When it comes to winter, there’s one thing I always long for: comfort food (well, comfort food and cake. The craving for cake never truly dies). With the night’s drawing in and temperatures dropping, the want for fresh, crunchy salads dies and the need to wrap my hands around a bowl of richly-flavoured soup, pasta or stew intensifies. But with so many ‘comfy dishes’ using fat-heavy ingredients, it feels like I’m doomed to either stick to the salads or wave goodbye to my skinny jeans.
Fortunately, I’ve got a team of chefs and nutritional experts on hand with endless tricks, tips and ideas (handy, right?). The more I learn from them, the more I come to realise that you don’t have to make exceptions in your diet, or surrender yourself to the idea that your favourite fatty foods have to be forgotten. Even the naughtiest, fat-heavy comfort food can be made healthier. All it takes is a little imagination and some simple switches.
For instance, you might be craving meat-free nuggets, chips and ketchup. There’s no shame in that – sometimes kale doesn’t cut it! But how about making your own nuggets from a butter bean or chickpea base? And choose oven-baked sweet potatoes or vegetable chips, paired with a tomato, passata-style sauce. Rather than a fatty treat, it’ll be a protein and fibre-packed meal, with plenty of added vitamins.
For a quick breakdown on how to turn your favourite dishes into healthy, wholesome meals, here’s a few do’s and don’ts:
How to make it healthy?
What to add
- Greens! Your parents weren’t lying – eating your greens really does do you good. Try to include a wide variety of green vegetables in your comfort food dishes, as they’re often high in iron. Spinach, cabbage and edamame beans are always a good choice. (Check out our Spinach and Almond Ricotta Cannelloni)
- Lentils are a type of pulse and are a great addition to wintery dishes, such as a vegan stew or casserole. They’re super filling and quite cheap – so can easily ‘bulk out’ a dinner. Plus, they’re packed full of fibre!
- Miso paste is an easy add to any dish. It’ll give it an instant flavour boost, with tangy, savoury tones and a definite umami profile. It’s made from fermented soya beans and is therefore full of vitamins and minerals. It also keeps really well, so won’t go to waste.
- Cinnamon is great for adding warmth and flavour to a seasonal pudding. It also brings out the natural sweetness of fruit, so is a great addition to pies and crumbles, and will allow you to reduce the amount of sugar you use. (See our awesome Cinnamon Rolls recipe!)
What to leave out
- Salt! There are so many different ways you can add flavour to a dish without turning to salt; plus, a lot of what you’ll add to a comfort food dish (like stock cubes) will already contain traces of salt. If you do feel the urge to add it, stick to just a sprinkle or a small pinch.
- Dairy-free cream (whether soya, coconut or otherwise). We all know cream can be fairly fattening, but, because of its richness and texture, many people turn to it when making sauces. However, it’s super easy to use a few key herbs and spices and a little cornflour to give your sauce the same rich, thick profile as cream would.
- Oil is often essential in small quantities, but to keep your comfort food dishes healthy, it’s key to cut down the amount you use. A good way to do this is to invest in a spray bottle; it will disperse smaller amounts of oil, still allowing you to pan fry ingredients, without using too much (which will increase the fat levels of your dish). A glass spray bottle can also go in the dishwasher and will last longer than its plastic counterparts.
- White sugar. Caster sugar undergoes an intense bleaching and refining process to give it its pearly white finish. But raw sugar, natural brown sugar and date syrup or date sugar can give a richer, more wintery flavour. Or, if you’re trying to lean away from sugar entirely, look toward fresh and dried fruit to give your wintertime desserts a natural sweetness. It can be a good idea to freeze fresh fruit, like blueberries and raspberries, when they’re in season. This means you’ll have them to hand when the sweeter fruits are less available.
The best advice I can possibly offer is: DIY. Cooking at home not only helps you enhance your culinary skills, but allows you to control exactly what goes into your meal. Which means you can easily cater it to your personal nutritional needs. Admittedly, for some people, there’s not always time to prepare a delicious meal at home, and there are days when even thought of turning on the oven makes you feel tired. So if you absolutely have to buy pre-packed comfort food, just be double sure to check the label for the sugar and salt contents. Plus, try and opt for those without masses of preservatives.
For more inspiration and a mega-load of plant-based comfort food recipes, grab a copy of our November issue, here.
And check out our YouTube channel for easy DIY videos!