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Conscientious Comfort Foods: How to Stay Mindful When Making Your Winter Favorites

November 18, 2020

We associate certain foods with comfort from the time we are children. Whether it’s a homemade soup for when we are sick, a rainy-day favorite, or a traditional holiday casserole, food can provide a sense of joy, nostalgia, and much more.

While it’s not an exact science, studies have shown psychological reasons behind why we crave these foods, especially during the cold, winter months, says Andrea Bookoff, MS, RD, bariatric dietitian with Jefferson Health – New Jersey.

“As it gets colder and darker, many of us will spend more time cooped up inside; our whole routine might change, which can affect our diet habits and mindset,” explained Bookoff. “To cheer ourselves up, we may consume more energy-dense foods. Foods high in sugar, fat, and carbohydrates yield a significant impact on our happiness chemicals, such as serotonin and dopamine.”

Comfort foods work. They give us a much-needed emotional boost. However, we can’t rely on them.

“The more we indulge in these foods, the more we condition our brains to turn to them during hardship, instead of turning to healthier coping mechanisms,” continued Bookoff. To avoid this – and mindless eating – try to always identify what you’re feeling and why – that way you can pinpoint an activity that can more directly make you feel better.

With this in mind, comfort foods are still okay to consume in moderation. Bookoff’s personal favorites are Thai food, dumplings, banana bread, and cookies.

If you follow certain recipes each year – or order out – you can continue to do so. However, if you’re following a stricter diet or just want to shake things up, there are countless ways to “upgrade” foods to include additional nutrients. Check out some of Bookoff’s tips below:

Soup: Don’t be afraid to diversify and expand your vegetable choices. More color often means more nutrients! Soups can be one of the healthier comfort food options. Even if they’re creamy, it’s fine. Again, just pay attention to portion size. Another thing to watch out for is the sodium content in canned soups.

Mac’N’Cheese: For more fiber and fewer carbs, consider replacing the noodle with a wholegrain or bean-based option. The sauce is where you can get even more creative. Various foods can contribute to the creamy, cheesy texture – not just cheese itself. For healthier fats and proteins, try using cauliflower, butternut squash, or cashews.

Cookies, Cakes, and Brownies: Baked goods can be very versatile. You can use alternative flours, such as almond or coconut; add nuts for additional healthy fat and protein; add oats for additional whole grains; and even substitute applesauce or banana for oils. Cakes and brownies specifically can be made with various veggies, such as black beans, sweet potatoes, and carrots.

French Fries: Contrary to popular belief, fries don’t have to be fried (or “fry-shaped”) to taste good! You can obtain a similar crispy texture by boiling them in water with baking powder and finishing them off in the oven. Instead of regular white potatoes, you can also use sweet potatoes, rutabaga, or even polenta.

Pancakes: Nothing screams comfort like a big, sweet breakfast. Before you reach for the box mix, did you know that you can make simple pancakes out of just 2 or 3 ingredients? Try the egg and banana pancake recipe, which you can spruce up with cinnamon, vanilla, or any of your favorite spices.

This winter, do your best to think about how your food serves you and what it does for your body, says Bookoff. Comfort foods can be a wonderful thing, as long as you don’t use them to fill a void. If you need to talk about your mental health, don’t hesitate to reach out to your doctor.