Comfort food is big business these days. Cookbooks on the topic abound and restaurants purporting to specialize in “food your mom used to make” dot the landscape. Invoking mom’s cooking is an easy way to summon up (hopefully positive) family memories associated with food. But which “mom” is doing the cooking? Your mom might have made clams casino while holding a cocktail, or maybe she could barely open a can. Perhaps your mom came from India, China, or Italy and prepared amazing feasts every night. If you had a single, working mom like I did, you may have eaten your fair share of Rice-A-Roni, Hamburger Helper, and other packaged foods. Regardless of the kind of cook your mom (or dad) was, you can probably name some comfort foods from your childhood. Now that we are the parents, we get to cook up comfort food memories for our own families. Unfortunately, a lot of the foods our moms made 20 or more years ago were fattening, salty, and bland. So, here are some tips on how to revamp eight classic comfort foods to make them healthier.
The casserole played a recurring role in many childhood dinners. These one-pot meals were easy to assemble, required fewer dishes to make (and clean), and packed a lot of calories into one dish. Casseroles came in lots of different forms, with tuna and beef stroganoff leading the pack. Full of sodium and fat, these were not the healthiest of dishes. In fact, when perusing old recipes it seems like a lot of casseroles from the past existed primarily to sell Campbell’s brand soups. At any rate, the casserole is still a great idea, so here are some tips for creating “cleaner” versions:
Next: Fast food overhaul
If you were raised from the 1950s on, you inevitably ate more than a few meals at fast food establishments. A trip to a burger joint was a real treat for a lot of kids and gave mom a break from cooking.
Although we all harbor fond memories of playing on the McBurglar, we know that fast food is not good for us. But that doesn’t stop a lot of us from craving it!
Here are some ways to overhaul the classic fast food meal:
Next: Make breakfast more artery-friendly
The classic breakfast that mom made was heavy, tasty, and immortalized in every diner in this country. In our agrarian past when families worked in the fields all day it made sense to eat a breakfast comprised of six-egg omelets, rashers of bacon, and biscuits and gravy. But now that we sit in front of screens all day, we can’t eat that much without jeopardizing our health.
The alternative for many families is to down a bunch of processed food in the morning before running out the door, but that isn’t healthy, either.
Here are some ideas for balancing the breakfast of yesteryear with the expediencies of modern life:
Next: Bake what used to get fried
Baking is an easy way to improve the health factor of the things that Mom used to fry. Baking switches the flavor focus from salt and grease to the seasonings used in the coating.
You can also add flavor by serving side sauces and condiments (e.g., chutneys, harissa thinned with yogurt, BBQ sauce, lemon tahini sauce).
Here are some ways to update classic fried foods:
Next: Update healthy hippie food
If you’re over 40 you might remember our parents’ attempts to “hippie” up our food. The organic whole foods movement of the 60s and 70s was right on track, but a lot of the resulting food was not always so appealing. The typical mom in the 70s didn’t do much more to change the family diet than add sprouts to every sandwich and use whole wheat bread that tasted like sawdust.
The folks meant well but the result often left us kids staring at our friends’ Ho-Hos during lunch with naked envy.
Here are some low-key ways to “hippie healthy” your meals without alienating your family:
Next: Upgrade the classic sandwiches
When I got home from school as a kid, I used to make my favorite sandwich, which consisted of white bread, mayo, iceberg lettuce, and American cheese slices. This wasn’t out of the ordinary.
The sandwich went through a tasteless period when American moms went to work and relied on a lot of processed food.
Here are some ways to modernize the classic sandwiches:
Next: Improve the mac and cheese experience
Kraft made serious coin from my family. We ate spaghetti with Kraft Parmesan cheese and lots of Kraft macaroni and cheese, which came with packets of gooey orange “cheese.”
Even when moms made real macaroni and cheese, it wasn’t much healthier than what the scientists at Kraft concocted.
Here are some ideas for alternative mac and cheese:
Next: De-emphasize dessert
Moms used to make great desserts, like apple pies slathered in clotted cream, pecan pies oozing corn syrup, and ice cream with chocolate syrup, sprinkles, and marshmallow fluff.
Dessert is a lovely thing in moderation, but we can’t serve desserts like mom used to every day without busting waistlines.
Here are a few ideas for replacing heavy desserts with lighter sweets:
Elise Gruber is a freelance writer and project manager who survived a lot of hippie food in her childhood, as well as the resulting rebound into fast food. She was ecstatic when the hospital brought Salisbury steak and peach cobbler after her daughter was born.