A few weeks back, I woke up in my home and immediately shivered. If you don’t already know, I live in Boston, and while you might think that would make me more resilient to cold weather, that’s simply not so. I hate cold weather—and this particular morning just so happened to be the coldest day of the whole year. Seriously, it couldn’t have been more than 10 degrees. I’m getting cold again just thinking about it.
Now, if you’re anything like me, you know exactly what my body started craving: comfort food and time snuggling under blankets. Of course, this is completely normal; we’ve had emotional connections with food trained into us since early childhood! But that’s a conversation for another time.
Anyway, I started craving my particular favorite comfort food, a nice hearty beef stew. Every winter, I make a big batch to store in the freezer and eat a little at a time, so that’s exactly what I did. And you know what? It was hot, hearty, thick, comforting, and absolutely wonderful in every way.
Know what else? It was totally on-plan! Which got me thinking . . . Why do we operate under the misconception that comfort foods have to be bad for us?
Now, I know spring is springing in most places, and I’m really banking on not getting another ten-degree day this year, but if you happen to live somewhere that leans to the chillier side, we’ve probably still got at least a few cold, wet days ahead of us. So I wanted to chat with you a little bit today about how you can indulge in comfort foods without going off plan. Sound good? Let’s go!
The best example I’ve got for healthy comfort food has to be the aforementioned beef stew. Like I said—this stuff really is wonderful. I’m a lifelong foodie, so you can believe me when I say I would not be wasting my time or my freezer space on this stew if it wasn’t phenomenal. If you’ve ever made stew before, you probably know there a variety of bases, spices, and proteins you can work with that can significantly alter both the flavor and the nutritional content of your meal. I’m certainly aware of this, so I go out of my way to choose the healthiest possible options in each category.
I start with tomatoes and tomato sauce (no extra sugar added) and add tons and tons of hearty, root vegetables. For many, this might mean potatoes, but a) potatoes add lots of extra starch and b) they get pretty mushy in the freezer. So, I use lots of carrots instead, plus olives, beans, and kale. Kale is an especially hearty add-in that really boosts the flavor and color of the dish as a whole. Finally, I usually caramelize some onions and toss those in as well. If you’re not familiar with preparing caramelized onions, it’s really simple, just sautee them in a pan until they turn a tiny bit brown, and it’s a great way to add a really lovely flavor to a wide variety of dishes.
After the veggies, I move on to meats. Obviously, there’s beef involved in a beef stew, but I don’t stop there! After the beef, I‘ll usually add chicken because I love how it shreds down and adds some volume to the stew. Then, I add apple chicken sausage (which is absolutely delicious) and maple sausage. Sometimes I stop there, but oftentimes, I basically just clean out all the meat in my freezer. This stuff is that versatile, which makes it a great cost-effective option. Another great thing about using the stew as a way to use leftovers is that you get additional heartiness and thickness—not by adding extra fat, cream, roux, or flour, but just from using a high density of super-healthy foods and cooking it slowly for a nice, long time.
I don’t really add seasoning to my stew because I prefer to let people season it to their preferences after the fact. My family has a wide variety of spice tolerances—I love some heat, my husband can’t stand it, and my son is somewhere in between—so I tend to make our dishes pretty bland and then spice mine up all by myself. You can handle this part however you like, of course. :)
Sometimes if I really want to do something a little special and create a super-rich flavor, I’ll add a bottle of wine to the stew as well. I pick a nice red wine, something flavorful that I’d be happy to drink. If you’re concerned about alcohol, there’s really no need—this stew cooks for hours and hours, so all the alcohol cooks off.
Have you ever heard me gush about how much I love bread? If left to my own devices, my diet would be soooo carb heavy. Unfortunately, carbs make me feel kind of icky, so I try to keep them to a minimum. Nevertheless, sometimes you just get that pasta craving and nothing else will do.
When I start craving pasta, I almost always turn to non-standard pastas. The best, in my opinion, are quinoa pasta, pea pasta, and black bean pasta. With these alternative pastas, you still get the doughy chewiness, but without all the starchy gluten that can upset our digestive systems and leave us feeling sluggish.
As an accent to my pasta, I love making turkey meatballs with a light tomato sauce, some spices, and lots of veggies. It’s simple and oohhh so yummy.
So what do you think? Is your brain reeling with creative ways to keep your favorite comfort foods on-plan? I hope that sparked your interest and got you thinking about healthy alternatives to all your favorite dishes. I’d love to hear what you plan to cook in the comments!
For now, I’m logging off to enjoy some more stew. :) What I hope for you is that you live a life you love without being hungry, feeling deprived, or giving up your glass of wine with dinner. Bon appetit!