When you’ve had a bad day or feel stressed, it’s easy to find solace in food. After all, eating isn’t just a source of fuel — it also triggers pleasure sensors in the brain. And, when most people crave a treat, they turn toward items like pizza and ice cream, not broccoli.
The problem is most “comfort foods” are loaded with added sugar, fat or sodium — and sometimes all three. So when those comfort food cravings hit, it’s wise to think before you eat. With a couple small tweaks to ingredients and portion size, you can still enjoy your favorite foods without sabotaging your healthy diet.
“Large is not necessarily more satisfying,” says Leslie Bonci, RD and owner of Active Eating Advice. She suggests sitting down to acknowledge and appreciate what you’re eating, rather than mindlessly shoveling food into your mouth over the kitchen sink. That way, you can enjoy every bite.
For more helpful advice on balancing comfort food cravings with your personal health goals, consult these pro tips from Bonci and registered dietitian Alexandra Turnbull.
Whether you’re ordering takeout or cooking at home, there are several easy ways to increase the nutritional value of your favorite foods. “Instead of a burger and a side of fries, ask for a side salad,” suggests Turnbull. “You still get the burger, but the salad helps fill you up and provides more fiber, vitamins and minerals.”
“I love using Greek yogurt to replace sour cream,” says Bonci. “Start with plain Greek yogurt, add in ranch dressing mix, French onion soup mix or taco seasoning mix, and you have a great dip or topper for baked potatoes, tacos or southwestern bowls.”
If you want Chinese, skip the egg rolls and wontons, and get an extra side of steamed vegetables to bulk up your meal. “The point is to still order what you want, but incorporate a small change so you don’t feel completely restricted,” adds Turnbull.
“A great way to still enjoy our favorite comfort foods is by balancing them out with lower calorie, higher fiber options like fruits and vegetables,” says Turnbull. If you’re craving macaroni and cheese, reduce your typical portion of the cheesy pasta, and throw in some protein or veggies to bulk up the meal. If you want pizza delivery, go for it, but add a salad to your order, suggests Turnbull. “Eat your salad first to help you fill up so you’ll eat less pizza.”
Carbs are certainly comforting, but they aren’t just limited to fried rice and refined white pasta. To boost the nutrition of carbs in your next meal, Bonci suggests using the “half-and-half” method. Mix rice with an equal portion of quinoa, whole-wheat orzo, barley or even riced cauliflower. You can also supplement your favorite pasta with bean- or lentil-based pastas for an added dose of protein and fiber. As a bonus, you’ll stay full longer and may be less tempted to go back for seconds.
“When cooking at home, try to avoid the salt shaker if you’re able to,” says Turnbull. Instead, call upon the dried herbs and spices stocking your pantry. That way, you can still eat flavorful foods like popcorn and potatoes, but without the excess salt. Try flavorful alternatives like citrus, crushed red pepper, fresh basil or oregano, balsamic vinegar or even black pepper.
When you’re hungry, it’s common to turn to quick and satisfying options like fast-food. A drive-thru burger and fries or a frozen pizza fill you up and provide instant gratification, but eating a heavy, sodium laden-meal might have you regretting your decision just a few hours later. So instead of relying on a quick fix, think about what you already have in your pantry.
“By taking inventory of what you already have, you can make more reasonable choices” about your food decisions, says Turnbull. Open the freezer and pantry to brainstorm some meals to make ahead of time. Then when the cravings hit, you’ll be better prepared to eat a home-cooked meal and less likely to rely on unhealthy options.