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Enjoy healthier comfort foods while keeping the comfort

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Enjoy healthier comfort foods while keeping the comfort

Comfort foods remind us of home, warmth and family; they are often the creamy, rich and heavy everyday foods we had as children. Things like macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, and fried chicken may be soothing to the soul, but not to the waistline.

“I happen to like my comfort foods just the way they are,” jokes chef instructor Terra Ciotta of The International Culinary School at The Art Institute of Charlotte, a campus of South University. “But around the holidays, many are making more mindful and healthier choices.”

If you’re trying to reduce the holiday bulge, follow chef Ciotta’s equation of substitution equals reduction. For mashed potatoes, Ciotta purees steamed cauliflower, makes half the portion of her freshly mashed potatoes and folds the cauliflower puree into the mashed potatoes. For hearty spaghetti with meatballs, Ciotta reduces the ground beef portion and adds finely chopped sauteed mushrooms.

“If you really want to make your recipes healthier, try to make simple modifications that won’t change the end product too drastically,” says chef Leslie Eckert of The International Culinary School at The Art Institute of Raleigh-Durham, a campus of South University. “Otherwise, you won’t achieve the comfort in comfort food.”

Here are tips and simple guidelines chefs Eckert and Ciotta recommend.

* Choose whole grains over refined: brown rice, whole grain bread, whole grain pasta instead of white rice, white bread or standard pasta. Whole grains digest more slowly, providing longer-lasting energy.

* Use small amounts of olive oil instead of butter on grains or vegetables and to saute. A non-aerosol spray bottle can help use oil sparingly.

* Choose low-fat or fat-free dairy products: skim or 1 percent milk, low-fat or fat-free yogurts, sour cream and cheeses – and reduce the amount.

* Choose Canadian bacon or lean ham over bacon, wild-caught, fresh or water-packed tuna or salmon over oil-packed tuna or salmon, chicken and turkey sausage over pork sausage and lean ground turkey and beef over high-fat options.

* Use herbs, flavored powders (like garlic powder), citrus (like lemon juice) and heat (like red pepper or hot sauces) over extra salt.

* Instead of frying, bake, roast or grill using a rub or marinade.

* Use fresh or frozen vegetables over canned. Remember that frozen vegetables are harvested at peak season and usually flash-frozen, making them superior in flavor and nutrients to off-season fresh ones.

* Remember – using low-fat or fat-free dairy products, olive oil, whole grains or lean meats doesn’t mean unlimited portions.

According to chef Eckert, high-fat, high-sugar foods - such as comfort foods - illicit “feel good” hormones quicker than a plate of raw vegetables. To make your holidays healthier, you can always add vegetables to a hearty dish. Chef Ciotta cites one of her favorites as creamy risotto with broccoli. You’re still getting the hearty dish, but at the very least, you’re adding something healthy with fiber.

Many experts say that you don't have to give up your comforting favorites in order avoid weight gain. It just takes planning and portion control, and substitution of course.

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