Healthier comfort foods for today’s families
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.
Create cleaner casseroles
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:
- Use roux or pureed potatoes to thicken casseroles instead of sodium-packed, fattening commercial soups. You can make roux with alternative milks (almond, rice, soy) as well, but you might want to use tested recipes because these milks can often change the taste considerably.
- Pick casserole recipes that are bean and vegetable-based, like this delicious polenta and black bean casserole.
- Skip the pasta by making potato gratins that use layered potatoes and a touch of cream, along with other vegetables. Similarly, you can layer white corn tortillas instead of pasta in lasagnas.
- Consider meat substitutes (tempeh, tofu or textured vegetable protein) or adjust recipes to include less meat.
- If you must make tuna casserole, here is a lighter recipe.
Next: Fast food overhaul
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:
- Burgers: Start with lean, grass-fed and/or organic ground beef. Add ketchup to bump up the moisture level without adding fat. Then add finely chopped spinach, an optional egg, a touch of salt, finely minced shallots, breadcrumbs, and Worcestershire sauce. Serve on a high-end bun like they do in fancy restaurants with a nice selection of condiments. (Use a natural brand of ketchup or look for corn-syrup-free versions of the classic ketchups from Heinz or Hunt. Or get creative with other dipping sauces.)
- Fries: It is criminally easy to make a healthier version of French fries at home. The key is to soak the potatoes ahead of time in ice water, blot them dry, add seasonings, and bake them. You can also use sweet potatoes for a bit more vitamin content.
- Drink: Skip the soda. It’s just a sugar and chemical delivery system and is directly linked to the rise of obesity and diabetes in the United States. Instead, try serving carbonated water flavored with a touch of maple syrup or high-end espresso syrup. Or serve an artisanal-brewed soda like those from Thomas Kemper.
- Shakes: Remember the rumor in the ‘80s that Wendy’s was adding plastic pellets to their shakes? Well, that won’t happen at home. Blend a high-end local ice cream (e.g., Snoqualmie, Peaks, Whidbey Island) or low-fat frozen yogurt in a blender with some milk (and optional fruit) and you’ve got a nice milkshake. Or, serve a fruit smoothie.
- Turnover: I adored McDonald’s turnovers as a kid, but they are full of processed food and sugar. To make them at home, nestle thinly sliced apples with a bit of cinnamon and brown sugar in puff pastry.
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:
- Skip the frozen waffles. Frozen waffles are easy but contain preservatives and sugar and, like all processed food, are overpriced. Instead, make a large batch of homemade waffles ahead of time and freeze them. Waffles can be topped with fruit and yogurt and made with a mixture of grains and alternative flours. Get a good waffle maker; the lousy ones make waffle-making a hassle.
- Lower the overall fat. Poach eggs in silicone pods or scramble/fry them in olive oil. If you can’t live without bacon, eat it only occasionally and spend the money to get the uncured, reduced-sodium version. Likewise, try to a use a natural brand of chicken or pork sausage.
- Cook whole-grain cereals. Try real oatmeal (rolled or steel-cut oats, NOT the quick-cooking kind), farro, or even classic Cream of Wheat. Prepare vats of your favorite hot cereal ahead of time and reheat portions in the mornings.
- Beware the breakfast cereal. Most commercial breakfast cereals, even many of the “natural” brands, are loaded with sugar and corn syrup. They are also very expensive. As an alternative, make your own granola or buy muesli in bulk.
- Make your own breakfast bars. Try this banana-chocolate breakfast bar recipe or invent your own by mixing nut butter, honey, nuts, finely chopped dried fruits, and oats until the mixture holds together and can be molded with cookie cutters or your hands, and then bake them at 300F for 10–15 minutes until they dry out a bit.
- Mix it up. Breakfasts can get a bit too routine. Try some of these yummy and healthy breakfast ideas.
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:
- Fried chicken. Try oven-baked “fried” chicken, with one of two methods: 1) flatten chicken breasts, coat them with eggs/milk, dip in breadcrumbs/corn flakes, and bake; or 2) marinate chicken, coat it with flour and spices, and bake.
- Chicken nuggets or fingers. Make the kids more interesting Chinese-five-spice chicken nuggets.
- Fish sticks. Skip the frozen filets and try the pictured recipe from Mark Bittman.
- French fries. Already discussed under fast food overhaul.
Update the 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:
- Try different grains. If you get bored of brown rice, try bulgar, wild rice, farro, and quinoa.
- Cut veggies small. Hippie food for some reason often featured huge chunks of vegetables, which are not very tempting. Uniformity of size of the vegetables helps, too.
- Make vegetables the centerpiece of the meal, not the side. Add meat as a side ingredient.
- Get some great vegetarian cookbooks and discover recipes your family likes. I primarily use Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. If you’re interested in vegan cooking, check out La Dolce Vegan! by Sarah Kramer.
- Make good salad dressings. Great salad dressings encourage salad eating. Give kids salad dressing as a dip for veggies.
- Experiment with different types of beans. Go to the bulk section in a good natural foods store and stock up. It’s worth the time and energy to soak and cook your own beans.
- Buy organic food where possible. It’s more expensive, so refer to this list from the Environmental Working Group to prioritize which organic foods you buy.
- Stir-fry using coconut oil, which is healthier than traditional peanut oil.
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:
- Use high-quality bread. Cheap and bread do not go together. Good bread is worth the money. Find bread that your family likes that does not contain corn syrup and a ton of fillers. Whole wheat bread can create a weird mouth feeling, especially for young children, so try different brands and combinations of whole grains until you hit the right one.
- Better PB&J. For variety in this classic sandwich, try almond, cashew, or pumpkin butter. If you prefer peanut butter, find a good natural brand or get it freshly ground at a natural foods store. Skip the sugary brand-name jelly and try “just fruit” spreads (we like Whole Foods’ 365 brand). Pick up homemade jams from the farmers market or use honey.
- Upgraded tuna fish. Start with good-quality tuna fish. Try one of the Italian brands, like Tonnino or Flott, or one of the low-mercury brands, like Wild Planet or St. Jude. Skip the mayo and simply add enough olive oil to hold it together, some fresh lemon juice or vinegar, drained capers, and a pinch of minced shallot or chives.
- Bologna/baloney replacements. Spend the money to get uncured and/or organic sandwich meat. Bump up the humble sandwich into something special with olive tapenade, Mama Lil’s peppers, pepper jack cheese, pickles, chutney, etc.
- Sophisticated egg salad. Buy organic eggs and cook them properly. Eggs mixed with a bit of mayo (or yogurt) and mustard is the base. Add any combination of well-diced parsley, basil, pickles, chives, celery, or even apples, as well as seasonings like tarragon, curry powder, garlic powder, etc. Add a drizzle of sun-dried tomato sauce and remember rule number one: high-quality bread — say, an artisan loaf studded with kalamata olives? — really elevates egg salad.
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:
- Add cauliflower. Try this mac and cheese recipe from Michelle Obama’s American Grown cookbook.
- Add butternut squash. This recipe gains some lightness by incorporating yogurt and squash to boost the creaminess.
- Make it vegan: How can mac and cheese without cheese taste good? Well, it’s surprising, but this simple vegan mac and cheese recipe is decent and so is this more involved recipe. This recipe uses cannellini beans and sweet potato as a base for a “fake cheese” sauce.
- Occasionally make the real thing, but take it up a notch. Here’s a gourmet four-cheese recipe and a lobster mac and cheese recipe from Ina Garten.
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:
- Replace fruit pie with fresh fruit or apple slices dipped in honey. Or, for special occasions, try baked apples or fruit crisps. Substitute maple syrup for sugar or lessen the amount of brown sugar (or butter) in many recipes.
- Serve artisanal chocolate with some berries. A few pieces of chocolate make a satisfying end to a meal.
- Make an exotic fruit salad. Use a knife to remove the pith and peel from several different kinds of citrus fruit. Drizzle the fruit with ginger syrup and sprinkle with mint. Or serve a platter of exotic fruits like rambutan, lychees, star fruit, kumquats, dragon fruit, cherimoya, etc.
- Serve a small amount of high-end ice cream, sorbet, or fruit ice. One scoop of a superior homemade ice cream, whether you make it or buy it, is a lovely end to a meal.
- Serve a plate of cookies like rosemary shortbread, amaretti, or chewy ginger.
- Set reasonable limits and expectations around dessert. If children expect dessert every night, they will whine and hassle you about it while at the dinner table. Try serving dessert only on special occasions or when friends come over for dinner.
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.