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Extension Agent: Healthier comfort foods

By By Brenda Phipps
Nov. 27, 2012 at 5:27 a.m.

Brenda Phipps

It is finally starting to feel like winter. With cooler weather comes cravings for comfort foods like chili, mashed potatoes or fresh baked goods. Unfortunately, along with those cravings comes concern that these cold weather treats will contribute to the development of poor eating habits and weight gain.

But there is no real reason for concern if you eat wisely and focus on healthier substitutions that enable you to satisfy your comfort food cravings while maintaining good eating habits. It can take a little more effort to find tasty substitutes, but using healthier ingredients in place of traditional ingredients in comfort foods can make a world of difference to your health.

For instance, if you are craving a bowl of thick chili or a slice of hearty meatloaf, substitute ground turkey, chicken or lean beef for the regular ground beef. If your favorite comfort foods are freshly baked breads and cookies, substitute whole-wheat flour for half of the called for all-purpose flour and use applesauce in place of half of the butter, shortening or oil.

If you want a warm casserole, try substituting skim milk in place of cream, rolled oats in place of dry bread crumb toppings and egg substitute in place of whole eggs. Substituting skim milk for whole milk or cream in puddings, soups and sauces will give you less fat and calories without sacrificing nutrients or flavor.

Any comfort food that contains canned ingredients can be made healthier by substituting lower-sodium, lower-sugar products that are now more widely available in stores. In mashed potatoes, use nonfat plain yogurt in place of sour cream (you won't taste the difference) or mix in some low-fat ranch dressing instead of butter.

Anything with cheese is an instant comfort food, so look for low-fat versions of your favorite shredded or sliced cheeses as substitutes in your favorite cheesy dishes. If pasta is your winter weakness, buy whole grain pasta (which is everywhere now) and low-sodium or no-sugar-added pasta sauces. Remember that pre-made foods that are low in fat are usually higher in sugar and that most products now have similarly priced healthier versions on the shelf right next to them.

A few more healthy-eating tips for the holiday season:•  Portion control rather than overindulgence is always good practice.

•  When it comes to poultry, remember that the white meat is much leaner than the dark meat and removing the skin greatly decreases fat intake.

•  Pumpkin and sweet potatoes contain high fiber, but adding butter and sugar decrease their health benefits.

•  Dessert is OK in small portions.

•  Slow down and savor every bite of special meals. Eating fast often results in eating more because it takes your body about 20 minutes to recognize that it is getting full.

Resources: "On the Track to Better Health" newsletters (nutrition-based newsletter from the Better Living for Texans program) from Fall 2010 and Fall 2011

Brenda Phipps is a Victoria County extension assistant.

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