than you think you want. If the food is ultra rich or heavy, cut that amount in half. When you consume foods that lean rich instead of fresh – think apple pie instead of apple slices – your brain is far less able to register signals telling you you’re satisfied. After you finish your portion, put your fork down, drink some water and wait a bit. You can always go back for seconds, but that little buffer allows you to decide if you really want them or if you’re actually already satisfied.



First up in our mini series, we're tackling: MAC N' CHEESE. There are a lot of different things that can make a meal "unhealthy" (processed ingredients, method of preparation, portion etc.) So it's important to look at each recipe individually in order to determine what swaps you need to make.


Let's take mac n' cheese, for example. Imagine you're looking down at a heaping plateful - here's a few things you might notice:

- bland color palette (may mean limited nutrient variety)

- triggers cravings (can indicate highly refined or low quality ingredients)

- extra large portion (might lead to overeating and an energy slump)


You'll notice that method of preparation didn't make the list because there's nothing wildly unhealthy about the way mac n' cheese is made (most of the time) - better to focus on other swaps that will make more of a difference!


So, what swaps can we make?

- Substituting some of the more highly refined and low quality ingredients for high quality, fresher alternatives is a great start! Try substituting the regular pasta for veggie (maybe cauliflower), whole grain, or high protein pasta; use pasture-raised cheddar and whole milk/butter; consider ways of adding additional protein (will help to stabilize your blood sugar and provide more even energy).

- Tackle the bland color palette by adding a colorful side(s). If mac n' cheese is on the menu because it's quick and easy, then keep the sides/additions easy too. Frozen cauliflower noodles are pretty convenient and green beans, broccoli and/or asparagus don't take long to steam.

- Keep portions in check. This will be even easier to do if half your plate is already filled up with a leafy garden salad and steamed green beans. Just remember, you can always go back for more. When you’re cleaning up your diet, focus on balance and you'll be off to a great start!



Pizza, pizza, pizza! A family favorite and a comfort food staple - no list of fave recipes would be complete without it (at least IMO). Let's dive into swaps you can make to create a cleaner version, as well as some general healthy hacks if you're planning on enjoying the real thing. Let's go!


Tip #1 : Add veggies. This is a good idea whenever you're planning on eating heavier. Try starting with a salad instead of breadsticks or filling a good portion of your plate with cleaner/fresher sides.


Tip #2: Eat hydrated. Water takes up room in your stomach. If your stomach feels more full, you'll be more likely to hold off on that extra slice.


Tip #3: Consider timing. Begin with a smaller portion and wait 20 minutes from the start of your meal before going back for more.


Tip #4: Predetermine your portion. Decide ahead of time how much you want to eat and put the other slices away before beginning your meal.


Interested in going a step further? Let's talk clean pizza:

- Try an alternative crust - cauliflower crust and chicken crust (personal fav!) are available at most grocery stores and provide an easy swap, that's still incredibly tasty

- Consider your protein. If you're making pizza at home you're going to have a little more control over the quality of your toppings (ordering from Dominos is a whole other story). Aim for fresh veggies and add lean protein (like chicken) when you can. The veggies are going to provide a better vitamin/mineral profile and the protein will help your body recognize that it's full, as well as keep your daily total protein intake in a better balance than having a pizza without.




Now to wrap up with a few more of your requested comfort food swaps. I'll keep it simple, since the principles and tips from the first two can absolutely be applied to these too!


Burger with fries - always include veggies (and more than just lettuce or pickles)... there are a lot of creative options, like tomatoes, mushrooms, onions, peppers, etc. Go for the side salad before eating up those fries. Something Nathaniel does a lot - try taking half or all of the bun off. Or put your burger on the salad. Other ideas: choose quality, pasture-raise meat when available; choose a whole grain bun. Stay hydrated before letting those salty fries keep you going back for more.

Recently, my family ate salmon patties with a side salad.

Hamburger Helper - it's pretty simple to add veggies into these (and I mean in addition to the couple crumbs of broccoli some of them come with these days). Just add in more! It doesn't have to be fancy. Look in your freezer, pantry or on the counter for some ready-to-add veggies. Check the macronutrient balance too. As these guys are often heavy on the processed fat and carbs, adding in additional, quality protein can also help balance out the meal. Take your time eating, drink water, and use this meal to help you determine your other food for the day (maybe skip the ice cream for dessert).

Breakfast foods: We didn't get any specific breakfast requests, so I'm just covering three of my favs.

Quiche - Go crustless and use up all those raw veggies in the fridge or on the counter that are still salvageable. Use quality eggs and cheese.

Pancakes - Pack them full of nutrients. Sure, you may want to make a couple that are plain, but then stir in all the healthy add-ins like nuts, another egg, or fresh fruit. Try protein-rich peanut butter or real butter on top instead of their sugary/process counterparts. I often fry up just one egg to eat toward the beginning of the meal, giving that protein time to race to my brain before the carbs get there to help signal satiety (fullness). Probably best to skip the juice with this meal. You don't need those additional carbs now. Pro tip: try a quality, protein-rich brand like Kodiak Cakes for the healthiest versions of this delicious meal (use "Cooley10" for 10% off your first order).

Biscuits with gravy - Limit portions and consider sharing your meal with a friend. Choose a quality gravy with plenty of protein for a more ideal balance of macronutrients. Add an egg as a side. That's what I do when I (occasionally) get this meal. I also avoid high calories beverages to help with portion control.

With any of these options, can you add a side of non-starchy veggies? Maybe a little sautéed spinach? Yummmmm.


In summary, method of preparation, type of ingredients (read quality and balance), and portions.. along with practicing healthy meal timing, mindfulness and staying hydrated. This wraps up our mini series. Now go enjoy those comfort foods without the guilt. Feel free to share what healthy swaps you adopt or love in the comments below.

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