June 25, 2012 5:48 AM   Subscribe

I want your best recipes for turning comfort foods into health foods without sacrificing satisfaction.

Burgers, tacos, lo mein, oatmeal, eggs, mac and cheese, you name it. I want recipes for when I need something utterly, morbidly delicious, but which won't sink me into a pit of eating fattier and saltier foods until I'm back to bad-habit eating.

I want to keep the bar HIGH for the comfort-food-ness: the recipe should taste close enough to the ordinary brand of delicious sin food that I feel like I'm still eating my childhood favorites. Oatmeal that's savory rather than sweet is cool, but it's going to taste like a whole new kind of food, and that's not what I want. Replacing eggs with tofu? I don't mind tofu now and then, but it would take a lot to convince me tofu tastes like eggs. Nondairy mac and cheese? Yeah, no.

That said, I am all for making my comfort food less indulgent. If there's a way to slip a zillion healthy things into mac and cheese that combine to taste close enough to the original that I end up eating less pasta, less cheese, then that's totally great. Ditto if there's a way to, say, add food types that will taste equally delicious when cheesy. If my burger still tastes like a burger I don't mind if there's less meat or a whole bunch of things I'm not used to being on a burger – just keep in mind the satisfaction of biting into a juicy beef burger and try not to diminish that indulgent joy.

Cheap is better because I'm a recent college grad with limited funds. Indulgent-style foods that I haven't explicitly mentioned are more-than-welcome, especially if they're actually very healthy. These recipes are for when I need food to make me happier in the most primal, hedonistic way, though, so ultimately if it's healthy but "grown-up" food it's not what I'm looking for.

BONUS POINTS: I came upon a foodie blog a few months ago whose author would occasionally "reinvent" (I forget the phrase she used) traditional foods, such as chicken lo mein, General Tso's, chicken parmesan, but with an emphasis on lightweight, healthier recipes. For some reason I haven't been able to track it down through diligent re-Googling. Does this blog sound familiar to anybody? You'll be paid in gold doubloons.
posted by Rory Marinich to Food & Drink (33 answers total) 81 users marked this as a favorite
The magazine Cooking Light does this a lot in the print version. I'd look through the section of their website called Recipe Makeovers and see what you can find.
posted by OmieWise at 5:52 AM on June 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

Your definition of "healthier" may vary, but I've heard pretty good reviews for this cookbook: Paleo Comfort Foods.
posted by telegraph at 5:53 AM on June 25, 2012 [7 favorites]

The Epicurean Bodybuilder has a lot of recipes like that.
posted by ludwig_van at 5:53 AM on June 25, 2012

I don't know if this is the blog you're looking for, but I like

Personally, I like to just make "real" mac and cheese, burgers, etc., for the most part, and just eat less of them, and as a rare treat, and find new recipes to be my healthy mainstays.
posted by Kriesa at 5:55 AM on June 25, 2012 [6 favorites]

First of all, start with amazing ingredients. Delicious food starts with the highest quality food. For example, English Peas, in the pod, are available now, go get some and shell them. Boil for just a minute or two. Toss with butter made from milk from pasture raised cows, and voila. Yum!

Eggs aren't unhealthy, especially if they come from a farm where chickens run around in the sun all day and are fed a healthy diet. Replacing eggs with tofu is pointless.

I like Dreamfields pasta because it's low carb and tastes exactly like regular pasta. Now you can make a nice cheese sauce out of all of your fresh ingredients, and it will be so rich and delicious that you won't need to eat a vat of it to feel satisfied. Serve with a field greens salad and you have a healthy meal.

When you eat a burger, get one made from grass-fed beef, or buffalo, or ground chicken breast, or ground turkey breast. All are awesome options. Serve on a whole grain bun.

You pay more for good quality food, but if you consider the social ramifications of our food supply, it's important to support farmers who are doing it right.

Perhaps you have more vegetarian meals so that when you do splurge on a yummy burger, it's the healthiest burger you can afford.

I went to Your Dekalb Farmers Market this weekend and wild salmon was $16.00 per pound. Not in my budget, but they did have the trimmings from the wild salmon at $6.00 per pound. I made a great salmon cake for dinner, high quality, baked in the oven, full of Omega-3 Fatty Acids and made that good food work with my budget.

You mention tacos as a "sinful" food. Tacos are super cheap to begin with! You can get 36 corn torillas for under a dollar in most markets. Get some chicken, dark meat is cheaper if you're going organic (and Dude, you really should) cook it, then warm the tortillas. Top with lettuce, tomatoes, cheese and salsa. Quick, easy and perfectly healthy. Make a pot of pintos with that if you like. There's a recipe on the back of the bag.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:04 AM on June 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

Nope, it's not Skinnytaste. Looks like a good blog, though.

I don't like the separation between "delicious food" and "food I ought to eat". I'm finding there are ways to combine more newly-discovered, healthy ingredients with old yummy mainstays, and I think that's the ideal balance.
posted by Rory Marinich at 6:04 AM on June 25, 2012

Oatmeal is very good with fresh fruit of all kinds, nuts, cinnamon, skim milk. You can even throw in a little of trail mix. It does not need sugar or honey, but it you are a sweet love a little honey won't hurt. This also works well with Greek yoghurt.
posted by mermayd at 6:08 AM on June 25, 2012

"If your great-grandmother wouldn't recognise it, don't eat it" is sound nutritional advice. So is just eating less of the delicious stuff. Stuff like fat-free salad dressings [etc etc] are either chemical garbage or awful-tasting, and the little Jessica-Seinfeld-style hacks are so useless -- health is not improved via 2 tbsp of pureed carrot in the brownies; it adds effort to cooking, which should be a pleasant activity, but marginal reward.

I don't think the blog you're looking for is but I'll throw it out just in case. I am familiar with it because I enjoy sniggering at awful recipes, and dipping onions in ground-up All Bran or whatever it is and calling them onion rings makes me titter. This is usually a minefield, recipe-genre-wise; I have also read advice to eat baked sweet potatoes to replace French fries when one is craving fries. I have a Cooking Light cookbook and the recipes are decent, but identifiable as "light."

Does looking for cuisines with delicious dishes that are also healthy dishes appeal? has a lot of things made craveworthy via spice instead of grease and sugar, though I don't know if that'll work as a mac and cheese replacement; is "ethnic" too "grown-up"?
posted by kmennie at 6:26 AM on June 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

I haven't actually tried this myself yet, but this Healthy Chocolate Cake With A Secret is on my To Bake list, and apparently is *better than* the real thing. Enjoy!
posted by springbound at 6:37 AM on June 25, 2012

There is this site, Eat Better America, that has "healthified" recipes:
posted by wintrymix at 6:47 AM on June 25, 2012

I make pasta bake, which is quite similar to mac and cheese - you use a tomato or creamy sauce, put in pasta, top with cheese and bake. Recently, I've changed it up by using passata instead of the bottled (and heavy on the ingredients) sauce, added a tin of tuna so there's protein in there instead of just pasta, and put on a 'taste' of strong Cheddar rather than tons of it. Adding herbs and garlic helps as well. I buy tuna on offer and passata is only about 70p a bottle and you can also use it as a regular pasta sauce.

My 'comfort foods' tend to be things I ate as a kid like chopped tomatoes with toast dipped in, scrambled egg on toast made from crusty bread, or baked potato with cottage cheese - it's junk food that's my downfall. I try and buy sorbet instead of ice-cream, or sorbet-like lollies - Solero, for example, is 99calories but a Magnum is about 250. I'd never eat three Soleros one after the other (though god knows that sounds nice) but that's almost the same calorie intake as a Magnum. So try out different versions of what you like.
posted by mippy at 6:51 AM on June 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

If oatmeal is the same as porridge...I swapped out honey with cinnamon and it was still pretty tasty and sweet.
posted by mippy at 6:52 AM on June 25, 2012

Cook's Illustrated The Best Light Recipe is a great cookbook, albeit a bit distracting with side articles and product reviews (just like the magazine).
posted by Sweetie Darling at 7:02 AM on June 25, 2012


I swear to you, this is delicious and filling and comforting and ......well, ok, probably only slightly less bad for you than regular mac and cheese, but still. Vitamins!


1. Get your favorite homemade mac and cheese recipe.
2. Get a butternut squash, cut it in half, smear a little oil on the cut halves, put cut-side-down on a baking sheet, and bake the hell out of it. 350 for an hour and/or until it essentially collapses. Added bonus: roast some garlic while you're at it.
3. Scoop the butternut squash out of its skin and mash it with a fork.
4. Make your mac and cheese. Halve the cheese and replace with your butternut squash stuff.


If you do not choose this as the best answer, you have obviously not actually tried it yet.
posted by Ausamor at 7:16 AM on June 25, 2012 [24 favorites]

EatingWell has recipes like this (search for "comfort food" or "makeover" to find some), but not all of them may fit the bill for you. For instance, their "Baked Mac and Cheese" is really good, but includes spinach, which may make it too different from regular mac and cheese. They do have a more basic mac and cheese recipe, though (and also one with broccoli). And they have a bunch of meatloaf recipes, but some are more traditional than others.
posted by amarynth at 7:17 AM on June 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

I really love this "enchilada/burrito" recipe which contains quinoa and spinach. It's still super-beany and as cheesy as you want it to be and you could even cut down on the carbs a bit more by layering the filling between fewer (whole wheat) tortillas. I've made this for friends and it's been universally enjoyed and acknowledged as comfort food.
posted by stefnet at 7:41 AM on June 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

you can add a ton of vegetables to a lot of those foods and you can eat much larger portions without eating many more calories. add lots of chopped up broccoli to your mac n cheese. you can add TONS of vegetables to your stir fries and they will definitely still be stir fries. omelettes with lots of vegetables inside taste fancier, not necessarily less indulgent. etc
posted by saraindc at 7:47 AM on June 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

In general, substitute wheat for white, bake instead of fry, steam instead of sauté, use 1/2 of the suggested fats or cheeses, and always add extra vegetables. Large starter salads (we're talking about 2-3 cups of leafy greens here) with your favorite non-mayo dressing (lemon tahini? dill vinaigrette?) can help satisfy you before you eat your meal. Substituting sweet potatoes for regular will eliminate your starch cravings while being sneakily healthy. When you make tacos, use corn tortillas and add lots of grilled vegetables and salsa. Indulge yourself with an extravagant variety of fruit so that you don't get bored and want ice cream.

My trick to feeling satisfied with healthy snacks is to use tomatos/mushrooms for umami and avocado for creaminess. Instead of making a full English breakfast, scramble eggs with mushrooms and tomato. Instead of potato chips dipped in sour cream, eat whole grain toast with avocado plus salt. Hummus and baba ghanoush are both tasty and filling as dips or spreads. If I'm craving sourdough, I will make sandwiches open-faced to cut back on the white bread.

You do need to think about which substitutes will work for you. I'm perfectly happy eating a black bean or portobello burger, but some people would find that unacceptable. Will you be satisfied eating whole grain pasta with vegetables and a sprinkling of parmesan as 'healthy mac & cheese', or would you feel better indulging in the real thing occasionally? Don't force yourself to always choose the healthy substitute. It's fine to make your comfort food as a side dish to a healthy main course. Accompany your comforting cheesy enchiladas with savory black beans, vegetable fajitas, and a side salad. Add berries to fill out a smaller portion of your sweet, creamy oatmeal and eat a banana on the side. Your favorite foods should be a part of your life!
posted by semaphore at 8:07 AM on June 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding the bit about adding a ton of veggies to make your comfort foods at least health-neutral. My wife's and my go-to meal is brown rice; black beans seasoned with cumin and onion and a little dollop of maple syrup; lean ground turkey sauteed with a giant bell pepper and 2 onions; and salsa, cilantro, a tablespoon or so of cheese, and every vegetable we can find in the fridge that will fit in the chopper.

It is like the essence of tacos. It meets all of my delicious-Mexican-food needs, but in actually-pretty-good-for-you form.
posted by Mayor West at 8:09 AM on June 25, 2012

Double the vegetables in everything. Soup, quiche, stir-fry, pasta (red-, white- or cheese-sauced), pizza. I don't want to eat mac and cheese that is just those two ingredients anymore--give me broccoli, peas, carrots, red peppers and squash in there and I'm a happy girl. Think pasta primavera and go from there.

Want tacos? Make a massive taco salad, going heavy on the leafy green lettuce and tomatoes and crushing only a few chips into it. Burger? Enjoy the best-quality burger you can, and pair it with an overflowing plate of leafy greens. Eggs are perfectly healthy on their own in moderation, but you can also saute some vegetables and either scramble them into the eggs or make a stuffed omelette. Stir-fry? Again, double the vegetables and even halve the meat if you wish. The flavor will still be there.

I used to be a recipe-based cook, and still am for some things, but I have become lots more loose and fast with the cooking when I joined a CSA and HAD to do something creative with the endless supply of beet greens and kohlrabi and cucumbers. Now I have altered my shopping technique, which is to buy a selection of good-looking vegetables that are fresh and tasty-looking, and trusting myself that I will find a way to make them into yummy dinner. It took me a while to get to this point, but those five core items I listed at top (soup, quiche, stir-fry, pasta, pizza) can be served over and over, all with totally different results.
posted by Liesl at 9:33 AM on June 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

With regards to tacos, I don't really see how those have to be unhealthy at all (unless, I suppose, you're into things like Taco Bell, which I'm not). We started to make Taco Night a regular thing in my home not long before I went vegetarian. Instead of ground beef, which was featured the first time, we now use black beans. (Future-hubby actually went with ground beef the second time, too, and then ended up envying my black beans so much that he switched. Now we just do the beans.) So: beans, lettuce or baby spinach, diced tomatoes, sliced jalapenos, a bit of salsa, sour cream, and some cheese. I avoid adding prepackaged taco spices—everything is plenty flavorful enough. Sometimes I'll add raw mushrooms or chopped black olives. Or I'll ditch the tomatoes. (The name of the game really is "What veggies do I have in the house that taste great raw?") Depending on what store I'm shopping at, I either pick up your average corn tortillas or spend a bit more and get whole-wheat ones. The unhealthiest part of all of this, since I don't use a ton of cheese, is probably the sour cream, and I've heard that Greek yogurt can a good substitute for that (although I haven't tried it yet—maybe tonight!).

I'm not sure what you usually do with oatmeal, but plenty of fresh fruit (berries! bananas!) and some honey would do the trick for me; as long as you're not using the individually packaged, pre-flavored stuff, it's quite healthy. And if you are, then buying a big ol' container of the regular stuff will undoubtedly be cheaper.
posted by divisjm at 9:58 AM on June 25, 2012

I like a lot of Rocco DeSpirito's hacks for making lower-fat food taste richer.
posted by BibiRose at 10:20 AM on June 25, 2012

Also, my verdict on Greek yogurt after a shopping trip: creamy, tangy, and delicious, it would definitely be a good substitute for sour cream. It also has tons of protein, which will help you feel more full. That said, it is also much more expensive that sour cream or normal yogurt; whether it's worth it to you would probably depend on if you'd use it for anything else (I happen to be a big fan of yogurt, muesli, and fruit for breakfast, and the additional protein should make me feel fuller farther into the day... but for most people, that probably isn't comfort food).
posted by divisjm at 12:30 PM on June 25, 2012

On the indulgent side of the scale, you may want to check out Alice Medrich's book Chocolate and the Art of Low-Fat Desserts (Warner Books, 1994). She shares the science and philosophy behind her alterations to and inventions of decadent dessert recipes that satisfy on multiple levels without leaving you feeling bloated.
posted by thatdawnperson at 3:36 PM on June 25, 2012

roast things instead of frying them, and instead of using a lot of oil to prevent stuff from sticking to the pan, use parchment paper - cut the paper to fit your pan, dampen it and line the pan with it. I like to cut potatoes into wedges, toss them with just a tiny bit of oil, lots of herbs and salt, and then roast until they are soft on the inside and chewy on the outside - they are every bit as satisfying as fries, but way better for you. Also any of your favourite veggies can be deliciously roasted this way.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 5:07 PM on June 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Personally, I strongly disagree with the notions that fat and salt are inherently bad (e.g., depends more on type of fat.) I eat very carefully (and from my perspective, healthily), and have found a few favorite comfort foods:

Homemade (full-fat) frozen greek yogurt (requires ice cream maker)--really delicious.
Desserts made with almond flour (e.g., macaroons). See this recipe book
Maple-glazed pecans
(can partially sweeten above with stevia to reduce carbs)

Microwaved olive oil corn chips (amazing!)
Roasted salty nuts
Popcorn (microwaved with lots of Olive Oil)
Homemade chips and guacomole
Mochi with olive oil and rosemary
posted by Jon44 at 8:26 PM on June 25, 2012

I like chopped dates and toasted almonds in my porridge. Sometimes some cinnamon and sometimes some coconut too. Sometimes I add diced apple - if you put it in before cooking, it gets nice and soft. No need for sugar as long as the dates or apple are in there.
posted by lollusc at 2:02 AM on June 26, 2012

You can make a SUPER healthy version of pizza by using a huge portobello mushroom instead of crust. Add sauce, cheese, toppings and bake. Yum.
posted by ad4pt at 12:56 PM on June 26, 2012

Eggs are actually pretty good for you, so you can rejoice there. I like to scramble them with some veggies and cheese. Do make sure to sautee the veggies first (you can use the same pan). Canned black beans and avocado are also good in eggs. Or since you like omelets, you can just put any of those things in an omelet. Also, two fried eggs with whole wheat toast tastes ridiculously indulgent (mmm, egg yolk) but is pretty healthy.

One of my childhood comfort-food basics is pasta and tomato sauce. I've figured out a healthy version that I like quite a bit, basically by adding chicken italian sausage and lots of veggies in a homemade tomato sauce. This is the recipe I use as the base for my tomato sauce - I usually add sauteed mushrooms, zucchini and finely chopped spinach or kale. The key to this is that the sauce is filling enough that you don't need as much pasta. This sauce also freezes very well, which is great if you're on a budget - you can make a stockpot of it for about $10 including the sausage and have endless portions (if you do freeze it, do so without the veggies, which don't always hold up as well).

One really great way to satisfy those Mexican-ish cravings: I bake a few chicken breasts in salsa (surprisingly, they don't dry out this way). While those are baking, I cook some brown rice and/or black beans. If you cook beans, season them with whatever spices match your salsa (for a red salsa, I like to toss in some adobo sauce). In another pan, sautee some onions and peppers, or whatever other veggies you want. Mix everything together in a bowl and top it with more of the salsa you used for the chicken. Easy, cheap and good.
posted by lunasol at 2:02 PM on June 26, 2012

Burgers: Add mushrooms, 1 egg, onions.
Tacos: Toss cooked chicken strips in reduced lime juice. Marinade steak strips and onion slices in Adobo.
Oatmeal: Add cinnamon and banana.
Eggs: Add diced potato peppers.
Mac and cheese: Sautee cooked macaroni with sauteed onion and tomatoes. Sprinkle with fontina and goat cheese during the last minute of cooking. Stir in a little cream if you like.
posted by xammerboy at 3:56 PM on June 26, 2012

Pizza: 2 cups of flour, 1 cup water, 1 teaspoon yeast. Let rest overnight. Punch down. Flatten into a pie. Top with 1 cup of diced tomatoes and the toppings below. Bake at 500F for 15-20 mins:

With Meat
o Anchovies, Oregano, Garlic
o Prosciutto, Mushroom, Artichoke, Olives, Egg
o Sausage, Sweet Pepper, Onion, Oregano
o Lamb sausage, Eggplant, Olives, Rosemary

o Asparagus, Egg, Mozzarella
o Goat Cheese, Pesto, Red Onion
o Green olives, Mozzarella, Eggs, Peas
o Mushroom, Pesto, Sage, Fontina, Parmesan
o Potato cubes, Swiss/Mozzarella, Oregano

All Cheese
o Gorgonzola, Mozzarella, Ricotta, Parmesan
o Mozzarella, Fontina, Parmesan, Provolone

No Cheese
o Tuna, Olives and/or Red Onions

It doesn't get any cheaper than homemade pizza. If you want to make a Calzone, substitute a cup a Ricotta for the diced tomatoes and fold your pie over the ingredients.
posted by xammerboy at 4:12 PM on June 26, 2012

Rather than punch down, you will need to knead for 10 mins or so and perhaps add a little flour, though that's the recipe for no knead dough. You can also simply knead the dough until it is silky, since pizza dough doesn't need to rise that much.
posted by xammerboy at 4:14 PM on June 26, 2012

It depends what you are craving. Comfort food is entirely subjective, and sometimes tied to what you ate as a small child.
Case in point?
Onigiri rice triangles. The first time I made these as an adult, I felt SO HAPPY!
Like, really inexplicably happy, because we are talking about triangle balls of rice, and I'd eaten the same rice before, but this was in TRIANGLES!
And I realised that in primary (elementary school), my mother had a little triangle rice cake squisher, and would make me an afternoon snack of triangle rice onigiri. I hadn't really had this since I was about, oh, 9? And it just bought back happy, happy feelings, below the level of conscious memories. Reminds me, I should get one of those squishers.

Example two:
It doesn't have to be anything I've ever had to be mondo, extremely, comforting.
There was the time I was exhausted and miserable, and looked in my pantry, and ended up combining minced beef cooked with garlic, some refried beans, baked beans, and a big helping of baby peas, and it was just this delicious, delicious mash, all creamy from the refried beans, that I ate from a bowl, and filled my savoury-proteiny-craving needs for the WEEK! (Well, not literally, I still ate savoury-proteiny things).
But yeah. I just felt fully content, and it was happy-making for my blood sugar levels as well, Was great for the rest of the day. Thing is, that's actually pretty healthy, it's just all about the portion size.

So yeah. What are you craving? Break it down into flavours - salty, savoury, etc etc. Textures - crunchy, creamy etc. What you want to get out of it, protein, energy, etc. I often replace carbs with protein, to feel happier.

If you are expecting one flavour, and get a slightly different one, it won't matter how tasty it is, it won't be what you were expecting. If someone hands you coffee, and you expected Tea, that first sip will be the most awful, bitter tea you've ever had. Vice versa for milky, off, coffee.
Seriously, never describe soy milk as tasting like milk to a child. It doesn't, but if you say it's a kind of milky nutty drink, they like it.
For this reason, I wouldn't focus on trying to make identical foods to your traditional comfort foods. Make sure there is something different about it, that you are expecting, so you aren't comparing it too closely. The squash macaroni cheese is a good example. Putting something like olives, mushrooms etc that you find DEE-licious, so you aren't directly comparing them, is also good.
posted by Elysum at 12:14 AM on June 30, 2012

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