Let’s face it: Food gives us all the feels.
As much as we advocate eliminating emotional eating through smart strategies like meal planning, food tracking and finding healthy outlets that don't involve a fork, there's no doubt that our culinary cravings are linked to our feelings. Whether it's Grandma's apple pie, a perfectly roasted Thanksgiving turkey or a refreshing ice cream cone on a hot summer day, our favorite foods don't simply fill our bellies and please our palates—they also evoke sentiments and memories of special times in our lives.
Unfortunately, most of our so-called "comfort foods" aren't so warm and fuzzy when it comes to our calorie counts or our waistlines—but that doesn't mean you have to completely purge them from your meal plan. With some creative modifications in the kitchen, you can enjoy healthier versions of your favorite "cheat meals" without breaking a single dietary rule.
To prove our point, we asked SparkPeople staffers to share their favorite comfort foods, and then we got down to the business of finding some healthier replacement versions.
SparkGuy: Lou Malnati's Chicago Pizza
There's pizza—and then there's Lou Malnati's. With its flaky, buttery crust, fresh sauce and chunks of pear and tomatoes, this consummate Chicago deep-dish pizza calls for a knife and a fork. If you polish off a small Chicago Classic deep-dish pizza, you'll rack up 912 calories.
Healthier version: Low-Carb Deep-Dish Pizza
Submitted by SparkPeople member CYNTHIA92, this delicious deep-dish pizza brings the taste of Chicago to your kitchen without all the carbs.
Who doesn't love a smooth, creamy cheesecake? "It's always been one of my favorite desserts, and is such a delicious treat to have once in awhile," says Denise. The drawback: A single slice will typically run you more than 400 calories.
The Minimalist Baker came up with this baked, vegan, gluten-free cheesecake with an oat-almond crust, which she promises tastes just like the real thing. Plus, the simple recipe requires only a blender to prepare.
Josh loves any sort of snack mix, but especially the "Nuts and Bolts" recipe from his mom's family, which is a staple at all Knepfle family gatherings. Made with various types of cereal, pretzels, peanuts, butter and several types of seasoning, it's delicious but high in sodium.
Healthier version: Homemade Trail Mix
Kathryn from Family Food on the Table came up with this easy, healthy and portable snack, made with walnuts, cereal and a mix of dried fruits. For a touch of sweetness, you can toss in a few mini chocolate chips.
"Much like Leslie Knope never met a waffle she didn’t like, so too have I never encountered a fry that didn’t make all my dreams come true," says Alicia. "It doesn’t matter if I’ve eaten clean and healthy all week, if there are crispy, perfectly seasoned French fries on the menu, they will be mine."
We are all Alicia. Whether it’s a shoestring, a waffle or the thick steak version, It's almost impossible to resist a perfectly fried potato—but they're not too friendly when it comes to their fat and calorie count.
Healthier version: Air Fryer French Fries
Air fryers are all the rage these days among clean-cooking chefs. Marjorie from A Pinch of Healthy uses one in this recipe for healthier French fries. Simply toss the taters with oil and seasonings, and enjoy the lack of dishes to wash.
"The reason I love wings is because eating them is a spicy and flavorful experience," Mike says. "I usually order the hot Carolina gold or garlic sauce varieties, which are flavorful and contain enough heat to make me sweat. There is something comforting to me about breaking a slight sweat when eating strongly flavored foods."
Healthier version: Crispy Baked Buffalo Wings
These buffalo wings from Maebell's blog are baked, not fried—but they're still ultra-crispy, super tangy and totally irresistible.
If you've ever found yourself under the spell of a bag of delicious potato chips, you know it really is practically impossible to eat just one—or fifteen.
"Lately, I’ve found that I crave salty foods instead of sweets," Elizabeth says. "I now find myself unable to resist almost any kind but have a particular weakness for the kettle-style salt-and-vinegar ones. Even though I tell my kids to not eat out of the bag, time and time again I find myself elbow-deep in the big, blue bag, not stopping until my gums and tongue hurt from too much vinegar and my fingers start to puff up like little breakfast sausages."
Healthier version: Baked Sweet Potato Chips
These baked sweet potato chips from Minimalist Baker require only a drizzling of olive oil and a pinch of salt before baking for a couple of hours. The result is an incredibly flavorful, crispy chip that makes a perfect companion to sandwiches, burgers and chili.
If you live in or near the Queen City, you know about the irresistible flavor of Cincinnati chili. "It’s delicious and the one thing everyone in the family will agree on," Alex says.
Healthier version: Crockpot Cincinnati Chicken Chili
Jeannette's skinny version of Cincinnati chili is made with ground chicken, gluten-free pasta, a smaller amount of shredded cheddar cheese and all the spices and seasonings that create that uniquely savory Cincy flavor, with just 540 calories per serving. "For an even healthier meal, try serving this chili on top of quinoa or a baked sweet potato," she suggests.
Merle King: Creamy Tuna and Noodles Casserole
“Tuna and noodles casserole is a dish my Mom made regularly—there were 10 of us kids, so budget-friendly dishes were needed. She always served it with peas, white bread and butter. This dish always makes me remember Mom, Dad and the whole family sitting around the table together.” Perfect for those chilly winter nights, Merle's favorite comfort food is usually made with canned cream of mushroom soup, which tastes great, but can be high in sodium and calories.
Healthier version: Healthy Tuna Noodle Casserole
To lighten up the traditional tuna noodle casserole, Anne used plain Greek yogurt instead of mayonnaise, milk instead of heavy cream and chicken broth instead of canned cream of mushroom soup. She also infused more volume and nutrients by adding a bevy of veggies.
Who says you need candles to indulge in this classic dessert? "I am a total sucker for birthday cake," Jen admits. "The more frosting, the better. I can maintain control when eating most other desserts, but I have a really hard time with cake."
Healthier Version: Fudgy Gluten-Free Chocolate Cake
All of the chocolate, less of the calories and none of the guilt! After one bite of this thick, fudgy cake, you'll be hard-pressed to believe it's made with healthy ingredients like avocado, banana, honey and oat flour. Even the pickiest dessert eaters won't miss the eggs, sugar, butter or flour.
What’s your favorite comfort food or cheat meal? Have you found a healthier version of it?