Transforming Comfort Foods into Healthy Treats

Cindy Wilson Thumbby Cindy Wilson
BS, Dietetics and Nutrition

Studies show that stress levels are up in 2023, with nearly two out of five Americans rating their mental health as fair or poor. And when people are stressed, one of the most common “escape behaviors” they adopt is eating comfort foods! It is no coincidence, for instance, that in a survey by Farm Rich, some 70% of respondents said they were consuming more comforting treats. As stated by the Chief Growth Officer of Kraft Heinz, Sanjiv Gajiwala, “Food can be a source of well-being. Just like mindfulness, what you put in your body has an emotional resonance, as well as a physical resonance.” Of course, comfort foods do not have to be unhealthy. If you’d like to discover how to turn traditional comfort foods into fuel for your health and wellbeing, then read on.

transforming comfort foods into healthy treats

Choosing Healthy Fats

Many comfort foods are made with fats. Think of your favorite salad dressing, pasta sauce, or hot dish. If you typically use sunflower oils or other seed oils that are high in unstable polyunsaturated fats, know that these fats break down into unhealthy oxidation byproducts, which can harm your health and contribute to obesity, heart disease. They can also increase the risk of some types of cancers, dementia, migraines, and other issues. Healthy, Omega-3 fatty acids help your body’s cells function optimally. They are a key component of your cell membranes and they help provide structure and support cell interaction. They provide your body with energy and support many of your body’s main systems, including the cardiovascular and endocrine systems. They can be found in healthy fats like cold-pressed, extra-virgin olive oil and avocado oil (which has a higher smoking point than extra-virgin olive oil).

Opting for Low-Fat Cooking Methods

Fats are key to human health, but they should be consumed in moderation. As a general rule, around 20-35% of daily calories from fat are recommended for good health. Therefore, if you have already consumed your fat quotient for the day, but you feel like something delicious, you can try a low-fat method like grilling your food. Simply use a bit of cooking oil spray on your grill or barbecue your ingredients instead of cooking them indoors. Foods like grilled zucchini, tomatoes, peppers, and fish make a beautiful and healthy Mediterranean meal. Steer clear of barbecue safety bugbears by following a few simple rules. Avoid using accelerants (which can cause burns) and preheat the grill so the fire has time to heat up. Marinate your ingredients before barbecuing them. Doing so provides protection against flames, which can cause heterocyclic amines (HCAs, which are carcinogenic) to form on food. The Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry suggests marinating meats overnight to reduce the number of byproducts from flames. A dark lager or pilsner is ideal.

Air Frying

Air frying enables you to prepare a host of all-time favorite comfort dishes (everything from fries to roast chicken) using only a fraction of the fat you need to cook these foods traditionally. Just a few popular recipes that are a roaring success on TikTok, Instagram, and other social media include potatoes on a stick, sweet potato fries, and vegetable fries (made from broccoli, zucchini, mushrooms, and cauliflower). There are also a host of recipes for chicken wings, vegetarian meatballs, “fried” chicken, and more. You don’t have to miss out on the unique, crunchy texture that fried chicken typically has. Marinate them first in buttermilk (leaving them to soak overnight if possible), then bread the chicken with rolled oats instead of breadcrumbs. Oats provide all the crunch you need and they are rich in fiber, vitamins and minerals, and protein.

Embracing More Plant-Based Dishes

Whether you’re into a spicy curry, a spicy pasta sauce, or sizzling hot pizza, you don’t need to include meat at all for dishes to feel like an authentic treat. By including more fruits and vegetables into your diet, you will be benefitting not only your physical health, but also your mental health. Studies have shown that consuming a high-fiber diet produces better gut health—which in turn can promote better mental health. Studies have shown, for instance, that people with depression tend to have lower levels of two healthful gut bacteria. It is very easy to create comforting vegan dishes. For instance, instead of using a regular pizza base, you can easily make one out of cauliflower.  For your spicy pasta sauce, use healthful spices like chili, and make your own marinara with natural, organic tomatoes. As for curries, vegan versions abound! They include pumpkin curry with chickpeas, tofu curry, baked vegan korma, and more.

Food is one of life’s great comforters. They provide us with soothing experiences that often takes us back to our childhood. Choosing healthy yet comforting dishes isn’t hard at all, so long as you plan your snacks and buy the ingredients you need to make everything from air-fried chicken to a soul-soothing vegan pizza.

About Author

Cindy Wilson Thumb
BS, Nutrition & Food Science | Connect with on LinkedIn
Cindy Wilson

Hello, I am Cindy, and this a website where I inspect everything related to nutrition and a healthy lifestyle. I have a BS in Dietetics and Nutrition (Kansas State University) and have completed a dozen specialty courses related to nutrition, biochemistry, and food science. I am open to learning more, but foremost I would like to share all my knowledge with you.

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