We all have foods we turn to when we want to soothe our souls. It’s easy to go straight for the cheesy and carby goodness of a pizza, or a full plate of Entenmann’s finest—but it is also possible to enjoy the flavors of our favorite comfort foods in a way that’s a little healthier. With a few tweaks and swaps, you can make your favorite meals or treats more nutritious and less food baby-inducing, and savor every bite without a shred of guilt.
Below are a few of the classic comfort foods I turn to, and how I transform them into lighter—but still delicious—dishes.
Nothing beats pulling a juicy meatloaf out of the oven—but depending on the type of meat you use and how breadcrumb-crazy you go, the calories can really add up.
I like to lighten up traditional meatloaf by swapping beef for lean turkey to save fat and calories, and boost the protein. (While 3-ounces of 85 percent lean ground beef is 212 calories, with 13 grams of fat and 22 grams of protein, the 93 percent lean ground turkey I use is just 129 calories, with 7 grams of fat and 16 grams of protein.) Ground turkey also provides vitamins B6 and B12, along with niacin, choline, selenium, and zinc.
I also add diced veggies—like onions, broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini, and carrots—to my meatloaf to bulk it up and add some additional fiber and nutrients. When it comes to breadcrumbs, I prefer whole-wheat panko breadcrumbs because they offer a light and crispy crunch, but if you’re looking for a gluten-free option, you can use gluten-free oats, crackers, or even some cooked brown rice.
Check out my full turkey-veggie meatloaf recipe here. You can even transform this meatloaf into meatballs to serve over zucchini noodles!
Anyone with a sweet tooth knows how hard it can be to beat back sugar cravings. Instead of turning to sugar and fat-laden cake, brownies, or cookies, bake up a lighter sweet treat, like banana muffins.
Your average cupcake or muffin comes in around 220 calories with 12 grams of fat and 22 grams of sugar. (Plus, most are made with white all-purpose flour, which is pretty devoid of nutrients—especially fiber.) My banana-almond bread muffins are just sweet enough (they have chocolate chips in there!) and offer the added benefit of potassium and fiber from the bananas and whole-wheat pastry flour. They’re about 200 calories, but with eight grams of fat and half the sugar of a cupcake. No, a banana muffin may not be quite the same as a funfetti cupcake, but I promise it’ll get the job done!
You can boost the health value of this baked good even further by swapping out the oil for an equal amount of mashed avocados. Unlike oil, avocados are a good source of fiber and potassium. Applesauce can also be subbed in for oil—you’ll save tons of calories—but fair warning: While the muffins’ flavor will still be spot-on, they may have a slightly different texture.
Pizza is the perfect marriage of cheese and carbs—but it’s often a one-way ticket to Food Coma City. Swapping takeout for a DIY pie makes it easier to cut back on calories and bump up the healthy factor of your meal.
In my house, we start with a whole-wheat crust and top it with a variety of vegetables, like fresh spinach, crushed tomatoes, garlic, and mushrooms, and a medley of cheeses. We go lighter on the cheese and heavier on the vegetables to reduce calories, while adding vitamins, minerals, fiber and all the powerful antioxidants vegetables offer. Stick to two cups of shredded mozzarella, so each slice has just about 90 calories worth on it.
To add even more veggie power to your pizza (and slash carbs), build your pie with a cauliflower crust. Cauliflower provides an assortment of nutrients, like vitamin C, vitamin K, and B6, folate, pantothenic acid, choline, and dietary fiber—and one cup is just 22 calories and five grams of carbs. You can buy cauliflower pizza crusts pre-made in many supermarkets these days (check the freezer aisle) or make them at home.
I like to make my own by mixing together a bag of riced cauliflower, three eggs, half a cup of grated mozzarella cheese, half a cup of chopped nuts (like almonds, pecans, or pignoli nuts), and fresh herbs and Italian seasoning. After combining the ingredients, I flatten the crust onto a pizza stone and bake in the oven at 425 degrees until lightly browned. To really keep the calorie count low, cut down on the amount of mozzarella you use in the crust.
I’m a huge pasta fan, but this often-heavy meal doesn’t always fit into a day of healthy eats. To boost the nutrition of any pasta dish, I always recommend going for a whole-wheat pasta. (While a cup of cooked white pasta has two grams of fiber, a cup of whole-wheat pasta packs around five—and that makes it easier to feel full and stop twirling after one serving.)
When I want to put veggies at the center of this dish, I use a spiralizer to curl out some zucchini noodles, which saves about 150 calories and 28 grams of carbs. I top my zoodles with tomato sauce, a few chunks of chicken, tofu or cheese, sliced veggies (like red, yellow, and orange bell peppers, and mushrooms), and garlic.
A traditional slice of pie topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream can set you back close to 700 calories, often with around 25 grams of fat and 95 grams of carbs (most of which come from sugar). Delicious, yes, but definitely worth saving for special occasions.
I love the flavors of pie, though, so I ditch the dough and create a cobbler instead. You’ll mix together your favorite fruit—like apples—with seasonings and just a bit of sugar, and top them with an easy and scrumptious crumb topping made from granola and chopped nuts. Top my apple cobbler recipe with a scoop of frozen yogurt and you’ve got a dessert that hovers around 350 calories.
To kick the health factor up yet another notch, go for a baked apple. Core an apple and fill the core with crunched-up graham cracker and cinnamon. Bake in the oven at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes. Top it with a small scoop of vanilla frozen yogurt or a few spoons of vanilla Greek yogurt. It may not be a piece of pie, but at 200ish calories, it’s a bargain in comparison.
Bonnie Taub-Dix, R.D.N., C.D.N., is an award-winning author, spokesperson, speaker, consultant, and owner of BTD Nutrition Consultants, LLC. She has been featured on TV, radio, and print, as well as in digital media, including Everyday Health, Better Homes & Gardens, Women’s Health, and U.S. News & World Report. She is a recipient of The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ Media Excellence Award.